audience

Reading as writers

April 6, 2016 | 17 Comments

Practice, said the maestro

November 20, 2015 | 6 Comments

The classical pianist Seymour Bernstein says he didn’t feel comfortable on stage for most of his career. Terror and horror swept him, he fought blocks, felt inadequate. He increased his practicing from four hours daily to eight. This “integrated” him as a person and artist. As a result, at last he felt fine on stage, at age 50. He secretly arranged a farewell concert. Held at the 92nd Street YMCA in New York City, his last concert was in 1969. It was hailed as a triumph, and he exited public performance for good. He kept playing, practicing, and teaching. He simply quit the strain of the stage, and poured himself into his students.

This is the paradox and the man, now in his late eighties, explored in actor Ethan Hawke’s new documentary, Seymour: An Introduction. I streamed it on Netflix. In taking the title of a J.D. Salinger novella, Hawke alludes to Salinger’s decision to stop publishing, though Salinger lived on for fifty years as a recluse in a fenced compound. Bernstein has lived quietly but socially for 57 years in the same one-room apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan, sleeping in a hideaway bed. Like Salinger, Bernstein separates the practice of art from its public airing. There’s a lesson here for writers, loathe as most are to view any composition as mere practice or for its own sake. Publication is the thing!

Hawke, suffering a five-year bout of stage fright and a general artistic malaise, met Bernstein at a dinner party and adopted him as a mentor. “I have been struggling recently with finding why it is that I do what I do,” Hawke explains. “I knew that the superficial things—material wealth, the world thinking you are a big-shot—I kind of knew that that was phony. That that was inauthentic to build a career on. But I didn’t know what was authentic.”

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Wrong word! 

August 19, 2015 | 12 Comments

I’ll never forget the day in high school when my English teacher accused me of plagiarism because of a word. I was 16 or 17 and had shown off by using “belies” in an essay. Since I was disrespectful to him, and acted like a simpering idiot in his class, he had good reason to suspect and dislike me. True to form, I laughed in his face. But that was long before the internet, which has made plagiarism—and catching it—easy. So he couldn’t do much except glare.

I’m sorry Mr. X!

I was just showing off, using a new word I’d learned. Partly I was flattered that he thought I had taken a professional’s work. Wow, though. Really just one word had tipped the balance. Diction does give us away. But I catch plagiarism these days because a student who slams together bald syntax suddenly turns in flowing, clause-laden, prose. Cheaters have the sense to change words they don’t understand.

Teachers’ and writers’ occasional admonitions against thesaurus use have always struck me as odd. They fear a student or rookie is going to use an overblown, polysyllabic word. One he doesn’t understand and that stands out from his mundane diction. I suppose that has happened once or twice. What using the thesaurus does for me, in contrast, is to remind me of old, plain, short words.

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DFW on CNF

November 17, 2014 | 12 Comments

As a teacher and writer of nonfiction, I devoured the late David Foster Wallace’s recently released creative nonfiction syllabus. Salon, which published it, called the document “mind-blowing,” evidently referring to its tough-love language.

In this blueprint for a night class he taught at Pomona College once a week in Spring 2008—so roughly six months before his death, presumably when he was already suffering from deep depression—Wallace prosecutes a rigorous, distilled aesthetic. He builds toward it in his opening “Description of Class,” which notes that “nonfiction” means it corresponds to real affairs but that creative “signifies that some goal(s) other than sheer truthfulness motivates the writer and informs her work.”

This purpose may be “to interest readers, or to instruct them, or to entertain them, to move or persuade, to edify, to redeem, to amuse, to get readers to look more closely at or think more deeply about something that’s worth their attention. . . or some combination(s) of these.’’ He continues, going deeper:

“Creative also suggests that this kind of nonfiction tends to bear traces of its own artificing; the essay’s author usually wants us to see and understand her as the text’s maker. This does not, however, mean that an essayist’s main goal is simply to ‘share’ or ‘express herself’ or whatever feel-good term you might have got taught in high school. In the grown-up world, creative nonfiction is not expressive writing but rather communicative writing. And an axiom of communicative writing is that the reader does not automatically care about you (the writer), nor does she find you fascinating as a person, nor does she feel a deep natural interest in the same things that interest you. The reader, in fact, will feel about you, your subject, and your essay only what your written words themselves induce her to feel.”

