Big Little

by Jill McCorkle

When my son was eight, he went through a period of time where he was obsessed with death. He referred to it as “my fear” and often had trouble sleeping. My father had died just before Rob turned two and so his memories of that time would have been very limited. However, with the desire for my children to know who my father was, I talked about him often and told stories about their interactions with him. I told Rob how I couldn’t keep him away from the hospital bed in my parents’ bedroom. If there was a chair beside the bed, he managed to climb up on it and try to pull himself over the bar. Numerous times I caught him babbling away and patting my dad the way he might’ve the head of a dog and once I found him all the way in the bed. One day near the end of his life, my dad asked me to lift Rob up into the air, way up, he said, I want to see his whole body. It was on this same day, he directly addressed what was happening, something he had not really done since his diagnosis two months before. He said: I wish that I could be there to watch them grow.

When Rob was almost four, he experienced what he called “big little.” I’m not entirely sure what exactly was going on, I just knew that I felt closer to my dad during that time than I had since he was alive. Rob would come home from pre-school and tell me that he had seen my dad at his school. When questioned, he told me that he came every day when they were on the playground. I said, “Oh, I would love to see him,” and Rob said, “I can take you. But,” he added, “I have to drive.”

I have often thought that his desire to “drive” me where he wanted me to go is not unlike what we try to do on the page as we shape our visions and images—our stories—in a way we hope will translate for others and have the power to take them there. One night he called me into his room to tell me that “big little” was happening. I asked what this meant and he said: everything is big and everything is little. Worried that something might be going on with his vision, I asked that he close his eyes, relax. “Now tell me what you see,” I said, and he responded: “All I see are Grandfathers.” I said, “You mean Grandpa David?” his grandfather who was still alive, and he said, “No, all is see is your Daddy.” He lay still, his eyes closed, and then he said, “Oh, and there you are, Mommy,” he pointed out into the dark room, “and you’re just a little tiny girl.” Sometimes “big little” scared him and I’ll confess it scared me a little at first. But I also found it very comforting, this thought that maybe my Dad’s wish had come true and he indeed was watching. “Big Little” is now a story I like to tell when people are talking about experiences when they feel connected with something or someone beyond the realm of their own present lives. And again, isn’t this what good fiction successfully does? We see it all unfold on that personal movie screen we have in our minds, the same screen used for childhood make believe, fantasies and wishes.

I’m not entirely sure what accounted for “the fear” to begin four years post “big little”; it was before his other grandfather died. Rob now tells me he suspects it was from watching one of my favorite movies “What About Bob?” and the scene where Bill Murray talks at great length about his fear of death. Oops. Whatever kicked it into play, it was vivid and all-powerful. I had found that so many childhood phases rolled out as quickly as they rolled in, but “the fear” continued in such a way that it seemed like getting a little help from an outside source would be a good thing.

At the time, Rob was also obsessed with Pokémon, the Red Sox, boycotting Hebrew School, and shooting basketball, which he would do for hours at the time. There was a free standing Fisher-Price goal in the Doctor’s office and I remember sitting in the waiting room and hearing the thump thump thump the whole fifty minutes he was in there. On the way home, the talk was mostly about basketball. I heard how many times he got it in and how many times the Doctor did not. “I like him a lot,” he told me, “but he’s not a great shot.” What I learned later of course was that a whole lot was being discussed in-between shots.

When asked what he would wish if given three wishes, Rob’s first wish was to live the normal life of a man plus one hundred years. His second wish was that everyone he loved could live a normal life plus one hundred years. And his third wish was for a Papillion. We already had a big sweet lab and a watchful Sheltie, but it seemed in light of “the fear” that this last wish that could come true, should.

Where is all of this going? I’m telling a story. And it is connected to the topic I was interested in lecturing about last residency. Show AND Tell. I’ve told the background of a particular time and now I will show the outcome.

A kid in baggy jeans and Red Sox jersey walks into a pet store where there are a lot of dogs waiting for the right home. There is a woman running the place who overhears the desire for a Papillion and sees the boy and his sister running from cage to cage, falling in love with first one and then the other. The sister loves and wants them all, but the boy has his heart set on this very particular kind. A Papillion, if you don’t know, is a teeny tiny thing with great big ears that when up look like a butterfly landed on the head of a Chihuahua. I had already called a few breeders only to learn that these delicate creatures (aside from being quite pricey) are more likely to be placed in homes without existing larger dogs and children running in and out all day.

“There’s a Papillion,” I heard Rob say and he pointed at a little black fur ball in the corner of a pen. The woman immediately swooped over and informed him that he was exactly right! “Not full blooded,” she said, “but there is definitely some Papillion there.” I think everyone over the age of eleven (my daughter’s age) knew that this was not true but I was willing to let imagination take over at this point. And that is the story of how we got Buster.

Buster has been determined as a Shi-Poo—shitzu and poodle blend—and he’s a scruffy little 12 pound dust mop who thinks he’s a big dog; his ears do not stand up high like a butterfly but flop like his Beatle style haircut and Dr. Seuss looking tail. Still, we call him our Papillion and have for fourteen years now.

If you came into our house, you would see this elderly little guy in a blue argyle sweater curled on a blanket and snoring like a truck driver. He is deaf except for the highest pitched whistles, and his vision is fading fast. You would see him there—little old dog sleeping—and I could point and say: There’s Buster. Without the telling of his story, he might only serve as part of the setting, a snoring sound effect or comic relief when you touch him and he startles out of a deep deaf sleep. And in the present moment, he is all of those things. But he also has the history of getting an eight-year-old boy over the fear that kept him awake many, many nights. He is a symbol of long life and wishing good things for those you love; he is that universal wish for immortality. He is a wish that came true.

A story told promises to have a life of its own. There is the actual story as it happens—all that we see and hear and witness in a moment—and there is the reverberation and endless reflection that results from the telling and the history of the telling. It’s the blend of the concrete and the abstract, the showing and the telling. It’s the big and the little. I can show you, but I have to drive. And there’s the real beauty, because we all possess the power to drive; we all have our vehicles of choice. No two trips ever the same.

