On Clarity

by Rachel Pastan

Last week I met a law professor friend for dinner, and somehow we ended up talking about teaching writing. I’m the writing teacher—she teaches immigration law—but she was passionate on the subject of teaching students to write well. I was interested to learn that she sends work back to her students for revision more relentlessly than I do—three, four, five times. “I tell them they should write a brief so clearly that their mother could understand it, even if their mother isn’t a native English speaker,” she said. This is, in part, because the stakes are so high. She’s training her students to write—precisely, simply, persuasively—so they can help people in trouble, and maybe even shape U.S. policy in ways she believes are crucial and urgent.

I have always admired the commitment and lucid mind of this friend, who started her own nonprofit right out of law school and, when we were in college, won the undergraduate poetry prize. Now I admired—even envied—her self-assurance. I tend, I confess, to be comparatively wishy-washy with my own students. True, when they write muddy or jumbled sentences, I patiently detangle the prose with my pencil, compose exhortations to clarity, and sometimes refer them (perhaps datedly) to Strunk and White:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

Occasionally, in the spirit of an exercise, I select a few of a student’s knottier sentences and ask him or her to try rewriting them in a couple of different ways. Many students are happy to work to clarify and tighten their prose. They see how powerfully concision and tautness allow them to convey emotions, ideas, and images.

Sometimes, though, a student tells me he likes his sentences as they are, thank you very much. He (or she) is not, he explains, out to be understood, necessarily—but rather to evoke, to stir, to experiment and disport. When I hear this, I remind him that it’s possible to be atmospheric in prose, to create all varieties of color and mood, while remaining absolutely comprehensible.

Still, I get where they’re coming from. When I was first falling in love with words, I had two favorite writers (though I would name different ones today). One wrote sentences I passionately adored—sentences like this:

“The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.”

The other one wrote sentences I adored just as much—sentences like this:

“Sometimes I could put myself to sleep saying that over and over until after the honeysuckle got all mixed up in it the whole thing came to symbolize night and unrest I seemed to be lying neither asleep nor awake looking down a long corridor of grey halflight where all stable things had become shadowy paradoxical all I had done shadows all I had felt suffered taking visible form antic and perverse mocking without relevance inherent themselves with the denial of the significance they should have affirmed thinking I was I was not who was not was not who.”

A strange, swirling package of words like the latter sentence (by William Faulkner) can swell the heart like nothing else—nothing, that is, except an achingly limpid sentence like the former (by Ernest Hemingway). Of course, Faulkner’s sentence is a complex and sticky web—not a muddle—but it’s hard not to make a muddle when trying to emulate it. I sympathize, though, with the desire to reach for its heady richness. So after I write my exhortations, and I wield my pencil, and I make my students do the exercises, I tend to leave them more or less alone.

Still, I am a devotee of clarity—of the sentence that rings out like a chime. Clarity comes in so many wonderful flavors. There is Austenian acerbity: “Harriet Smith was the natural daughter of somebody.” Rothian derision: “Yakov Blotnik’s old mind hobbled slowly, as if on crutches, and though he couldn’t decide precisely what the boy was doing on the roof, he knew it wasn’t good—that is, it wasn’t-good-for-the-Jews.” Moorian caustic pain: “Life has been taken and broken, quickly, like a stick.” Forsterian enigma: “Professor Godbole had never mentioned an echo; it never impressed him, perhaps.” Note that it’s possible to write about an enigma as clearly as you can write about anything.

Writers are not lawyers, and seldom is anyone injured by our sentences, however clotted or muddled they may be. Even so, the stakes are high: literature not only enriches lives — it, too, can change things. Without clarity, though, the reader must struggle as though through a thicket to see and understand. With it, we extend a hand to guide her into an imaginatively transformed world. This is as crucial and urgent a mission as any I know.

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On Not Writing

by Mark Wunderlich

There is no such thing as “writer’s block.” Such a term suggests an affliction, a mental state like agoraphobia, that prevents the writer from taking up a pen. If you claim to have “writers block,” you’re probably just anxious or bored, or happy or in love, or just busy with other things. I had a teacher who had a particular palsy that allowed him to hold a writing utensil, but just as he brought the hand down toward the paper, that hand would begin to tremble which made the physical act of writing almost impossible unless he used a keyboard, and there were challenges with that process as well. This palsy—an actual diagnosed physical disease—did not stop him from writing numerous books of poetry and fiction.

When people say they have “writer’s block,” they often mean they are just not writing well. A story: After publishing my first book of poems, I began an ambitious project. I wrote a book of poems that used the histories of Tacitus as a source. This project involved much research at the Stanford University Library, a field trip to the Rhine and many hours spent at a desk in my apartment in the San Francisco Mission, looking out at a parking lot, an attractive palm tree and Potrero Hill which slowly rotated from brown to green and back to brown, or as they call it in California, “golden.” After a year of work, I remember printing out the manuscript and leaving it on my desk. I planned to read it in the morning and spend the rest of the day feeling pleased with myself. The next morning I began reading the poems, sipping coffee, and a realization began spreading through me that my ambitious project was just that—a project. The poems were wooden, turgid, crenelated and ornate without actually saying anything true or felt. I began to realize that the book was a zombie—the walking dead—dug from the grave of my first book. In a dramatic move, I scooped up the papers, walked down the hall and chucked the mess down the garbage chute, never to be seen again.

