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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Peering Under Stones: Research for Fiction

by Rachel Pastan

Once, going up an escalator in a New York City department store, I casually asked a friend, “So, what kind of school did you have to go to become a museum curator?” She thought I was taking an interest. Really, I was fishing for information for a novel.

This is one kind of research for fiction: casual, compelling, undercover. I do it a lot. Sometimes people who know me well catch me at it. Other times they accuse me of fishing when I’m just interested in hot air ballooning or the landscape of Siberia. Not that the wall between fishing and just being interested is impermeable; almost anything may turn out to be useful sooner or later.

When I was working on my second novel, about a Russian literature professor and a herpetologist, I did a lot of library research. I read books about Russian water nymphs and the hag Baba Yaga, and I immersed myself in Sofya Tolstoy’s diaries. I looked up interviews with women scientists, subscribed to The Journal of Herpetology (herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians), and even audited a University of Wisconsin course on terrestrial vertebrates.

I learned a lot about frogs, turtles, and lizards in that course, but it was the snakes that seduced me. With their strange beauty, their powerful metaphorical associations, and the way they rouse strong visceral reactions, snakes seemed like the total fictional package. During one of the class field trips, I stomped—seven months pregnant!—across muddy spring fields, peering under stones as we’d been directed to do. When I lifted a rock and uncovered a young snake, I grabbed it and ran to show the professor. In that moment,  I wasn’t gathering material and the snake was not a metaphor. It was all animal: cool, wriggling, fork-tongued.

Part of the joy of reading (and writing) fiction is immersing ourselves in lives and worlds very different from our own. As writers, we have a responsibility to get those worlds right—at least respectably (respectfully) so. For the past few months I have been doing research for a novel about a geneticist who works with corn, and trying to getting it right has been some of the hardest work I’ve ever done. I have read biographies of plant geneticists and books about the history of genetics. I have pored over scientific papers and articles. I have studied Wikipedia entries for meiosis, epigenetics, and trilobites; spent afternoons in archives reading old letters; and watched animations of cells dividing.

Then there are the field trips. Last summer, having gathered my courage, I visited a friendly corn biologist at the University of Delaware who, after I emailed him out of the blue, offered to show me his cornfield. Some of the crucial scenes in the novel will take place in a cornfield, and I had never really looked at one before. I had certainly never walked through one with a geneticist and looked at the stalks and ears and tassels (and weeds and pests) through his eyes.

It was a hot August day when the geneticist took me around, and the corn, rustling drily, was taller than we were. He described his research, which had to do with disease resistance. I nodded a lot and scribbled in my notebook, but mostly I was writing things like: “Hard earth, sticky stalks. Trees, outbuildings, pipes, barrels. Tap bag and shake to collect pollen. Selfing— fertilizing a plant with its own pollen. Sibbing—fertilizing a plant with the pollen of a sibling plant. Big black wasps.” These are the kinds of things I need to know to bring a scene a life: some vivid details of the physical world, and a little bit of lingo. Selfing and wasps.

Of course, research shouldn’t overshadow the story, nor should it call attention to itself. As Lily King wrote about her novel Euphoria, based on the life of Margaret Mead: “My research needed to be like an undergarment in the days before people started showing off their boxers and their bra straps. I didn’t want any of it to show through.” This requires discipline: the urge to show off how much one has learned can be potent and dangerous—though sometimes a writer gets away with it. In American Pastoral, Philip Roth lays out the glove-making process in ferocious detail, but, compelled by the power and beauty of his prose style, I devoured every word.

Inevitably some of what one learns—or even a great deal of it—ends up being irrelevant. The herpetologist character in my book got folded, in the course of revision, into the Russian literature professor. Two characters with opposite impulses became one character torn by conflicting impulses. It was a sounder narrative strategy, but the terrestrial vertebrates class turned out to be a waste of time.

Except not entirely. When I was nearly done with the novel, I wrote a scene in which the Russian literature professor’s three-year-old daughter lifts a stone in the park and finds a little snake, which she insists on taking home and naming Stripey. The moment in the muddy Wisconsin field, which I’d thought was just life, turned out to be fodder for the beast of fiction after all.