Literary Clickbait

by Benjamin Anastas

I’ll admit it: I have a clickbait problem. When I go online—should I admit how often that is on any given day? No, let’s maintain the illusion that I’m not addled, that I still have plenty of cubic footage left in the reservoir of willpower I built up before I ever opened a web browser—I can resist most clickbait for 80% of the time that I squander there, maybe even 90% or 95% on a good day of voluntary brain stupefaction and compulsive email checking. But then, like one of the demons yanking on St. Anthony’s cloak in Michelangelo’s painting “The Torment of St. Anthony,” the link “Emotional Toddler Loses it Over Her Parents’ Wedding Song” will scroll onto my screen, or a favorite from just yesterday, “Female Penguin Falls in Love with a Man”—and I’m sunk. I’m clickbait fodder. I’m bought and sold in an instant. I’m wretched with the need to click on the headline and feel the admixture of pleasure and revulsion that always follows. Clickbait plays on fears and anxieties (“3 Signs You’re Close to a Heart Attack”), provokes idle curiosity (“10 Crazy Facts About Sperm”), feeds our prurient appetites (“Jaw Dropping Shots of the First Transgender Supermodel”), and excites all the communal weaknesses that make us human (“What Liam Neeson Told His Dying Wife”). Clickbait is profit-seeking, pure and simple. It plays on the lowest in us to draw eyes and earn revenue. It generates lucre. And you know what? Writers, the smart ones, anyway, have been employing clickbait for as long we’ve had stories. There is no better way to snare your reader from your very first gesture—this holds true for all the genres of writing—than by resorting to literary clickbait.

What follows is a highly subjective and very partial list of the best literary clickbaiting on the shelf. You will no doubt have your own favorites. (If you do, go ahead and leave them in the comments section.)

We treasure our image of Franz Kafka as a neurotic, tensile genius too good for the world: oppressed by his overbearing family; trapped in his “bread job” at the Workers Accident Insurance Institute in Prague; attracted and repelled by Felice Bauer, Milena Jesenská and all the other passing loves in his life. Then how is it that our jittery angel of letters (“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us”) wrote perhaps the purest example of literary clickbait in the canon when he opened his story “The Metamorphosis” this way?

When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed right there in his bed into some sort of monstrous insect.

This new translation from Susan Bernofsky strips away the patina of the decades from Kafka’s language and reveals the casual  tone underneath that helps make this opening line such an effective use of literary clickbait. “Man Turns Into Insect While he Sleeps. See What Kind.” You’d click on that if you saw it on the Huffington Post, wouldn’t you?

The final dying sounds of their dress rehearsal left the Laurel Players with nothing to do but stand there, silent and helpless, blinking out over the footlights of an empty auditorium.

I’ve long been a fan of Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, a small miracle of a first novel that would make you hang it up and enroll in an EMT training program if you thought too much about that fact that it’s a first novel. But recently I picked it up again after a fairly long absence and I was struck anew by the novel’s opening—the phrase “final dying sounds” leading to the unexpected “dress rehearsal,” the use of omniscience to introduce the Laurel Players, the foreboding sense that the cast is in over their heads and the production is headed for certain disaster. Revolutionary Road was up against some heavy hitters for the National Book Award in 1962—the other finalists included Joseph Heller, J.D. Salinger, Bernard Malamud, Walker Percy and I.B. Singer—and the eventual winner, Percy’s The Moviegoer, opens pretty well too:

This morning I got a note from my aunt asking me to come for lunch. I know what this means.

But Yates’s opening is an even purer expression of literary clickbait, I would argue—as much as I love The Moviegoer (and it might be an even better first novel than Revolutionary Road). Yates’s opening gambit contains the whole of the book in miniature and does it with an aching style that’s almost impossible to resist.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the Consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be “interesting” to know which.

These opening lines from Joan Didion’s The White Album (1979) are so well- known and so often cited that I hardly need to identify them or talk about why they qualify as an example of literary clickbait. The lines just seem God-given somehow, don’t they? This opening is like a burning bush. We click on it without thinking. But Didion, over and over in her work, uses clickbait to her advantage—look at any one of her essay collections and you’ll see a master of instantaneous persuasion at work.

I’ll look forward to seeing what other examples of literary clickbait readers of this blog will come up with. Poetry in particular.

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Box of Charcoals

by Sven Birkerts

I’m hunting all through the house for something, and though I can’t find it anywhere, I’m also almost seeing it each place I look. As if it cannot not be there. The certainty keeps me going. It’s a long narrow box of charcoals, once bought for one of the kids—who then didn’t use it. But now my son wants it. And I know we still have it: it’s exactly the kind of thing you never throw out or give away, because ‘one day someone will want this.’ That day is here, someone does—and where is it? The art of losing itself may not be hard to master, but making peace with the idea of loss is. To not be able to find something you know has to be right here. Has to be because I put it in a place so that it could be found when needed. Which means that looking for it is really more like looking for myself as I was—a version of getting inside the mind of the criminal to solve the crime. If you know the motive and the psychology…

What does this have to do with writing? Nothing, everything: as usual. Because some version of ‘where is it?’ attends the process, always. The part of what we put to the page that we don’t fully know is the why of doing it—we trust that the process will deliver it and free us from the restless chafe of at least that one incompletion. ‘I know it’s here somewhere, I can almost see it.’ Almost, that beautiful word.

In the last workshop of the January residency we were having a general conversation about writing. A student described how she’d been day after day scrambling to note down everything she heard that she thought might be useful, which is to say noting down a great deal—for who ever knows when any given idea or piece of advice might not come in handy? I then proposed the counter-theory (a reflexive move, but in this case, I think, true) that there exist important levels of forgetfulness, and that writers might learn to use them. These are different for everyone, of course. Myself, I very deliberately do not write down the fleeting images and phrases that come to me while I’m driving, grinding coffee beans, pedaling on the infernal stationary bike (ideally there would be something called a ‘stationery bike’ set up to record your best thoughts automatically)… I don’t make notes out of laziness, true, but there is also an aesthetic conviction: that if something is at all worthy, the psyche will retain it; and that thing will resurface when most needed. Indeed, this is the way such important elements ought to come— as resurfacings—and not as notations retrieved from a notebook and inserted because the conscious writing mind decides that they belong there.

