Shelf Life: On the Stories Our Books Tell About Us

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For the last two years I’ve worked almost solely from home, meaning I spend most of my days on  video calls. The setup of my apartment is such that there are few good places to Zoom. I take most meetings from the hallway near my bedroom, an interior passage where, over a decade ago, my dad and I built shelves for all my books.

Are you in a library? a co-worker once asked me. No, I laughed. Although it does feel like it here sometimes. I’ve also been asked: Is that a fake background? And, perhaps the most common question: How many of those books have you read?

I probably should know the rough ratio of the books I’ve read to the number of books I own. But I don’t. I’ve added and subtracted too many titles over the years. Besides, when it comes to the books a person puts on display, sometimes the actual books themselves are beside the point.

The first proper bookshelf that I ever owned was in a shabby Chicagoland walk-up during my last year of college. The place had bad water and clanky radiators, but I loved it because the mantle of the broken fireplace in my bedroom was perfect for the little cache of novels I had begun to assemble. At that stage in my life the books I owned were signals to be sent as much as texts to be read. Looking at them on the mantle, they conjured a future world where I would be an adult who did meaningful things. For the young and ambitious, it’s almost instinctual to surround yourself with books that prefigure who you intend to be.

I still own many of the big books from that first line-up: Joyce’s Ulysses, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation of The Brothers Karamazov, and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Despite parading them on my shelf, I knew almost nothing about these novels—I had not read them. But my professors and peers I admired spoke of them with reverence, and like a good apprentice I did as I was told when it came to book buying.

A confession that will surprise no one: the books on that first bookshelf were not there for purely intellectual pursuits. I was 20 years old, after all. I flirted with more than one girl by showing off the books in my keep. Why yes, that’s a hardcover copy of The Satanic Verses. Yeah, I’ve read it. It’s actually pretty good. So tell me, what kind of books do you like?

Skip ahead a few years to a fifth floor walk-up in Brooklyn Heights. By then I had a full-time job and I owned enough (cheap) furniture that I needed help moving into my new place. I paid two burly Eastern European guys to haul my stuff up five flights. They didn’t speak much English, and I don’t remember them saying much except: You have too many books.

For that Brooklyn apartment I bought two freestanding bookcases for the vestibule,making my books the first thing visitors saw upon entering. I was showy with those bookcases, performative. But that was the stage of life that I was in. I was still collecting anything that looked like it would fit on the shelves of my life, and I was still overeager to show off my learnedness–or more precisely, my hunger for learnedness–to anyone that stopped by. On weekends I’d prowl used bookstores for new additions to my collection. One day I’d bring home something old, like a Brontë. Another day, something borrowed from a friend, like Beloved. Or something blue, like Breakfast of Champions.

I worked in the Financial District and often returned home quite late, sometimes because I was at the office toiling away, but usually because I was out with coworkers or friends or both. Stayed out till three or four in the morning. Tired, eyes raw, tipsy, at the far end of a night I’d hike up the stairs, one, two, three, four, five stories and turn the key in the apartment door and there they were, waiting, silent, judgy: my books. Right where I’d left them.

If the books on my first bookshelf were once signals for who I wanted to be, then the books on those Brooklyn shelves were reminders of what I still needed to do. There was in the solemnity of their silence something that made me feel more than a little chastened. I was 26 by then. Had I made any headway on the books I’d intended to read? Had I forgotten all the ambitions I had, in both literature and life? The rows of books were long lines of dares, double dares, triple dares. Get to it, boy, their spines all read.

My Brooklyn roommate had an actress girlfriend who sometimes spent weekdays at our place while my roommate and I were at work. She embarked on a project to read through every book of interest in the vestibule. I said she could read whatever she liked. I admired her determination, but envied how much time she spent with the books I had not gotten around to reading. I moved out before she got through everything.

Not long after I moved out of the Brooklyn apartment, I visited my brother in Austin. All I remember now about his place are the milk crates where he kept his books. He had lots of books—some of them gifts from me—but he didn’t like owning books. It costs more to keep a book, he said, than to buy a new copy every time you want to re-read it. Because how often do you reread most books? I presume he was right about the math, seeing as he’s an engineer. But I didn’t really believe what he was telling me. His equation left out something that can’t be counted. Yet it did do one important thing: it forced me to accept that the books you keep aren’t kept just for reading or rereading.

Two months after our son was born, my wife Raina and I moved into our current apartment in upper Manhattan. Walking with Raina through our new, empty rooms, we asked that age-old question: where to put all our stuff?

For me, the ideal place for the books was a wall near the master bedroom. It was an out of the way spot where guests were unlikely to see the books. The opposite of the primo placement I had wanted for bookcases in apartments past. But I was after something else. In this space, I’d see the bookshelves every day when I went to bed and first thing in the morning when I got up. That was more than enough for me now.

It was a challenge to fit all the books into the narrow passage. Shelving units would crowd the space. Luckily, my dad offered to build custom shelves. When I was a kid, he built the bookshelves in our living room, which was where we stored the full set of encyclopedias that my mom bought, one volume at a time, from the supermarket near our home. For weeks he and I traded emails about the design, placement, and materials. For the first time in  at least a decade I had to count how many books I had in order to figure out how many shelves we needed. The final number made me sheepish. That’s all right, he said, when I told him we needed far more shelf space than I originally estimated.

As a kid, I remember my dad lounging on the beach reading mass-market paperbacks—Cussler, Clancy, Grisham. He didn’t pick books to impress people, not that I could tell. He wasn’t the kind of person to cultivate a pretentious bookshelf. He just built them. You read books for yourself; you built shelves to hold things. It didn’t have to be more complicated than that.

To put the new bookshelves together, my dad stayed in our New York apartment for a long weekend. The two of us worked for two long days installing and then pulling out and reinstalling materials. I say we, but really, I just held things; he made measurements, drilled, hammered, and fixed anchors in drywall. If a shelf was wiggly, he’d mutter to himself, Nope. It’s fine, I’d say. He shook his head. You’ve got that little baby, he said. He’s going to climb these shelves when you’re not looking. These have to be strong enough to hold the books and his weight, too.

The end result was, is, beautiful. Six white shelves, each about nine feet long. The first is a foot off the floor and the last is less than two feet from the ceiling. My son is 10 now and the shelves likely wouldn’t hold his weight, but he’s past the age where I worry. I’m not sure what the absolute upper limit is for the number of books the shelves can hold, but I can tell you that it is more than enough for my purposes now.

Thanks to the pandemic, more people see these bookshelves than any other setup I have, now that I work in front of the books on a daily basis. An ironic twist, I suppose, in the long history of all the books I’ve set in a line over my life.

A month ago I culled 52 books from the shelves. Books that I still have not read, or that I read and don’t care to keep. I like the look of the shelves without those books: the revised line of spines now more closely follows the line of my life as it has been lived—what I show on a bookshelf these days is less and less about an imaginary self that I wish I could or should be. I’m not trying to show off what I am reading, not trying to impress anyone. Now my bookshelves remind me of where I’ve been, who I am, and what it’s taken to get here.

Origin Stories: On the Value of Comics

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1.
I was six years old when I pulled a reprint of “Amazing Spider-Man No. 1” from the rack at Michigan News, a rumpled newsstand at the heart of the city where I grew up. I still have the comic, dated April 1982; it’s tattered and almost worthless, but as a talisman it can transport me across time. Suddenly, I’m there. I’m shorter than the counter. The man at the register rings the sale. The world is vast and I’m unsure of how it works, but this comic is mine, and that’s enough.

As a kid I liked Spider-Man’s run-ins with colorful villains like Electro and Doctor Octopus, but the real draw for me was Spidey’s alter ego, the nerdy, scrawny Peter Parker. Every character in the comic thinks Peter is a frail high schooler who needs protecting; but as Spider-Man, he protects everybody. The perfect hero for a six year-old scaredy cat. 

My mom says I was often sick as a baby. Ear infections, fevers, runny noses, the works. By preschool I was better, but in photos I’m all ribs, my arms are beggar-thin, my legs are broomsticks with knobs for knees. Scooby-Doo and Halloween Specials gave me nightmares. Hanging around my big brother and his friends, everyone was always older, smarter, faster, stronger. Naturally, I related to Peter Parker. Nevermind that he had real powers, and I had only the powerful imagination of a lonely kid.

Over time, I discovered comic books were everywhere. At the Waldenbooks and B. Dalton Booksellers of the area malls. In the periodical aisle at Meijer, the bright, sprawling supermarket where my mom shopped twice a month. At Harding’s, the tiny, five-aisle grocer near home. It was there that I picked up the fourth issue of Secret Wars, a limited series from 1984.

The gist of Secret Wars is this: a cosmic being called the Beyonder has kidnapped the galaxy’s greatest superheroes and villains and brought them to a distant planet to fight. The winners, the Beyonder says, will be granted anything their heart desires. The Beyonder’s godlike power troubles all the heroes, but none more than Thor, the Thunder God. In “Secret Wars No. 4,” Thor and another Asgardian debate their place in the cosmos given this new Beyonder. Who’s the real god here, they wonder, if they are not the mightiest ones?

Their conversation sent me spiraling. My family went to church every Sunday, sometimes twice, which is to say: I worried a lot about personal damnation. Was it blasphemous to own a comic with characters who claimed to be gods? How could it not be? I quickly regretted buying “Secret Wars No. 4.” But I couldn’t return it. I couldn’t give it away. So I ripped it to pieces, every page. Then I threw the scraps into the Where’s the Beef? wastebasket in my bedroom. Problem solved. Sort of.

My mom found the shredded comic book a few days later. Once a week she collected our wastebaskets and burned the paper in a brick-lined fire pit in the woods at the edge of our lawn. Why did you tear up your comic book? she asked, showing me the scraps. She wasn’t angry. She just didn’t understand. What was this boy doing? Why was he buying things just to destroy them? I don’t remember explaining myself. I probably didn’t know how. How does a child explain that pencil and ink drawings of imaginary people made him feel like his soul was in mortal danger?

2.
Some vintage comics are valuable simply because so few exist; say, the inaugural issue of Action Comics from 1939, which was the first comic to ever sell for more than $3 million. But most comics’ value is contingent on how well the physical book has been preserved: a tear, a water stain, a missing staple—all can render a comic virtually worthless. 

I didn’t understand this as a kid. I treated my comics with the same utilitarian attitude that I applied to my friendships. One of my first friendships was built on a shared love of comics. Joel loved Iron Man like I loved Spidey. Together we pored over comic books as if they contained the key to understanding the adult world. I remember bringing a stack of Joel’s Iron Mans to the beach to read. He was sure I’d love them. I didn’t like Tony Stark nearly as much as Peter Parker, but I didn’t tell Joel. 

