April 2009

I think there are two different kinds of lectures on craft, the first more useful than the second. The first is solid and practical: it concerns the technical craft of certain novels, and is best given by critics and academics qualified in their field. The second type is given by novelists, with the hope they will draw on their practical knowledge and say something intelligent about the way they write. At this point—in my experience—a disconnect occurs. For though I have a private language for the way I write, as every writer does, as I’m sure all of you do, it’s not particularly intelligent—in fact, it’s rather banal. It feels strange, airing it in public, inadequate, unfit for a classroom. I think even if I had been crafting away at a novel for ten years, and then, on the final day, an email arrived asking me to give a lecture on “some aspect of craft,” I still wouldn’t quite feel qualified to give it. Craft is too grand and foreign a word to describe what gets done most days in your pajamas. So naturally the temptation is to gussy it up a bit, to find a garment to dress your private language in, something suitable. You borrow the quantifying language of the critic, maybe, or the conceptual analysis of the academic. And then, with a queasy, fraudulent feeling, you try and pass this off as an accurate representation of what it is to write a novel. The result is convincing and has every rhetorical advantage, except one: it isn’t true.


We keep reading to make anew everything we have read before, or, to put it in a less grandiose way: I feel things about stuff, and I often don’t know why, but I’m looking to find out. It takes time, sometimes too much time (or not enough patience). So when I muddled through Donald Barthelme’s Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowing — the title has about as much poetry as your newspaper headline, I wonder if it wasn’t found there — I didn’t expect the story to be made anew so quickly, and by a profile of restaurant and TV critic AA Gill.

The 88 words above were scribbled into my notebook yesterday and are something that I would like to continue writing; something with threads of thought that I need to spin into a ball, or unravel — I can’t decide which.

Perhaps this is my problem: when I come to write on writing there are rules in my head that dictate, despite my knowing better, that once I lay down my opinion I can’t change it. What an ego I have, to think that people pay that much attention, that the world will change because I admire the swoop of one sentence and not the punch of another.

And then there is the problem of coming across the same sentiment in someone else’s writing, only they’ve written with a deeper understanding of the very thoughts I can’t quite articulate, and, I tend to think, with a better order and choice of words.

Recently I’ve started reading Patrick Kurp at Anecdotal Evidence, and, like previous incarnations of this blog that shamelessly copied the form of others (I Shot Frida Kahlolitblog.com)  I want my blog to be like his.

Much practice is needed, and I don’t kid myself that it will take some time to get back  into the habit to match the daily efforts of Patrick; his reading experience gives context and feeds back into his daily life (and vice versa), such as the opening and closing passages from a recent post: ‘To Make Sense of What Takes Place‘:

For the first time in 41 years I entered a classroom where chemistry is taught and found that bewildering sentence written on the “smart board” (slate’s digital replacement). My chemistry teacher in high school was a Ukrainian immigrant who, mid-semester, broke both of her wrists when she fell on an ice-covered sidewalk while walking her dogs. Her casts were so bulky she couldn’t lift a pencil or test tube, though she sparked my small but enduring interest in her subject.


Included in Collected Stories and Other Writings, one of the Cheever volumes recently published by Library of America, is “What Happened,” an essay from 1959. I found my day and this blog neatly distilled in this passage:

“…I was happy for I know almost no pleasure greater than having a piece of fiction draw together incidents as disparate as a dance in Minneapolis and a backgammon game in the mountains so that they relate to one another and confirm that feeling that life itself is creative process, that one thing is put purposefully upon another, that what is lost in one encounter is replenished in the next and that we possess some power to make sense of what takes place.”

Where books and life intersect. Where I want to be.

Both interpretations of Cheever hinge on the assumption that he is, or ought to be, the bearer of bad news: he either succeeds because he condemns society, or fails because he does not. But the bad news is old news. Both judgments demonstrate a desire that his work confirm, rather than surprise, the reader’s assumptions about the world.