The apparent acid that Salon responded to in “whatever feel-good term you might have got taught in high school,” I read, instead, as an attempt to emphasize his own hard-won understanding. It’s not just that along the line Wallace got his ears bored off by some undergraduates’ essays, though there’s a whiff of that. In the recent Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace and Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing, Wallace discusses how in college he “snapped to it perhaps late,” thanks to his teachers, that the world “doesn’t care about you. You want it to? Make it. Make it care.”

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Book event lessons

October 31, 2014 | 12 Comments

At three book festivals this year—the Ohioana Book Conference in Columbus, the Kerrytown Book Festival in Ann Arbor, and most recently Books by the Banks in Cincinnati—I learned an author needs an elevator pitch.

I already knew this. I had an elevator speech, which I’d used on editors and agents. But the learning curve applies: competency plunges at first in new circumstances. I hadn’t faced prospective readers as an author. So I screwed up and had to re-learn what I knew. Lessons so basic and obvious that they’re mentioned by anyone with a nodding acquaintance with authorial self-promotion.

You need a few crisp phrases. People will ask you what your book is about. “It’s about the ten years my family and I lived on a sheep farm in Appalachia,” I’d say. Thus I learned that farming isn’t a sure-fire sales pitch. No one knows anymore what you mean by that, if anyone ever did. Farming’s become, at best, exotic. At worst it is associated with abuses like erosion, toxic chemicals, and animal cruelty.

People are confused—too many labels flying around—and their eyes dim as they try to slot you. Hard-fisted agribusinessman, crunchy homesteader, one of Joel Salatin’s better-than-organic grass-based acolytes? Pray tell? No, on second thought, don’t. People wonder what you’re going to inflict on them under this rubric. Are you writing about livestock that really were pets—mooning over them and boring my ears off? Or does this story involve animal deaths—because, forget it, I like warm and fuzzy, not bloody—don’t we have enough trauma to deal with as it is?

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Writing Illness

April 7, 2014 | 16 Comments

Illness is a theme of my “Writing Life Stories” class this semester. The students noticed it, not me. But then, four are nursing majors. In one of our texts, Lee Martin’s collection of memoir essays Such a Life, his father’s traumatic accident that cost him his hands casts a shadow across every line; and Martin explores his own boyhood bout with thyroid illness and his middle-age health crisis, an ordeal of corneal abrasion. Running through another of our main texts, Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth, is her mother’s illness and death from cancer.

Then Thomas Larson visited last week.

He’s got a new book out, The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease (my review and interview), and my students had read its powerful first quarter, which depicts Larson’s first heart attack and its aftermath. They also read his essay “The Woman on the Corner,” about his grandfather’s suffering and death from cancer and their effect on his grandmother. In introducing Larson, I also prepped the class by mentioning his book The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” (reviewed), and I played part of a YouTube performance of “Adagio for Strings” with 5.8 million hits: a concert three days after the 9/11 attacks.

My students really wanted to know how Larson can write so personally about himself, his family, his body. Last year, this was also among the first questions for Lee Martin during his visit. Every non-writer wonders about this, I think. And most memoirists. “No one tells everything,” a writer once told me. But writers tend to view their experiences as material, as something to make art from, whether fiction or nonfiction.

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1st review of my book

March 29, 2014 | 16 Comments

Waiting for my book to arrive, I’ve felt strangely adrift. Although its publication date is May 1, books go on sale on or about April 15. Which is about when I’m hoping for advance reviews in the trade press: Booklist, ForeWord, Kirkus, Library Journal, and the biggest dog in this pack: Publishers Weekly.

Advance notices are important because they’re read by major reviewers, editors, and booksellers. Not to mention by Hollywood producers and directors. (Note to Wes Anderson: My wife would love Meryl Streep to play her; Brian Cranston could certainly do justice to me, though, knowing you, you’ll probably hire Bill Murray.)

But my true hope is simply that by getting advance reviews, Barnes & Noble will stock my book in its stores. It is listed on the B&N website. But the physical book world is still old-fashioned, and a web notice doesn’t mean my book will enter a bricks-and-mortar building.

I campaigned for books for 11 years at Indiana University Press and Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, where I ascended to marketing manager and also helped acquire books and reprints, including the classic farm memoir RFD, by Charles Allen Smart, The Sheep Book, by Ron Parker, and All Flesh is Grass, by Gene Logsdon. It still surprises me how few authors (and smaller presses) know how the game is played.

Here are the steps . . .

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