Millions contributor and ardent Canadian, Andrew Saikali, dropped me a line to let me know that Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish journalist and one of my favorite writers will be on the CBC Radio program Writers and Company this Sunday, June 5th. If you’re interested, you can listen live by clicking through from here. (Check that page to see when it will air in your time zone.) It appears as though the show will also be available here for download for a week after it airs on Sunday.
Sloganeering rightly takes me to task for my sloppy framing of the NaNoWriMo debate - primarily the fact that I make no attempt to present the opposite point of view - and does it for me by pointing to Websnark's pro-NaNoWriMo post from a year ago.Clearly some people find NaNoWriMo useful (or at least fun) or it wouldn't still be around, but I question the idea that it's good for aspiring writers. Websnark presents four reasons why NaNoWriMo is an instructive exercise. The first three touch on the idea that if you want to be a writer, you have to stop being lazy and/or afraid and you have to write every day. This is undoubtedly true, and at the very least NaNoWriMo shows people how hard this really is, though I have my doubts that very many people continue to write every day on December 1 and beyond, which is the point, right? Essentially, I'm not convinced that there's an easy trick to learning how to write every day, or even that it can be taught at all.Websnark's last reason for liking NaNoWriMo is that "There are worse reasons to form a community than creativity," and that is about the best defense of NaNoWriMo that I can come up with as well. There certainly worse, less productive things one could do with one's time, and NaNoWriMo makes a solitary, often grueling endeavor fun and social, if only for one month out of the year. But, then, if writing weren't solitary and grueling, we'd all have novels out.
In 1886, Anton Chekhov wrote a letter to his brother enumerating the following requirements for his own writing:Absence of lengthy verbiage of political-social-economic natureTotal objectivityTruth descriptions of persons and objectsExtreme brevityAudacity and originality; flee stereotypesCompassionI like to present this list at the start of any fiction writing class because it's wonderful conversation fodder. Everyone has one they cherish (for me, it's compassion), and one they revile (as my students recently pointed out to me: Can anyone every be totally objective? Isn't the fleeing of stereotypes stereotypical?). After a discussion of this list, I have my students replace one or two of Chekhov's rules with their own. Popular answers include: passion; avoidance of adverbs; write what you know; write what you don't know; and humor. I always add "Bold use of metaphor" - whatever that means. If I were to revise Chekhov's list, I'd take the "extreme" out of "extreme brevity." Too wordy.Perhaps Chekhov hadn't read Edgar Allan Poe's famous 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice Told Tales, in which he advised, "Extreme brevity will degenerate into epigrammatism." I have a feeling that Ernest Hemingway did catch this warning, though, for when he was challenged to write a story in six words, he took old Poe to task with this:"For sale: baby shoes, never used."I love Hemingway's story - how it attests to the power of implication! For a long time, I thought it very sad, until author Antoine Wilson schooled me otherwise. Now I appreciate it even more.As pointed out on this blog a few days ago, Smith, the online magazine devoted to storytelling and personal narratives, is publishing a compendium of 6-word memoirs by various authors (some of them were previously compiled in the 2007 edition of The Best American Non-Required Reading.) My favorites include Drew Peck's "Ex-wife and contractor now have house" (which follows in Hemingway's footsteps of implication), and Bob Redman's "Being a monk stunk. Better gay" (for its musical qualities). All entries are fun, and they make you want to try writing one.I myself am terrible at the six-word story, autobiographical or not. Perhaps that's the real reason why I don't want the "extreme" in my "brevity." I use as few words as a story requires - but sometimes a story requires a lot of words. Isn't that what writers of the long short story - such as Alice Munro or Deborah Eisenberg - might tell you? But Poe warns against this, too, for "the sin of extreme length is even more unpardonable."Uh oh.