This act of abandonment was one of the better decisions I have made as a writer. In time—a long time as it turned out—I began to write poems again, and those poems became my actual second book. It took a fallow period to lead me to those poems, and in the time I spent not writing, I had to connect once again with the reasons I read and wrote poems in the first place. Eventually, a path opened and I began writing again, and my reasons for doing it were not to feel pleased with myself, but to make complex individual works of art, which is what poems are.

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A Writing Animal

by Benjamin Anastas

At the residency this June—wait: is it already June?—I’m delivering a lecture called “Less Emotion and More Intelligence: Muriel Spark and the Art of Satire.” This is the first time I’ve taken the plunge and given one of the community-wide lectures in Tishman; I’m more used to filing in with the other acolytes from the sunlit world, stopping in at the refreshments table to see about the cookie selection (“Where are the cookies?” I wonder, in astonishment, if the trays have already been picked clean. “Where are the cookies?”), and taking a seat in one of Tishman’s open pews with the jittery excitement that I always feel when I’m inside the building. It comes from the certainty that I am about to learn something and be challenged. This time it will be my turn to challenge the MFA program’s community of believers, to ask them to re-assess their thinking about literature and how we go about making it. This is exactly what Muriel Spark did, in May of 1970, when she delivered the Blashfield Address at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City—her lecture, titled “The Desegregation of Art,” is the departure point for my talk later this month and one of the most peculiar public statements about the art of writing in the 20th Century. It is also incredibly prescient about the new and different pressures facing the artist in a technologically advancing world, and makes a forceful case for satire and ridicule as the only “honorable weapon[s]” left against the oppressive domination of stupidity.

I don’t want to steal too much of my own thunder by giving the talk away in a blog post, but I will say that re-visiting Spark’s arguments in “The Desegregation of Art”—and examining how her ideas are animated in her novels of the period—gave me a whole new appreciation for the singularity of her work. And I was already a long-standing Muriel Spark fan, going back to the late 1990s, when the publisher New Directions started re-issuing the novels from her prime like The Bachelors (1960), The Girls of Slender Means (1963) and The Public Image (1968). For any serious reader of fiction raised, like I was, on the moonlit Jazz and transforming wonder of the American dreamer (Fitzgerald), the redemption of even the worst villain in the heartland (O’Connor, Capote, Mailer), the myth of the rebel who just can’t conform (Hemingway, Salinger), and the tragic suburban casualty (Cheever, Yates), reading Spark and her steelier treatment of the whole human carnival is an education in the sentiments. Also in the writer’s sentience—what we are willing and able to perceive. In “The Desegregation of Art,” Spark refers to herself as “a sort of writing animal,” and by that she means an Artist (with a capital “A”) who has shed the need for illusions, the appetite for easy comforts, and the eagerness to please that’s cultivated in all of us as children. (Spark, though she gave birth to a son and supported him financially, had no talent for or interest in motherhood.) She writes:

“We should know ourselves better by now than to be under the illusion that we are all essentially aspiring, affectionate and loving creatures … So when I speak of the desegregation of art I mean by this the liberation of our minds from the comfortable cells of lofty sentiment in which they are confined and never really satisfied.”

What kind of fiction does the ‘writing animal’ produce? And how can a reader take comfort in it—if not through sentiment?

We’ll answer these questions by looking at Spark’s most famous novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, followed by one of her more experimental outings from just a few years later, The Public Image. (Read them before the lecture if you can.)

See you in Tishman.


Secrets and Lies

by Lynne Sharon Schwartz

Do you write by hand or on a computer? Before computers became de rigueur, this was the first question writers were asked at readings or at parties, or any place where their identity had been discovered. The question was so predictable that when it came up one evening after I’d read with a close friend who knew my habits well, she stood up and said, “I write by hand and”—waving casually to me beside her—“she uses a computer.” Or maybe it was the other way around; I don’t remember anymore. It was long ago; she and her pen or computer have gone to writers’ heaven and I’m now about 90% computerized.

The second most frequently asked question, then and now, is about writing schedules and habits. Do you write in the mornings? Afternoons? Evenings? Every day or when the spirit moves you? Sometimes the word “inspiration” is used. There was a time when I could honestly answer—with a tad of smugness—that I wrote every day, from late morning to late afternoon. Alas, that time and that smugness have passed. In any case, why, I wondered, would anyone care? How could my writing habits be of any use to anyone, or of any interest? They weren’t even of interest to me. I and my fellow writers were hoping for the truly fun questions, about the work itself: all the wonderful details we’d agonized over; those three sentences of description that took hours; that clever allusion that began the last page; the deeper connections and resonances. We wanted to talk about what interested us, not our listeners.