Joel introduced me to Fanfare, a specialty comics shop located in a shopping center that was also home to the local skating rink. I’d never heard of a comics store before; I didn’t understand.

Like, they just sell comics? I asked. No newspapers?

But we never visited Fanfare together. I wonder if I had seen the shop, if I would have begun to see how old comic books could be objects of value. This was where our friendship began to diverge. One day at Joel’s house, I noticed a few of his Iron Mans were missing. I asked if he’d misplaced or loaned them out. Oh, no, he said. They’re in the freezer.

He had stowed the comics in a freezer below the stairs in his basement. Each of his comics had been lovingly slid into plastic comic book bags, presumably purchased from Fanfare. Joel assured me this was the proper way to store comics.

But how do you actually read them, I asked.

Joel and I got into a tiff after he caught me eating pizza while reading one of his cold storage comics. The grease will ruin the pages, he said. He wasn’t wrong. I wasn’t being careful. I still didn’t get it. If you couldn’t actually touch the comics that you owned, didn’t that defeat the purpose of buying them in the first place? I couldn’t imagine a future where the comics we bought with our quarters would one day be worth anything more than the price printed on the cover.

I would have quit comics as a teenager, except my brother Jeff gifted me an Amazing Spider-Man subscription. I no longer had to hunt for comics—they came to me in the mail in sleeves of plain brown paper. (Later, in college, I’d learn that porn also travels the mail under the cover of brown paper.) Shortly after the Spider-Man subscription began, a new artist named Todd MacFarlane began drawing the artwork. On the cover of “Amazing Spider-Man No. 298,” Spider-Man dodges the fiery fusillade of a villain named Chance. The drawing has an unusual sense of perspective and motion. The pages inside are also different, and not just the drawings. On page ten, Peter decides to surprise his wife Mary Jane by dressing up as a Chippendale dancer. Later, he promises her a “special dessert” in their bedroom.

In the next issue, No. 299, Mary Jane and Peter go dancing in Manhattan. She wears fishnets and a dress with a slit that almost reaches her waist. Her long red hair is permed and vampish, sort of like Elisabeth Shue in Cocktail (a movie I was not allowed to watch). At the end of the night they lie in bed; her head is on Peter’s chest, nothing risque, but there’s an adult undercurrent that even a naive boy could detect.

When I found issue No. 300 in the mailbox, it was heavier than previous issues because it had more pages. The story inside was longer in honor of Spider-Man’s 25th anniversary. And MacFarlane’s artwork? The kid gloves were off, along with other articles of clothing. On page 9, Mary Jane wears a nightie to answer the phone. On page 17, Peter sulks in their new apartment, so Mary Jane takes off her shirt, in what I can only assume is an attempt at consolation. It’s preposterous. And it blew my prepubescent mind. I was pretty sure if my parents read this comic, they’d confiscate it, cancel the subscription, and never let me read Spider-Man again. So I hid No. 300 in my closet—and waited for issue No. 301 to arrive.

MacFarlane drew Spider-Man for more than two years. He added melodrama to every page: flaring capes, wild explosions, frenetic fight scenes. But what I liked most was how he drew Mary Jane. Unfortunately, how she was drawn was pretty much all there was to her character: she was always either a damsel in distress or sexy wallpaper. The hormone-addled part of me was drawn to the peek-a-boo drawings of her; but as time passed, I grew increasingly aware that the writing wasn’t up to snuff. Flat dialogue and soapy storylines prevailed. Peter and MJ lose their lease! Peter goes back to school for his graduate degree! Mary Jane loses her contract as a model!

My Spider-Man subscription ran out when I was in eighth grade. I didn’t renew it. Though I’d spent half my life reading Spider-Man stories, I’d reached the end of the line. I stowed all the comics on a shelf in the closet but kept a poster of Spider-Man, a big and broody MacFarlane affair, on my bedroom door. Sophomore year, on a double date, I stopped by my house with three other people. They met my parents. They met our dog. They saw my room—and that’s when I saw with new eyes the Spider-Man poster on the door. The next time I stopped by the house with a date, the Spider-Man poster was gone.

3.
Growing up is a kind of exponential change. You bump along for ages, each day a lot like the last, same best friend, same favorite superhero, same bedroom at night, and the sameness gathers like a madness that you can’t shake until one day you notice something tiny, like how silly that Spider-Man poster looks, and so you make a change, just a little; and then something else happens, another change, bigger this time, you’re old enough to drive, you’re old enough to vote, then bang, bang, crash, pow, you’re an adult in New York City, you’re married to a woman you met at work, you’ve got two children, you’re in a vintage comics shop and the kids want funny books.

My daughter was ten and my son was six when we first visited Mysterious Time Machine, a tiny specialty shop located below street level on Sixth Avenue. Like most places in Greenwich Village, it was smaller than my childhood living room. My wife Raina helped our daughter locate a box full of Archies under a table. Meanwhile, I helped my son flip through Iron Man comics. When we got to the issues from the eighties, I couldn’t help but think about Joel.

We planned another trip to Mysterious Time Machine for Free Comic Book Day later that year. The kids were thrilled: Free comics! What could be better? Our plans were almost derailed by an email asking if my daughter was free for a playdate with an old pal. In the end, the girl’s dad agreed to meet us at the comics shop. At the shop, the dad was cheery and inquisitive; we chatted while our kids scampered around.

So this is all they sell, he said. Just comics?

Yeah, I said. I joked about looking for a graphic novel of a John Steinbeck classic for him. I joked because I was embarrassed. He was a journalist, a serious one, and I felt like I should have suggested we meet at the Morgan Library or the MOMA. But this was what I knew. This was what I grew up doing. It was a kind of heritage, however lowbrow. I mentioned that I still had some of the comics I collected as a kid.

Are they worth anything? he asked. Your old comics?

A logical question. We were standing in the middle of a comics shop, a place where vintage comics were trafficked. But I couldn’t answer it. I’d never seriously tried to find out. I tried to pass the question off as unknowable. But he was a serious man, and he was taking comics seriously. Why couldn’t I?

Last summer, I finally tried to answer his question. Our family spent three nights in a tricked out Airstream at a campground near Martha’s Vineyard. We cooked breakfast over an open fire and rented bikes, and at the end of the day we all re-watched Thor: Ragnarok, which my kids agree is one of the best Marvel movies.

One of their other favorites is Spider-Man: Far From Home. It’s a good flick, but not one of Marvel’s finest, if I’m honest, perhaps because the Spidey of the movie isn’t the Spidey I grew up with. He’s not nerdy enough; he’s not angry about his outsider status; he has actual friends. Maybe the idea of a stymied weakling who’s actually a superhero doesn’t have novelty anymore. 

On the second day of the trip we drove to town for breakfast. Every cafe and pancake house had a waitlist. Raina reconoittored a nearby boulangerie while I brought the kids to Blast from the Past, a shop with vintage KISS action figures, WWF Pez dispensers, and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman posters. My teenage daughter ogled record players and vinyl album stacks. On our way out, we passed vintage comics in polyethylene bags on a display wall behind the front register. A familiar cover hung just over a clerk’s shoulder. Spider-Man, as drawn by Todd McFarlane; a copy of “Amazing Spider-Man No. 300.”

Hey, I have that comic, I said.

I hope you’re taking care of it, the clerk behind the register said. That’s when I noticed the asking price: $500.

A few days later, I brought down the box in my closet where I kept my old comics. A box I rarely opened. Inside, all the familiar faces were there. The Amazing Spider-Man reprints from 1982 and 1983. The wedding issue where Peter and Mary Jane get hitched. The six-part saga where Kraven the Hunter buries Spidey alive. And my copy of “Amazing Spider-Man No. 300.” I dandled No. 300 in front of Raina and the kids, as if keeping it for 33 years had been my plan all along.

If someone offered you $500, Raina asked, would you sell it?

I made a pained face. Is it crazy if I said no?

Later that August, all of us were in the car as I parallel parked in a space outside Sarge’s Comics in New London, Connecticut. Sarge’s is a large comics specialty shop located near the pier and across the street from the Yankee Peddler pawn shop and a wings ‘n pies restaurant.

Inside, the store was wide and deep. An armada of manga and Funko Pops filled space to the right. My daughter lost herself in a happy maze of imported books from Japan. My son and I wandered the aisles until we encountered a man in a black t-shirt who resembled an employee. He was performing touch-up surgery on a furry monster head, likely something for the display window.

If you found what you want, he said, someone can ring you up over there.

He barely looked up. But when he did, I pointed at my son, who was holding three Spider-Man comics, including No. 300.

These are some of my dad’s old comics, he began. We wanted to know—

Sorry, the clerk said, interrupting. We don’t do appraisals.

My son looked at me, uncertain.

You can still help, I said, careful to sound chipper. We don’t need a formal appraisal. We’re wondering if you think it’s in good enough condition to be worth anything?

The clerk took No. 300, turned it over, frowned, then handed it back. I really couldn’t tell you, he said. The owner’s the one who handles comics. I manage everything else.

I was tempted to ask what this place was for except comics, really? But I didn’t. I thanked him for his time and we went back to browsing. Board games, figurines in glass cases, vintage comics in bankers boxes: before long, my son found something exciting. The world is vast and he has a long way to go before he tires of it. For my part, I also felt lighter, happier. It wasn’t till we were back in the car that I realized why: because I didn’t get an answer. I didn’t have any clearer idea of what these comics were worth. I didn’t have to decide whether to sell or not to sell. Because what was it worth to me? Hard to say. Maybe impossible.

I am now further from that boy in Michigan News than the boy in Michigan News in 1982 was from the very first Amazing Spider-Man comic in 1963. That six year-old boy was wide-eyed for funny books drawn almost 20 years earlier; the man that I am now is 40 years older than the boy I was back then. Twice the distance, and growing every day. How many more decades will the game keep playing out? How long will I carry with me a box of worn comics, of tattered memories? For what price would I ever let go a part of me?

The Kindest Cut: On Rejection

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At a party many years ago, I jokingly told another guest that I’d do my best to remember his name after I published a book to great acclaim. I meant to be funny and disarming, but I bungled the delivery. I came off like a jerk. This other guest was a writer, too, and an equally self-serious one. Predictably, he took offense. He pointed his beer bottle at me. I’ll remember you too, he said, when I win my Pulitzer.

I did not shrug off his rejoinder. How could I? He may as well have suggested pistols at dawn. I was young. I was jittery with ambition. I was terrified of failure in all forms. By the time his girlfriend—who’d introduced us—returned with more beers, we were pompously debating who had better odds for a Nobel.