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The Dreaded Question

by Major Jackson

It happened again yesterday, a question I increasingly hear as downright boorish, an effrontery on par with public flatulence. Whenever these words are spoken, my frustration is nearly instant, visible; one of the corners of my brown lips turns up and a dark frown emerges, and if I do not control the muscles in my face, my interlocutor will have to suffer a scowl as I attempt to push the rock back up the mountain. This question, on the surface, is benign, posed to solicit a checklist of things-to-do, tricks of the trade, so to speak, if one is to become a successful writer, as if to unmask the eccentricities of the imagination at work.

“What’s your creative process?”

Evil, thy name is banality, and here is where I am most assured the chink in The Matrix is not a fiction: for like many other writers, I have encountered that question during Q&A at the tail end of many reading; also on a tarmac at La Guardia, sitting next to a seismologist, downing gin and tonics, waiting out a storm. Somewhere back in the 19th century, a period of intense adulation of all things literary, some villain, probably a pamphlet-writer on Grub Street, decided to taunt writers henceforth and forever with the task of having to explain what amounts to a strange incubation of ambition, inquiry, desire, emotion, and talent finding release in language that conforms to one or more several genres we know as fiction, poetry, or creative non-fiction.

Each poem is its own singular journey, its own incorporation of magical circumstances, and such a question reduces writing to a mere walk around the (same) block. Contrarily, I have heard prose writers discuss the sentence itself as a fierce adventure of will and discovery, syntax as an excursion to the unknown. But to the layman, to the tyro, writing is conceived as a set of steps or directions: you-do-this, you-do-that, and lo-and-behold . . .

When I think of process, I think of gears and assembly lines, supercomputers, soulless algorithms, synthetic waltzes, a repetitive act of candle-lighting or some other guiding ritual that unremarkably leads to words. It is well-known that William Wordsworth took walks with his sister Dorothy before the faucet of feelings spontaneously overflowed. Probably less well-known, is that poet James Whitcomb Riley, that venerable bon vivant from Indiana, checked into hotels and asked his friends to lock him in his room and take with them his garments, so he wouldn’t be enticed to leave his desk to satiate his thirst for a cocktail in the lobby. Sir Walter Scott composed poems while riding on horseback. I imagine these are the salacious details of preparation and odd personality quirks which the person posing the question wants to hear, and the more exotic and incongruous, the better.

I’ve heard writers do some of the following in an effort to call back the muse from vacation: perform a hundred push-ups, make soup, play a nearby piano, engage in a quick romp with one’s beloved or self, smoke a bowl, organize all of the pens and pencils in a house, read the opening chapters of The Art of War, complete a daily crossword puzzle, wait until the minute hand hits exactly a lucky number or lands on a specific time as though the doors to a rare universe had opened through which the writer is allowed to enter, pluck fleas from their dog’s back until they were all gone, sit in a car and record all the license plates of cars that passed by. Before a visit to his writing desk, by the way, Eliot meticulously applied face powder and lipstick.

I get it: such rituals serve as the magical unlocking of a consciousness. They make the beginning of a poem or story easier to commence, maybe even give us a sense of being in control of something as inscrutable and elusive as the imagination.

However, what I find difficult to explain, in answer to the question, is that writing arises out of a greater complexity; not necessarily a need, but beyond need — and even then, only after I have attained enough of the requisite parts (memories, facts, impulses, willpower, and whatever else finds its way into the poem). That period of gestation gives rise to something within that emerges as organic and inevitable as a day lily shooting up out of earth. The beyond-need has, as its source, the urge to simply make, which points to the etymological root of the Poet as Maker. What happens from that point on is a kind of possession (of the variety that Maya Deren captures in her film Divine Horsemen), a setting free of energy existent within and around us.

Once induced into a spirit of composing, the imagination dances with language in that space William James described as “fringe consciousness.” (I should add here, half my life is spent walking in the margins of subconscious existence.) How do I explain or convey that the poem begins long before I ever sit down?

For sure, our Bennington method — “Read a Hundred. Write One”— is only a small part of a process of refinement and honing that has to occur in order for authentic expression to happen. This is not only part of developing one’s craft, but more important, I think, developing a singular way of seeing and digesting life itself. Only Gwendolyn Brooks could have gorgeously uttered: “Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.” I can only imagine what snapshots in the mind, what synapses of experiences, what encounters with language led to this moment in her poem “The Second Sermon on the Warpland” from In the Mecca. (Someday neuroscience will have the ability to data mine our thoughts and track images, lines of poems, and sounds to their original sources. Until then, let’s revel in the mystery.)

