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.)
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.
I’m a map person. There are random maps all over the walls of my house, mostly freebies that my coworkers at the book store, knowing my interest, have passed along to me. Looking around right now I can see a “Rail Map of Europe,” “World Terrorism: a Reference Map,” and this odd, black and white, line drawing map of Illinois, among several others. When I live somewhere with enough room, I intend to have several atlases. Thus, I was excited to find today a book called You Are Here by Katharine Harmon. It’s sort of a popular history of maps with heavy focus on amateur maps, folk art maps, and maps that are related to popular culture. She is especially interested in what maps can tell us about the way we see the world. I’m looking forward to getting this one.
Okay, here’s the thing: I’m not usually this inattentive. As a matter of fact, I’ve often prided myself on being a focused, interested listener. So it was with astonishment that I found myself lost in a memory of my own, not five minutes after author Clare Morrall began to read. Don’t blame her. She’s a fine reader, and indeed, from the part of the reading that I paid attention to, a fine writer as well. But it’s scarcely my fault either.She was introducing us to the principal characters of Natural Flights of the Human Mind whose lives would intersect along the Devon coast when suddenly, in the narrative, she drew our attention to a dinghy in the water. And then she mentioned the dinghy again. That’s all it took – and I was gone. I was suddenly ten years old, on holiday with my mother and father in Virginia Beach. My mother and I had taken our inflatable dinghy out for the afternoon and we were a fair distance away from the shore when we realized that the current was getting stronger and no amount of frantic paddling would right the course. Small and rather lopsided, I wasn’t the most accomplished oarsman. Then, adrift for what seemed like ages, we saw my father walking all the way out to our wayward craft, his head never once submerging, and then pulling it back to the shore, shaking his head while his human cargo was alternately sheepish and dumbfounded.So this is what played out in my head while Ms. Morrall progressed with her own dinghy-related narrative. If I were reading her story, I would simply have flipped back the requisite number of pages and resumed her tale beginning from where my attention was diverted. But I couldn’t very well interrupt her public reading and ask her to repeat.I was jolted back into her world, or at least to the no-man’s land of the auditorium, but I was hopelessly lost. I looked around and saw dozens of people, their eyes glued to the stage and their emotions being maneuvered this way and that – a chuckle, a gasp. I could’ve been one of them. I can chuckle and gasp with the best of them, but I simply couldn’t re-connect with her tale. It had passed me by. My own memory-narrative, however, was right there, within reach, and I had been paying full attention to that, so once again, while the reading progressed in that strange world around me, I resumed my own narrative – thinking about how each summer from when we immigrated to Canada when I was two, up until my mid-teens, we’d pack up the car and begin exploring our new continent, first tentatively throughout Ontario and then gradually, over several summers, Quebec, the Maritime provinces, and then down along the eastern seaboard from Maine to the Carolinas and points inland. Over several years we claimed dozens of cities and towns as our own.Even the most conscientious listener (and again, by that I mean me) must have an assortment of trigger words which will stop him dead in his tracks and spirit him away to some memory – a narrative itself, and one no less rich than one committed to the printed page. Tough competition for any author giving a reading. The worst thing would be for Ms. Morrall to take my negligence personally. Short of not using the word “dinghy” there’s nothing she could really have done to prevent this. The trigger was just too strong; and the memory powerful enough to trample on even the best public reader. It’s surprising, really, that with all the memories floating around in my head, each with its own set of trigger words, that I’m not spirited away more often.The funny thing is that with other art forms, this “spiriting away” would be acceptable, even encouraged. It’s high praise when a painting or a piece of music transports you somewhere else. But the printed word, especially when recited, is a fickle mistress. It tempts you with it’s suggestive powers, but then as soon as you succumb to the temptation, as soon as you’re transported somewhere else, it leaves you behind, lost and adrift.
In September, I posted that Michael Chabon’s next book, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, his first full-length adult novel since The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, was to be released on April 11, 2006. Alas, the book has been delayed. Chabon’s done with the manuscript, but there were scheduling problems with his publisher, HarperCollins. Chabon announced the delay on his Web site:HarperCollins had been sort of rushing the thing along, over a steady but polite murmur from the author that perhaps they were moving too quickly. The manuscript was complete. It was not impossible to make the April 11 pub date. But we didn’t even have a finished jacket. Many people who were selling and marketing the book hadn’t had the opportunity to read it. Everything just felt too rushed and when that sense of undue haste finally caught on at the publishing house, I was able to persuade them to see reason, and wait.The new date is now “Winter 2007.”