Flash forward to last winter, as I walked to the building where my daughter has choir practice. I wore a thick parka, but I felt my phone vibrate to announce a new email. Once inside the vestibule, I warmed my hands and checked my email to find a message from the agent who’d asked to read my latest novel. “There is really so much to admire in this manuscript,” the email began. I stopped reading and put the phone back in my coat pocket. Then marched onward to find my daughter. Already, I knew: rejection. I knew all the words that would come. I’d heard them all before.

There’s a fairly wide gap between what I expected as a preposterous young man and the writing life as I’ve lived it. I’m old enough to see how disillusionment is the price for adulthood in every vocation, not just writing and the arts. Yet, one facet of my writing life still surprises me with its wicked gleam. Once, I believed as a writer my most important skill would be knowing how to lay words in a line that’s solid as a cut stone wall. Nope. Turns out the most important skill for me as a writer, the skill I can’t live without, and the one that took the longest to learn, is a skill for failure.

OFFSTAGE VOICE (Indignantly): Your Honor, the defendant is beating around the bush. For the record, can he state plainly that he has not, I repeat, not yet won a literary prize of any kind, or general acclaim, or even, I believe, published a real book, yes? Is that right? Can that be right, after all these years?

Yes, yes, that’s true, all of it. I’ll be specific, then: I graduated from an MFA program over 21 years ago now. I was not idle during those years. But it took 12 years for me to write and revise a story to the point that a journal was willing to publish it. The rewriting wasn’t the problem, although I wrote a lot of bad prose, too; the problem was submitting.

Once upon a time, any query that I sent out involved printing an excerpt or a story and sending the pages in the post. I had a stockpile of Uline envelopes, printer paper reams, spare toner, and stamps, always stamps. I was a regular at the drop box in the post office in Newark, N.J., the tired one near the office where I worked. Eventually, the postal tide carried rejections to me in my own self-addressed envelopes. I was prepared for cold, impersonal rejections. I hated to see them, but they were expected. However, nothing prepared me for the kind ones. For the almost-but-not-quite-there rejections, the let downs that were almost yeses. The kindest of cuts stung the most.

“I want to stress how close this came,” wrote one editor, about a story I’d submitted. The first agent I ever queried wrote: “I found myself starting and stopping, convinced by your talent without being fully absorbed.” An editor at Grove went so far as to edit 50 pages of my manuscript before deciding, no, no, not for her. I have a photocopy of the edits; a kind gesture, but also a painful one.

As time passed, more and more people I knew began to show up, one here, one there, in The New York Times Book Review. I wrote genuine congratulatory emails to friends and I tripped to the outer boroughs for readings in book shops, but let’s be real: I felt awful. It’s not that I wished these people ill. (Except that Pulitzer guy from the party long ago. He was insufferable.) I just wanted some wins, too.

One day, I opened the NYTBR to see a large photo of someone who lived three doors down in college. Her jaunty, snazzy novel was a bestseller. I’d had no idea she was a writer before that day, that moment. The shock was like learning your wife’s high school flame is moving in next door. It doesn’t really matter. Except it totally matters.

After the world mutated into its current digital state, submissions became easier, and rejections came faster. Gmail easily captured them all, and it still allows me ready access should I wish to torture myself with re-readings. “I read this piece with great interest, and I thought the characters were beautifully done,” begins a rejection from an editor at Knopf. “I wanted to let you know,” an editor writes at the end of a rejection notice from Electric Literature, “our readers commented on the story’s smart pacing and evocative details.” Another editor, another journal: “Your piece made it to the top of the general submission pile, but we didn’t take any general submissions this year.”

I have more letters like these. Dozens. Dozens of dozens. I did my best to read each and then move on. Sometimes I complained, but I learned, as the years went on, that quiet endurance was what people expect of anyone foolish enough to harbor artistic ambition. If I complained about rejection at, say, a wedding reception, a garrulous bore with a practical degree and a smug worldview was always at hand and ready to point out that this author or that cult classic got the thumbs down from publishers a few dozen, a score, hundreds, hell, why not a thousand times? This is what you asked for, yeah?

Sometimes, a useful piece of criticism would crop up in a rejection letter. “The writing is a bit flat for our list,” said the editor of a small press, after reading my novel about an interracial marriage. How lovely it felt to get clear criticism! Flat, toneless, lacking affect? Got it. This was an observation that I could address. Briefly, I had the clarity of a writing workshop. I rewrote the entire 85,000-word novel. Doubled down on submissions. But it still didn’t sell. An editor at Random House said of that book: “I read this with great interest, and thought the characters were beautifully done, and the writing was lovely, but ultimately, the stakes just didn’t seem to be high enough.”

The failure of that novel—my third since graduate school—was a turning point for me, a moment when I saw it clearly spelled out that perhaps I just plain wasn’t good at something crucial to fiction. I could write crafty sentences, even create plausible characters, but could I make a reader care?

People talk about fiction sometimes as if the elementals are so simple. Make sure your characters want something! Make sure there are stakes! Make sure the prose rings like a wine glass when you tap it! As if these attributes rose out of simple decisions made on a line-by-line basis. Yes, they do. But there’s also something more. There must be. Or else. after years of trying, wouldn’t I already have found the formula that works?

One evening after a reading that made me feel frustrated and jealous, I began writing an essay. I didn’t know that’s what it was. I was just tapping into my phone while riding on the train. But then I kept working on it after I got home. The subject: Why was I still writing? What was it that had me still trying, refusing to quit, despite failing for so long?

That meditation on failure turned into my first published essay; ironically, an essay on not succeeding was my first piece of writing to succeed in reaching an audience. I didn’t quit writing fiction per se after that. But I did write another essay. And another. I found a comfortable niche in personal essays. The canvas is smaller. The stakes are clear in the first few lines. And I fail less often when I send essays out.

Of course, I am stubborn, and I don’t always operate in a rational manner. I continue to labor at fiction. Every few years, I am swept up in the idea for a novel. I spend months and months writing doomed texts. But I don’t have the same attitude toward what will happen when I’m finished. The expectation of success is gone, so much so that I sometimes forget the point of writing a novel is to share it.

Sometimes I even see humor in rejections where no humor was intended. “There was a lot I admired about this,” said an agent who read my manuscript about the poet Sappho reappearing in the modern world. “But I couldn’t accept the idea that Sappho was somehow transplanted into the modern day.” Indeed, it would be hard to admire much about a book where you can’t accept the central premise.

Another agent once rejected a novel manuscript, but without stating why. Very well, carry on. Then, six months later, she wrote another email, apologized for the delay, and rejected me a second time. If this doesn’t make you laugh, then don’t write a book.

Not long ago, an agent rejected me and, in a few sentences, she also helped me to see how and where I fail as a fiction writer: “The gracefulness and control of your writing impressed me. [The characters] make an intriguing pair of protagonists around whom the narrative twists and unravels. As much as I admire these aspects, however, I fear the novel may ultimately be too introspective, without quite enough plot development to move the narrative along.”

Am I too introspective? Yes, I am. Do I not write fiction the way most good fiction is written? Perhaps I do not. Does this bother me? A little yes, a little no. But this is who I am. I am the Don of the Also Rans. Mr. Not Quite Good Enough. I’m a Master of Failure, and although that’s not what I set out to be, it’s something.

As a writer, I have had to learn how to fail, to fail with economy and without anger, to fail in ways that allow me to see where I am not writing well, or where I have sent my words to the wrong place. Once I learned this, everything was easier, or at least everything that had to do with rejection.

For more than a year I have been sending out into the world a new novel, Likeness; it’s starting to look like my most masterful failure yet. “There is no question that you are a very talented writer,” wrote an agent’s assistant after reading it. “This story pulled me along and kept me invested, and it’s like nothing else I’ve read in the best way.” I mean, yes, yes, right? Isn’t that what a novel should do? But, no, she went on. The book just wasn’t a fit. Her boss had no idea where to place it. It was too strange, too weird, too much its own thing.

If this is failing, then I suppose that I should have it no other way.

Image Credit: Flickr/DrewCoffman

Silent All These Years: On Annie Dillard

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1.
Some years ago, I attended a conference featuring boldface names and their thoughts on the topic of the essay as art. At 39, I’d written three failed novels, and essays felt like the last form left to me. I was desperate for tips, tricks, and whatever writerly chum they throw to audiences at events like these.

“An essay,” said Philip Lopate on the day of the conference, “is an invitation to think alongside me.”

I jotted his words in a Moleskine notebook and have been turning them over in my head and on the page ever since. The best essays are trips to terra nova, yes; but at heart, all essays depend on a simple sense of camaraderie. From the first word to the last, the writer of an essay is a guide, even if the piece never gets out of first gear. Each essay is a fellowship.

By Lopate’s definition, there’s no better essayist than Annie Dillard. Her thoughts go places no one else can see. Following in her path, you can sip the cold fire of eternity, cheat death in a stunt plane, or trace God’s name in sand, salt, or cloud. She didn’t invent the essay. Her most famous work isn’t classified as an essay. But in the cosmos of essayists, there’s Annie Dillard, and there’s everyone else.

2.
It doesn’t cost more than a couple clicks to get the complete text for Dillard’s piece on witnessing a solar eclipse. If you haven’t read it, you should; if you’ve read it before, reread it. “Total Eclipse” was published 40 years ago, but it’s still wild. I read it for the first time one winter night. I had a good hunch the moon would slip between sun and Earth in the narrative. But I wasn’t prepared for a lunatic opera. By the end of the piece I was like, wait, wait, who is this woman?

Despite being a septuagenarian who cut her teeth on theodicy, Annie Dillard’s name is practically a Twitter hashtag. She gets regular hat tip tweets, often quotations from her first prose book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, or from The Writing Life, her slim but wise book on craft. Writers admire her sleek writing and crisp turns of phrase, but plenty of her fans just love love love her without knowing how to explain why. I’m not sure I can explain why, either; there are too many good reasons.

For one thing, her prose is sharp as a chert blade. Don’t know what an ancient Solutrean chert blade is? Neither did I, until I read For the Time Being, her last book of nonfiction. “Hold one of these chert blades to the sky,” she writes, describing an ancient knife made of chiseled stone so fine that “it passes light.” She continues:
At its very edge the blade dissolves into the universe at large. It ends imperceptibly at an atom. Each one of these delicate, absurd objects takes hundreds of separate blows to fashion. At each stroke and each pressure flake, the brittle chert might – and, by the record, very often did – snap.
Here’s another reason to love her. She teaches you things. Not showy facts to prove her smarts. Not cheap trivia any sixth grader with a library card could tell you. She delivers the goods for questions you didn’t or wouldn’t have the tenacity to resolve. In a retrospective on her career, The New York Times cited her understanding that “the mundane itself — snails, fireplaces, shrubs, pebbles, socks, minor witticisms — is secretly amazing.”