What I’m saying here relates to the metaphor that has been in my head these last days—the needle bumping back again and again on a nick in the vinyl (another metaphor). It’s from the lecture Jo Ann Beard gave at the residency in which she compared waiting for an idea to ripen to holding a beach-ball submerged far under the surface of the water. At least that was the interpretation I put on it at the time. The image invokes ideas of patience and abiding, but also suggests that the truths we seek as writers live at a depth and do not yield themselves up easily. Further, they cannot usually be gotten by straightforward strategies of harvesting. As often as not, they are tricked forth from hiding by the solicitations of rhythm or those of quasi-poetic idea-association. And when they come they carry a crackle of surprise, but also, if this is not a contradiction, a certain meshing sense of rightness.

What does this have to do with remembering and forgetting? For me the whole business goes back to with the ancient Greek concept of anamnesis, the gist of which is that all knowing is a remembering—that we have no basis for understanding anything that we do not already in some way know. This is a highly compressed way of saying—as certain philosophers did—that we are born with the basic structure of knowledge inside us and that our learning is a process of recovering this implanted knowledge. This understanding was the essential basis of the Platonic dialogues, where the master, Socrates, modeled how through the asking of the right questions a person can be brought face to face with his own profundity.

I don’t know if I accept this as an overall description of mental functioning, but I do think it bears on what we do. Imaginative writing—which is to say most of our writing—proceeds not by invention so much as by creative uncovering. One is basically arranging what is already there. But the arranging is less a matter of selecting what is ‘on view’ than of making oneself available to what is associatively most apt: readying oneself to recognize its rightness. The conscious/conscientious ‘I’ has to cede authority, sit shotgun, for its main aptitude is the logical and sequential manipulation of materials. Which is useful, yes. But when were you last thrilled in your soul by a logical-sequential anything? The big question remains: what prompts this rather than that to seek a place in the sentence that I am writing? It’s mysterious. I feel the words coming alive in the ear just a half a beat ahead of the figurative pencil-point—how do they know to do that? Neuroscience gets at many things, but this so far is like those areas marked ubi leones sunt (where the lions are) on certain ancient maps.

As for that box of charcoals—I was so sure it would turn up in some perfectly obvious place, but it hasn’t yet. Except, in a sense, here: as a kind of prompt. Do we ever know what anything is for?

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What to read, what to read, what to read…

That is, what we read in 2013—

our recommendations in the order they came in:

From Sven Birkerts: “Some of my favorite reads this year:
The Apartment by Greg Baxter
The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by our own Bob Shacochis
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
The Infatuations by Javier Marias
My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard (was that this year?)
When Kafka Was the Rage by Anatole Broyard
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (wanted to see if I still thought it was funny—I did!)
What Light Can Do by Robert Hass.”

Ed Ochester writes: “I read a lot of books I love, but here are three:

“Fiction: Hilary Mantel Wolf Hall If you’re at all interested in Renaissance history, this is a great novel. If you aren’t, it’s still a great novel but you might find it a bit slow.

“Poetry: William Stafford, The Sound of the Ax. I read this in manuscript; the book will be out this winter.

“Non-Fiction: H.L. Mencken, Prejudices (Library of America).”

From Peter Trachtenberg: “The Patrick Melrose Novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk, and At Last. Edward St. Aubyn’s quintet begins with a debauched English aristocrat casually raping his five-year-old son and follows the consequences over the next 40 years. The material could be melodramatic; it could be embarrassing. But St. Aubyn addresses it with such humor, cold horror, and compassion—and with such jaw-dropping command of the English language—that I put down the last of the books exhilarated. Humbled, too.”

Alice Mattison says: “I read the Jane Gardam Old Filth trilogy, one after another without stopping. I loved it for many reasons, mostly because it kept surprising me with boldness, as if Gardam kept telling herself, “What the hell. Do it.””

April Bernard offers, “The Red Queen (2004) by Margaret Drabble—
(I read it for a long review-essay of her work—occasioned by her newest novel, The Pure Gold Baby— which will be published shortly in The New York Review of Books.) Among the many works of fiction by this extraordinary writer that I admire, this one concerns an unusual historical figure, a Korean Crown Princess of the 18th century, the Lady Hyegyong, whose autobiography (stories of the court, madness, violence, etc.) is the starting point for a wildly inventive narrative of Drabble’s that links the past and the present, as the disembodied, out-of-time Princess narrates the events in the life of a 21st century academic, Babs Halliwell, at a conference in Seoul on bioethics. How about that?”

Mark Wunderlich writes: “A book from 2013 I loved and recommend is by Los Angeles writer and artist Matias Viegener, and it’s called 2500 Random Things About Me Too. The books a a memoir, of sorts, written as a series of lists, each 25 entries in length, and each attempting to be “random.” The result—a compendium of thought as it attempts to dissociate—is witty, moving, beautiful.”

And from Paul Yoon: “One of my favorite books of last year was The Hired Man, by Aminatta Forna. It’s a slow burn of a novel, built like a house you want to explore forever.”

Rachel Pastan loved Archangel by Andrea Barrett, which she describes as, “A completely entrancing collection of unfashionably long stories about people (in the past, mostly women) who are passionate about science.

“And Someone by Alice McDermott. “Such a complex vision of life revealed through the story of a woman’s quiet life. A meditation on death and on time. Wonderful (deceptively straightforward) sentences.”

From David Gates : “I’d say Shakespeare in Company by Bart Van Es. Wonderful and lucidly written scholarship about the effect on Shakespeare’s drama of his close, share-holding involvement with his theater company. It doesn’t explain away his genius, but it’s given me a way to understand better his radical uniqueness. Oh for a time machine, to see those productions.”