But writers and their work habits fascinate readers. It’s as if they believe there’s some secret to the writing life, and if they could only worm it out of us they’d be writers themselves. I’ve read interviews in which authors are pressed to reveal the most mundane details about their working lives. There were a few modest ones, like the great Italian novelist and essayist Natalia Ginzburg, who claimed to write now and then, when she was in the mood. Knowing her large oeuvre and her impeccable style, I found this baffling.

On the other hand, one very distinguished writer who lived in a Manhattan apartment building was reported to dress in a suit and tie every day as if headed to an office job; then he’d take the elevator to the basement, where he’d fixed up a small studio, and spend the day working—a regular nine to five schedule. Another, a Nobel Prize winner, allegedly wrote all day every day, barely stopping for meals. My favorite of these accounts comes from Tillie Olsen’s book, Silences, where I learned that Joseph Conrad would shut himself up in his study from morning to evening, and his wife would leave a lunch tray outside his door—the nineteenth-century equivalent of a retreat like Yaddo or the MacDowell Colony, without the shared bathrooms.

Sylvia Plath got up at five in the morning to have a couple of writing hours before her babies stirred and claimed her attention. And we know what happened to her. Then there’s Anthony Trollope who, rumor has it, would write on long sheets of yellow foolscap and when he finished a novel, would scrawl “The End,” flip the page and start the next book. Since Trollope held down a responsible day job in the postal administration, this too is puzzling.

What I always wondered about those paragons was, didn’t they ever have to buy a birthday present, or new underwear, or go to the dentist, or get a flu shot, or visit a relative in the hospital, or help out a friend in trouble? (Or read a friend’s new manuscript.) Not to mention shopping for groceries, picking up dry-cleaning, and bringing the broken vacuum cleaner to the repair shop—unless they had spouses as accommodating as Conrad’s. (Plath definitely did not.) I doubt many such remain nowadays.

Finally it dawned on me. They’re lying. Or to put it more graciously, they’re saying what they think their readers want to hear; or more likely what they wish were the case; or what they manage to do for a few weeks at a time now and then, and extrapolate to mean habitually.

In my younger and more confident days, I thought I had all the secrets of the writing life and was more than willing to pass them on. Make a daily writing schedule and stick to it, I’d tell students. Do your writing first, before you tackle the banal tasks of daily life. Don’t go out to lunch—it breaks up the day. Save your social life for after five. (Better still, live like a hermit if you can.) Never fill out forms, unless the government requires it. And so on. I followed those rules for quite a while, writing a certain number of hours daily. It was my job, though I didn’t put on a suit and tie.

When it was time to pick up my children from school I dutifully put down my pen and put on my coat. Later, when they could come home by themselves, I put down my pen the instant I heard the click of the key in the door. It was like the bell ringing in school, to mark the end of a class period.

Because writing was my self-appointed job, it irked me when strangers marveled that I got any work done. A doctor I met at a party who knew I’d published several books asked how in the world I found time to write. I asked him how he found time to take care of his patients. This worked: he slunk away.

The strict rules also worked. My most productive years were when I had school-aged children. (Not babies—their needs are just too much.) It sounds paradoxical, I know, but that rigorous discipline got me through a phase that otherwise might have been focused on finding just the right lunchbox or the right middle school. Not that I didn’t endure those trials, but they were tempered by my knowing that on the desk, waiting eagerly for my return, was a manuscript that transported me to a realm all my own, where I could be endlessly adventurous and playful and focused.

Oddly enough, it was when my children grew up and moved away that my discipline started to flag. I was free of many responsibilities; my time should have been more my own than ever (though I did spend a lot of it teaching). I broke many of my own excellent rules. I could no longer honestly say that I wrote daily from late morning to late afternoon. Unexpected concerns came to occupy my time. The days felt more crowded with each passing year. Crowded with… life itself. The aging parents, the recommendation letters, the birthday gift, the dentist, and all the rest.

I still wrote a lot, but not on my formerly disciplined schedule. Perhaps we all possess a finite amount of discipline, and I had used mine up early on. There were some good long days; others flew by in a crush of details, with barely any time for work. After much agonizing and self-reproach, I came to grasp that I couldn’t win a struggle against the demands of my life. Maybe others could, but for me that struggle was enervating and self-defeating. Rilke could choose to miss his daughter’s wedding—as the story goes—because he had to finish a poem, but I couldn’t and wouldn’t go so far. What mattered was that I write when I could, as best as I could.

I learned to yield to life with as much grace as I could muster (often not much). I never stopped missing the long days at my desk, especially if I was in the middle of something I loved. Or if I hadn’t a piece of work waiting for me, life felt hollowed out, boring. Not a superficial boredom—day by day I was engaged by whatever claimed me—but a deep down boredom, as if the center had been removed and I was drifting along the peripheries.

Today I’d never venture to advise anyone on how to map out their time. Writers’ lives follow different patterns. Some hit their stride in their twenties and thirties; others in their forties and fifties or even later. Unforeseen changes disrupt the best of plans. There are no secrets. Or else each writer has to discover his or her own secret. Hard and constant work is one method. A kind of dreamy receptiveness may be another. Or relentless observation of the world, finally erupting in words. To balance discipline and yielding, shutting the world out and letting it in, is the task that faces all of us. Ultimately our choices will inform our sentences, and make us the individual writers we are.