This March, my nine-year-old asked how the frogs in the park could survive if their pond froze over. I don’t really know, I said. But Dillard knows. She did the work and put the answer right there on page 47 of the 2013 reissue of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She’s not showing off when she tells you about how frogs survive the winter by burrowing in mud and breathing through their skin.  She’s just demonstrating that it’s possible to unriddle an unknown, if you put in the work.

Despite all the love you can find for Annie Dillard, despite her perch in the pantheon of great writers, there’s something off-kilter in the way people talk about her.

On its face, this is absurd. She’s part of the canon. She received a National Humanities Medal. She has written books that will outlive her. So what then is it that bothers me about how we talk about Annie Dillard? Why do I feel like there is something we’ve already begun to lose with respect to her?

A few years ago, no less a writer than Geoff Dyer attempted to position Dillard as a single star in the firmament of writers. He surveys her career in search of an answer to the question of what kind of writer she is exactly. He is uniquely gifted at indirectly saying what can’t be said about geniuses and grand artists (as his book on D.H. Lawrence demonstrates). Near the end of his Dillard piece, Dyer triangulates her position with respect to other writers he admires. Then he stops. I don’t want to say he fails. But the final product feels incomplete, as if he saw the summit but didn’t quite reach its seat.

Such difficulty in classifying Dillard is not unusual. You see it in casual profiles but also in scholarly essays and surveys of her work. Pick an article or two at random and you’ll likely see what I mean. In a CrossCurrents piece on ecotheology from 1995, Dillard is called a mystic, a contemplative, an exegete, a theologian, an ecological guru—and that’s literally just the first page.

In the Chicago Tribune’s 1999 review of For the Time Being, the reviewer rhapsodizes over the book’s sestina-like structure, calling it a “new form.” And it really is sui generis (for my money, it is her finest work), as she weaves a narrative that goes seven times around a weft of eight concepts: birth, sand, China, clouds, numbers, thinker, evil, and now. The Tribune’s reviewer marvels over Dillard’s deft ability to evoke the existential paradox that while each of us “matter not a whit, we also matter profoundly.” A rave review for a masterpiece by a phenom. But the newcomer to Dillard who reads this could be forgiven for thinking: what kind of person could or would dare to take up such a God’s eye view?

All Dillard’s high praise is well deserved; but it’s all also a problem, a significant one. In all these appreciations, all these assessments, each commentator, no matter how gifted or thoughtful—not a single one of them speaks of Dillard as if she belongs. She is a strange katydid, a demon flower. I do not excuse myself from this diagnosis, either. After all, didn’t I begin this piece by putting Dillard into a definitive category of one?

The way we talk about Annie Dillard makes me both sad and afraid. Sad because we are unable to appreciate in full the words she has written if we cannot see how she is, in the final analysis, just one of us. And afraid because affixing someone with otherness is the first stage in allowing that someone to be forgotten, and I am afraid of a world where writing such as hers could surface and then vanish.

3.
As Dillard herself writes, “The way to learn about a writer is to read the text. Or texts.” Consider a few of hers, then.

Her very first book, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel, was a poetry collection pieced together six years after she graduated from college. She found a publisher to bring it out in 1974. But she wasn’t destined to be a poet. Or, at least, not just a poet. Her next move was to do something that poets aren’t supposed to do: she published a book of prose. And she did it before dust could even collect on the first remaindered stacks of her poetry.

I’m calling it her first book of prose, but I could just as well call it the book of prose, as far as literary gatekeepers are concerned. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (like the earlier book of poetry) came out when Dillard was 28 years old, and it’s the book that catapulted her from young writer to splashy, important transcendentalist almost overnight–or at least that’s what her publishers would have you believe. The edition that I bought earlier this year has a four page About Annie Dillard section and not one but two Afterwords, just in case I lose one, I suppose.

Upon its initial release, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was praised by many critics, but there were more than a few notable voices with reservations. Eudora Welty famously grumped about not quite understanding some of the book’s lyrical asides. She also wanted more voices. A critic at Kirkus Reviews was downright galling: a brief review claimed Dillard’s reach exceeded her grasp, but patted her head for trying like a good girl.

Real talk: for a failed novelist or wannabe writer, it’s quite soothing to learn that a book the Modern Library now calls a classic had a rather bumpy roll-out. According to a historical note on Dillard’s website, the hardcover copies of Pilgrim didn’t actually sell very well. Only in paperback did it catch on. For all its merits, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is not a page-turner. It’s a slow, steady, dark burn; the kind of conflagration that sightlessly devours oxygen, killing without the melodramatics of flame.

Is it a heresy to admit that of all Dillard’s nonfiction, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek moves me the least? The book is full of prose marvels, yes; it’s just that it feels like it’s written on spec. As if, full of youthful hubris, she said, Well, this fellow Thoreau wasn’t really doing anything so hard? I can do that. And then she did. I marvel far more at later books like the aforementioned For the Time Being or Teaching a Stone to Talk, her almost perfect essay collection. The structure of Pilgrim flags because it feels forced. Sort of the opposite of the impression given by her second book of prose, Holy the Firm.

Holy the Firm runs less than 15,000 words. Twice as long as a long personal essay. Shorter than a feature in a weekend magazine. Yet I suspect more people have read about how she wrote the book—shack, island, airplane, fire—than have read the book itself. It’s worthy of the flame of her reputation. The letters do not smolder on the page, but the ideas surely do. Kirkus called this outing “a difficult, restless rumination,” and they weren’t wrong. It is a book about learning to live in the afterglow of life’s casual cruelty, about accepting the lot of whatever this thing is, this universe. Basically the plot of all her noteworthy work, which is to say, all of her books from here on out. Once she caught her stride, there was no stopping her.

In her 40s, Dillard joined the Roman Catholic Church. She’d grown up a Protestant but left the church as a teenager. She told an interviewer that she converted in middle age to keep close to God, even though she did not always agree entirely with the people who worshipped around her. In her essay, “An Expedition to the Pole,” she writes:
It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
There is a way of reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that positions Dillard not as Thoreau’s heir but as a contemporary Christian writer and thinker. She employs the language of Christianity and speaks of creation and eternity and grace. But she’s not a religious writer, not really; religious language is just her jumping off point. She’s proposing to meet readers at the village church not because it’s her destination, but because it’s a large landmark we all know. Dillard’s subsequent books push further afield. She continues to insist on questioning God, rather than seeking God’s grace. The disappointment this engendered in some readers is evident, as seen in “Annie Dillard: Mistaken Mystic?”, an article from the journal of an evangelical society. Here the judgment on Dillard is brief, swift, and stark. The writer uses the kind of language that I recognize from growing up in a church: “She does not point to the Bible often enough,” and: “She does not understand how Jesus fulfills all of God’s promises and love.”

In her memoir An American Childhood, Annie Dillard describes how as a teenager she felt estranged from the people in the church pews around her. I recognize the conflict. I was a Sunday-School kid. I stood for the role of Joseph in the Christmas play. I sang in Easter programs. The judgy tone of the aforementioned journal is the tone that many keepers of the flame would use to dismiss someone who is being difficult because he or she is questioning rather than blindly accepting. Rigidity about how to believe, what to believe, an emphasis on dogma, on prescribed process, on blind tradition: this part of religious education stuck in my craw. But I accepted it. I had to. What other way of looking at the world was available to me back then?

In her book Living by Fiction, Dillard writes: “Can we not loose the methods of literary criticism on the raw world? May we not analyze the breadth of our experience? We can and may – but only if we consider the raw world as a text … as a work of art.”

If someone had put this book, any book by Annie Dillard in my hands as a teenager, I would have turned the pages with quaking hands. She speaks in a register that anyone acquainted with religion can recognize. But she has the temerity to also point a finger at the heavens and say, You made this, now explain it.

By the time Dillard turned 50, she’d left the Catholic Church; she was striking out on her own again. No surprise. When it comes to God, Dillard is all about interrogation, not devotion; she wants an audience with the divine because she’s got questions, not because she wants to receive beatific truth. Again and again across her work, there’s a sense of inquiry, the inquiry of an alert human on the move through life. A life where God has gone silent, even if you believe he made this place where we all live.

In the end, she emulated that silence, intentionally or not. For decades she gave space to contemplate the mundane and overlooked aspects of life. She sought out and drew attention to silences, holy and profane, large and small, whatever caught her eye. She gave voice to details others would miss. Then, after a time, she found her own place in the silence and stepped into it.

4.
She wrote 11 original books over the course of 30 years and then, abruptly, she stopped. Suddenly, nothing. She has given a few interviews, sat with some journalists. A blurb here and there. But mostly, she’s gone silent; she has not published any form of nonfiction in two decades. Theories come and go as to why. But the only thing for certain is the totality of her withdrawal as a creator.

A prolonged silence can prompt questions that words or new texts cannot. Is she out of things to say? Is she angry? Is her message complete?

If Dillard were writing this essay, then I’m certain she would have found a way to note God’s famous periods of silence. After the Holocaust. After the earthquake at Lisbon. For the 400 years between the Book of Malachi and the Gospel of Matthew.

What does God’s silence mean? What is he doing? What is he thinking? What does Annie Dillard’s silence mean? What is she thinking? Does she have dementia? Does God have no heart? Does she have nothing left to say? Does God have nothing left to tell us?

Five years ago, the Atlantic ran a mean-spirited profile entitled “Where Have You Gone, Annie Dillard?” The piece begins with hearty praise for Dillard, but the meal turns sour long before the last course. The article annoys even as it explicates. The writer rightly criticizes people who class Dillard as nouveau Thoreau; but he botches the landing by veering into questions of intent, as if intentions were clear-cut as texts. Most cruelly, the article suggests that the very nature of Dillard’s inquiry is what has damned her to silence. That she was doomed to leave us hanging. Because she’s got the heartless eye of a distant god. Because she’s a cold fish. This is the scat of cheap iconoclasm. It doesn’t hang together as an argument. And it doesn’t match up with the Dillard who shows up in profiles, interviews, and the memoirs of former students.

One of Dillard’s best uncollected essays is titled, “How I Wrote the Moth Essay and Why.” In a few pages, she assesses both a previous piece of writing and her life at the time. She uses the critic’s scalpel in two directions at once. The resulting essay lays bare Dillard’s personal fears (childlessness, loneliness) and her preoccupations (what is the point of me? what am I trying to say?), and then she shows how all this motivated her to produce a piece of writing that was and wasn’t about those things. She also reveals her method of composition: She does not begin by looking down from an imperious height. She has no foreknowledge of what she is writing toward or about, at least not at first. She uses data from past journals and produces a “babbling” first draft and then a surgically altered revision. She is an artisan, working a chert blade.

