I’m in the middle of the most recent National Book Award winner The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. It’s an oppressive book both in style and content. Each description comes with an aside or a qualification. When one character, a young Australian soldier, relieves himself on the side of the road during a break in a drive across the Japanese countryside, Hazzard describes it this way: “The young driver, profiting from the hiatus, had meanwhile peed behind bushes.” Everywhere there are these odd little inclusions like “profiting from the hiatus.” The book is about the occupation of a shattered, destroyed, and conquered place, specifically the Allied occupation of post-war Japan. There is still everywhere the lingering hysteria of war, which Hazzard, like the occupiers she describes, tries to forget or ignore by imposing a false civility on the situation. The interplay of the conquered and the conquerors thus leads to dense language and curious juxtaposition. The Great Fire reminds me a lot of what was probably the first truly difficult book I ever read, Graham Greene‘s, The Power and the Glory. In that book, the “civilized” is a priest and the uncivilized is the tropical criminality of Mexico. Luis Bunuel once suggested to Alvaro Mutis, purveyor of his own brand of magical realism and author of the incomparable The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, that it is not possible to write a gothic novel that is set in the tropics. Mutis supposedly refuted this by writing The Mansion & Other Stories, though I can’t comment because (as of yet) I have been unable to lay my hands on that book. So, at this point, I would have to agree with Bunuel. In order to invoke the tropics one must also invoke the oppressiveness of the conditions there; content dictates style, which brings me back to The Great Fire. Though the book is not set in the tropics, its setting is oppressive, and thus so is the writing. And though I’m only a little ways into the book, it doesn’t seem like this is a bad thing.
Eudora Welty edited her writing with scissors in hand to cut out and re-pin sections of text. Truman Capote fancied himself a horizontal writer: he would only work lying down, with a glass of sherry close at hand. Anthony Trollope maintained a rather more industrial regimen, beginning his day promptly at 5:30 a.m. and pacing himself with a watch to write 250 words every 15 minutes. Then there’s Friedrich Schiller, who occupies an idiosyncratic camp all his own. Schiller kept a drawer full of rotten apples in his desk. When Goethe found them, Charlotte Schiller explained that her husband couldn’t write without the putrid aroma wafting through his study.
In Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors, Celia Blue Johnson details the secret formulas and sources of creative inspiration. These bizarre minutiae of the writing process are an attempt at answering the age-old questions about artistic creation: where does inspiration come from? What conditions make masterpieces possible? How do great minds work? The ancients explained poetry and art in terms of the muses, which was not an explanation so much as an affirmation of the sacred mystery. In the age of how-to guides and do-it-yourself manuals, we’re eager to shed light on the intricacies of practice and method, to find the patterns in the big data. The irony of these juicy anecdotes is that in their attempt to get behind the mystery, they end up re-mythologizing the creative process all over again.
To be sure, there are some useful lessons to extract. For instance, a surprising number of writers took vigorous daily walks long before science had connected exercise to productivity and creative output. Some walked to get away from work, to clear the mind of words and embrace direct experience; others, to ruminate on their scribbled pages and return to the pen with renewed vigor. Wallace Stevens actually wrote while walking, composing poetry on slips of paper. Daily word quotas are also popular (1,000 for Jack London; 3,000 for Norman Mailer; and 1,800 for Thomas Wolfe), as are pets. Edgar Allan Poe granted his tabby, Catterina, the status of literary guardian, while Flannery O’Connor kept the company of domestic poultry and Colette studied the fur of her French bulldog, Souci, until she felt ready to write.
Daily Rituals: How Artists Work charts the schedules of visionaries from Mozart to Milton and Thomas Mann in order to figure how they found time to “do it all.” (The underlying promise is that by studying their schedules, maybe you can figure out how to do it all too.) Many worked for brief but intense blocks of time, either in the morning or late evening. Coffee seems to have been a popular creative stimulant, but so was alcohol and tobacco. In other words, our creative heroes did many of the same things that non-geniuses do. Artistic production is marked in equal parts by idiosyncrasy and mundane routine, but neither perspective gets much closer than the Greeks did to answering the question. If anything, the attempt to unveil THE PROCESS shows how fascinatingly—almost theologically—opaque the origins of art really are.