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by Peter Trachtenberg

I’ve publicly identified as a cat person, but I also like dogs and have spent a lot of time watching them. I was watching them even before I liked them, mostly because I was an anxious kid and was never sure of the intentions of any strange dog that came bounding up to me. Yeah, that looked like a smile, but what was with all the teeth? There was an area in the park where I played after school—I’m old enough to remember a time when parents were so negligent that they let their kids play in the parks unattended—where a bunch of dogs congregated. Unlike children, they were attended by their adult owners, who watched on as the dogs lunged and darted and barked furiously, raced in circles, reared like stallions, collided, grappled, opened their dripping mouths and bit (or appeared to bite) each other, tried to swallow each other whole. The snap of their teeth sounded like bones breaking. Horrible. Once, after spying on this scene, I went up to a cop and told him some men were making their dogs fight. I couldn’t understand why he laughed.

I’ve thought of this moment lately in connection with the longstanding controversy about departures from fact in nonfiction. ‘Departures from fact’ sounds evasive: many no doubt would prefer ‘lying.’ And we all know it’s lying when a memoirist who once spent three hours in a police station for a driving infraction turns that into 18 days for punching out a cop. We know it’s lying when Martha Gellhorn writes an eyewitness account of a lynching in Depression-era Mississippi and later admits she made it up (which might have mitigated the falsehood had she made the admission to her readers and not just in a letter to a friend, even though the friend happened to be Eleanor Roosevelt)? But what do you call it when John D’Agata falsifies minor and not-so-minor facts in a story on a teenager’s suicide in Las Vegas and dismisses his fact-checker’s protest (squeal, murmur) on the grounds that he, D’Agata, isn’t a journalist but an essayist? (I think of this as the Peewee Herman defense: every time Peewee was caught doing something stupid, he’d snap, “I meant to do that!”) Do you call it something else when it becomes apparent that the fact-checker knew all along what D’Agata was up to? Was Joseph Mitchell lying when he quoted down to the comma his heroically odd subjects holding forth with Shakespearian eloquence and at Shakespearian length, though he wrote his legendary profiles long before the advent of the hand-held recorder? Could his short-hand really have been that good?

Maybe my semantic uncertainty reflects my varying respect for, and attachment to, these different writers. I have no trouble calling James Frey a liar: Oprah Winfrey called him a liar. But Joseph Mitchell is a hero of mine. Few other writers have such a sense of the essential strangeness and solitude of their fellow humans or observe them with such humor and such tact. Do I have to call him a liar, too?

Maybe we first have to consider the ethical consequences of untruth. By lying about a lynching, Gellhorn potentially gave ammunition to the forces who wanted to dismiss all such reports as lies, who wanted Americans to believe that lynchings did not take place or that if they did they were only instances of ‘popular justice’ enacted against murderers and rapists. So the first objection to authorial lying might be called tactical: when a writer lies about real events, he or she may make the events themselves seem like lies, and give aid and comfort to liars who are far more organized and accomplished and ill-intentioned.

I’d say that all meretricious nonfiction has two ethical dimensions, or say two axes. The first axis is that of the story’s subject matter, the facts it relates, or purports to relate: a lynching in Mississippi or a suicide in Las Vegas or a young man’s drug addiction and driving habits. Some of those facts possess more gravity than others and some of that gravity has to do with whom those facts involve. Or, put another way, whom those facts belong to, who owns them.

The lies James Frey tells in A Million Little Pieces are fundamentally about James Frey, all its other characters being essentially supporting players, and bit players at that. There’s a thing parents say when their children are about to go off and do something stupid. At least my parents said it, after they’d finished yelling and weeping and realized they still couldn’t keep me from being a moron: It’s your life. And it seems to me that’s true of every memoirist. It’s his or her life.

But when Martha Gellhorn lied about what she saw in Mississippi, she appropriated facts that concerned real people, real share-croppers who died horribly at the hands of their white neighbors. Those facts—and what fact is more final than death?—belonged to them. I suppose you could argue that nobody owns truth, but if anything establishes a claim to it, you’d think it would be suffering.

The second moral axis of this model is the axis of the audience, the reader or listener, who has been conned into believing that a false story was true. Every writer who hopes to be read makes a contract with the reader. The contract is usually implicit, but one sometimes sees it spelled out in a book’s disclaimer: “All characters in this book are fictional and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.” “This story is true, only the names have been changed.” “My family will dispute everything I say about them, but I’m still right.” What these disclaimers do is give the reader a cue as to how literally to take what follows. That can also be done implicitly. Anyone who sees a story that begins “Once upon a time” is unlikely to think she’s reading Lawrence Wright.

And anyone who reads Joseph Mitchell’s profiles—of a ticket-taker in a Bowery movie theater or a drink-cadging Greenwich Village bohemian known for his imitations of seagulls or the trustee of an African-American cemetery on Staten Island—knows almost at once that these aren’t standard works of journalism: they’re tall tales whose central figures happen to be real. Look at how Mitchell begins his beautiful, mournful “Mr. Hunter’s Grave”: “When things get too much for me, I put a wildflower book and a couple of sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island and wander around awhile in one of the old cemeteries down there.” Not Gay Talese or Elizabeth Kolbert but Melville and Ecclesiastes.