During the first decade of her silence, there were rumors that perhaps she was suffering from cognitive decline. In 2016, John Freeman, a former editor for Granta tracked Dillard to Cripple Creek, Va., where she lived with her husband, the biographer Bob Richardson. Freeman wrote a profile of her current life, the out-of-the-way cabin, the backwoods store, the books she keeps reading. The passages about Dillard and her husband are the best part of the piece. Freeman writes: “Watching Annie and Bob over breakfast, editing each other’s stories and officiating over the presentation of flatware, coffee, second and third helpings, it’s clear that whatever came before, this is the show.” Of his wife, Richardson says: “She’s the smartest person I’ve ever met.” It’s sweet, the kind of thing that you want to hear from people who are entering into old age together. By the end of Freeman’s profile, Dillard addresses her silence, albeit with a kind of shrug. “I switched to painting,” she says. You don’t get the sense that she regrets the change up, or that she did it because her project ran out of steam. She just moved on. Not deeper into loneliness or isolation: rather into a more private kind of fellowship, the journey of real companionship.

But what about the writing? Is there any more writing? There is, and there isn’t. In a 2016 interview with Melissa Block of National Public Radio, Dillard speaks like someone who is aware of how many pages are left in her text of the world and who has reconciled herself to the limits that are built into our time here. She talks about writing. She’s still writing. But not for us. Really, just for herself, mostly. She’s already put more than her fair share into the world of texts, more than enough to keep the rest of us going.
DILLARD: I write a lot of emails. I write in my own journal when something extraordinary or funny happens. And there’s some nice imagery in there. I don’t think of what to do with it.

BLOCK: You don’t think about another book at this point.

DILLARD: No, I don’t. I had good innings, as the British say. I wrote for 38 years at the top of my form, and I wanted to quit on a high note.
Annie Dillard seems to have almost no other choice but to prod life, poke it, search every place in it for hidden, buried meaning, and then produce her own text, or texts, for herself sometimes, sometimes for others, sometimes for purposes she’s not even sure of–one more link in the long textual chain of being. There is a word for this kind of writer, the kind that acts like a guide, the sort who enters into a fellowship with you and brings you with her wherever her thoughts lead, high or low, grand or lowly, who writes about the world without even knowing what to do with it: essayist.

To be an essayist is a fine purpose, but a purpose lasts only so long. As with lives. Socrates is a man. All men die. Socrates must, well, you know the line. Last summer, during the haphazard malaise of the coronavirus pandemic, Dillard’s husband Bob Richardson died. He said of her in an interview near the end of his life: “I learned from her that you have to go all out every day. Hold nothing back. The well will refill.”

So we go on, filling the silence. Or, perhaps, finding the silences and listening to what they will tell us.

The day that I began writing this essay, I went for a run. This is how most of my essays begin. At first, they’re word knots and phrases in my head. Thoughts and observations and quotes and ideas, a mute mess. I go for a run and the ideas begin to knock loose from one another and then back together again in a pattern that makes sense, that gathers into something far stronger.

I ran as I often do along the edge of Riverside Park, past pre-war buildings on the Upper West Side, past plaques that commemorate where J. Robert Oppenheimer lived or where Edgar Allen Poe wrote his poems. I thought about history. I thought about how we all end up swallowed by silence. Traffic had snarled the on and off ramps from the West Side Highway. I thought about how even before we’re lost in history, we’re lost in our daily lives. I also thought of the Annie Dillard quote I see more than any other in social media posts: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

I stopped for Gatorade near the Museum of Natural History. On Columbus Avenue, I noticed a new bookstore. One I’d never visited before. I wandered inside to have a look. An essay section near the rear offered two columns of books. I went straight to the D’s. But Dillard’s books weren’t there. I searched the Staff Recommendations table. I searched the display table for Our Favorite Reads. Nothing. This made me angry. I didn’t turn over the displays or drive out the cashiers, but I kind of wanted to. Someone needs to change this, I thought. More people need to know about Dillard. That’s when I realized what I needed to do. That’s when I understood where this essay needed to go.

One more thing happened. The important thing. Exiting the bookstore in a huff, tired, irritated, I noticed the wreckage of a black BMW at the curb. It had been there earlier. But I’d walked right past it. I hadn’t slowed enough to notice. It was a total ruin, wheels gone, windows shattered, hood crumpled, left side flat as if smashfisted by a giant. There was no explanatory sign, no one standing watch, no one paying mind. Just a casual profundity. Like a perfect monument to all we don’t see, can’t see, won’t see, the marvelous terrible strange that is here and will be gone soon and no one will believe us that it was there once but is now gone because how do you frame the unexpected? You can’t frame or explain: you can only point and try to make others see. Did you see the wreck? Did you read Holy the Firm? Did you look up in time for the eclipse? Do you know Annie Dillard? Did I hear you call my name, or was that the voice of God?

Bonus Link:
Line, Run, Breath: On Annie Dillard and the Circuitous Work of Writing

Image Credit: Wikipedia

The Case for ‘War and Peace’ and Rereading

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I was 26 and planning for a wedding when Colin Powell made his speech at the United Nations about the supposedly incontrovertible need to invade Iraq. The most famous pitch for war in our time. I can’t be certain, but I believe this historical moment was what led me soon after to visit Shakespeare & Co and purchase a paperback of War and Peace, that infamously long, infamously antiwar Russian novel. Now seems as good a time as any, I said to anyone who’d listen.

Two months later, Baghdad fell; and a month after that President Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” from the deck of an aircraft carrier that had returned from the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, I was still planning for my wedding, and now I was also carrying War and Peace to and from the office daily.

“It’s amazing,” I said to a co-worker who asked how the book was. “But it’s taking longer than an actual war to read.”

Even then, the joke was more callous than funny; and it became less and less funny as the occupation of Iraq wore on, and weeks led to months, then years of violence, bloodshed and turmoil. According to the reading log that I keep, the actual number of books I read over the course of the eight year conflict in Iraq is 319, including War and Peace. This feels somehow both better and worse.

As the years pass, my recollection of the books I’ve read becomes, shall we say, more and more imperfect. I cannot tell you anything about John Fante’s Ask the Dust except that I read it in March 2009 and thought it was great. I remember the warm feeling I had for Alice Munro’s Runaway while reading it in 2006, but can I tell you the plot of any story in it? A character’s name? A single scene? No, no, and no. I’m stunned to learn that I have ever read Haruki Murakami’s After the Quake. I made a note in my reading log that I thought it was excellent, the highest rating in the system that I use. Excellent? I’m sure it was. Just not excellent enough to remember.

But I remember War and Peace. Maybe because I spent so long, well, reading War and Peace. I carried the still-like-new 1,386-page book daily to the subway station at 23rd Street, where I caught the downtown 6. One snowy morning, I was hustling to catch a train and slipped on ice near the subway entrance. I stayed vertical but the book tumbled down the steps; picking it up, I found an appalling tear in the cover. After the spill, I was angry with myself for weeks.

Sometime that spring, I recall sleepily reading a chapter about a grand oak tree while snug in bed at my future in-laws’ home. Later, also while at their house in Pennsylvania, I read a chapter about a romantic sled ride by a pair of young lovers. But the names of those lovers escapes me. Unless, maybe, was it, Kitty? And Levin? After scouring the steamer trunk of my memory, I searched online for answers. Turns out, I’m half right. Tolstoy created a Kitty and a Levin – but he put them in Anna Karenina. There is only one character from War and Peace whose name I recall with certainty: Prince Andrey, a majestic presence whom I liked from the start, even though I also felt like I should not like him. That’s the secret witchery of Tolstoy: he conjures sympathies for any and every kind of person.

Of the plot, I can tell you there is a war. Napoleon appears. Lives are made and ruined. And that’s all I remember. Yet, I know that I loved the book. I still think of it as a book that moved me, that taught me so much about what is possible in building a novel. The details have been worn away, but the impression remains. Reading War and Peace was a personal event, one of those watershed experiences that I enjoyed both for what it was and for how it was the fulfillment of something I had long wanted to do: a notch on the bedpost of my personal reading adventures.

For all my adult life I have tried to read far and wide, or at least far and wide for me. Certainly the complete arc of my reading list would underwhelm true doyennes of world literature. But I have done my best to wander the planet in search of understanding, perspective, and experiences that extend beyond the Midwestern town where I began. This pursuit has led me to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s fanciful Macondo and Nabokov’s spectral Zembla; from the South Seas of Robert Louis Stevenson to the Harlem of James Baldwin; from Australia (The Transit of Venus),to Argentina (Labyrinths) and beyond (The Left Hand of Darkness).

This reading journey made me the person I am. Gave me perspective. Helped me to understand the narrative of my own life. And now at midlife I am beginning to see how the record of this intellectual travel fades. Does the inevitable forgetfulness make the work done less valuable in the long run? Do I need a certain level of constant recall to validate that it was all time well spent? I know the answer is no. But it’s still disturbing to see that even with books that I think I remember very well, what I can recall unaided is being steadily reduced to mere impressions or a few sharp vignettes, like the cherished memory of a beloved summer in childhood, a time when you know you were happy but it’s increasingly hard to explain precisely why.

In June of the first year of the Iraq War, I finished reading War and Peace while lying on the sofa in the den of the apartment where my future wife and I were living. Our first home together. She was asleep down the hall. She was still my fiancée, still a promise of a life to be, and not yet the mother of our two children. So much was unwritten, unknown, a future that I know now but couldn’t know, couldn’t fathom then. I remember the last chapter was a long slog through dull philosophizing, but I was determined to finish, and after 1 a.m, I did. The living room windows were open because the night was warm and taxi cabs and late night revelers were still making noise outside on Lexington Avenue. I wanted to tell someone I was done, but there was no one to tell. I rubbed my eyes and thought, My God, where do you go after that? Not just as a writer, but as a reader?

I could reread War and Peace, but I couldn’t get back to that moment at the end, no matter how much I tried. As an adult I haven’t reread many books. On the rare occasion when I do, it is with the craftsman’s curiosity to see how a particular book worked. I paged through Never Let Me Go a couple years ago to clock how Ishiguro handles his gradual reveals. Last year, I reread much of The Unbearable Lightness of Being because I was convinced it had hidden parallels to a Sheila Heiti novel. Will I ever read all of War and Peace again? Unlikely. But I was also once pretty convinced the Iraq War was necessary, and also that the war was more or less over shortly after it began. Certainties change with time; maybe I will begin to reread more.

