Draft No. 4

Dusting off. Moving forward.

November 9, 2016 | 11 Comments

When Chris Offutt was ten, growing up in an Appalachian backwater, he asked a librarian for a book on baseball. She gave him J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. It was a revelation, such writing that was “personal, told in an intimate way, about family issues of supreme importance.” He never read another book for juveniles, and he became a writer of short stories, novels, screenplays, and multiple memoirs. Back in May, I read Offutt’s My Father, the Pornographer: A Memoir, one of the more interesting books I’ve read this year.

This powerful story concerns his brilliant, driven, awful father. In part, My Father, the Pornographer is a portrait of Appalachian Kentucky. Offutt’s town had a toxic charcoal briquette factory and that was it. He was the smartest kid in school, sometimes beaten by teachers who resented him for that and for his quiet defiance of authority. His Kentuckian father, from a farm in the western part of the state, had picked the tiny company town in eastern Kentucky to be a big-fish insurance salesman. He was that, and increasingly a terrifying tyrant to his children. Especially when he quit his lucrative office work to become a freelance writer. Offutt, as his oldest child, got the job when he died of archiving the man’s ton published and unpublished science fiction, fantasy, and pornography. Literally a ton of novels, stories, and comics. Offutt pere could write a novel in three to seven days.

His secret, parallel 50-year project was the creation of extremely sadistic comics. Sometimes he wrote them for patrons, wealthy collectors. Other than a brief description of these comics, the memoir is not unduly graphic. But it’s sad and disquieting. What Offutt endured from his father and this environment turned him toward literature. But he grew up with the permanent wound of feeling unloved. Part of the book’s brilliance, saturating its deft syntax, content, and structure, is that it escapes self-pity while making you feel for Chris’s experiences and what seems his ongoing burden.

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The case for Hillary

November 2, 2016 | 10 Comments

Puzzled by her aversion toward Hillary Clinton, former Bernie Sanders supporter Sonya Huber accepted an offer to quickly write a short book exploring why. In The Evolution of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Huber assesses fair and unfair criticisms of Clinton. I found Huber’s look from the Left balanced and interesting—and, more to the point, useful. With her historical overview, Huber clarified my own mixed feelings as a moderate progressive. The bottom line, however, is that we’ll both be voting for Clinton. I’ll be doing so with more confidence after Huber’s inquiry, which convinces me that the false narratives that dog Clinton do cloud our view of her.

I’d forgotten so much that Huber reminds me of, including Bill Clinton’s conservatism as a “New Democrat.” In the wake of Ronald Reagan and under pressure from a new breed of militant conservatives, Bill sought to out-Republican the Right. As Huber puts it,

“This was Jimmy Carter with brass knuckles, a party that had to get tough to rescue the southern white male vote by promising to enforce a series of belt-tightening bootstrap policies that would end up glorifying the Republican ideals of free trade agreements, destroying welfare, and enacting an era of mass incarceration in the name of a War on Drugs.”

Bill appointed Hillary as chair of the Task Force on National Healthcare Reform, making her the public face of the effort. This was an unusual move, and Huber’s research indicates that Hillary was far from the plan’s architect though she was demonized by the GOP and left holding the bag for the initiative’s failure: “It’s amazing, really—the evil power that this narrative has given her. It wasn’t profit interests that derailed healthcare reform: it was a woman.”

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She wore white

October 26, 2016 | 15 Comments

By the final presidential debate, who could deny that our nation’s howling retrograde armies have assumed the bodily form of Donald Trump? In the face of ignorance and evil, Hillary Clinton acquitted herself almost flawlessly and looked fantastic. Her white suit alluded to the long struggle by women in America for equal treatment—and thereby stood, as well, for justice for all. In contrast, Trump was his usual vile self, and the Women of the House of Trump dressed in black—Melania capping her ensemble with a “pussy-bow” blouse, as if to refer dismissively, from the summit of haute couture, to her husband’s vulgarities. Symbolism has never had it so good.