Next, I turned to my second William Boyd novel Stars and Bars. This modern day comedy is the story of Henderson Dores, an English specialist on Impressionism who moves from London to New York in an effort to switch from academia to the lucrative business of art auctioning and to re-establish his relationship with an ex-girlfriend, who recently divorced her husband and has a teenager daughter. In Stars and Bars, Boyd exploits the differences between the English and American cultures to relate the South through the shocked eyes of Henderson. The protagonist faces a lot of challenges and his efforts to conform his lifestyle to certain English ideas do not necessarily pay-off in the good ol' U.S. of A. Henderson defines unlucky in his exploits and his misfortunes make for a grand laugh. Need I mention that Stars and Bars is also an amazing page turner?I wanted to go on reading Boyd, but decided to take a rather unfortunate break and read Vladimir Nabokov's Look at the Harlequins!. This is the first novel I read by Nabokov, and I realized what a bad choice it was halfway into it, but finished it nevertheless. Look at the Harlequins is an autobiographical piece and has a ton of references to other works by Nabokov, none of which I understood. So, if youre not well versed in Nabokov, do not look at the harlequins.To cheer up after my terrible defeat to Nabokov, I picked up Joseph Hellers Catch As Catch Can, a collection of his pre and post Catch-22 short stories, some published in magazines, others not. I really enjoyed the collection and left the book with my dad when I was visiting Turkey over the summer (he lobbied for 6 tireless years for me to read Catch-22, the day he bought me the book and saw me start reading it must have been one of his happier days. Actually he was so inspired by Major Major Major Major, that he wanted to name me judge in Turkish, thinking that it would prevent future jeopardy when I began drunk driving. E.g. when the cop pulls me over I tell him I am "Judge Peker," and he would be intimidated into letting me go.) Regardless, Catch As Catch Can reveals an interesting and rather dark side of Heller before he wrote Catch-22. His subjects are all very interesting people. Among them are: old men, poor working class Brooklyners, junkies, and seamen, all in the wonderful city of New York. Catch As Catch Can also includes some stories that tell of Yossarian and Milo in their later days, which are written in the same manner and tone of Catch-22 and maintain the same level of hilarity. As in Milo sells non-existent fighter jet to the U.S. Air force to fight communists. Yes, it is great. My dad approved of the follow up Yossarian and Milo stories too.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
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In John Hodgman's charming 2005 miscellany The Areas of My Expertise, "Were You Aware Of It?" serves as a recurring title for astonishing "facts." One of my favorite among these inclusions reveals that:Jack Ruby owed seventeen dachshunds, whom he referred to as "his children." In an astonishing coincidence, all of his dogs were named either Lincoln, Kennedy, or Oswald, except one, which was named "Li'l Grassy Knoll." Meanwhile, Jacqueline Kennedy kept seventeen cats. She disliked the animals, but kept a pack of trained felines for the hunting of voles. This was an ancient European pastime akin to fox hunting, but replacing the dogs with cats, the fox with voles and/or shrews (moles and mice are disqualifiers), and the horses with single-speed bicycles. Her passion for the sport, which bordered on addiction, was considered a potential liability by some within the White House, who feared that many in mainstream America, who rarely eat vole, would perceive the sport as an aristocratic European fancy. Still, it was practiced on the sly, and as a result, most of Washington, D.C., is still voleless. Continuing in the great Hodgman-ian tradition of "Were You Aware Of It?", I submit the astonishing (and, unlike Hodgeman's, completely true) fact that the illustrious London Review of Books publishes personal ads. (I just began a subscription, so this is news to me.) And they are quite the literary genre: haiku-ishly, Sapphic fragment-ally tantalizing their in brevity, they recall that six word short story of Hemingway's ("For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Used.") and seem to offer kernels of novelish potential to those in the market for adventures in literary romance:M, 48, reaching the end of a marriage of convenience, clings to the belief that there still may be one beautiful woman left who values kindness above all else. Few demands other than intimacy in the beginning, in exchange a generous monthly allowance and the opportunity to travel.Sweet-natured F, 38, battling Dorothea Brooke tendencies. Seeks mildly