The automatic, Tifty-esque rejection of beauty is, for Cheever, as shallow and lazy and deceptive as false optimism. To assume that happiness is simply a mask for sadness is to reduce the world to a facile code, one that subsumes the peculiarities and possibilities of individual experience and, every time it is deciphered, says only the same thing: the world is rotten, and for knowing this you are better than it. Anyone can do a line drawing, the flat squiggle of the wretched worm, but Cheever’s vision is fuller than this, concerned as he is with the whole round shape of the apple where we, worms all, are lucky to live our lives.

The Cheever Revival, Elizabeth Gumport

The word flatness bothers me, perhaps because I confuse it with flat. What is the difference between the two? To my mind flat means the characters don’t rise and fall in the reader’s esteem; the physical and psychological landscape doesn’t change (maybe a better word is pulsate, or vibrate, or agitate); the action is static and not kinetic.

Lloyd was popular with the patients, because of his jokes and his sure, strong touch. He was stocky and broad-shouldered and authoritative enough to be sometimes taken for a doctor. (Not that he was pleased by that-he held the opinion that a lot of medicine was a fraud and a lot of doctors were jerks.) He had sensitive reddish skin and light hair and bold eyes.

This paragraph from Alice Munro’s short-story Dimension puts the kinetic up against the static in a way that jars so badly that I thought the whole paragraph a shambles. Not true. From sentence to sentence, the play of the last is renewed by the next — when we find out Lloyd thinks “a lot of doctors [are] jerks” we know who is the butt of most of his jokes (the way jerks works to remind of us of the word joke is particularly fun). But then the final sentence, which is at once lightweight and a lump, dead on delivery, almost made me put the story down.


But he says Nicola is always complaining that they don’t have any friends, just endless acquaintances, and, ‘I worry that in the end I see the same 200 or 300 people over and over again, and I would hate to think that that actually ended up being what my social life was. There are lots of people I think of as being old, dear friends, but I maybe only speak to them once or twice a year, because they constantly go to the back of the queue, behind all the things which are to do with work, with deadlines. I’m continually saddened when I look through my address book, at how patchy it is, at how many people drop off the edge of my life.’

In these very rare cases the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence. He excludes real people from the conspiracy – because he considers himself to be so much more intelligent than other men. Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes. Clouds in the staring sky transmit to one another, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form patterns representing in some awful way messages which he must intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme. Some of the spies are detached observers, such as glass surfaces and still pools; others, such as coats in store windows, are prejudiced witnesses, lynchers at heart; others again (running water, storms) are hysterical to the point of insanity, have a distorted opinion of him and grotesquely misinterpret his actions. He must be always on his guard and devote every minute and module of life to the decoding of the undulation of things. The very air he exhales is indexed and filed away.

Signs and Symbols, Vladimir Nabakov (via Mills Baker)

Everything he saw became a symbol of his own existence, from a rabbit caught in headlights to raindrops racing down a window-pane. Perhaps it was a sign that he was going to become a poet or a philosopher: the kind of person who, when he stood on the sea-shore, didn’t see waves breaking on a beach, but saw the surge of human will or the rhythms of copulation, who didn’t hear the sound of the tide but heard the eroding roar of time and the last moaning sigh of humanity fizzing into nothingness. But perhaps it was a sign, he also thought, that he was turning into a pretentious wanker.

The Liar, Stephen Fry (via litblog.com)

K on His Own Role

“Sometimes it seems to me that it doesn’t matter what I do, that it is enough to exist, to sit somewhere, in a garden for example, watching whatever is to be seen there, the small events. At other times, I’m aware that other people, possibly a great number of other people, could be affected by what I do or fail to do, that I have a responsibility, as we all have, to make the best possible use of whatever talents I’ve been given, for the common good. It is not enough to sit in that garden, however restful or pleasurable it might be. The world is full of unsolved problems, situations that demand careful, reasoned and intelligent action. In Latin America, for example.”

Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning, Donald Barthelme

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