There’s been so much inspired ink on what Trump’s surprising level of support means. The dominant narrative, of course, is that it springs from economic pain among America’s middle- and lower-middle classes. But clearly in this backlash there’s also a strong racist, sexist, misogynistic, nativist, homophobic component. Trump’s sole gift as a leader may be, in stirring the embers of fear and pain, to kindle rage. As a progressive who fervently believes in American exceptionalism, I’m worried. A proven cure for angry, unexamined feelings is education, which leads to consideration of others’ viewpoints and to self-inquiry, but that’s a slow process.

As for Clinton’s steely pragmatic nature, similar doubts might’ve been sounded about Abraham Lincoln, who worked as a tough, amoral lawyer. He represented a railroad. Who could have predicted his rise to personal and political greatness? That is, besides pretty much the entire South?

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The noble Bob

October 19, 2016 | 12 Comments

Bob Dylan’s work is like barbeque or Mexican food—some is better, but it’s all good. It was news last week that he got the Nobel Prize for literature. It hasn’t been news for a long time that he’s a genius. But then, genius is simply brilliance plus output. Then again, he’s a genius among geniuses. I count it as my good fortune to have lived during a time when an artist on the order of William Shakespeare has been belting it out for us.

He’s written timeless gems like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin” and surreal masterpieces like “Desolation Row” and “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” and born-again testaments like “Slow Train Coming” and “You’ve Got to Serve Somebody,” along with too many love songs to count. He created one of my favorite sub-genres: his own spooky Mojave stories like “All Along the Watchtower,” “Senior (Tales of Yankee Power),” and “Man in the Long Dark Coat.” And, always, shooting through everything, the blues.

I try not to be amazed at those who don’t respond to his work—there’s no accounting for taste: anyone who attends church learns that when some hate the minister you love. And some need art, even his, more than others do. But there’s something for anyone in Dylan’s phases. You can start anywhere, and work forward and back. But I might suggest Blood on the Tracks. If you demand his prettiest voice, there’s Dylan’s wonderful Nashville Skyline, recorded with Johnny Cash. Critics are fun, though uneven as guides except for maybe Greil Marcus. Most of them utterly missed the beauty, power, and risk of Dylan’s overtly Christian period.

Dylan reportedly still hasn’t acknowledged his Nobel Prize or told the academy he plans to attend the awards ceremony. He’s ornery. And busy, so very busy. Currently on tour as a singer, he’s also a painter who’s recently been featured for his work as a sculptor. According to a September article in the New York Times, he built the iron archway for a $1.3 billion resort casino at Maryland’s MGM National Harbor. As he told us in 1964’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “It’s just a shadow you’re seeing that he’s chasing.”

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Politics & our narrative impulse

October 11, 2016 | 11 Comments

Many writers possess a visceral antipathy to politics, or at least to politicians. This may be because of politicians’ storied lack of integrity. But we know the constraints they face in our republic of laws, of soaring ideals, and of humanly selfish interests. Still, we’ve seen recently how shockingly low some can go. Yet what a politician does at her or his best is the same magic trick to which writers aspire. Which is channeling and kindling, through all America’s murk, our core truths flickering in overused platitudes. Those verities reflect historic and still-evolutionary ideals that are still evolving. Yes, America is exceptional. But our past is no guarantee. Hence our latent respect for our politicians who try to affirm and foster the best in us. Or in whom we intuit that, under the right circumstances, they will try.

Even though on that score this presidential contest should be a boring no-brainer, writers have nonetheless ascended right and left—well, mostly on left but some on the right—to great work. Roger Cohen, a former foreign correspondent who writes columns for the New York Times, wrote a stunning news feature back in early September, “We Need ‘Somebody Spectacular’: Views From Trump Country,” subtitled “Appalachian voters know perfectly well the candidate is dangerous. But they’re desperate for change.”

The author of a memoir about his mother, The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family, Cohen went into the rural mid-South and Appalachia to interview and portray Trump supporters. He talked to a woman in Paris, Kentucky—a burg in horse country, right across the river from Ohio, that you drive through to Lexington—who voted for Obama in 2008 but now supports Trump. She operates a boot shop. Cohen’s interview with her, as with others in these travels, was sensitive and searching.