Jill McCorkle writes: “Elizabeth Spencer who has been publishing for over sixty years, is a literary treasure. Starting Over, her latest collection, is nothing short of masterful.” 

And Ben Anastas’s pick is My Struggle: Book Two by Karl Ove Knaurgaard (translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett). Ben writes:  “I started with Book Two of Knausgaard’s epic novel of life and its heroic squalor because I couldn’t resist the prospect of seeing the boredom of parenting and family life laid bare. There are a lot of good reasons for jumping on the Knaurgaard bandwagon (and there’s still plenty of room!), but the biggest one for me is seeing a novelist take his revenge on all of the everyday responsibilities that keep us from writing. “

Of Lawrence’s Wright’s recent investigation into Scientology, David Daniel says, “I’ve been reading a lot of disturbing books about American religions this year, but Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief wins the prize. For those of us who love gossip, the intersection of pop culture and ideas, good writing and reporting, and spectacular lunacy, well, this is an excellent book. “

And from Bret Anthony Johnston, about the same title: “I read Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear, his exhaustive and stunningly good book on Scientology. It is, without question or exaggeration, the most terrifying book I’ve ever read. I read it only in daylight and still kept looking over my shoulder in fear.”

Brian Morton recommends A Naked Singularity, “a debut novel by a writer named Sergio de la Pava, who self-published it in 2008 after rejections from nearly ninety agents. After the book garnered a word-of-mouth reputation, it was republished by the University of Chicago Press. A mammoth, shapeshifting novel about a young defense attorney, it’s like a cross between Alice in Wonderland and The Wire.”

And Amy Hempel writes: “For the holiday season, I gave the gift of Gurganus: Allan Gurganus’s Local Souls, three stellar novellas set in fictional Falls, North Carolina. I have already read it twice—first as a reader, then as a writer, trying to figure out how he creates those singular, persuasive voices. And for total immersion, I included with each book a copy of William Giraldi’s outstanding profie of the author in the current Oxford American.”

From Martha Cooley: “Dominique Fabre’s The Waitress Was New is a slim novel in the voice of Pierre, a guy who tends bar (and much else) in a Parisian cafe. Not a lot happens in the story, yet the narrator’s voice, ah well, c’est un autre chose..rueful, comic, and devastatingly honest. Pierre doles himself out in such a wonderfully sneaky and large-hearted manner. I have taught this novel several years running to students in Adelphi University’ MFA program, and nearly every reader makes something like a stabbing motion at his or her heart after reading it. And so will you.”

By way of promoting two books, Major Jackson sent photos of two gorgeous covers: Who Said by Jennifer Michael Hecht, and Late into the Night: The Last Poems of Yannis Ritsos translated by Martin McKinsey.

And,“Did you read anything you loved in 2013?” we asked Lynne Sharon Schwartz. “Yes I did,” she wrote back. “Wieslaw Myslinski, a major Polish writer, novel, A Treatise on Shelling Beans. Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows. Janet Frame, An Adaptable Man.”

Last, from Dinah Lenney: I’m taking forever to read Rebecca Solnit’s mysterious and gorgeous memoir, The Faraway Nearby. Also mysterious and gorgeous and genre-bending: Ali Smith’s Artful, a series of four actual lectures about art and literature—but who wrote them for whom, therein lies the story. Similarly meta, and baklavian (is that a word? It is now), and not to be missed: Ruth Ozeki’s novel, A Tale for the Time Being.

Your turn!

Twenty Minutes

by Mark Wunderlich

When I was in college I spent a semester reading the work of Goethe for a course in German literature. I couldn’t have been a very devoted student, as I don’t remember much from the class, but one piece we read has stayed with me for many years, and that was Goethe’s daily schedule.

There are several accounts of how this great man spent his days, but they all begin with him rising early and working uninterrupted until 11:00, at which time a cup of chocolate was brought to him, after which he continued work until 2:00. He would then dine, go for a long constitutional, address his correspondence, receive visitors and in the evenings he would go to the theater. After the theater, he would have a light supper and then retire. He had, as one chronicler put it, “a talent for sleeping.”

At the age of twenty, I marveled at this. I too had a “talent for sleeping.” (I also had a talent for watching Judge Judy and writing papers at the last minute), but this comforting and purposeful organization of his time resonated with me as an ideal way to structure the pursuit of the life of the mind; I was also utterly dismayed by the impossibility of attaining it. I imagined the invisible hand offering the resident genius his cup of chocolate, treading softly down the hall so as not to disturb. J. W. Von Goethe was not shopping at the Price Chopper, doing his own laundry, looking after children, cleaning up after pets or shoveling snow. He was thinking and writing and socializing. He had a household staff and the means to employ them.

My own days don’t much resemble those of the Goethe, though I do get up early. Once up, most days are a series of fragments, errands, deadlines, hurried preparations for teaching while trying to run a modest household. I commute. I manage my own meals. I suspect most anyone reading this does too. Rather than allowing the weight of middle-European genius crush us, however, I offer another quote, this by the early 20th century wit, Max Beerbohm: “The hardest thing about being a poet is trying to decide what to do with the other twenty-three and a half hours of the day.” Beerbohm is being funny, but we can also take courage from a piece of it, and that is the daily half hour.

Actually, we can even trim that to twenty minutes if we have to. In my experience, a great deal of writing can be accomplished incrementally and over time. Even at my busiest, I like to maintain a connection to my own creative work, and sometimes all I have is twenty minutes first thing in the morning before my day begins to spin me into the world. In twenty minutes I can read over the poem I’m working on and maybe add a line or two. I can write a short description of something I saw the day before, or I can recall a dream that is quickly receding as the bed forgets my shape and the morning draws up the rational mind into the light.

Making time every day—even a fragment—means you take your own inner life seriously enough to attend to it regularly, like exercise. In this way, the life of a writer can become a practice, a form of sustenance like that sweet and bitter cup brought to the working poet each morning on a tray.