The close cousin of the great minds exposé is the artist’s self-help book—books like Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit or Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. They, too, are interested in process and how to cultivate the habits that make inspiration possible.
Tharp, a world-famous choreographer, tries to bust the myth of genius by insisting on practice and hard work, while Cameron, writer and ex-wife of Martin Scorsese, offers a comprehensive twelve-week program to recover your creativity. The books mean well, no doubt, but they’re made profane by their resemblance to, say, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. And they’re fraught with tension—the tension between discipline and creativity, between outlining a formula for artistic success and highlighting the many eccentricities of the successful.
Why try to engineer masterpieces anyway? The idea smacks of our tendency to make a science out of every imaginable pursuit—to break down creation into actionable insights, to imitate—with the help of models and charts—what is, by definition, inimitable. The Greeks got something right when they neglected to explain inspiration. They let art be art—the divine in man, not the data-crunching.
If you have a teenager in your house, or if you just spend a lot of time around one, you may have found yourself patiently explaining that while the word “like” can mean many things, it isn’t a synonym for “said.” In fact, if you are under 40, you may have had this conversation with yourself. No element of modern speech, with the possible exception of all those business types using “impact” as a verb, comes in for as much abuse as what might be called “the Valley-Girl like.”
Meet Alexandra D’Arcy, who wants to destigmatize the contemporary use of “like.” In academic publications dating back to 2005, D’Arcy, a sociolinguist at the University of Victoria in Canada, has argued that the rise of “like” as a form of quotation has opened up new ways for people to narrate their inner thoughts in concrete, active terms in daily speech. Her work on the subject is detailed in her forthcoming book, Discourse-Pragmatic Variation in Context, due out in 2015.
“In writing, there’s a huge range of verbs that you can use and each of those evoke a different mood,” D’Arcy explains. “You can say: ‘she whispered,’ ‘she yelled,’ ‘she murmured.’ In speech, when you look at what people have been doing historically, really all you quoted was speech — ‘she said’ — and every once in a while you got a ‘think.’ What’s happened over the past 150 years is that we can quote so much more now. We can quote thought, or something that looks more like attitude. We can quote writing. We can quote sound. We can quote gesture. There’s a huge panoply of things we can quote and incorporate into our storytelling.”
There used to be a time when my story might have been: ‘I saw her enter the room and I was terrified that she would recognize me and so I crouched down.’ Which is actually sort of boring. But now you can tell that as: ‘I saw her, and I was like, oh my god! I was like, what if she sees me? I was like, oh my god, I’ve gotta hide. I was like, what am I supposed to say to her?’ And it can go on. I’ve seen it where you have eight quotes in a row of strictly first-person internal monologue where that monologue becomes action. That’s new.
D’Arcy traces the expanded use of “like” to speakers born in the 1960s, but says the language feature came into its own with speakers born in the 1970s, “so that by the time you get to speakers born in the 1980s, you get these entire sequences of quotations that recreate an internal thought process.” This accords with the pop cultural history of the usage, which first became famous when Moon Unit Zappa (born 1967) accompanied her father Frank Zappa’s 1982 hit song “Valley Girl,” with an improvised monologue taken from slang she’d overheard at parties and at the Sherman Oaks Galleria in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley. The same year, Sean Penn starred in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, partly filmed at the Sherman Oaks Galleria, and the rest is, like, history.
Where some traditionalists see the use of “like” as a dialog tag as portent of cultural End Times, D’Arcy views it as an important tool for self-expression, allowing speakers to narrate their interior thought processes in dramatic and easily accessible ways. Some commentators, she concedes, view the new use of “like” as a window onto “the lionization of self” among the post-baby-boom generation. But whatever the verbal tic reveals about its speakers, D’Arcy sees its advent as a net positive for the language. “It’s a very creative resource for us,” she says. “It gives us a lot of flexibility in the way we tell stories and recreate action.”