Although now a columnist, here Cohen was functioning as an “objective” journalist. Which usually means in practice that the writer isn’t free to state his thesis as his own but has explored it, tested it. And here, the notion seems simply an honest question. To ask, on our behalf, How can decent, tax-paying, idealistic Americans vote for a man who is anything but? These folks may trend conservative, but they try to be good—they aspire to macro ethics—yet many have supported Trump, the ultimate micro ethicist.

In the exquisite calculus of mainstream objective journalism, Cohen’s writing so freely and drawing so clearly on his research crossed a line, however mildly he furrowed his brow. Lest readers not recognize his article as containing such cautious, informed opinion—and bending over backwards to be fair—editors met their objective format’s standard with an “Opinion” label.

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Writing loss: God’s in the details

October 5, 2016 | 8 Comments

Writing about a dog’s death, or even a dead dog, risks sentimentality. I mean, the writer seeking from readers emotion he hasn’t earned. I must like the animal sub-genre of dog deaths, though, because I’ve read so many. And, as my previous posts have explained, I’ve just written an essay concerning my late Labrador, Tess. I realized, writing it, that I should take the advice I’ve given so many freshmen students trying to write about a recently dead grandparent.

“Show readers, in scenes and details, your grandparent,” I’ve told them. “You must convey in specifics what you lost to show the world what it lost.” The “world” is grand shorthand for unknown readers, of course. Which in those cases actually is always me and a few peers. We’re the kindly stand-ins for those uncaring readers whose armor the writer must crack. It’s best to think of readers as friends, actually.

But to have a chance of moving readers emotionally, the writer must recreate a singular, not a generic, beloved. The writer must not just summarize what s/he experienced but, as a rule, be specific regarding the remembered gifts of time, talk, and events. This can be hard with a dog, or at least with its middle years, just as with a person. We remember beginnings and endings. I’ve stolen this notion from Jill Christman’s spooky little essay, with an aside on that phenomenon, “Family Portrait: in Third Person,” in superstition [review].

Maybe we remember and can depict the start and end of something because we return so easily to those emotional states. As Virginia Woolf says in “A Sketch of the Past,” strong emotion must leave a trace. But long middle acts blur in literature as in life. Many situations, and therefore emotions, were in play. You remember the day you got the puppy, remember who you were. There’s a snapshot in your mind. In my case, of a bearded newspaper reporter with hair like Elvis, dashing hectically—and heroically, he thought—around at age 26,. And you remember the end of something, when time briefly stopped. In my case, as a book publisher and father of two, age 39 and bald, with a creaky back.

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Feeling your way

September 28, 2016 | 10 Comments

I love it when I can write fast, with excitement. Inspired, you might say. But usually I plod, working and reworking sentences as I go. This is “Writing’s dangerous method,” according to a theorist I admire, Peter Elbow. That’s his term for the folly of trying to invoke at the same time the mind that creates along with its critical editor cousin. Hence my pleasure when a grouchier guru, Verlyn Klinkenborg, flatly declared that concept rubbish. There’s no difference, he said in A Few Short Sentences About Writing, between the critical and creative minds. I wrote about his book here, including “Writing by the think-system.”

I seem to need to edit as I go because I enter the work that way. I learn what it’s about and find connections I hadn’t imagined. Now, sometimes I’ve ended up cutting, in revision, what I’ve so carefully edited and polished. In my defense, I have read many writers say they work this way.

My fast rate, when I know where I’m going, is a page an hour. But last week I wrote a page on my late dog Tess’s old leash and it took me three hours. I couldn’t have written it fast. Or so I feel. Well, maybe faster, but I’m unsure if it would have gotten me deeper into the story. And I feel it did. Yesterday I finished the first draft of “Tess,” which turned out to be 24 pages.

Much may be cut, moved, edited, revised. But for now, it wasn’t just slapped in but written as well as I could. So I don’t do vomit drafts. Sure, I write “shitty first drafts,” per Anne Lamott—but not intentionally. And Mr. Elbow may be right that it’s harmful to creativity to try to draft and perfect at the same time. Elbow’s approach to writing as a process with stages has changed the way composition is taught, from elementary school through college. But I’ve heard more famous writers say they strain, as they write, for perfection.

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