essay-narrative

Writing loss: God’s in the details

October 5, 2016 | 8 Comments

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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Learning to sit

September 21, 2016 | 14 Comments

In the fine short book Ron Carlson Writes a Story (reviewed), the writer takes us with him as he writes a short story in real time at his desk. There are crises and desires to flee. Also steady work and unforeseen breakthroughs. I’ve thought of Carlson as I’ve worked on my new essay, “Tess,” about my late, beloved Labrador. As I explained in my last post on this essay, the story’s meaning is elusive at this point. Discovering that meaning is what makes writing challenging but addictive to me.

The essay’s structure is roughed out, though subject to change. Don’t you almost have to have some structure in mind to start something? Experience gives you a better notion, perhaps, but the actual form and content shift in construction. I have the start drafted and most of the middle and end of “Tess.” I’ve been kind of stuck in finishing the middle’s first draft. I’ve stared at my jotted plan for the last part of this part, a few words, and haven’t felt it. But I’m there to write, so I jump to the essay’s start or its ending to fiddle and add. I know if I show up every day, my subconscious is going to cry uncle and help. Here’s another snippet of “Tess”—like last week’s excerpt it’s from the essay’s final section, a part of it that’s in second-person address:

“Before ice covers the Olentangy River, just a few blocks from your building, you’ll take Tess every afternoon to swim and fetch her Frisbee. The winter will be long for a Florida boy, but you’ll be cozy reading inside with Tess lying nearby on the thin carpet. You aren’t just a broke graduate student, his thick hair starting to thin, living in a clean but threadbare apartment: you’re a guy with a great young dog who loves and needs you. Once she growls at you when you take away her juicy steakbone, and you throw her down, yell into her face, teaching her humans have such rights. Once you blow air at her with your new hair dryer, and when you’re at school she chews it to pieces, teaching you dogs have rights too.”

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In dogged pursuit

September 14, 2016 | 17 Comments

“Endings are elusive, middles are nowhere to be found, but worst of all is to begin, to begin, to begin!”—Donald Barthelme

Lately I’ve been writing essays. I’m in the midst of one right now about Tess, the dog I had when I met Kathy, my wife. Tess took me from youth to middle age. It’s hard to say at this point what the essay is about. Love, I suppose. It’s not all about Tess. But as I feel my way through the story, Tess is the frame for what appears. She’s been dead now 22 years, so I’m dealing with the odd mystery of the past.

Which is interesting, and scary—my initial structure helps but provides scant guidance for what should or must or might appear. Every sentence feels like a gift, every paragraph a golden miracle. I could be making a mess. Well, it’s practice. And sometimes it takes my shelving an essay for two years to see how to salvage it.

Having written other essays, though, I know I better try to enjoy this process. Because essays come and go. Their comparatively quick turnaround is great. So is getting a few published here and there. What’s been hard, sometimes, is starting a new one. No basking in a book draft’s long narrative arc—it’s time for the next one. Already. Again.

“Tess” is structured, so far, in reverse chronological order, starting with her death. Thankfully, I’m past the opening and struggling through the middle, with part of the end drafted. Barthelme’s quote above seems to nail the issue of beginning: starting is hard because you’re starting. Nothing’s yet there. Such work is taxing; such labor is effortful.

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My essay in Assay

September 1, 2016 | 8 Comments

The fall 2016 issue of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, online today, includes my essay “Classics lite: Teaching the Shorter, Magazine Versions of James Baldwin’s ‘Notes of a Native Son’ and Jonathan Lethem’s ‘The Beards.’ ” These are beloved essays. And as my title indicates, they exist in longer and shorter versions—in fact, the periodical versions are technically the “originals,” since they were excerpted to advance the writers’ subsequently published collections.

But since the book versions are canonical, condensations may seem heretical. Especially since the famous book version of “Notes of a Native Son” also deals with America’s great topic, race, and tampering with it, in particular, seems at first blush a sacrilege.