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by Dinah Lenney

“What one strives for is so far away, so deep, so beautiful…” Thea, in Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark

Decades ago, just out of college and living in Manhattan, I signed up for a workshop in a studio on the Upper West Side: Singing for Actors. It was free, first of all—that is, I babysat for the instructor’s son in exchange for classes. Second, though I wouldn’t have admitted it then (I’d have claimed the opposite, in fact), I was a coward. See, what I supposed—having starred in a dozen high school and college musicals—was that I didn’t have much to learn. I figured I’d shine; I saw the class as an opportunity to show off. Not that I was that honest with myself at the time, of course not. I didn’t actually know what I was up to, really I didn’t.

Meanwhile, for the other actors in the room, the stakes were appropriately high. They were there to learn—not just how to sing but how to manage their fear: they’d come to the workshop to develop skills that would allow them to ride the music (and their terror, as well) as if it were a horse; to surf the melody like a wave; to shush up and down the scales as if on skis.

I am not being literary here, not I—blame my old teacher for my muscle-bound figures of speech. It was he who instructed us: “Choose a sport you’re good at—a sport you play so well that the pleasure of playing exceeds the risk.” According to him, we only needed to fool ourselves, to approach singing as if we were athletes, with shoulders down, hips tucked, knees just slightly released, weight evenly distributed in the saddle—or on the board or the skates or the skis—before leaping or stroking or taking the plunge. And you know what happened? It worked. Physically, intellectually, emotionally—the exercise was transformational. Focused as they were on the task, those actors forgot to be scared, forgot to worry about how they sounded; which, wouldn’t you know, allowed them to find their voices. They wound up delivering not just credibly, but beautifully, some of them, by the end of the course.

Whereas, stuck in old notions and habits, eight weeks after we began I’d learned nothing about singing and nothing about myself. And “Nothing is so boring,” wrote Aaron Copeland, “as a merely well-rehearsed performance.” Unwilling to play—to take a risk—I was miserable for the duration. No pleasure for me.

So why am I telling you this? Well, for obvious reasons, but also because it has something to do with that question—the one we keep asking each other and ourselves: Why do we write?

To find out what we think, to find out what we know—to collude, to conspire, to commiserate, to confess, to commune; to get it right; to take control; to leave a mark; to insist that it matters, whatever it is, whatever it was—

but this is a necessarily risky business, yes? Risky to admit you aim to do any of these things. And what if you fail?

Not so long ago, in a classroom in L.A., I asked a group of students, “Off the top of your heads, why do you write?” “It’s a compulsion,” said one. “It’s my job,” said another. Several expressed the desire “to reach a reader.” Two insisted they use language to make sense of their lives. But it was the guy sitting just across the table who got to me: “Why do I write?” he said. “Because I can’t sing.”

Which made me laugh and remember and consider: who thinks she can? Who’s that sure of herself? Be suspicious of her, that’s what I’m saying. Be suspicious of any artist—singer, painter, writer—who doesn’t doubt herself; who isn’t willing to risk what she knows and engage with what she doesn’t every time.

And yet it’s true—if we’re to keep going, if we’re not a bunch of masochists (okay we are a bunch of masochists, but)—the pleasure must somehow exceed the risk.

Back to singing: that is, back to craft. It was years before I was brave enough to admit I didn’t know what I was doing; to understand that I’d been coasting, feigning, indicating talent, but not mining my gift, as it were, for anything deep or true; years before I realized no genuine pleasure in the offing, not ever—for me or the audience, either—if I wasn’t willing to risk.

I opened up an anthology the other day—Why We Write—a collection of interviews, conceived and edited by author Meredith Maran, in which she asks a group of her peers a series of questions about their writing lives. And wouldn’t you know: “I’m almost always anxious when I’m writing,” says Mary Carr. “Writing is not fun for me,” echoes Armistead Maupin. But it’s David Baldacci who nails it: “You get to play,” he says. “Which is terrifying.”

And there’s the rub: how much fun, how rewarding, can any game be, if we know the outcome? So what we can count on? We get to play. If we prepare ourselves, if we practice, if we engage with everything we’ve got, the pleasure of playing is bound to exceed the risk.

Thinking back to my student—the joker (you know who you are, Josh)—that guy who made me laugh when I popped the question. At the time I was tempted to tell him, C’mon, you can sing: drop your shoulders, tuck your pelvis, soften your knees… Except he didn’t mean he’d rather be singing, no—he knows what I didn’t back in the day. Why sing, after all? Not to sound good—that’s not a good enough reason. It’s as Thea says in The Song of the Lark: “…voices are accidental things…” So it’s what you try to do with your voice—how well it connects to image, idea, and story; how supple, how responsive; how it vibrates at the top and the bottom of its range, and what happens when it unexpectedly breaks or soars with joy, longing, despair, truth… And never mind sport, how ‘bout that metaphor, huh?

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The 12-Minute Run

by Benjamin Anastas

Once a year at my grammar school in Cambridge, MA they used to herd us into the gym, classroom by classroom, for an activity called “The 12-Minute Run.” When I use the word “gym,” I don’t mean one of the temples of fitness that we’re used to now, with ceilings so high you have to squint to see the pigeons roosting in the rafters, gleaming basketball courts and retractable stands for home games, the bright, buzzing lighting of a Mid-Atlantic Bingo Hall. Our gym at the Agassiz School was an all-purpose auditorium; there was a stage at one end where visitors would give speeches at assembly, a piano in one corner that we used for music class, a pair of Lilliputian basketball hoops that were wheeled out for games. Despite the wall of windows that faced out on the schoolyard, tall and mullioned, I remember the gym as being cramped and dark—the Agassiz School had been built in 1916, and it was scaled to the expectations of another time. The gym was a place for casting a paper ballot for Woodrow Wilson, or for holding a meeting of the Women’s Temperance Society—not for playing volleyball (which we did in gym class) or for setting 20 third-graders loose, in street clothes, to run laps until they were panting and ragged.