Recently, I went looking for the copy of War and Peace I carried around for months. I’ve moved four times since I read it, and it has had a place on a bookshelf in each apartment. Taking it off the shelf, I looked for the rip on the cover, the mark after I dropped it on the stairs long ago. But there was no rip on the cover of this book. How could this be? Turning over the book in my hands, I was confused until I found a jagged hangnail on the spine. Then I remembered: yes, this is the damage from that fall. My memory was correct in spirit, but the details I had stored up in my heart were troublingly wrong. A minor failure of recall. But still, a stumble. Another one. Flipping through the pages, I stopped at page 613 and read:

“The prince had greatly aged during the war. He had begun to show unmistakable signs of failing powers, sudden attacks of drowsiness, and forgetfulness of events nearest in time, and exact memory of remote incidents, and a childlike vanity in playing the part of leader of the Moscow opposition.”

Everything I love about Tolstoy is right there: the crumbling grandeur of a proud man, the insistent life force in the long strands of clauses that keep reaching, and the prose’s uncanny ability to capture the particular and the universal all at once. Indeed, this is how it is, as you age; you hold fast to what you know, sometimes so much so that the relentless newness of the world strikes and slides off you.

Wars go on and on, without fail. As the invidious Judge Holden says in Blood Meridian: “It makes no difference what men think of war. War endures.” Meanwhile, the individual mind and the reading journey last only so long, mere decades at best, sometimes far less.

Bonus Links:
The Pleasures and Perils of Rereading
Oil Plumes and White Noise: On Rereading DeLillo
Collision Courses and Castration Anxiety: Rereading John Irving
Kafka on the Go: Rereading ‘The Metamorphosis’
Mistaking Solipsism for Intimacy: On Rereading Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘Girl’

For the Relief of Unbearable Bookstores

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I’ve reached the point in life where my relationship with bookstores is—how to put this?—well, it’s complicated. I love the idea of bookstores. I smile when I see their bright windows on a block. I talk about a new bookshop like normal people talk about newborns. And after the global pandemic loosens its grip on New York, I know one of the first things I’ll do is visit a bookstore in my neighborhood. In my imagination, this means spending a long lazy afternoon browsing shelves and flipping the pages of dozens of new books. There’s just one problem: I long ago ceased to enjoy bookstores. Even before the pandemic, I couldn’t spend more than a few minutes inside one without wanting to leave; no, without wanting to flee, shoulders hunched, like a child caught trespassing.
I once burned for bookstores. And not just because I thought the right books made me look smart, either. This was a love affair that began before I knew pretension. The very first bookstore that I loved as a boy was a mall bookstore. Its name, Abbey Road Books, made no sense to me because it was located on Gull Road, not Abbey Road. The mall would be gone long before I got the Beatles reference.
Abbey Road Books was not large but it was big enough for a guileless boy: a rack near the cash register held comic books. A half dozen long rows running front to back offered popular paperbacks and—I assume—serious literary fiction. I never really looked. I was too busy with the Garfield collections, the Dragonriders of Pern fantasies or the sci-fi pulp. This was where I found my first favorite novel, Laura J. Mixon’s Astro Pilots, a YA book about a teenager whose revenge on a bully is complicated by the temporal effect of traveling at light speed. Pure nerd bliss.
Years of browsing and buying books freely has produced what you would expect: my home is a book orphanage, and the unread books are almost as numerous as the read ones. Based on a recent roll call, a quarter of the books on the shelves are critically praised titles I have not yet read. Let the Great World Spin. White Teeth. The Wings of the Dove.
In the pre-pandemic era, there were six book shops within the lunchtime walking radius of my office near Union Square. The Strand, Alabaster Books, Three Lives, McNally Jackson, Housingworks, and Barnes & Noble. All of the shops except Alabaster (which was smaller than a studio apartment) had display tables at the store entrance. The intention of a bookstore display table is noble; the effect is, for me, pernicious. From the get go, I am reminded of how many unread books exist and how many new unread books are added to that list daily. All the tables and all the books take on an undifferentiated, daunting sheen. You can judge a book by its cover but what you’re judging is sometimes hard to say. To Keep the Sun Alive? House of Stone? Great book covers, lovely fonts, and crackerjack titles; how do you pick between them? The blurb on every other book promises it is “Like nothing you’ve read before.” Or “More knife than novel.” I want to read the work of this “rising star of Arab fiction,” but I also want to read a dozen others, and in the end, overwhelmed by choice, I choose to flee.
Pablo Neruda once wrote that the smell of barber shops made him sob. The smell of fresh book bindings makes me feel like a phony. I am overwhelmed by all the books I have not read, won’t read. How is it that I was ever able to bear this feeling? Why can’t I stand in front of the French Literature section, picking up and putting down books as insouciantly as the scruffy dude with the man bun and the serious face? What has gone wrong in me? Sometimes, at Three Lives, I worried the friendly clerk truing up novels in stacks near the door would stop me one day and say, gently, “I see you here often, dear; is there something specific you need?”
The global Covid pandemic put an abrupt end to this ongoing bookstore angst, for a time. Overnight, bookstores became more theoretical than real. I shifted to curbside pick up for drinks and dinners, and I pivoted to ordering books over the phone from local stores. The first time that I picked up a book purchase curbside was in the Early Covid Era, and I doused all the brand new books with rubbing alcohol before I stowed them in the trunk for a three-day quarantine. Just to be safe. By summer, I was less anxious about touching books; at a pick-up window for a bookstore in Connecticut, I waited while inside a bookstore employee searched for the title I wanted among all the books in their cells. One day, I thought, one day we’ll all be able to go inside again. Won’t that be something?
I want to believe that everything will be different when we turn life back on. I want to believe a year apart from bookstores has changed me. I want to believe I have re-learned how to be casual, how to relax, how to bathe in the bliss of booksellers. I want to believe. But here’s the truth: rather than rewire me for patience, a year at home has probably made me even less able to downshift and enjoy a bookstore properly. I spend more hours than ever each day digging into the larder of my smartphone for the fatty byproducts of the Internet. Social distancing for months has increased the hours spent as a parent mediating fights, insisting on chores, refereeing screen time. Given my jumpy, angsty, barely-nuanced attention span, does anyone really think I’m capable of slipping with ease into the heady trance that is necessary to enjoy an afternoon among books?
Yet, I am too old to change. I know what is coming, in the summer of our post-Covid dreams, when masks are passé and stores no longer post occupancy limits. I will return to bookstores. I won’t be able to resist giving them another chance. And another. And another. But I’m pretty sure where all this will end up. I’ll be back on the sidewalk again within minutes.
The unforgivable sin of bookstores is this: so many of the books that they offer are physical reminders of passing time. Here are the Kazuo Ishiguros I read while in my fresh-faced 20s. Here are the Joan Didions of my 30s. Here are the Tracy Kidders I discovered after my kids were born. A visit to any kind of bookstore will eventually make me jealous for the younger version of me, the person who was unshaped, unaccountable, unknown. Both the books that I have read and not read all remind me that what I am is not what I was; and they point out to me that for all the work of living that I have done, there remains an impossible amount of work that I have not and cannot do. I cannot change course and pursue a life of ornithology. I am no longer a penniless apprentice writing his first novel. I cannot sell everything and live on an arctic freighter. I cannot be what I am not, and by definition what I am not remains so much larger than what I am.
But there is hope. There has to be. Sometimes, a bookstore visit can still be just right. In the last weeks before the pandemic closed all the bookstores in Manhattan, I stopped by Book Culture, a book shop that was once known—in my apprentice writer heyday—as Labyrinth Books, an unapologetically highbrow bookshop. Here is the headline of a Times review lauding the shop shortly after it opened in 1997: “No Krantz, Koontz or coffee bars.” I was here often as a graduate student trying to write a novel in the vein of Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy. The tin soldier rows of books were like a barracks of like-minded zealots. This was where I jealously flipped through debut short story collections like For the Relief of Unbearable Urges and swore I could do better. (Reader: I could not.)
On this visit half a lifetime later, I flipped through a book I recently saw lionized on Twitter. Nice. One more novel I should be reading, but wasn’t. I almost left right then, but then I saw Draft No. 4, a John McPhee book on writing, and I decided, well, let me look inside that one. I scanned the first page. My insides went calm. I was like a parched man cutting open a spindly cactus and finding watery relief. I skipped to the back, read more words that struck me as perfect, and true: “It is toward the end of the second draft, if I’m lucky,” McPhee writes, “when the feeling comes over me that I have something I want to show to other people, something that seems to be working and is not going to go away.” I closed the book, realizing that I would buy it, damn the torpedoes and all the unread books waiting at home.
I brought the McPhee book to the register. A girl with dirty blond hair and a tired, guarded look was handling sales.
“Are you a member of our book club?”
“I’m sure that I was once,” I said. There was no way for her to hear the ironic undertone.
She asked for my first and last name. I told her. She typed, furrowed her brow. “Nope,” she said. “You want to join? It’s quick.”
Of course, I had been forgotten. Emptiness began to swell inside. Then, a thought: “Did you put a space,” I said, “between Van and Dyke?”
She sighed, hit the delete key lightly, then enter, and her eyes brightened. “There you are,” she said, as if she had just learned I was her cousin twice removed. They knew me. I was one of the remembered ones. I still belonged. This made me so happy that now, in retrospect, it makes me sad.
Bonus Link:
A History of Love (of Bookstores)
Image Credit: Piqsels.

Extinguishing the Self: On Robert Stone

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1.
Until the pandemic forced us into hiatus, I curated a reading series for emerging writers in New York City. For 13 years, we met monthly at KGB Bar, a literary venue in the East Village. The bar was rarely full, but it was always a chore to get people to quiet down; we encouraged readers to invite friends, family, and other writers. On the best nights, the place was full of convivial anticipation, like we were throwing a big, bold send-off before these promising writers lit out to new territory.

Standing at the podium before events, the sights and sounds often reminded me of the wet, snowy Sunday evening when I heard the late, great Robert Stone read in the very same room. He was in the last years of a long life. His flowing beard was all white and emphysema made a whisper of his gravelly voice. His audience had dwindled and there were fewer people in the room that night than on evenings when I hosted readings for less accomplished authors. This is just one of the many lessons Stone taught me: that you can be nominated for four National Book Awards and a Pulitzer—and still face a half empty room at the end of your career.

You can get the full fathom five of Stone’s biography from any of a dozen sources. Stone himself wrote a memoir, Prime Green, that tracks through his Catholic school boyhood, the burden of growing up as the son/caretaker of a schizophrenic mother, and the hows and whys of his decision to run away and join the Navy as a young man. At the beginning of his career, he famously tripped with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. His second novel was made into a movie starring Nick Nolte. He once joked to an interviewer that he always ended up running into the much more famous author Paul Auster at parties. He was among the literati in the era when being seen around town was a part-time job, long before Entertainment Tonight and ages before social media made celebrity a full-time out-of-body experience.