Which brings me back to the dogs. The reason that cop laughed at me all those decades ago when I reported the presence of a dog-fighting ring in Riverside Park was that he knew those dogs weren’t fighting. They were playing. One of the things that may have told him this was something dogs do when they signal they want to play: they thump the ground with their forepaws. Try it with your dog some time: it’ll drive him crazy. This thump is the dogs’ equivalent of the cues good writers give their readers to signal how they should take the story to come, how fully they should swallow its facts. Can one bet money on them, or should one just enjoy them, as the writer so plainly did? Of course devising such cues is harder than smacking the ground with your forepaws—hands—but it seems a useful thing for any writer to know, especially at a time when disappointed readers can vent their displeasure on Amazon and Goodreads or even—who knows?—with lawsuits. It does for people what its counterpart does for dogs: keeps them from getting bitten.

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Just Whisper

by April Bernard

When I was in high school, and happy, I knew a pair of pretty sisters, not twins, but only a year apart in school, Patty and Jilly Homan. (“In high school, and happy” sounds implausible, but I was both; it was my refuge from home. And if anyone in school was mean, I knew how to go disdainfully still. To this day, chalk dust and squeaky wood floors evoke a memory of paradise. When I ran the literary magazine for two years, the English teachers actually gave me a corner in their office for my own desk and typewriter. If they had let me, I would have set up a cot and moved in full time.)

Patty and Jilly were, as I say, pretty. But their success with boys and men was evidently disproportionate to matters of mere appearance: for they were also short, with pale eyes and dull brown hair and comically stodgy Fair Isle sweaters. I got to know them on the ski team and through a church group, about which I would have to explain quite a lot to explain what I was doing in it, so I’ll just say that I was mostly chasing the students from Williams College who were our “spiritual leaders.” At practice and choir and occasional camp-outs, the Homan girls’ looks grew on me, too. Patty was a little more conventionally pretty, with her very large flat blue eyes, though her skin was densely freckled and prone to blushing; Jilly’s nose was almost too tiny to count as a nose, and it made her eyes, yellowy green, seem too far apart. I realized that I was watching them, watching the spell they cast on the college boys, trying to figure it out, and as I studied them I became fascinated as well.

Here’s the thing: They said perfectly ordinary things, friendly or banal or sometimes a little bit funny, but they were almost inaudible. You always had to tilt in really close to hear what Patty was saying, even if it was just “Hi. I like your hair that way.”

“Thank you,” you would bellow, as if her whisper meant she was also deaf.

“Is it naturally curly?” she would whisper, and again you would have to lean close in to hear. And close in, well past the ordinary boundaries of where you usually talked to friends, you saw Patty’s pale eyelashes, her freckled ear lobe; you saw her so close that she was all paint dots and not the painting—and the dots were more than pretty; they were beautiful.

One fall day, when we were running the trails behind the school, I came upon Jilly and Patty, legging it side by side in matching blue shorts that ballooned behind them, having a fight. I did not realize until I was almost on their heels that it was a fight, so low were their tones.

“You can be such a, such a —”

That was all I could make out.

I told my best friend, Dez, that I thought the Homan girls were “repressed.” Dez, reasonably enough, challenged me to explain “repressed,” “suppressed,” and “oppressed.” I said that the oppressive atmosphere of their upbringing, about which we in fact knew nothing, had doubtless suppressed their natural voices, and that over time they had become their own internalized policemen, repressing their voices themselves.

Later I revised my opinion for Dez. I told her that Jilly and Patty did it on purpose, to attract men. They whispered to make the men lean close in, and then, like spiders, they ensnared them with feminine wiles.

Dez asked, “What feminine wiles would those be?”

I had no idea. We laughed, as we always did, loudly.

But I have never forgotten Jilly and Patty’s lesson in the power of quiet, the power to make someone strain to hear, to make someone stop everything just to listen. Feminine wiles are all very well; but even more importantly, the whisper works on the page.

Corner Dog, Coming Dog

by Alice Mattison

My most absorbing work during the last few months has been, first, revising a book, and, secondly, teaching our dog, Harold—a large, black, cheerful, energetic, pit bull mix—not to yank on the leash and bark when we see or hear another dog while walking. It wasn’t until recently that I noticed how much Harold resembles the book, though not in all ways, of course.

Neither the dog nor the book understands general instructions, though both grasp English words and even sentences if they are used specifically. You’d better not say to a dog, “Let’s reconsider your policy concerning other dogs” or even “If you pass that dog across the street without going bananas, I’ll let you carry your squeaky toy in your mouth for a block,” and you can’t say to a book, “My theme here is the futility of the American dream” or, more modestly, “I’d like each of the next three chapters to become progressively more exciting.” But the dog understands “Cookie!” or “Look at your squeaky toy!” (a small plastic blue football with magical properties) and the book knows “cut,” “paste,” and “delete”—or Word does—and, even more usefully, the alphabet and punctuation marks. Anything I want the book to do, I must express in letters of the alphabet. Anything I want the dog to do, I must express in words about what’s right here, right now.