Some quick observations: Bob Woodward’s new book Plan of Attack is selling as fast as I have seen any book fly off the shelf in my two years at the book store: faster than Hillary and approaching Harry Potter levels. One time Millions contributor Kaye Gibbons has a new novel out called Divining Women. Early reviews are mostly good. On the other hand, the review that New York Times’ “Madame” Michiko Kakutani gave Alice Walker’s new book, Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart, is just about the most brutal I have ever seen in that paper. View the carnage hereIn Millions news, I’m heading to New York tonight. I’m in a wedding this weekend and there are other East Coast errands to run, so I probably won’t be blogging much, if at all. I will, however, be checking the comments here as well as my email. I don’t know how special this makes me, but I have been asked to be a trial user for Google’s mega-hyped webmail service, GMail, so if you are curious about how well it works, feel free to drop me a line.
Last time I was at the book store I noticed an interesting cultural history sort of book called Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants. The “city” is, of course, New York City and the book uses rats as a vehicle to explore the New York’s intricacies and tribulations. The author of the book, Robert Sullivan, is known for his quirky, narrative-based non-fictions, The Meadowlands and A Whale Hunt. If you’re into the whole rat thing check out this Newsday journalist’s account of an evening spent “ratting” with Sullivan. From rats to elephants: during my daily travels the other day I caught an interview with the author of an interesting-sounding book on one of the local public radio shows. Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear is a history of the magic act written by a master magician, Jim Steinmeyer. The book describes the origins of tricks that have become magic cliches, like sawing a lady in half. He also seeks to describe the interesting blend of mystery, showmanship, and hucksterism that embodied the turn of the century magic show. Finally, I mentioned the other day the centennial of the birth of Dr. Suess. It turns out that there is a sturdy coffee table book to commemorate this event. It displays his life and work and bears the somewhat dubious title: The Seuss, the Whole Seuss and Nothing But the Seuss.
Gather.com, the folks who put together a chat with Jonathan Safran Foer not too long ago, have announced a new writing contest. Online writing contests are a dime a dozen, but the cool thing about this one is that the four winning short pieces (fiction or non-fiction) will be “published and sold on Amazon Shorts,” which would undoubtedly be a terrific venue for any aspiring writer. In fact, it’s along the lines of what I hoped Amazon would do with its Shorts program.
Twitter had its big moment last week, but unlike so many other technology start-ups in the seeming parade of millionaire-makers over the last two decades (with the obvious exception of Amazon.com), Twitter has developed a special following in the literary community, from high-brow to low. Perhaps that’s not surprising. Writers revel in words, and Twitter, nearly alone among hot technology start-ups, is mostly about words, crafting them to meet the medium’s peculiar restraints and sending them out into the world to be engaged with or ignored. Twitter is like some atomized version of the writer’s process. With Twitter, ideas go out piecemeal, the whole process taking a millionth the amount of time it would if you were to glom all those ideas together into one big whole and turn it into something as unlikely-seeming by comparison as a book. This speed, then, may be deeply satisfying — even addictive — as writers bypass so much of the toil of getting a book out of their brains and off to readers (New York’s Kathryn Schulz elaborated smartly on this idea last week.)
There is no uniform stance on Twitter in the literary community, of course. Some, like Teju Cole and Colson Whitehead, find it vital; many others — led by a certain one-time Time coverboy from the Midwest, do not. Some writers have more prosaic feelings about Twitter. Novelist Peter Orner wrote, “Some are talented at it; others, less so.”
Zadie Smith is not on Twitter. Nor are Jeffrey Eugenides (though his vest once was), Michael Chabon (not really, though his writer wife Ayelet Waldman is), George Saunders, or David Mitchell. Jennifer Egan is, but just a little bit.
Nonetheless, Twitter appears to be here to stay, for a while anyway. And it will remain a pastime for writers looking for book news, inspiration, distraction, literary puns, and every other thing they might want. But it wasn’t always that way. In the not too distant past, the literary lights of Twitter pecked out their first 140 characters and waited to see what Twitter would bring.
