metaphor

A story structured in shards

March 8, 2017 | 22 Comments

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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A dying writer’s memoir

August 10, 2016 | 14 Comments

Paul Kalanithi had his life mapped out: 20 years of medical practice followed by 20 years of writing. Amidst that span, marriage and children, vacations and celebrations—plenty of time to repair the strains in his marriage caused by his tenacious pursuit of medical excellence. Found riddled with cancer late in his surgical residency, already a gifted neurosurgeon at age 36, he soldiered on for a time. While terminal himself, he operated on others.

Finally lacking the endurance for surgery, he concentrated on writing When Breath Becomes Air. In just under two years left to him, he wrote about his cancer treatments, about medicine as a high calling, about his past and ongoing life. He also became a father, nine months before he died, at age 37.

His cancer responded well to initial treatment, but returned. He explains his reaction to seeing those scans, which told him his end was coming fast:

“I was neither angry nor scared. It simply was. It was a fact about the world, like the distance from the sun to the earth. I drove home and told Lucy.”

Few have been more prepared than Kalanithi to make sense of mortality. Growing up in Arizona, the son of a cardiologist, he’d planned to be a writer partly because of how hard his father worked. The price of medicine seemed too high. But then he became a neurosurgeon.

Weaving stories of surgeries he performed or treatments he witnessed with his own experiences as a patient Kalinithi reveals himself not only as intelligent but as deeply empathetic to patients. ­Like the rest of us, as a patient himself he had fine doctors and fair—and one awful resident who almost killed him, it seemed as much from ego and lack of empathy as from inadequate experience. When Breath Becomes Air might be assigned in medical schools to address what seems a vexing nub: always building technical expertise while blending that skill with one’s humanity

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The joy of style

June 29, 2016 | 5 Comments

If free indirect style (close third-person narration) epitomizes the novel’s history, according to James Wood in How Fiction Works, so does what he calls “the rise of detail.” Details allow us to “enter a character” but refuse to explain him, giving readers the pleasure of mystery and of co-creation. Wood credits French novelist Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880) with uniting details, stylishness, and close third-person narration to launch the realist novel that has persisted. The modern novel “all begins with him,” says Wood.

Style begins with what the writer notices—or notices on behalf of her characters—and uses for calculated effect. And yet, in its particulars and overall effect, narrative art retains mystery. A pleasure of How Fiction Works for me was Wood’s joyous riff on one of Virginia Woolf’s lines from The Waves:

“The day waves yellow with all its crops.”

“I am consumed by this sentence,” Wood admits, “partly because I cannot explain why it moves me so much.” While Woolf’s diction and syntax are simple here, her brilliance resides in having the day wave instead of the crops, he says, and “the effect is suddenly that the day itself, the very fabric and temporality of the day, seems saturated in yellow.” But how can a day wave yellow? That’s the thing, Wood notes: yellowness has taken over even our verbs, has “conquered our agency.”

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Poetry & prose

June 15, 2016 | 12 Comments

I wonder how many prose writers unconsciously draw on the rhythms and content of the poems they read as children? The longer I write, mostly nonfiction in my case, the more poetry I read. Poetry’s distilled wisdom feeds me as a person, and its precise diction and careful phrasing nurture me as a writer. Poetry grows your literary intelligence and seeps into your sentences.

Formalist poetry—which employs meter and sometimes rhyme schemes—enchanted me during my nine years as book publicist and then marketing manager for Ohio University Press/Swallow Press. David Sanders was the director then, a poet and a publisher of poets who launched the Press’s esteemed Hollis Summers Poetry Prize. We didn’t publish only formalists, and poetry collections of any kind constituted a handful of our annual publications, but they were among our most interesting. I moved on, and later so did Sanders, but our old Press, now led by Gillian Berchowitz, has just published a new collection of his poetry, Compass and Clock. In it, Sanders mixes free-verse poems with those that employ formal elements. The book was elegantly designed in-house by Beth Pratt, using Jeff Kallet’s collage “Sunrise” as the cover’s striking image.

I’ve read Compass and Clock twice. There’s the strangeness of true art in odd little poems like “He Was Once,” about a man who drives a widow to a mountaintop to watch an incoming storm.

Along with his witty wordplay and his poetry showcasing, as poetry does, the power of metaphor, I was struck by Sanders’s spare, precise descriptions. The “thin curtains” in one poem seemed so perfect, telling, and sad.

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Mystery & manners at the brink

March 16, 2016 | 4 Comments

Standing in my father’s library as a teenager, I opened Dorothea Brande’s slender 1934 book Becoming a Writer. I read:

“Do you believe in God? Under what aspect (Hardy’s “President of the Immortals,” Wells’s “emerging God”?)

“Do you believe in free will or are you a determinist? . . .

“Do you think the comment “It will all be the same in a hundred years” is profound, shallow, true or false?”

Suffice it to say, these and other questions in her quaint quiz stumped me as a kid. And not just because her examples were, even then, dated. But Brande (1893–1948) gave me the sense that knowing or groping toward Truth is pretty much writers’ job description. This starts as personal truth, offered to all to test against theirs. Trying to figure out bedrock truths appears to be simply a human task.

A friend, recalling my rookie reporter apprenticeship under his wing 36 years ago, called bullshit on such assertions.

“It reminds me of several conversations we had, with you tortured by the Meaning of Life and humanity’s Big Questions and my saying why should it have meaning? I was more concerned about whether the fish were biting or whether there was good barbecue or beer somewhere.”

Okay, I’ve got an itch, hard to scratch. Yet I know my mentor’s method is to exaggerate his way to truth. I’m a lot older now, and, while still puzzled, do finally know one or two things for sure.

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Making old stories new

February 10, 2016 | 9 Comments

Like everyone, I’m trying to distill meaning from the deluge of our presidential campaign season. What stories about themselves—and America—are candidates selling? How will the competing truths of those left standing square with mine? What vision will voters pick for the title of Overarching Narrative?

My reflexive analysis occurs while I’m completing an essay about how memory, imagination, and story intertwine. The surprising byproduct of my work has been a radical rethinking of some of my long-unexamined inner narratives. This has been positive personally, and powerful for my essay. Meanwhile, as events, stories, and spin erupt on the national stage, I can only hope our republic’s story emerges from its test similarly affirmed.

Politically, I sway between brilliant writers’ truths. For a day, I fell under the spell of Charles M. Blow’s deft essay in the New York Times, “White America’s ‘Broken Heart.’” Blow lauds Bill Clinton’s “clear rhetorical framing” of the current narrative as being about white America’s anxiety in sharing a new demographic future. Then I leapt to an even more subtle accounting, R.R. Reno’s New York Times essay “How Both Parties Lost the White Middle Class.” Reno calls the racial theory a “huge distraction” from the real issue: those flourishing in the global economy and those foundering.

Then there are simply hateful candidates, such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz with their rage, egotism, and guile. How mistaken their notions of human history and human nature; how meager their own ideas. In colonial times, invitations to meet with pistols at twenty paces greeted less annoying fools

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