“You were part of that world,” the interviewer Christopher Bollen said to him in 2013, talking about the druggy counterculture era. “But you have a rare career in that you moved beyond it. How?” Stone’s response was characteristic of the man: pointed, honest, and unglamorous. “I really, really wanted to write,” he said. He knew that his reach was beyond his grasp as a young writer. “I wanted to be a goof on the bus, but I wanted to write more.” So he went to work.

If you consult with the sages at Encyclopedia.com, this is how all that effort worked out for him: “Robert Anthony Stone (born 1937) was an American novelist whose preoccupations were politics, the media, and the random, senseless violence and cruelty that pervade contemporary life both in the United States and in parts of the world where the United States’ influence has extended, such as Latin America and Vietnam. His vision of the world is dark but powerful.”

Well, yes; but also, no.

The novelist Madison Smartt Bell, in an encomium in The New Yorker after Stone died in 2015, claimed that all Stone novels include the character of “a man whose idealism has been blunted by experience.” Certainly, this is true of Stone’s best books, by which I mean (in order): Dog Soldiers, A Flag for Sunrise, and Damascus Gate. In that same 2015 essay, Smartt observes that for all the protagonists of these books, the main narrative is of a redemption that must be earned. Nothing is handed to them. “Stone and his characters struggle with all received ideas at a very high level of intellectual honesty.”

In interviews and essays, Stone never denied that he wrote stories he hoped would capture the fancy of readers. He was not writing for his private muse. Nor was he a David Foster Wallace, tortured by inner Furies, pouring his thoughts onto the page in a losing bid for freedom. You can still watch Stone speak in numerous video interviews on YouTube; he smiles often, wears professorial jackets and ties, and lounges at tables beside a fire. Stone wrote big, rollicking stories like Conrad, Melville, and Dickens because those were the kind of stories that he loved and were large enough to suit his themes. He was a writer who lived in the world and wrote stories full of living.

On the word-by-word level, his work has the jostle and sting of real life; as a writer he inhabited the people in the stories in order to tell their tales. Speaking of A Flag for Sunrise with Kay Bonetti in 1982, he expresses the surprise he felt when two of his characters broke out into a dramatic quarrel at one point. “The day I started writing that piece I didn’t realize that was going to happen,” he said. “It just developed as I wrote the dialogue and imagined myself into the situation.”

For all his timeliness of story and milieu, however, you cannot approach a Robert Stone novel at high speed. He published four books after 1998; all of them have strengths but also none of them feel quite of our time. I suspect this is why his popularity began to wane after the publication of Damascus Gate. You either slow down and let the chemicals of his words do their thing, or you might as well fly on by.

2.
Stone’s best claim to literary fame is the 1975 National Book Award, when the selection committee picked his third novel, Dog Soldiers, as its fiction prizewinner. Stone’s description of his academic experience at Stanford a few years earlier could just as well describe this deeply paranoid masterpiece: “I spent a lot of my time, when I should have been writing, experiencing death and transfiguration and rebirth on LSD in Palo Alto.”

What were the National Book Award judges thinking when they chose to award the prize to this novel, a druggy, rough tale of a playwright-turned-journalist who loses his shit in Saigon and manages to ravage his entire life before the last page? Cast in granite prose, oracular in the best and worst ways, full of scenes that show but confide less than a gruff Midwestern boyfriend, Dog Soldiers has a thrilling plot, but I’m not sure I could tell you what happens in it, even on a close reread. Did the judges find in the book a reflection, darkly, of the chaotic post-Nixonian world in which they lived? Certainly, this is the easy go-to explanation for the adjunct profs who include it on reading lists and the marketing copywriters who prepared promo material for the latest reissue in 2018. It’s a book about hippies! ’Nam! Failed authority! LSD! Well, yes; and no. Dig a little deeper, and, as with Stone’s fiction, a complicated, interconnected counter story begins to take shape.

Fact: the year before Dog Soldiers won the National Book Award, the award was discontinued, briefly. So perfectly Stone. In 1974, the prize jury chose Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, a writer so writerly that he refused to give interviews. This was apparently the last straw for the publishers who underwrote the prize. They cut their funding. Completely. National Book Award organizers refused to give up, though. They assembled a temporary committee to give their award one more time. They begged the likes of Exxon and Jackie Kennedy Onassis to donate enough moola to keep the lights on. It was one more sign of the times in an age when no institutions seemed like they were going to last. Exactly the kind of world that Dog Soldiers paints in miniature. A perfect choice. Almost as if it were the work of fate. Fate of the kind that flickers in the flames of Stone’s best work. Fate that you can laugh at and say you don’t believe in, but that still has a chance of being true. Robert Stone had to win the prize that year. Because we all needed an author preoccupied by outsiders to be granted the status of a literary insider—so he could go on writing, thinking, and teaching all of us for the next four decades.

3.
The first time I tried to read Robert Stone, I couldn’t stand his prose style. I was 22. Stone’s second masterpiece, A Flag for Sunrise, was on a grad school syllabus that also included the likes of Clockers, Under Western Eyes, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The sine non qua for inclusion was that each book operated in a genre but also rose above its intentions, a concept that my thesis advisor and mentor, David Plante, also inculcated into our thinking in weekly creative writing workshops. He never said as much, but I believe that what Plante was trying to teach us was that if we were to become decent writers, which is to say writers worth our salt, we had to be contextual readers.

My first reading of Stone was troubled by the fact that I was addicted to Cormac McCarthy at the time. For my money, McCarthy is perhaps the only other major male author of the late 20th century who writes convincingly in the cut of the moment. McCarthy and Stone were born within four years of each other. They both had a stint in the military. Both write/wrote painfully slow, labored over their craft, and had very little commercial success at first. But in form and vision, they are opposing calculations on either side of an equals sign.

I read perhaps two pages of A Flag for Sunrise before putting the book back down again. The pace felt too slow. The sentences were sharp but stilted. Characters kept starting and stopping and staring. There was a nun with a man’s name. A lieutenant who was clearly also a drunk. Familiar and unfamiliar all at once. I attended the seminar session on the book without having read A Flag for Sunrise at all. How very Robert Stone of me. I had high hopes for the novel; I was myself trying to write a book that I envisioned as a literary novel with a great plot. That perfect fusion of high and low culture. But I was too eager, too hurried in my work, too starry-eyed with the idea of being done.

Cormac McCarthy novels reward you on a page-by-page basis, or at least they do if his stiff prosaic mescal is your kind of thing. A Stone novel takes longer to get going, and even longer to alter your insides. A Cormac cocktail hits you before the ice cubes melt; the work of Robert Stone will only be clear the next morning, when you realize that you blacked out hours before you got home.

I returned to A Flag for Sunrise a decade later. I revisited Stone in part because I had run out of Graham Greene novels worth my time. After my Cormac McCarthy phase ended, I suffered a long bout of Greene fever. God, how I adored Greene’s books. I still have flash burns on my heart from the pages of The Quiet American, The Heart of the Matter, and The Power and the Glory. To learn more about Greene as a writer, I had even gone so far as to read Greene on Capri, the memoir by Shirley Hazzard (herself a great writer, criminally overlooked both before and after she died).

The rediscovery of Stone was a relief, and a blessing, but not because he was aping Greene. There are plenty of lesser writers who do just that. No, Stone was a find because he added to what Greene was doing. His work possesses the urgency of Greene—the sense of people battling against the dark authorities of this world—but also something else, something that took me many novels and many hours of consideration to realize was lacking in Greene’s novels: a love of living.

Stone was often asked by interviewers for his thoughts on Graham Greene. He was never ambiguous: “He is not a favorite of mine,” he told Charles Ruas in a 1981 interview. He speculated that his antipathy was due to being compelled by nuns to read Greene and Waugh as a schoolboy. Stone was still clinging to that story when he spoke in 1982 to the Missouri Review. But by the end of his life, during his 2015 interview with Christopher Bollen, he no longer felt the need to tiptoe around his deeper feelings. “I always knew I hated Graham Greene,” he said, “even though I thought he was a really good writer.”

Stone’s antipathy, I think, was not professional so much as personal. Graham Greene, for all his talent as a writer, was not a good man. Just about 10 years after Greene died, the Daily Mail wrote a long, dark hit piece on him. The article is a slog through a great writer’s sins. A photo of Greene in late age is captioned as follows: “A man without honour: Graham Greene was an alcoholic who abandoned his wife and two children for affairs with a series of married mistresses.” I learned from the article that late in life, Greene tried to start a brothel on a Portuguese island. And that he shared a house in Italy with an avowed pederast. Asked about his estranged children, Greene is reported as saying: “I think my books are my children.” Graham Greene was the kind of person that no one would want to be constantly compared with. Not if you really cared about the company that you are perceived to keep. And certainly not if you were someone as humanistic, thoughtful, and apparently kind-hearted as Robert Stone.

Perhaps the important difference between Stone and Greene is that while Stone “really, really” wanted to be a writer, he wanted equally to be a good person. I don’t mean in the personal sense, although that seems to have mattered to Stone, too. I mean in the sense of saying things that help guide his readers to a better understanding and appreciation of the world. In the very first words of a taped interview with the Writer’s Institute in 1996, Stone says that people need stories in the same way that the waking mind needs dreams. We put together narratives in order to make sense of life. The punch line of a joke, he goes on to say, is actually a forced recognition of how things are. There is no natural narrative of things; it’s all just out there. “It is up to human will and human ingenuity to compose all this into a narrative.”

4.
If at this point you have in your mind the image of Robert Stone as a neo-Papa standing at his desk and writing out novels by long hand–then you are mistaken. Nor was he a Melvillian scrivener hunched over a desk for hours to write in a slanted longhand better suited for logging barrels of salt pork. The galloping narrative of his books will put you in mind of Stendahl; the moral weight of his vision is on level with Dostoevsky. But those two novelists dictated their work to stenographers. None of this applied to Stone. He was a typing man. He joined the navy as a radio operator, as he reports in his memoir. Later, as he told Bollen in 2013, he learned to type by taking Morse code. “I was using the typewriter from day one,” he said.

Not an Olivetti, either. A Paris Review feature from 1985 describes Stone as working in a cluttered attic at a table just large enough to hold his word processor. That’s right, a fully modern word processor. Unlike Cormac McCarthy, the image of the artist is not meant to be confused with the images in the work. Stone is neither ascetic nor saint. He was just a writer, a big-hearted one.

A picture of Stone in the mid-2010s in the Paris Review shows no fewer than two computer screens. One of them, a laptop with his reading glasses resting on the keys, is—I regret to inform the steampunks among you—almost certainly a MacBook. He was not a simple throwback. Or a caricature. His wife was a waitress when he met her. He remained married to her for his entire adult life. They lived in a simple house in Connecticut on the shore, and their two children, a boy and a girl, grew up and moved out and started their own lives as children everywhere are wont to do.