Curious, I dug back into the Twitter archive to see how these writers took their first steps into Twitter. What follows are the very first tweets of some of Twitter’s well-known practitioners from the literary world.
Finishing the website entries for my fall novel The Year of the Flood.
— Margaret E. Atwood (@MargaretAtwood) July 8, 2009
How does a petty trader come by N30 million worth of cars? Police hope Israel Ubatuegwu, of Ajah, has a good explanation.
— colson whitehead (@colsonwhitehead) March 15, 2009
Preparing for Book Expo America in the office in Dumbo. The last time we’ve to schlap boxes ourselves. Next year we pay the Teamsters…
— Richard Nash (@R_Nash) May 30, 2007
Last night at the Norman Mailer Award Ceremony in NYC, Oliver Stone said beautifully: “A serious writer is a rebel.”
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) October 5, 2012
trying to figure out if someone does a decent MP3 workout, which will magically transform my iphone and my body at the same time.
— Dani Shapiro (@danijshapiro) April 24, 2009
Slaughtered by Sam A. and Jefffery Y. at post-diner breakfast ping-pong. Licking wounds.
— Dwight Garner (@DwightGarner) February 13, 2009
Here’s a video of my speech at the NBCC in NYC last week: http://tinyurl.com/dfe8rt
— Ron Charles (@RonCharles) March 17, 2009
— Sarah Weinman (@sarahw) April 24, 2007
— Susan Orlean (@susanorlean) December 23, 2007
doesn’t want to be an editor. oops, too late.
— Emma Straub (@emmastraub) December 3, 2008
I just opened my present from Dave McKean, The Big Fat Duck Cookbook. Heavy as a stone and beautiful. “See?” he said. “I do read your blog.”
— Salman Rushdie (@SalmanRushdie) September 15, 2011
Fine, then. I’ll twitter.
— John Green (@realjohngreen) December 11, 2008
No matter what I do there are always 5 emails in my inbox that I am avoiding.
— Doug Coupland (@DougCoupland) April 1, 2009
I’ve reached the limit on how many Facebook friends I can add. So here is a new page.
— Amy Tan (@AmyTan) August 12, 2010
— E L James (@E_L_James) April 12, 2011
First Tweet ever, prompted by Jeff Howe’s essay in Sunday’s NYTBR. Velly interesting. Helloooooo?
— William Gibson (@GreatDismal) April 1, 2009
coveting Susan Lewis’ hair.
— Chuck Palahniuk (@chuckpalahniuk) January 28, 2009
Becoming far more wired than I probably really need to be.
— Gary Shteyngart (@Shteyngart) December 1, 2011
I’m going to do it right this time.
— Emily Gould (@EmilyGould) May 21, 2009
today felt like the unabomber but i wasn’t plotting anything or planning anything or trying to bomb anything and i was wearing 4-inch heels
— Kate Zambreno (@daughteroffury) June 29, 2012
Wessex Man http://tinyurl.com/yw93xb
— New York Times Books (@nytimesbooks) March 18, 2007
News: Netherland wins PEN/Faulkner award: It was overlooked for the Booker prize and the prestigious US Nat.. http://bit.ly/AufPL
— Guardian Books (@GuardianBooks) February 26, 2009
— NY Review of Books (@nybooks) July 2, 2008
Check out our feature on the best audiobooks coming this spring.
— Publishers Weekly (@PublishersWkly) January 31, 2009
Mario Bros. meets Macbeth: What do a pixelated plumber and a murderous king have in common? Nintendo DS — in En.. http://tinyurl.com/5gr5m4
— L.A. Times Books (@latimesbooks) December 10, 2008
Hello, world! Official Library of Congress Twitter feed here. So nice to see 215 followers before so much as a single tweet!
— Library of Congress (@librarycongress) January 27, 2009
Welcome to the new GalleyCat Twitter feed, regularly collecting tweets from Senior Editor Ron Hogan, Editor Jason Boog, and Jeff Rivera.