In the meantime I received William Boynton’s The New New Journalism from my old roommate Ayse and started reading it. Boynton’s carefully structured questions provide for a similar flow for each author he interviews, thus highlighting the differences in style, discipline, and inspiration in each author. The New New Journalism is a great look into the minds of some amazing authors of our time, providing interesting information as to how they pick their topics, as well as quirky information about how they go about getting their work done. Another great side of Boynton’s book is that it ties the New Journalists of Tom Wolfe to today, and provides a great reading list. I already added Acts of Faith by Philip Caputo, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, Coyotes by Ted Conover, There are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz and American Ground by William Langewiesche to my already long reading list. Another advantage is that you can pick up the book and read about any author included for a brief period and then rest the book a little.I wanted to take a break from The New New Journalism and turned to The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, which had been sitting on my shelf since my birthday. Nancy, who presented me with the novel, was upset that the hard cover edition she bought had an unremoveable Oprah’s Book Club sticker on it, which I promised to cover with an It was in Nancy’s Book Club First sticker, but I did not get around to that yet. Regardless, The Corrections blew my mind. The main reasons I wanted to read the novel were the discussions on The Millions and the fact that almost everyone I know in my age group had laid hands on it fairly recently. So, I turned to it on a hot sticky New York evening, cranked my AC and sat in my room all night reading. The next day was a Friday, and I was so stuck to the story that all I could do at work was sit at my desk and keep reading, pretty much non-stop, until I finished the novel on Sunday night. At about 4 AM on Monday morning, I emailed my boss and let her know that I would not be able to attend work because of the severe depression that The Corrections caused in me. Here is why: I loved the novel and Franzen’s style, and although Enid comes across as a very stereotypical bickering mother, and Alfred’s dementia – with it’s stark contrast to his past – is a common disease in our times, and Chip is readily accessible, lovable, and charismatic, and Denise is righteously immoral in her actions, and Gary is a self-pitying bastard, and that every piece of the story seems banal when looked at from this perspective, the mere reality of The Corrections moved me deeply. I thoroughly enjoyed the way Franzen organized the book and related the individual stories of each character, and how, that, in the very end, reaches a lukewarm resolve. Finishing The Corrections I felt as if I should be happy about the outcome, but the price that was paid, the thought that this story could take place in my life, and that some of the characters – though maybe through different relations – might exist around me caused an inexplicable sadness. All the sobbing aside, I discovered soon upon finishing The Corrections that discussing the cast of a probable Hollywood movie based on the novel makes for a great conversation. I remember reading with great interest when the discussion took place on The Millions and at this point the only person I can contribute to the fray is Sam Rockwell as Chip. That said, The Corrections is probably better off left alone by Hollywood, and a wonderful read for all those who want to glimpse into a bit of Americana, as well as a bit of themselves.See also: Part 1, 2, 3, 4
J.K. Rowling’s slow, inexorable slide out of retirement continues. As we noted a couple of months ago, “For someone who’s not writing any more books about Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling sure is doing a lot of dabbling.”Earlier this year, we wrote about one of Rowling’s post-retirement dabblings, the production of seven handmade copies of Beedle the Bard, a book of “wizarding fairy tales” referred to in the Harry Potter series. Amazon spent $4 million on a copy, and then used it to market a writing contest. Part of the prize, incidentally, was the opportunity “to spend a weekend with the rare and delightful book of fairy tales (security guards included, of course).”Now that prize doesn’t look quite so exclusive, as Bloomsbury and Scholastic have made an edition the book available for the masses for just $7.59 and arriving in early December, just in time for the holidays. Amazon is going one further, offering up to 100,000 pricier facsimile “collector’s editions,” with “a reproduction of J.K. Rowling’s handwritten introduction, metalwork and clasp, and replica gemstones,” as well as various other accouterments.All net proceeds go to a charity co-founded by Rowling.