I exaggerate my hostility; in all honesty, I try to answer the question with the utmost seriousness — at times I glibly say that it depends on the poem and where it takes me. Recently, I wrote one (currently in the latest issue of New Letters) that took me to a newspaper account I’d read years ago about of of Dr. Kevorkian’s televised suicide-assistance in 1998, which landed him in jail. For years, I was startled by Thomas Youk’s answer to “Any last words?” to which he replied,“I didn’t understand any of it.” In writing my poem, I recalled the despair that came over me back then; to think someone had lived 52 years on earth and had not found any meaning, any consoling wisdom, any understanding, and that this (not his disease) was his reason for wanting to die. That memory led to my thinking about oblivion and bewilderment, and thus, the poem found its exit strategy.

After all of the films and poems, after the songs heard and the hearts broken, after the long hours arguing some philosophic belief, after walking the narrow streets of some ancient city, after the hurts and groundswell of grace and love-making, we achieve a naturalness of seeing that is uniquely ours, that emerges into some statement of who we are, some song of ourselves. How difficult it is to explain that succinctly and simply — for it is neither. In the end, in answer to the question, we can only point to the poems and stories themselves.

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Falling in Love Again

by David Daniel

I didn’t think I was the reunion type, but I went to the 20th reunion of the Oakland High School class of 1978 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee anyhow. Other than the poet now known as H.L. Hix, I had only been in casual touch with a few friends over all that time —and Harvey wasn’t coming—so I walked in vaguely nauseated, as I tend to walk into any large group of people, or any small group of people, when there’s no one to hold my hand. Right away, I ran into a former long-time girlfriend and another mutual, great old friend, and rather than launching into old stories, we just started telling jokes, and laughing our heads off. Even though we hadn’t spoken to one another since we left for college, we were falling back in love with that crazy, breathless thrill; that let’s-just-keep-talking-all-night-while-the-rest-of-the-sleepover-falls-asleep feeling that I couldn’t have consciously conjured. And I realized that the love that I had once had for them was not just childish stuff, as I had assumed , but that it was deep, intimate, and abiding across vast distances of time and circumstance. In fact, recognizing myself in them—a little gesture, a phrase, a certain spice in the flavor of the wit—I understood that I was partly composed of them, made from their love. It was startling, and it was one of the most moving moments of my life, and we haven’t exchanged another word since.

When I was in grad school, reading contemporary poetry for the first time—tons of it—I fell in love with Robert Hass’s Praise. On my front porch in Baltimore, I read it over and over, weeping, laughing, astonished by its life, the intimacy I felt. I read from it to every single person I knew for the entire heady six months. And then I met Jack Gilbert. Then Jean Valentine. Then Larry Levis. Then Eduardo Galeano, Juan Rulfo, Virginia Woolf, Primo Levi…a string of intense affairs that I thought would never end. But, the truth is, as I became a professional, so to speak—an editor and teacher—I was reading so much and quickly that it became more like making Facebook friends than falling in love. And while certain books and poems and plays stayed with me, many of them didn’t.

Not long after my first book came out, I decided to teach Praise, which I hadn’t read or thought much about for a decade. Because I’m lazy, I didn’t even re-read it before I walked into the class, and as I began to read “Meditation at Lagunitas” aloud, I started to cry, a little a first, but soon I could barely go on. It was probably the worst class ever because, while the students were accustomed to me choking up when the subject of my well-known, unrequited love for Prince came up, this was different, and likely unsettling. But I didn’t really care. As I babbled on saying god knows what about the poems, I was really thinking: I love you, Robert Hass, love you, love you, love you deep in my heart, and I always have. I was also thinking: Holy Shit, I stole this entire book—because line after line echoed through lines of my own poems, lines I thought I made up.

Sometimes I worry that in our quest for technical mastery or teaching prowess or sheer volume of knowledge, we don’t take the time, when the right one comes along, to fall headlong, weak-kneed, to-hell-with-it in love with our books—to get to know them so well that we feel we know their souls and our own more deeply because of them. Now when I look at my poems, I see subtle and not-so-subtle traces of those true loves everywhere—just as, when I take the time to pay attention, I feel my real-life dear friends and loves subtly and not so subtly in my heart. I believe all our rare and beautiful loves abide, woven into the very stuff of us, and I hope for all of us that with books, when we sense that spark, we can, in the madness of getting and giving, slow down and linger long enough so there’s a chance to be lucky in love again and again.