In a seminar in graduate school, I studied these two classic American essays—their longer, book versions—together. Both concern the loss of a parent, but they take very different approaches. Hence they’re a nice pair for writers to study and for teachers to teach.

Baldwin’s, about the demise of his preacher father when Baldwin was 19, unrolls in a warm, formally structured, and syntactically orotund procession. Lethem’s essay employs a modernistically fractured and conversational approach to portraying his devastation in the wake of his mother’s death, when he was 14.

Lethem’s essay shows his loss structurally: “The Beards” is organized according to his mother’s state of health or length of time dead—but the segments aren’t in chronological order. This implicitly helps show Lethem’s grief as transforming and ongoing. He steadily but subtly plants this notion until he shatters the cool, elliptical façade of “The Beards” with a few heartfelt statements.

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Annie Dillard surfaces

May 3, 2016 | 23 Comments

New Yorker editor David Remnick has scored a coup, or at least a scoop, by interviewing the reclusive Annie Dillard for the magazine’s radio show. The occasion is Dillard’s retrospective essay collection, The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New. The book has occasioned a flurry of speculation in the literary world about Dillard’s retirement, notably a strained essay, “Where Have You Gone, Annie Dillard?”, by William Deresiewicz in The Atlantic positing that Dillard somehow boxed herself in with her mystical interests.

So the key question Remnick asked was why did she retire from writing, some years ago now, to spend her days painting? She wrote by hand, she told him, and one day couldn’t remember where she was going with the start of a promising sentence she’d left the previous day on her legal pad. Short-term memory loss, in short, is her explanation for her retirement from writing. Dillard, now 71, does not sound, in this rare interview, to be a victim of Alzheimer’s, as has been rumored. She sounds sharp as a double-headed tack.

Of her books, she prizes most my favorite: For the Time Being (reviewed). She marvels, “Writers adore that book,” but then she’s always been a writer’s writer. In it, she said, she bites off a big chunk of her preoccupation with human existence. All I can say is it’s in my pantheon as one of the greatest books I’ve ever read. Remnick questions her about her spooky essay “Total Eclipse,” which she reads from and analyzes. She explains her goal was to invoke the eclipse in readers. But the challenge was keeping them reading—dense description of the long event and Dillard’s reaction would lose them, she felt. Hence her decision to keep returning to the eclipse, repeating, each time at a deeper level, her experience of the power and primeval horror of the light’s loss.

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Reading as writers

April 6, 2016 | 17 Comments

Gay Talese’s essay in the current New Yorker, “The Voyeur’s Motel,” makes me wish I were still teaching journalism. It’s about a man who bought a motel near Denver in the late 1960s so he could spy on guests, which he did for decades. It’s creepy and horrifying, his behavior and Talese’s tale, but you can’t look away. Or stop thinking about the man and what he saw with his wife, including their aim, sex, but also lots of disquieting behavior, including a murder. Talese’s pleasurable-but-ethically-problematic account is over 30 pages. Yet students would gobble it up like candy.

Reading this compelling narrative essay coincided with my recent brooding about reading. This involves mine and the reading I assign to students. Most people seem to read largely to seek pleasure. Do we grow by tackling more difficult work? Probably—but so what, for casual readers? For students, must I stick with something that’s obviously genius but to them not very enjoyable? Since I read largely as a writer now, I’ve agreed to the harder path, but most students haven’t.

After my share of classroom disasters, I’ve learned to meet students where they are. Which means assigning books, essays, and stories that they’ll love. I also must admire them, of course. Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life is genius and so is Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. Which do you think a class of eighteen year olds would actually read? Most undergraduates, even many writing majors, cannot yet appreciate certain works.

For one thing, they aren’t yet old enough to identify readily with older folks and certain situations. For another, they lack endurance, especially for dense exposition. Teaching senior citizens this year in continuing studies classes, I expected a big difference. Indeed they could identify with a wider range of ages. But they were beginning writers, too, and they balked at demanding nonfiction.

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