Writing quotes for summer’s dog days from here & there.
I’m on the road as I post this, headed for Berkeley, California, where our son is entering graduate school and where one of my sisters just moved, across the way, to San Francisco. My wife and I are driving from Ohio. An adventure! We’ve stopped for the night in Miami, Oklahoma, which is hot and crowded with casinos. I feel at home, though, because the folks are friendly and sport southern accents and because my Mom was from Oklahoma. This afternoon in central Missouri I knew we were getting into the West because when we stopped in the backwater of Buffalo for a soda, I noticed in the McDonald’s a row of stools had real leather kids’ saddles for seats. Here the shade trees look a tad battered, weathered and wary as precipitation drops, but the crape myrtles are in full magenta bloom.
We reserved a modest vehicle for this trek, but the guy at the rental company said we’d probably be uncomfortable crossing the desert and might have difficulty getting over the mountains. In fact, he implied, we might die. So we rented, for only $20 more a day, a huge (to us) Lincoln Navigator. It is black, and terrifying. We feel like real Americans at last. But will we be safe in San Francisco ensconced in such an SUV? We look like Secret Service, or drug dealers. Or both.
I’m working on a book review on the road, and meantime here is a summer roundup of stuff I’ve found interesting.
Style is truth. Once you nail down what you want to say about yourself and your fears and your life, then that becomes your style and you go to those writers who can teach you how to use words to fit your truth. I learned from John Steinbeck how to write objectively and yet insert all of the insights without too much extra comment. I learned a hell of a lot from John Collier and Gerald Heard, and I fell madly in love with a number of women writers, especially Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter. I still go back and reread Edith Wharton and Jessamyn West—The Friendly Persuasion is one of my favorite books of short stories. . . .
My favorite writers have been those who’ve said things well. I used to study Eudora Welty. She has the remarkable ability to give you atmosphere, character, and motion in a single line. In one line! You must study these things to be a good writer. Welty would have a woman simply come into a room and look around. In one sweep she gave you the feel of the room, the sense of the woman’s character, and the action itself. All in twenty words. And you say, How’d she do that? What adjective? What verb? What noun? How did she select them and put them together? I was an intense student. Sometimes I’d get an old copy of [Thomas] Wolfe and cut out paragraphs and paste them in my story, because I couldn’t do it, you see. I was so frustrated! And then I’d retype whole sections of other people’s novels just to see how it felt coming out. Learn their rhythm.
—Ray Bradbury, in his Paris Review interview
Reviewer airs contrary memoir theory
It’s a disparate collection of themes and might become scattered or, worse still, pointlessly lyrical, but Norman holds our attention with his narrative rigor; he writes in scene rather than in generalities. Honed by years of novel-writing, Norman’s ability to create an immersive, sustained scene is far beyond the powers of most memoirists, and he relies heavily on this ability; he seems uninterested in telling us what it all means or employing the witty, facile technique of retrospective awareness more typical of memoir. Instead, he writes his good, plain scenes and lays them out like cards, letting meaning accrue from whatever strange synchronicities arise — more like poetry than memoir. On the very last page of the book, he describes the poet Robert Hass as “sanely associative,” and that makes a neat description of his own narrative strategy.
There’s deep pleasure, even a quiet kind of fun, in watching as Norman orchestrates the various elements in play. (In this, the book recalls Jo Ann Beard’s brilliantly complex essay “The Fourth State of Matter,” a piece of writing that has influenced almost every good nonfiction writer I know, and maybe Norman too.) The result is a memoir that makes its own quietly dazzling little universe. Norman may be unconcerned with whether we enter, but for myself, I was glad to spend some time there.
[Dederer is author of Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses]
The novel’s democracy
Do you know why I believe in the novel? It’s a democratic shout. Anybody can write a great novel, one great novel, almost any amateur off the street. I believe this, George. Some nameless drudge, some desperado with barely a nurtured dream can sit down and find his voice and luck out and do it. Something so angelic it makes your jaw hang open.
—Don DeLillo, Mao II
Charles Lindbergh’s mastery of the memoir
Charles Lindbergh’s memoir The Spirit of St. Louis was a bestsellers beloved by critics and won the 1954 Pulitzer Prize. Joshua Kendall reflects on the great pilot’s writing skills in an essay in The New York Times Book Review:
As I learned during my recent examination of the roughly 13,000 handwritten and typed manuscript pages, which he would later deposit in the Library of Congress, Lindbergh cranked out six complete drafts. Before getting to the main event, the flight itself, he told the story of how he collaborated with Donald Hall, the chief engineer at San Diego’s Ryan Airlines, to construct his airplane in just 60 days. As he acknowledged, he relished the opportunity to insert himself into every phase of the operation. “There are great advantages in building a new plane instead of buying a standard model,” he wrote. “I can inspect each detail before it’s covered with fabric and fairings.” The second section, “New York to Paris,” which takes up the last two-thirds of the book, consisted of 33 segments, one for every hour he spent in the air. These are rendered in precise, carefully chiseled prose; a reader feels as if he is a co-pilot, seated right next to Lindbergh as he tinkers at the controls.
By the fall of 1951, Lindbergh felt sufficiently comfortable to show a version to his first reader — his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, by then a best-selling writer of memoirs and diaries in her own right. Soon afterward, he began preparing the manuscript for publication, and for the next couple of years he combed through all the details time and time again, laboring over every punctuation mark. As his friend Paul Fisher, then the public relations director of United Aircraft, quipped, Lindbergh could be “credited with perfecting the transitional, zone-to-zone, man-for-man, freewheeling nonskid hyphen.”
A fiction master on punctuation
I only have a certain bag of tricks. And that’s why little things, like punctuation, make such a big difference. The dash I’ve always relied on hugely. I know I use it even in borderline cases, where technically it isn’t correct. But it moves me through the initial draft of the text, and I let a lot of my dashes stay.
Because I don’t work with an outline, writing a story is like crossing a stream, now I’m on this rock, now I’m on this rock, now I’m on this rock. In the context of a story, a fairly boring thought in a character’s head can work better than a brilliant one, and a brilliantly laid out structure can be so much worse for a story than one that is more haphazard.
— Ann Beattie, in her Paris Review interview.
Reading as “life of the spirit”
There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life. A day that closely resembles every other day of the past ten or twenty years does not suggest itself as a good one. But who would not call Pasteur’s life a good one, or Thomas Mann’s?
—Annie Dillard, The Writing Life