At first, on our daily walks, my husband Edward and I just suffered when we passed another dog and dog walker: anxiety, embarrassment, pulled arm muscles. Then our trainer, Katie, showed us high-value treats—cookies you buy at Petco that look like Oreos and smell disgusting, but distract Harold from almost anything. We started by giving him bite after bite. Katie suggested we try fewer bites, and I learned—I am more obsessed than Edward so I hold the leash—that if I count slowly to fifteen or twenty before giving Harold the bite, he is even more intent on the cookie. Then we discovered that squeaky toys work even better. At times. But why sometimes and not other times?

Thinking hard and in generalities—there are times in working with books or dogs when one must think hard and generally, even if neither the dog nor the book can think that way—I realized that on walks, we meet what I might describe as several different sorts of dog. Corner Dogs appear at the next corner. They come down the cross street, pass in front of us before or after crossing the street we’re walking on, and disappear up the cross street again. Across Dogs are across the street, walking in our direction or in the opposite direction. Going Dogs are ahead of us on our side, going our way—so we never meet, but they are in view for a long time. Coming Dogs are on our side of the street coming toward us. They are difficult—we pass nearest them—but we have time to react as they approach. Hardest are Surprise Dogs, which pop up in a yard or get out of a car.

Once I understood the categories, I saw what was going on. Harold’s squeaky toy renders Across Dogs, Corner Dogs, and Going Dogs innocuous. Sometimes talking about the toy is enough; sometimes I show it to him. At worst I wiggle it or squeak it. After the dog is gone Harold carries the toy in his mouth for a block or so, meditatively squeaking.

Coming Dogs require that I count to fifteen or twenty, then proclaim “Cookie cookie cookie starts with C!” while waving a bit of cookie, which he then eats. For Surprise Dogs I use whatever’s handiest, but so far, nothing truly works. But surprise dogs are rare. Mostly, now, we walk down Dog Alley (a five-block stretch in our neighborhood that is especially doggy) without hysteria.


However, what I’m writing about here is not dogs—about whom I have no expertise—but books. There may be a better way to teach a dog, but I know no better method than mine for working on a book: thinking generally, carrying out one’s thoughts specifically. A book, to start with, is a blob floating up from some dark place in your psyche. New writers, faced with its strangeness and propensity for chaos, often write it in one of two ways: they give in to the chaos, claiming that the book is valid because it comes about honestly and intuitively, or they rationally devise themes and plots without regard to what’s coming out of their imaginations, and impose them on the poor uncomprehending thing. The results are either a chaotic, unreadable book, or one that’s so thoroughly thought through that the reader can figure it out from the first page, and the book itself is superfluous. I think it’s wiser to treat a book like a dog. Work on it one word or sentence at a time, but also turn away from it so as to figure out its true nature and what you’ll need to do to the words to reveal that truth. It’s not a matter of copying a theme you already know about into a resisting book, it’s a matter of thinking about what’s in your book already and where it’s going on its own, noticing what theme or large point or action your unconscious mind seems to be coming up with, and altering the words—lengthening and shortening sections, building up intensity or diminishing it, and so on—in a way that will make a reader able to see clearly what your haphazard outpouring indicates only vaguely.

Give your book cookies when that works, wave the squeaky toy when that works. And good luck with Surprise Dogs.

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But No Word Will Ever Be Spoke Here

by Sven Birkerts

Here is one of those private-fantasy questions. You are allowed to have one painting, any painting ever painted, to hang on the wall opposite your bed. To have it there to love, honor, and obey—for course it will end up instructing you, no matter what piece you choose. What do you choose? One painting. It makes you think. Do you really want The Raft of the Medusa, or some impossibly gaunt and vertical El Greco there alongside the dresser; or a constant blare of sunflowers, or some dainty skirts lifting on a swing? How long can anyone stare at a saintly Madonna or endure the punching pulse of Broadway Boogie-Woogie? What to pick? It’s not such an easy question, finally.

We are all of us different, of course, and any hundred people—never mind a hundred writers—will likely pick a hundred different works. Which suggests that it‘s a litmus-test as good as any other. But a litmus of what? Personality? Aesthetics? Are those two things connected? Of course they are! But how? One fanciful question and already we are mired in philosophy.

I’m not—alas, or mercifully—feeling up to any pressured inquiry about why we do as we do, how our nature and nurture together impinge upon expressive impulse and then, if we’re writers, determine our inclination to certain syntactic arrangements, cadences, never mind larger thematic and structural choices. Nor can I leave the business entirely alone. For if I don’t know the specific painting I would pick, I know the kind of painting, and I also have some ideas about what that might mean vis à vis writing, by which I mean: what most gratifies me when I read, and what I aspire to when I feel the need to get words onto the page.