That was the goal of the 12-minute run: to run without stopping. For 12 minutes. Our gym teacher, as I recall, paced the center of the gym with a stopwatch, yelling out encouragement, especially to the out-of-shape kids who had to ease up a little and walk. The minutes trampled by. We ran our little circles in the auditorium. And when we were finished and had caught our breath, we all got an orange ribbon: I FINISHED THE 12-MINUTE RUN, it read in gold. I brought mine home every year with a childhood precursor to contempt. What did my ribbon mean if every single kid in my class got one too? If we all finished the run with the exact same time: 12 minutes? They decided baseball games based on runs scored, not the number of innings played; sprinters at the Olympics won medals for being faster than their competition instead of running aimless laps until the time was up. I treated that ribbon for finishing the 12-minute run like the puffery it was, and this was long before childhood in America had become an endless trophy-giving ceremony.

I always think of the 12-minute run when the debate about negative book reviewing spouts up again with the regularity of Old Faithful. This September, the New York Times Book Review devoted the first session of its new “Bookends” column to the question of “Are Novelists Too Wary of Criticizing Other Novelists?” (The answer was a high-minded “yes.” Sort of.) Later that same month the critic Lee Siegel declared the end of his days of hatchet work on The New Yorker magazine’s Page-Turner blog, lamenting his former allegiance to “the dark art of the takedown” and confessing that, now that he has seasoned a little and written books of his own, “mortality seems a greater enemy than mediocrity.” Authority is in flux, thanks to the internet; the audience for criticism has expanded exponentially; standards of judgment that once seemed fixed for eternity are now irrelevant. “[W]riting an inferior book,” Siegel claimed, “might well be a superior way of living.”

In others words: It doesn’t matter how fast or how far, only that you’re running.

I have to admit that I’ve never had any patience for most arguments against the negative book review. Maybe it’s the power of that meaningless ribbon back in Cambridge; maybe it’s my experience as a reviewer myself, and the gnawing feeling leftover from the ones that I just mailed in, or the books I resorted to professional gymnastics to praise because it was easier that way; maybe it’s my own revolt against mortality, the discovery that anything done halfway or with an absence of spine is a waste of spirit, a squandering of time. Yes, negative reviewing can be corrosive, and it’s not valuable for its own sake—quite the opposite. That’s literary trolling, fancy snark. Yes, it can make life complicated (I once arrived at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire to find that not one but two writers I’d reviewed negatively would be walking the same paths in wintertime; I’m still surprised they didn’t jump me and leave me to die in the woods), but the task is more important than our temporary comfort.

For anyone thinking about reviewing, whether it’s for a print publication or a books blog, I’d encourage you to read Rebecca West’s essay, from 1914, “The Duty of Harsh Criticism.” It is bracing stuff. Europe had just gone to war. New soldiers were drilling on the green, preparing for the trenches. The “undrained marshes of human thought” had “emitted some … monstrous beast” over the landscape, and surrender was not an option. Least of all the surrender of the mind.

“Indeed, if we want to save our souls, the mind must lead a more athletic life than it has ever done before, and must more passionately than ever practice and rejoice in art. For only through art can we cultivate annoyance with inessentials, powerful and exasperated reactions against ugliness, a ravenous appetite for beauty; and these are the true guardians of the soul.”

Or, you can satisfy yourself with bestowing ribbons for every book that comes your way. CONGRATULATIONS! they’ll read in gold. YOU WROTE SOMETHING.


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The Elephant Will Now Say a Few Words

by Askold Melnyczuk

Before I even finished this new novel—Excerpts from Smedley’s Secret Guide to World Literature—I began sweating my next task. Tiny by comparison to the hundreds of pages already on the desk, it is nevertheless haloed by a disproportionately dark and heavy aura. I’m referring to that little paragraph fiction writers are expected to submit along with the book: the dreaded summary.

Each time, I’ve avoided this moment until it was the last. Drafting this précis —chiefly for your agent and prospective editors—is agony. It’s enough to make me sympathize with Roman Jakobson’s reservation about hiring Nabokov to lecture at Harvard: would you invite an elephant to teach Zoology, he asked.

Why do I find the project so daunting?

But isn’t it obvious? Fiction, as John Gardner reminded us, is an ancient mode of thought. It reflects the way certain temperaments work things out: not by relying on abstract arguments, philosophical principles or theories, but by imagining people in situations that allow us to see, feel, and taste what it might be like to live the idea—to grow up Muslim among Christians in Savannah, Georgia, or work as a fifty-year old deaf waitress in Florida, or care-take your bedridden, schizophrenic, violinist-mother while hunting for a job in suburban New Jersey. You fight hard to create that world—out of a mouthful of air, as Yeats put it. Shaping the illusion of materiality around the shadow of a dream is heavy lifting even for the most seasoned pro.

Getting this close to a figment isn’t easy: you’ve birthed it word by word, until it ceased to be an it and became a he, a she, a house, a city, a world. You know your main characters better than a mother knows her children—yet they remain utterly mysterious, as ultimately other and unknowable as your life partner. For years you’ve felt their aches and tasted their delights, endured their dreams and night-sweats, traveled with them, kicked against the pricks, raged against the machine, and kissed a stranger with their lips.

In this case, for the last three and a half years I’ve been inhabiting the pimply skin and ragged jeans of a fifteen-year old boy. His privileged Cantabridgean childhood was as far from my son-of-immigrants, working-class, non-English speaking New Jersey suburb as a world could possibly have been. Yet I found it surprisingly easy to slip into the sneakers of my randy, Jewish-Protestant American spawn of a Harvard poet and a political activist. Maybe it’s because every fifteen year-old is unhappy in his own way.

To step out of your characters’ skins, to abstract yourself from their circumstances, feels like a betrayal of both them and your craft. The necessary detachment is not only excruciating but also embarrassing. Suddenly you’re poaching on the critic’s turf. And critics, no matter how sympathetic, approach fiction differently than we do. Maybe Jakobson was right.

