Shining prose, timeless insights

March 2, 2016 | 2 Comments

The power to charm

January 20, 2016 | 4 Comments

Anthony Lane’s irreverent reviews for the New Yorker of Hollywood blockbusters make me laugh. He’s fun, quite cheeky. But I’m always pleased when he casts his wit and his elegant sentences toward what he admires. Such as his recent appreciation of Todd Haynes’s film Carol about forbidden love between two women in 1952 America. Less than 20 years after that repressed era, David Bowie, with his androgyny and his openness about his bisexuality, helped usher the shift in consciousness that has culminated in America in marriage equality. Among last week’s many tributes to Bowie, surely there wasn’t a finer one than Lane’s for his fellow Brit, “David Bowie in the Movies.”

For a brief essay, Lane’s reflects deep processing and manages a thrilling range of considerations. Like Bowie’s work, Lane’s delights in its own performance but hits you with unexpected emotional force.

If genius is brilliance plus output, Bowie certainly qualifies as one. Even among superstar performers, that rarified group, he seemed one in a million. In an ultimately soaring appreciation, Lane takes a measured view of Bowie’s film work. Most of Bowie’s roles were in minor films, Lane says. He doesn’t crown Bowie as a great movie actor, while noting his performance instinct and impact.

Art is made of emotion and it’s about emotion. Lane’s essay showcases perhaps the highest role of the critic, to be emotionally responsive in turn to art.

[Read More]

Honesty in memoir, ver. 4.0

January 13, 2016 | 16 Comments

What’s the difference, in reading experience, between fiction and nonfiction? Between reading a novel and reading a memoir?

I thought about this during the past week as I reread one of my all-time favorite memoirs, Fierce Attachments. In it, Vivian Gornick braids her story, alternating between the writer’s childhood past, her more recent, adult past, and her relationship with her mother as they talk or walk around New York. Gornick both discusses and dramatizes these realms. She is a master of the reflective persona and also of bringing her experience to life in scene.

I’d read the book probably three times before. What was different this time is I had just slogged through a traditional chronological plotted novel, a traditional plotted and chronological memoir that verged on autobiography, and was trying to read another traditional plotted novel. These books, in stark contrast to Gornick’s, were heavy going. Her thinking and writing—at the sentence and structural level—excite me.

But would I be loving Fierce Attachments if it were fiction? If it had been written and sold as a novel? How much does my enjoyment owe to its labeling as nonfiction?

Let’s get something out of the way first. Gornick once mentioned to a roomful of journalists that she invented in Fierce Attachments a street encounter she and her mother experienced. The reporters were soon baying at her, and the flap spread online. I can’t endorse what she did, but it has never bothered me as her reader because her goal seems only to fully and honestly portray herself and mother. She might have handled her imagination differently, such as cued the reader, but she embroidered.

Still, try to read Fierce Attachments as a novel.

[Read More]

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.”

[Read More]

Ode to joy

October 21, 2015 | 2 Comments

Mad Men captured the excesses and brio of the late 1959s, the 1960s, and the early 1970s. As I explained in 2012 when I drifted away, its fitting climax seemed to be when its main characters formed their own Madison Avenue advertising agency. That’s when a respectable novel would’ve ended. But I drifted back, partly because Don Draper and his times reminded me of my father. Now I’ve watched the rest, and binged on the seventh and final season. I found the show’s last year riveting—especially once the principal players of Sterling Cooper Partners were absorbed by the mother ship, sent to McCann Erickson, which had since bought a majority interest in the scrappy underdog.

Even by the sexist standards of the time, McCann Erickson is a dreadful place for the women, and controlling and soulless for everyone. But the Sterling Cooper partners will become millionaires if they can hang on for four years and fulfill the basic terms of their contract. Can they? One by one, the answer is, basically, no. As they choose their fates, I was reminded of the famous ending of Six Feet Under, which flashed forward to the characters’ deaths. For these Madison Avenue men and women, however, they get another chance.

How satisfying to see Pete Campbell, head of accounts, who’d been humbled by his own meanness, insecurity, and egotism reconcile with his wife and fly off to a spiffy new career with Lear Jet. Instantly I remembered him at his worst, when he tried to destroy Don by revealing Don’s tawdry past and assumed identity. This in turn emphasized how the two later became allies and even friends in the show’s long arc.

As Sterling Cooper’s brilliant creative director, Don is McCann Erickson’s big prize and great hope. He’s been handed their Coke account! At first he plays along, but then takes a road trip and disappears. Is this one of his periodic battery-recharging hegiras or is he finally self-destructing for good?

[Read More]

A seer of art

August 13, 2015 | 8 Comments

Almost everyone consumes art in some form—it’s hard not to. Which means almost everyone has an opinion. Then there’s Sister Wendy. A nun who spends her days in silent, ego-less contemplation and prayer, the former English major emerges to take in the occasional art gallery. She has a gift, it turns out, for seeing deeply into paintings and their painters.

In the YouTube clip with this post, Wendy discusses “Stanley Spencer, Self portrait with Patricia Preece,” 1936. She comments that the woman’s hair is “unconvincing” though her pubic hair is “lovely and fluffy.” So the novelty effect here is high, but Wendy is no joke. She focuses on how “his art understands—he doesn’t understand,” and she leaves “Feeling vaguely unsatisfied, though I’m not sure why I should be.”

Wendy intuits and appreciates the artist’s effort. At the same time, she is so sensitive that she senses and analyzes where he may have in some way failed. She is positive even in this. What she is saying is Art is a handmade thing and never perfect. I think we love any work of art for its perfection but also for its heightened quality, its attempt at perfection. Art is handmade and there will be flaws. Perhaps the critic must help her audience see places that might be uneven, especially if they’re either a fault of soul or the dark side of a virtue.

I love sister Wendy, a seer of art. She shows how creative criticism can be. Her ability to receive and to feel is amazing and inspiring.

[Read More]

Lie, steal, remake?

April 22, 2014 | 4 Comments

As a lifelong writing student, I’ve resisted writing prompts—a lazy doubting stubbornness that’s fading as I see repeatedly in my classes their utility and power. Spurred by an exercise, my “Writing Life Stories” students have just produced some of their best work of the semester.

I can’t go into the stories my students told. But suffice it to say that their essays’ opening lies—in their yearning and often-iconic specifics—take on such power, resonance, and frequently sadness as we learn the truth. Yet the retrospective wisdom fostered by the nature and placement of the truth-telling narrator makes it all moving, bearable, and a gift.

A former neighbor and hired helper of mine, whom I portray as Sam in my book Shepherd: A Memoir, used to call daffodils “Easter flowers.” I doubt Sam knew their “real” name, and his folk-poetry label for the Narcissus species spoke volumes.

Right now, in a perennial bed paces from where I write, my daffodils ordered last Fall are up and blooming for the first time. I’d planted them in the root system of a massive silver maple, and feared I hadn’t gotten them deep enough. Maybe they didn’t all make it. Yet now, at least some are blooming and some will replicate, Spring’s very essence. Their white and yellow faces form a luminous statement of hope and joy—indeed of rebirth—in this weary world. There they’ll endure, annually remaking what’s so old into news that’s forever so new.

[Read More]