eccentric unattached man with good heart.Don't tell me about your current literary read, I'll just sigh at the leaden predictability of it all, start twitching after you say "it stays with you" and grate my teeth like two whirling quern stones when you tell me you don't want to see the film until you've finished the book. Instead why not tell me about America's got talent and your favorite continental lager? Averring but occasionally surprising prof.Having just retired my ambition is to become the next Ernst Blofeld. I am looking for a lady to enjoy life with while I take over the world from my headquarters in South-East London.Update: Via commenter Imani, a collection of LRB personals was published in 2006: They Call Me Naughty Lola: Personal Ads from the London Review of Books
[Editor's note: This week we've invited Megan Hustad, author of How to Be Useful: A Beginner's Guide to Not Hating Work, to dissect our contributors' first-job follies.]Garth writes:My first job out of college was writing for what was essentially a dot-com. In ways I wasn't really aware of at the time, I thought I was pretty hot stuff. This delusion was encouraged by a mildly "fun" corporate culture and the fact that I could churn out a good chunk of the publication in about five hours of concentrated work, to general hosannas from my editors. I was working a lot faster than my predecessors. This left me with about three hours to kill every day; I didn't want to take on added duties for the same paycheck.This is a fairly common predicament in American office life, I'm pretty sure; we become victims of our own efficiency. The problem was, I wasn't into Solitaire or Minesweeper, blogs didn't really exist yet, and part of my job involved reading four newspapers first thing in the morning, so that wasn't an option for camouflaging my long periods of inactivity. I tried to read novels at my desk, but had a hard time concentrating with the computer screen right in front of me.Here's what I came up with (ah, the callow brilliance of the 23-year-old!): I would work like a mule from 8:30ish to 1:30ish, print up my work, and carry it off to the office cafeteria to edit. Around 2:15, after a quick sandwich (eating on the clock), I'd go to a nearby park and sit in the grass and read a book until 3:30 or so. At which point I'd come back to the office to publish.I think I thought of work as a fee-for-service model. I completed my duties, I got paid. And okay, maybe I was stretching lunch just a little bit. Of course, I was away from my desk for two solid hours, and to anyone who saw me lolling in the park, I'd look like a student or trustafarian. Then again, I did get some great reading done that year. I got paid to read War & Peace!Megan Hustad responds:You're weird. Minesweeper is a great game. Anyhow, the fee-for-service model works fine if superiors are oblivious and you aren't hoping for a future in the industry. Trouble is, it's hard to tell whether anyone is noticing. If your superiors are passive-aggressive or otherwise chickenhearted, they'll mumble about you behind your back for months but never say anything to you directly. If they did notice, your callow brilliance probably worked their nerves. This is just one reason why business success books written throughout the twentieth century advocated acting smart, sure, but never too smart. “Excess intelligence,” wrote Peter Engel in The Overachievers (1976), "is a very sly asset." Indeed.More importantly, people who take on added duties for the same paycheck tend to go on to have the most interesting careers. I was surprised -- but perhaps shouldn't have been -- to discover that Helen Gurley Brown (1962's Sex and the Single Girl and 1964's Sex and the Office) went on and on and on and on about this. She believed exploitation had its uses. Uselessness rating: 3For more information, please see these related posts:Welcome to the Working Week: Megan Hustad Analyzes Our On-the-Job FoiblesWelcome to the Working Week 1: MaxWelcome to the Working Week 2: EmreWelcome to the Working Week 4: Andrew
Perhaps you've seen it on the news. A historic and potentially catastrophic storm, Hurricane Katrina, is about 24 hours from plowing into New Orleans. If there ever was a "big one," this is it. Sustained winds are at 175 mph, and some experts think it may maintain this strength all the way to landfall. Despite the fact that New Orleans lies below sea level and needs levies and pumps to keep out the water, Mayor C. Ray Nagin has only just now ordered a mandatory evacuation. Many experts think it's already too late. If you want to keep an eye on this storm here are some links. Blogs: Dr. Jeff Masters, Steve Gregory, Eye of the Storm, Brendan Loy, Fresh Bilge. Links to TV coverage on the web at Lost Remote. The National Hurricane Center. I may add more to this post as I find more links.