Then, as often happens by the 18th draft, things start to get interesting. The graph acquires a pulse of its own. Oh, I see, yes, this is what I was writing about. Suddenly, what once seemed like an obituary starts to sound like the announcement of a birth, an invitation to a christening. Now you can’t stop yourself. One paragraph becomes two. Then one again, then two. And still it’s not right.

Fortunately, I have a hidden resource in my wife, the writer Alex Johnson. Alex, a superb non-fiction writer, has crafted many successful book proposals in which she characterized her projects accurately and elegantly, identifying their goals, and suggesting their target audience. Again she helped me nail it. It came via email, from a writer’s retreat in Maine, in response to the 30th draft: the quote that finally cut the chord, striking just the note, was from Montaigne, now paraphrased and embedded in the final version:

SMEDLEY’S Secret Guide to World Literature

Hyper-savvy and cyber-sexed, fifteen-year old Jonathan has more than just female troubles. Suspended from school thanks to an inexcusable misstep—and with his family imploding around him—he’s packed off to Manhattan to care for his high-living, once-glamorous godfather, who’s had a stroke. Formerly attorney to the dimmer stars, the “GF” has skeletons that refuse to stay in the closet. Jonathan’s own family also has secrets he wishes he didn’t know. To forget them he dives into an assignment forced on him by his father. A poet who teaches at the “Big H,” he’s tasked Jonathan with writing a history of literature in the age of Twitter. But the siren song of the city keeps him distracted. In a penthouse over Central Park, Jonathan meets the nubile (and worldly) Mirabai, and his life threatens to take a sharp turn. Along the way, he has his say about parents, love, sex, friendship, art, and the world at large. Speaking directly to the obsessions of our present in the voice of the future, Jonathan manages to remind us, and himself, that no one knows how anything will turn out until it happens and that, as someone once said, our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately. Over a single week in NYC, he does just that.


Smedley looks at issues of gender and masculinity for the post-Twitter generation. What is love in a world where sexting doesn’t count as sex, and virtual contact is taken as real? What are the new ways a boy moving into manhood must define himself in relation to his peers? The novel grapples with the beguiling force of desire and the way it seems to turn us all into children. Driven by the purity of his longing, and its attendant confusions, Jonathan sets out to do nothing less than develop a new language for love. A parable about fidelity to one’s truest feelings, it also offers an idiosyncratic take on the history of literature reflecting Jonathan’s discoveries about the world and why we read: we read for power.

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The Kiss Rule

by Rachel Pastan

Last winter I sent a draft of a novel to a friend. She liked the book, so I was happy, and she had several useful suggestions for revision. One of her notes, though, took me by surprise. The novel, she said, was lacking something every novel needed: a kiss. Later, talking it over on the phone, she was adamant. It was a rule, she told me. The kiss rule.

At first I thought she was joking; then I decided she wasn’t. Now, months later, I still don’t know. Of course, one can think of many great novels without kisses—Moby -Dick comes to mind—but that doesn’t mean the rule is not a rule; it may be, merely, a rule with exceptions. Or it may be a personal credo like the late Elmore Leonard’s fabulous but largely idiosyncratic list of rules for writing fiction: Never open a book with weather. Avoid prologues. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

This leads to a more general and important question: Does fiction have rules at all?

I can feel you (or perhaps my younger self) rushing in to say No, of course not! There are no rules in fiction, you can write however you want. You can switch point of view mid-sentence, do without dialogue, withhold information, write sentences that go on for pages, use footnotes, eschew paragraph breaks, offer several alternate endings—as long as you pull the things off. Whatever works.

Well, yes. Fair enough. I agree, more or less. Still, looking back at the preceding paragraph, it seems to me I’ve semi-advertently assembled a list of reasonable rules for fiction writing—rules that may have exceptions but are rules nonetheless. Rule one: Don’t change point of view mid-sentence (because your reader will likely get confused or experience vertigo). Rule two: Works of fiction contain conversations between and among characters. (“‘[A]nd what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversations?’”) Rule three: Don’t withhold important information from your reader, at least not for too long.

A few years back I sent the manuscript of a new novel to my agent who was incredulous that I had, early on in the book, let it be known that the main character was keeping a secret from her father, and then the whole novel passed and she never told him. “Your character can’t keep a secret from her father for the whole novel!” he said. “In novels, secrets have to come out.”

As with the kiss comment, I was caught by surprise. Really? I thought. Isn’t that the obvious—the merely conventional—choice? Wouldn’t it be an interesting surprise to do it the other way for once and defy the reader’s expectations? Was the problem that I had kept the secret, or that I hadn’t pulled off the keeping of it? How could I tell?

Let me back up further and pose an even more general and important question: Why do we love stories? What is it about narrative that provides satisfaction, and what on the other hand leads to disappointment and frustration?

The history of literature has handed down to us time-honored, infinitely honed and polished genres—tragedy, comedy, romance, mystery, and their relatives—which is to say, forms of story telling that abide by certain rules. Tragedies end with a heap of bodies. Romantic comedies end with wedding bells. Murder mysteries end with the revelation of the killer’s identity. I sometimes think these forms reflect some physiological structure in the brain, a narrative hunger for specific forms that is inscribed in our DNA. Yet over time, writers, a restless bunch of experimenters and iconoclasts, have taken liberty after liberty with these rules, writing romantic stories in which the protagonists just drift apart, murder mysteries where the murder remain unsolved, rants, wanderings, stories with ragged edges like shattered mirrors, or that drift by like clouds. Is this progress? A misguided and doomed detour?

In writing workshops, we argue over what works and what doesn’t work. Sitting at the teaching end of the table, I do my best not only to tease out what doesn’t work in a piece of fiction but to offer guidelines (rules) for fiction writing that will help everyone in the room avoid time-wasting dead ends. Omit needless words (c/o Strunk and White). Let your characters contradict their own natures (but not too often). Be specific. (Ron Carlson doesn’t agree with Leonard that you shouldn’t open with the weather, but he offers this more tangible alternative to It was a dark and stormy night: “Lightning struck the fencepost.”) A story should cause its protagonist to change (or at least offer an opportunity for change, an open window on which the character may turn her back).