No question, for purpose of ongoing compulsory daily meditation, I would pick a Dutch still life from the 17th or 18th century. A quiet still life rich with shadow and muted pewter, some arrangement of humble entities, be they edible—fish, lemon, apple, grape, pigeon or pheasant—or else just the furnishings of some bygone domesticity: implements, muskets, buckles, dishes… I don’t really want the immediate human presence, unless maybe in the skull-form of the classic memento mori, a phrase which suddenly reminds me that the classic moniker for this whole genre is nature morte—which literally means “dead nature.” And now I do have to ask: what does this say about me? Why not a jolly Rubens or a pensive Modigliani, or at least a Parisian boulevard or a few peasants at harvest?

Trust me, I have nothing against coolly elongated sylphs or any of the rest. But I am mindful that my deal calls for daily contemplation, the calm fixation of mind and senses on the made thing. And really, how long before any face, even a Rembrandt, even that of the Gioconda herself, will start to cloy? A face is mysterious, but it tethers one to a certain kind of musing—inevitably it calls toward a single being. And such explosions of light and color as Van Gogh or Monet may have achieved—how quickly the circuits would fry—it would be like touching one of Rilke’s angels.

Whereas a still-life… Well, this is my way of backing into my intended subject and trying to make it a seamless retro-fit. But what do we have against seams, anyway? Another question for another time. The point is, I originally wanted to reflect here on a quotation that I had found in Mark Doty’s little book Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, but I just could not find my way in. I looked to create the sense of effortless and inevitable, the casual ‘aha!’ that I admire whenever I see it. But it was not to be. So here—behold—is the seam:

Doty’s meditation is so compressed, so slim between covers that the thing tends to disappear between whatever books I shelve it with, the result being that I’m often looking for it and seldom finding it. Maybe that was why serendipitously coming upon it the other day filled me with such pleasure that I decided I had to make it my subject. Meaning—I already knew—that I would look for some way to create a frame for what is, I think, an extraordinary passage of prose.

In the book Doty is writing about a still-life by Osias Beert, taking evident pleasure in describing a platter of oysters which seems to him “the ultimate expression of light playing on the slightly viscous, pearly, opalescent, and convoluted flesh…” He makes various equally luscious sensory overtures before getting what feels to me the heart of the business: not just the business of still-lives, but of all art—writing, too. Doty asserts:

“ …no word will ever be spoke here, among the flowers and snails, the solid and dependable apples, this heap of rumpled books, this pewter plate on which a few opened oysters lie, giving up their silver.

     These are resolutely still, immutable, poised for a forward movement that will never occur. The brink upon which still life rests is the brink of time, the edge of something about to happen. Everything that we know crosses this lip, over and over, like water over the edge of a fall, as what might happen does, as any of the variations of what might come true does so, as things fall into being, tumble through the progression of existing in time.

     Painting creates silence.”

How better to express the meaning—the power and pathos—of the painter’s rendering of the visual world? The stillness marked out as an illusory stay against all vanishing; the idea that the arrest of objects in manufactured light creates silence. I can’t draw an exact parallel to the work of our sentences, but I do believe that this same impulse to immobilize is found at the core of what we do. Not necessarily in the static mode of the still life—we might be writing a narrative charged with momentum and action—but in the more primary sense, as a way of saying: “Come to life here on this white paper and stay alive forever!” Opalescent oysters gleaming in the light—or grapes, or the facets of a goblet, or the polished wood of a mandolin or lute—they get us close to beauty, not just to the fact of it, but to what might be the reason we know it at all, as a small consolation for all the loss that living brings. Cold comfort, I’m thinking, but comfort still.

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Some of The Best of 2014

“I like a thin book because it will steady a table, a leather volume because it will strop a razor, and a heavy book because it can be thrown at a cat.”
–Mark Twain

On the other hand, “The good of a book lies in its being read,” said Umberto Eco.

Herewith a list of recommendations—that is, some of those we loved this year—in the order in which they came in.

Paul Yoon
My book of the year is Adam Fould’s In the Wolf’s Mouth, which for me is a stunning example of the novel as collage.

David Gates
For whatever reason, I’d never read John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra before, and it impressed me mightily. I always thought American writers who came up in the 1930s were either on Hemingway’s team or Fitzgerald’s, but O’Hara seems to have learned from both of them, and he’s more grown-up about sex than either of them. He’s so accurate in rendering both coal-town folkways and his characters’ vernacular that the novel might seem dated; I can only hope that eighty years from now my work will seem this persuasively quaint.

Sven Birkerts
I went in more than slightly skeptical, but ended up quite liking Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog (spoiler alert for Amy H. and any other dog aficionados–there’s really nothing about dogs in the book–it’s all just post-modern alienation in Abu Dhabi…).

Ed Ochester
David Guterson’s new Problems with People is one of the best books of short stories I’ve read in years.

April Bernard
Following the New York Review Classics publication last year of Elizabeth Taylor’s extraordinary novel of deranged ambition, Angel, this year Margaret Drabble made a selection of Taylor’s stories from 1954 to 1995, collected in You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There. I love Taylor’s details—the very wardrobes and worn-out linoleums of London hallways and Italian boarding-houses become lively, even witty, seen through her eyes—and her bleak view of human relations is both appalling and very funny.