The July/August 2011 issue of Poets & Writers contains an interesting nugget from William Giraldi, author of the recently published novel Busy Monsters, his first. He says, “There’s obscene pressure on writers to be the next hot young thing...But let’s be honest: Most hot young things have nothing of value to say.” Pretty tough words for a 36-year-old. Not to imply any judgment of his novel one way or the other — I have not read it and do not know him — but by my lights, he’s still something of a hot young thing himself. His comment carries a special irony within this particular issue of Poets & Writers. Not only the cover story but also two other lengthy articles are about some aspect of debut fiction. In the grants and awards section, there are no fewer than six announcements for awards, fellowships, or professorships that are only available either to writers making their debut or writers under 35 or 40. Despite Giraldi’s comforting words, this issue of the magazine put me over the edge. “Damn it,” I thought. “Why do the kids get so much of the good stuff?” I’m picking on Poets & Writers here but, as Giraldi notes, it is simply going along with the crowd. From the National Book Association’s “5 Under 35” to The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” to the Bard Fiction Prize (under 40) to the New York Public Library’s Young Lions award (under 35) and on and on, the publishing and awards-giving biz has decided, along with the apparatus that promotes authors and their work (magazines, newspapers, websites, etc.) that the kids are all right. But where does that leave us oldsters (by which I mean those of us on the far side of 40)? Of course, there are non-age-restricted prizes such as the Guggenheim, the NEA, and others open to mid-career, middle-aged writers. These awards all serve an important purpose — and they are all ferociously competitive. Do you know how many Guggenheim fellows there were in fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry last year? Twenty-six, out of literally thousands of applicants. And they weren’t all over 40. Yes, sometimes a Jaimy Gordon or Julia Glass will squeak through to the big time with an unexpected major prize (the National Book Award in both their cases). But once you pass 40, if you’re not part of a small, largely white, male, extremely-talented-but-still coterie (you know who you are, Eugenides, Franzen, and Chabon), that’s rare. I realize this sounds bitter. And I have no business being bitter. I am a 50-year-old African-American woman whose fourth novel arriving in stores now. My work has always been published by major houses. Given the current climate in the book business, I am well aware that this is close to a miracle, especially for someone whose novels, though well-regarded, have sold modestly. I’ve enjoyed a couple of prestigious fellowships and won some prizes; when I look at it objectively, I know I’ve got it good - far better than many. But this isn’t just about me (well it is partly, but not entirely). It’s about the extraordinary and damaging degree to which youth gets exalted in the status game of publishing and publicity. Not to take anything away from the many talented folks under 40, but where are the non-Pulitzer/National Book Award-level prizes for those of us who’ve been in there pitching for a while? Where’s The New Yorker’s “20 Over 40?” By the time you get to your third, fourth, fifth major piece of fiction or non-fiction, ideally, you’ve settled into an expansion and deepening of your skills and talents as a writer. Even if you start late (say, at the ripe old age of 36), with any luck, your later novels will be better than your first. Yes, there are those who write only one book, or whose first book is their best. (Ralph Ellison, anyone?) And there are those who don’t, in fact, progress. But if you hang in there and read and push yourself, odds are that your later books will achieve a richness and nuance that your first one can’t. It is true that sometimes, past a certain point, it becomes a game of diminishing returns artistically (that’s another essay), but for many writers, mid-career is when they produce their best work. Off the top of my head: Beloved is Toni Morrison’s fifth novel. The Hours is Michael Cunningham’s third (fourth, if you count his disavowed first novel, Golden States). The Remains of the Day is Kazuo Ishiguro’s third novel. The Great Gatsby is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third. Even the above-named contemporary big three — Eugenides, Franzen, and Chabon — hit their stride after writing one, two, even three novels. For my part, when I look back at my own fiction, I can see how my work has grown stronger and cleaner (for a small example, I used the word “weird” WAY too much in my first book.) As Giraldi notes and as we all know, we live in a youth-obsessed culture. And really, is there any reason publishing should be different? I say yes, emphatically. Part of the reason we write is to consider as many facets of the human condition as possible. And the longer you live, the more of that darn thing you will find yourself confronted with. So God bless the whippersnappers. I wish the best of them the best of luck. But the next time some wealthy patron of literature wants to endow a chair or offer a grant or a fellowship, or the next time a literary magazine wants to bestow a mantle, here’s hoping the requirements will be: “Applicants must be over 40 and have published at least one book.” Image credit: Mickey van der Stap/Flickr