Of course at Bennington, where we team teach our workshops, one’s deeply considered and sincerely offered guidelines (rules) for fiction may be immediately contradicted by an equally authoritative voice from the other end of the table. Sometimes this is deeply irritating. Most of the time, though, it reifies the general truth of the situation, which is that each writer has to decide for himself not only what rules to follow, but even what the rules are.

I have always been a rule-abiding sort of person. I made the daughter’s secret come out in one novel, and I put a kiss into the next. That kiss led, as kisses will, to other things, and the novel became a slightly different kind of novel. I hope it’s a better one, but I’ll never know for sure.

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The Prose Poem, etc.

By Ed Ochester

To the many Americans who say they love poetry, but never read any, the idea of the prose poem is still something of a scandal. Never mind that its antecedents include the “poetic books” of the Old Testament, the seemingly oxymoronic prose poem by definition doesn’t employ line-breaks or, therefore, what is to naive traditionalists the essence of poetry:  end-rhyme.

Perhaps a part of the difficulty is that the modern prose poem originated in France almost 200 years ago, and as we know, the French are culturally suspect (it wasn’t long ago that the American Senate changed the name of one of their favorite comestibles from French fries to American fries). Nevertheless, major work in the prose poem mode was done by Baudelaire, Mallarme, Rimbaud, Valery and Reverdy, among many others. In America Kenneth Patchen, David Ignatow, Robert Bly, James Wright and W.S. Merwin have written prose poems, though I’d argue it was Russell Edson whose sly surreal parables established the legitimacy of the prose poem for the last two generations of American poets.  Certainly most contemporary poets in the United States have written at least some prose poems, and its possibilities are among the more exciting for adventurous writers. Among established contemporary poets, I particularly like the work of Peter Johnson and David Shumate, several of whose books we’ve published in the Pitt Poetry Series.

I tell my students that it’s difficult to draw a line between the good prose poem and the good “short-short” story. Both are condensed locutions which convey a lot of emotionally significant information in a short space—the essence, as I see it, of any good poem—and do so in surprising language and with relatively rapid execution. The contemporary prose poem is often non-realistic or surrealistic, which seems appropriate for a culture whose contradictions and absurdities have often been noted (major example: a large percentage of our population is living in poverty though we are the richest country in the world; minor example: Richard Nixon saying he was not a crook shortly before he was proven to be a crook).  For whatever reasons, the prose poem at this moment is one of the most fertile fields for American poets, and perhaps the one to encourage significant experimentation and growth.

Russell Edson’s work often has a satiric edge to it, as in “The Alfresco Moment’:

A butler asks , will Madam be having her morning coffee alfresco?

If you would be so kind as to lift me out of my bed to the veranda I would be more than willing to imbibe coffee alfresco.

Shall I ask the Master to join the Madam for coffee alfresco?

But my nightgown’s so sheer he might see my pubic delta alfresco. And being a woman of wealth I have the loins of a goddess. While you, being but a lowly servant, have the loins of a child’s teddy bear. Yes, have the Master join the alfresco moment.  He might just as well be informed of my pubic delta, it’s not a state secret. Besides, he carries an organ worthy of a bull.  While you, being but a lowly servant, have the loins of a caterpillar.

Very good, Madam. . .

(from The Tormented Mirror)

Lynn Emanuel’s funny and wise prose poem “inside gertrude stein,” it’s clear in context, is written with lines flush right because of the size of her subject—the poem needs all the room it can get! The poem is an illustration of a principle of organic poetry:  content is prior to form (and suggests its form). Here’s an excerpt from the poem:

“Because someone must be gertrude stein, someone must save us from the literalists and realists, and narratives of the beginning and end, someone must be a river that can type. . . Gertrude and I feel that, for instance, in Patriarchal Poetry when (like an avalanche that can type) she is burying the patriarchy, still there persists a sense of condescending affection. So, while I’m a thin, heterosexual sub-genius, nevertheless gertrude has chosen me as her tool, just as she chose the patriarchy as a tool for ending the patriarchy.”

(from Then, Suddenly)

And in the recently published Unlucky Lucky Tales, recent Bennington MFA Daniel Grandbois demonstrates  a mastery of sleight of hand. His poems are often funny narratives—teasing mock fables—and often more delicately suggestive. In his poems we know where we are at any given moment, but we’re unsure of what it all means, how to generalize the experience. The work relentlessly attacks our inclination to force accounts of our experience into comfortable but clichéd generalizations, and in that sense it does what all good poetry does: corrects our perceptions of “the real.”

This is often exhilarating but sometimes uncomfortable. It’s not that the narrator is unreliable, it’s that the narrator is following what we usually call the subconscious. Among the pleasures of Grandbois’ poems are frequent witty juxtapositions, and an underlying comic sense reminiscent of Beckett’s.  In “The Play,” for example, the main character:

(Clears throat, orates)  One man’s normal is another man’s—

(To the other)  Will you please take your fingers from my


The poem concludes:

(Orates with gestures)  To be or not to  be.  That is the answer.

Much “experimental” writing is tedious, the simple-minded repetition of one idea or a heartless (and often brainless) insistence on formal ingenuity. Richard Hugo referred to that sort of experimentation as “just fucking around.” But the prose poem has allowed the contemporary poet to go beyond the expected parameters in more telling ways. In its attention to change and transformation, for example, many prose poems, including the ones quoted above, are reminiscent of the main motion of that fundamental work of Western culture, Ovid’s Metamorphoses. That’s to say:  the usual project of many prose poems is to attempt to recapture and reenact the liquidity and mystery of human experience.

Wow, tall order! But that of course is one of the projects of poetry since the beginning.

(The above appears in print, in a quite different version, as the introduction to Grandbois’  Unlucky Lucky Tales [Texas Tech, 2012].  Permission granted.)

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