Amy Hempel
Phil Klay’s NBA-winning collection of stories, Redeployment, is the book I’m recommending to everyone.

Lynne Sharon Schwartz
I’ve been reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy (along with so many other readers): My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. Brilliant, dense as a Russian 19th c. novel, set in Naples and covering personal, social and political events in Italy between the post war period and now, through the lens of two women’s experiences, from childhood until old age. She shows, tells, and does everything else besides. An enormous cast of characters, each so real you feel you know them.

Rachel Pastan
A Dual Inheritance by Joanna Hershon. A wonderful novel about two college friends whose ways diverge—the driven money-maker and the drifting idealist, the WASP and the Jew—and also about their daughters.

Peter Trachtenberg
Hilton Als’s White Girls is a bravura performance on race and gender, in which the essayist and theater critic takes in and takes on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the careers of Richard Pryor and Eminem, and his own vexed history of desire and loss. Try not to irritate your friends by reading too many sentences out loud.

Mark Wunderlich
One of my favorite books this year is On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss. In it she examines the metaphors we use to describe illness and immunity and how those metaphors shape our understanding (or misunderstanding) of science. It’s a timely and important book.

Alice Mattison
I look for obscure women writers who shouldn’t be obscure, and a friend mentioned Lucia Berlin because she wrote short stories about women at work, something else that interests me. Berlin died in 2004 but her exquisite stories are available from David Godine. I read Home Sick. I won’t soon forget a story about a grandfather, a dentist, who makes his eight-year-old granddaughter pull out his teeth.

Joan Wickersham
Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, a 1920s trilogy set in 14th-century Norway. I’d tried the old translation and kept bogging down in the convoluted syntax and the tangle of ‘twoulds’ and ‘thithers.” But Tiina Nunnally’s recent translation is clean and unobtrusive. You just fall down into the life of this character — her preoccupations and beliefs and emotions — and it’s riveting.

Dinah Lenney
Gabriel: A Poem, Edward Hirsch’s elegy for his son. Testament to the power and solace of art.

David Daniel
I learned more important stuff from reading The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, by Annette Gordon Reed, than anything I’ve read since Galeano’s Century of the Wind. It tells the story of the family of Sally Hemings, who was Thomas Jefferson’s wife for the last thirty years of his life, and, in doing so, the book provides a deeply troubling and moving context against which our deeply troubling contemporary issues are cast.

Jill McCorkle
We Are All completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler. The narrator was so funny and likable. I had no idea where I was going even as every turn was logically sound. This is one where you should NOT read a lot of reviews for fear they reveal too much.

Major Jackson
Digest by Gregory Pardlo. This book models inwardness and lyric engagement without solipsism, without poetry’s narcissistic tendencies.

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Change me

by Mark Wunderlich

As part of my job at Bennington College, I run a reading series of visiting poets. Last year Mark Strand was one of our readers, and his death this past week has me thinking about his visit. He was witty, generous, erudite, and wildly intelligent. He sparred with students, complimented them, provoked debate, asked questions of them. It was a fantastic series of events, and one I’ll always remember. I met this week with one student who studies both literature and dance who told me how, after attending Strand’s reading, she choreographed a dance based on one of his poems, in which specific movements were assigned to individual words in the poem. If the word repeated, so did the movement made by the dancers. This cross-pollination of two art forms thrilled me, and I only wished that Strand had been around to see it.

As far as I can tell, there are only two suitable reasons to write poems, the first being that the writer derives pleasure from moving language around on a page. The other reason to write poems is for the company. The society of poets is one I find endlessly stimulating, amusing, and inspiring. Being a poet puts me in touch with other artists, and it also puts me in classrooms of smart and challenging people who want to talk about literature and writing. Many of the friends I made while pursuing my MFA are still with me, and those relationships are one of the great treasures of my life, as are the friends I have made of fellow writers all along the way.

As a writer of poems, the other society one keeps is the society of the dead. Every time we write a poem we are speaking back to all the poets who have come before us. When we write a line of poetry, we are calling on all the poems we have read and loved and taken in, and we are using them to make our own work. The lines and language of poets of the past echo through our own poems. When we read the poems of other writers, they use us as instruments to reanimate their thoughts and language and sensibilities. In this way, the living and the dead speak to and through each other. Whitman describes this with multiple extended metaphors in Leaves of  Grass, the very title of which connects the leaves or pages of the book with his ghostly image of grass as the “beautiful uncut hair of graves.” Poem and body and soil cycle through time, dying only to be reborn in another form.

When we talk about pursuing an MFA, we usually talk about how it will inform and change one’s own writing and that the vehicle for that development is the course work one does. While that is certainly true, MFA programs are also a mechanism through which we are initiated into the world of writers and writing, where we meet and make our own literary society, and where we read those works that will shape and change and sustain us as we grow and go on. We meet our friends and future colleagues, our mentors and teachers. You may meet the other writer who pushes you to work harder by enraging you, or the one who pushes you by creating a sense of shared achievement. They are all there waiting to read and be read. How can we know how we will be changed?

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