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Babies and Weather

by Alice Mattison

Novelists complain that no sooner do they turn their backs than their characters run off and do things on their own that the writer never even thought of, much less approved of (but which, they add, chuckling with fake dismay, often turn out to be the best things in the book). True, I guess, but as a novelist I’ve more often had to deal with characters who can’t seem to do the simplest things on their own. Much that takes care of itself in life, without fuss, requires laborious planning and tracking in a book. Babies, for example. Maybe you start a novel knowing two things about your story: the lovers will conceive their child on a moonlit night on the beach, and later they’ll drive to the hospital for the birth in a blizzard. Fine. Your book is set in Massachusetts, so you take your characters to Cape Cod for a vacation, bring them onto the beach one warm August night, and after a midnight swim, presto—a kiss, a sheltered spot behind a dune—pregnancy.

Wait a minute. Nine months after August is May. No blizzards in May. Even if you move the lovemaking to July (though you had other plans for your characters in July) a blizzard in April is unlikely. There could be a blizzard in March—but a midnight swim in June? The water’s too cold.

After running into that kind of trouble with a few novels, I made up my mind to write one in which virtually no time passed. I ended up writing about two separate weeks, fourteen years apart, in a woman’s life. The fourteen years didn’t give me trouble—I knew what had changed for her, what hadn’t. But being her constant companion, minute by minute, for a week at a time, turned out to be a chore. She didn’t eat meals on her own—I had to provide them! I had to remember if she’d had lunch, and supply her with at least a snack. I even had to send her to take showers and put her to bed at night. If you follow someone hour by hour for a week, you can’t just say, “Two days later . . .” Significant things happened to her every day—I needed every day. I just didn’t need meals and bedtimes every day, but I was stuck with them. Since my character’s purse had been stolen at the start of the book and she had almost no money, it wasn’t even clear what she was going to eat when she did eat—so I not only had to remind her it was mealtime, but figure out how a meal could be secured. The woman was helpless.

I thought I’d learned my lesson with that book, so I decided the next one would follow my characters through their entire adult lives—sixty-eight years, as it turned out. Wonderful. They had meals on their own, they used the bathroom without prompting, they took showers and put on clothes appropriate to the season when I wasn’t around. I could zoom out and zoom back in when something exciting happened: “Two years passed before he saw her again. Then, one windy afternoon as he bicycled near the river. . .” I’d write whatever scene I wanted and zoom out again.

The only trouble was that in sixty-eight years quite a few babies were born—so there I was again, finding appropriate weather for babies to be born in, depending on when they’d been conceived. Also, the babies turned into children and the children went to school—and when I’d zoom in because some adult’s happiness was at stake, some little kid would be hanging around, and I had to know whether she could read, whether she might try out for a team in high school—or was she only in eighth grade? Remember, please, that school grade depends not just on when the child was born but what month it is right now, since children are promoted halfway through the calendar year. After the book was done I kept finding scraps of paper listing the names, ages, and school grades in different seasons of different years for a set of imaginary children, who would have proceeded through school without such calculations if only they’d been real people.

The Baby-and-Weather problem occurs in writing fiction when something that takes a predictable amount of time has to jibe with something else, something that may be a hundred or more pages away. It’s a nuisance, but only one of many nuisances in this generally ill-paid, stressful, and thankless profession. Why do we go on doing it, then? It’s our own fault. Nobody was ever forced to write a novel. We choose this occupation. I’ve chosen it again and again, when nothing else satisfied the wish to make up and tell a story, to live for a long time with people nobody knows but me, to find words for their good times and trouble.

When my sister and I were little, we played with paper dolls, dressing them and then changing their clothes, cutting out dresses from a paper-doll book or the Sears Roebuck catalogue. I don’t think we made up stories using the dolls. It took too long to get them dressed—that was the game. We got them ready for a story. But we did talk—in low voices, interrupting each other, not listening much. A fizzy hum of possibility, the mental equivalent of a cell phone set on vibrate, carried us along as we handled and described the dolls, choosing yet another hat and coat, and another. I guess I write novels for the hum.


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