— NPR Books (@nprbooks) January 8, 2010
We noticed lots of sites use Twitter for feedback. We created this account as a placeholder, but please visit our Feedback Group anytime!
— goodreads (@goodreads) August 19, 2008
56 years after William Styron warned us about chasing the zeitgeist, The Paris Review is now on twitter. From issue 1: http://bit.ly/BCnnE
— The Paris Review (@parisreview) September 4, 2009
Culling together work for Electric Literature no.2, planning events for October, spinning splendidly through another day at the office.
— Electric Literature (@ElectricLit) August 31, 2009
Rick Moody on running out of luck: http://tinyurl.com/ckno8d
— The Rumpus (@The_Rumpus) January 29, 2009
What will be named top book of the decade? http://bit.ly/AMgq8 What’s your pick?
— The Millions (@The_Millions) September 21, 2009
What’s the best part of B.G.’s “Bling Bling” video? Pre-tattoo’d Wayne, zooming red VW Beetles, or the crew’s outdoor fine china picnic?
— Nick Moran (@nemoran3) February 2, 2011
No, Amazon isn’t tagging its customers, but apparently, customers are beginning to tag Amazon. (For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, “tagging” is basically adding pieces of meta-data, descriptive keywords for example, to an object (in Amazon’s case, books and electronics). Right now there are a lot of sites that let their audience do the “tagging,” in an effort to harness the collective descriptive power of the community.) A few months back, I surmised that Amazon was entering the realm of tagging with features like “Capitalized Phrases” and “Statistically Improbable Phrases.” Now they are allowing customers to add descriptors to book pages. Apparently Amazon is still testing this out, so if you can’t see it yet (and you want to), go to Kokogiak where he’s got the full rundown including links to screenshots.I also noticed that Amazon has expanded slightly on its wildly popular “Amazon.com Sales Rank” feature. Now you can see where the book in question ranked yesterday compared to today. For example, as of this writing, The Kite Runner is ranked at “#16 in books,” while yesterday it ranked “#17 in books.”
Last fall, a student at Academy of Art University in San Francisco was expelled for writing an extremely violent short story for a creative writing class. In the fallout, the instructor was dismissed after it was revealed that she had assigned the class to read a somewhat graphic story by David Foster Wallace prior to the incident. At the end of March the San Francisco Chronicle broke the story and incited a furor among a number of the country’s literary luminaries. I first heard about this at Scott McCloud’s blog (scroll down to 4/4). McCloud had heard about the scandal from Neil Gaiman (author of American Gods and many others), who had been the recipient of an email sent out by Daniel Handler AKA Lemony Snicket, the children’s author, after Handler was barred from speaking at the Art Academy. Handler’s forceful ejection was recounted here, where we also see that Dave Eggers and Michael Chabon are going on the attack. All of which brings us to today’s opinion piece in the New York Times, in which Pulitzer prizewinner (for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) Chabon muses in a pleasantly obscure way about being a teenager under a headline that, rather oddly, references Jonathan Lethem’s most recent novel. So, what does this all mean? Here’s my prediction: Team American Contemporary Writers will place enough pressure on the Academy of Art that it will be forced to issue a public apology. The fired instructor will get hired at another liberal-leaning university, and the expelled student will sign a lucrative book deal on his way to becoming the next Bret Easton Ellis. Most folks who are commenting on this believe that it is indicative the American fear of the teenager that lingers from Columbine. That is most definitely true, but it is also indicative of the fact that the Academy of Art University in San Francisco faculty and administration don’t seem to be very adept at handling a minor crisis, nor are they particularly well-read. Gaiman mentions this on his blog: “according to Daniel Handler they got a letter of remonstrance from Salman Rushdie, and didn’t recognize the name,” and according to the Chronicle story, “[the Academy of Art administration was] none too pleased that the instructor was teaching Wallace’s story. “Nobody had ever heard of him,” [the instructor] said. “In fact, they kept calling him George Foster Wallace.” (Thanks to my friend Brian for forwarding the Times op-ed to me this morning.)