His work reads as if it were composed to the tune of clanging blacksmiths and left to cool under the stars somewhere far from land. This is the conundrum of good writing. It can take you anywhere. But in Stone’s case, the words you read were almost certainly crafted in a quiet place, by one person, typing in solitude, hopeful of the value of the time spent, but equally certain that it may never mean anything much to anyone. This is the gamble.

Stone suffered to bring the right words forth in the years before acclaim and even afterward. He worked on his first novel, A Hall of Mirrors, for six years. In the era of hot takes and from-the-hip tweets, six years is an eternity. But it is what it takes when you are groping in the dark as a writer.

I find the story of how long Stone labored on his initial book to be both inspirational and validating. I spent six years working on my first novel. It was my thesis while at Columbia. Stone labored over his work while a fellow at Stanford. He had to keep working on the manuscript after he graduated, as did I. He struggled to work and write at the same time. As he told the Paris Review about that first book: “I’d work for twenty weeks and then be on unemployment for twenty weeks and so on. So it took me a long, long time to finish it.” This is the writing life. I am writing the first draft of this essay while I sit on a wooden bench in a coffee shop in Harlem where ironically they are playing Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 1971 single, “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” I have not been employed full time for months, except for a few consulting gigs. I have been desperately writing this whole time, concocting and executing the first draft of a new novel and rounding out essays like this one that have been ricocheting around in the steel drum of my mind for ages. You find a way to get the work done whenever and however you can, almost as a sidebar to real life. And yet it’s the part of life that you most want to talk about with an interviewer from a literary magazine. Stone anticipates everything that I feel as a writer. There is this long exchange, from that same Paris Review interview, which might as well be a diary entry from my own life, except in my case the book that I’m jazzed over is called Likeness, and it won’t win a National Book Award, because I’m no Robert Stone, but the feelings are all the same:
INTERVIEWER
Is writing easy for you? Does it flow smoothly?
STONE
It’s goddamn hard. Nobody really cares whether you do it or not. You have to make yourself do it. I’m very lazy and I suffer as a result. Of course, when it’s going well there’s nothing in the world like it. But it’s also very lonely. If you do something you’re really pleased with, you’re in the crazy position of being exhilarated all by yourself. I remember finishing one section of Dog Soldiers—the end of Hicks’s walk—in the basement of a college library, working at night, while the rest of the place was closed down, and I staggered out in tears, talking to myself, and ran into a security guard. It’s hard to come down from a high in your work—it’s one of the reasons writers drink.
Stone never figured out how to write quickly. He kept his standards on the top shelf. He spoke about this in one of his last interviews, with Tin House. The editor asks him about the plot of his final novel, The Death of the Black-Haired Girl. (A novel that, I must confess, I could not finish.) He insists that he does not have a plan for his work; that it just unfolds as he discovers it. “So you are not,” the interviewer asks, “in the Nabokov camp of treating your characters like “galley slaves”? I can almost hear Robert Stone chuckling in response. “Well,” he said, “I don’t treat them very well. But, no.

In an interview with Kay Bonetti, in 1982, she said: “Some critics feel you lost control of the structure in both A Hall of Mirrors [his second novel] and Dog Soldiers.” Stone’s response: “Yes. I guess I lost control.” And then he adds, importantly, and perfectly in tune with his Zen persona: “I’m pretty satisfied with the way they turned out.” Later in the same interview, he elaborates: “I see a great deal of human life limited, poisoned, frustrated, by fear and ignorance and the violence that comes from it…I think some of the people I write about are trying to get above that and get around it somehow.”

How a Stone novel ends is perhaps more important than any other fact about it. The ending is where at long last the slowly moving lines converge. The end is the closest we will ever get to the direct sunlight of his ideas. I remember distinctly where I read the ending of Damascus Gate. I was seated on a subway car headed to the Upper West Side apartment where I lived with my wife and daughter. I was an established adult by then, full-time job, mortgage, a little girl who called me papa. All that fell away as I read the book. The only world I knew as I hurtled under the streets of New York was the world of the catacombs under Jerusalem as reported to me by Stone. The characters are lost, confused, and the predators and prey are all mixed up. As a reader, I recall my heart pounding as I turned the pages. But truth be told, I also remember being confused. Like, seriously confused. As a character in a Stone novel might say: What the actual fuck is going on?

All of Stone’s work is about the confusing fate that lies in wait behind the world of likely events. The startling break. The upsetting loss, when all the odds were in your favor. Being confused, overwrought, out of luck, or nearly so—all of Stone’s characters arrive at this moment. And then they get up and push onward. You may or may not like his heroes. But you have to admire their will to live. There are moments in his work that anticipate the modern anti-heroes of Breaking Bad or True Detective. I cannot be the only person who saw a dark reflection in the ending of True Detective season two, when Frank Semyon bleeds out in the desert, and the ending of Dog Soldiers, when the mortally wounded Hicks walks as far as he can along a railroad track. Both men are deeply flawed and filled with hallucinations. Both men are dead long before they realize it.

Arguably, it is in film and television where you can locate Stone’s true heirs. Plenty of male novelists try to mug their way through tough-guy first novels a la Stone, but in so doing they confuse him with the likes of Hemingway, Mailer, and Roth. There’s no strut to his prose; there’s nothing self-aggrandizing in Stone’s work, nor did there seem to be in the man. If anything, his work is about the extinguishment of the self in a Buddhist sense. “You’ll never find Robert Stone in a Robert Stone book,” Wallace Stegner is said to have remarked famously after reading Dog Soldiers.

5.
Five years have passed since Stone’s death. Other than a brief burst of appreciation after his passing, in the form of admiring words from peers and former students alike, at this point his floating pyre has drifted out to sea. I suspect that the rolling tide of literary canonization will not bring him back to shore. His vision is too intentionally arch; his prose style far too mandarin. This saddens me, but I do not think that it would sadden Stone; certainly the man that I met once, very briefly, had no other expectation for what would happen in the world that went on without him.

I heard Stone speak and read from his memoir in December of 2009, on the Sunday evening when he appeared on a double bill for a book promo event at KGB Bar. There was a snowstorm coming, according to the weather reports, and a wet snow had started. I suspect this depressed turn out a little. But it also made the room feel brighter and warmer.

Stone arrived shortly after I did, entering alongside a taller, younger man. Later, I would learn this was Madison Smartt Bell. Bell was an accomplished novelist in his own right, and he had a book of his own to promote; but there was in his posture, his gesture, his way of introducing Stone to all of us, a clear deference for the literary lion in our midst. For his part, Stone had no airs. He had, I would learn later, visited the bar numerous times for readings. In an Identity Theory interview in 2003, he said to the interviewer: “I was in KGB last night and I think it’s very vital, even more vital than it used to be.” He seemed at ease when he stood at the lectern, adjusting the rickety lamp to illuminate the pages he carried. He wore reading glasses on the end of his nose. His eyes smiled when he glanced up.

He read a section from his memoir and the entire text of a short story. The story, “Honeymoon,” would appear three years later in his second story collection, Fun with Problems. At the story’s end, the main character swims to his death while scuba diving, plunging into the “uncolored world of fifteen fathoms. The weight of the air took him down the darkening wall.”

Afterward, the room was still with the quiet trance of a heady draught. Stone took a place at the wall near a corner to sign books. I hadn’t realized there would be a signing. Like a fool, I had not thought to bring any books. Clearly, others had a better sense of what to expect. One young man had brought a handled paper bag full of Robert Stone hardcovers. Stone, with a chortle, signed each one.

Someone from Houghton Mifflin was selling paperback copies of Prime Green. I bought one and then apologized when I slid it under Stone’s nose. I loved Dog Soldiers, I told him. I should have brought a copy with me. Indeed, I had read the book just two months earlier in huge gulping doses. He nodded. Your work is inspirational, I said. I had spent much of my time in line figuring out what to say, what wouldn’t be too fawning but would still convey the proper reverence.

“You’re a writer?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, although I felt sheepish making this claim.

“Are you working on something? Is it going well?”

“I’m–I’m trying,” I said.

He nodded. He understood. He had seen thousands of versions of me before. I suspect he saw me as a lost child, one so alone as to not know how to ask for help. I was, at this time, twice divorced from literary agents, unpublished after a decade of trying, with not even a short story publication to my name. He told me, simply, to keep at it. That the writing is its own reward. The kind of wisdom that, to a young man, seems like resignation, but that to a man at middle age sounds a lot like fortitude and patience. He asked my name, double checked how to spell it, and then wrote his name and a quick line of encouragement on the title page and handed the book back to me.

After that I went down the bar’s long creaky stairs and out into the wet snowy night and back into the uncertainty of a writing life still largely unlived. I have been thinking about our short exchange ever since.

In a conversation with Robert Birnbaum after the release of Damascus Gate, Stone spoke about the epigraph in the book: “Losing it is as good as having it.” This is a line devoid of poetry and hardly worth an epigraph, unless you’ve bought into the long arrow path that passes through Stone’s oeuvre. As Stone explained to his interviewer, the quote wiped him out when he first heard it. “That which we have,” he said, “we invariably lose. And at the same time, it can’t be taken away.”

Stone was trying to say this same thing a decade earlier at the end of A Flag of Sunrise, when Holliwell is being rescued by a father and son who don’t speak English and seem hesitant to take the bloodied protagonist into their boat: “A man has nothing to fear, he thought to himself, who understands history.”

Losing everything, Stone tells us, is far better than never having anything at all. That full ironic detachment is a lesson that still resonates in our post-Cold War, post-American, pandemic-rankled world—with the empire teetering, so many of our heroes in retreat, and the very idea of grand masters in question, when the notion of a canon is more punch line than party line. Who can be a master? Who can speak for us all? Who is worthy? No one, obviously. But there are some voices that offer more to a listener than others. Stone’s is one of them.

Image Credit: Publishers Weekly.

The Ghost in My Hands: On Reading Digital Books

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During my last two years of college in Chicago, I rode downtown by commuter train a few times each week. The trip took about 40 minutes, and I always brought a book to pass the time.

I read most of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain on the tracks between the Loop and the Davis Street stop. I paged through The Satanic Verses that way too. These were strange book choices, but I was a strange reader. I never felt like I had read the right books. Everyone else seemed to have read everything. I was so far behind I had no idea where to start. I had hunger, but no sense of taste.

I certainly got no guidance from what other people on the train were reading. My fellow riders seemed to subsist on the Trib or Wall Street Journal alone. No novels other than the occasional Scott Turow or John Grisham. This was the golden age of the courtroom potboiler. I didn’t understand the priorities of these people whose lives were swarmed with mortgages, kids, and 401(k)s.

In 1998, I came to New York for graduate school, and at once I felt as if I’d found my people at last. I loved how so many people read books on the subway. Not just bestsellers, either. Novels, biographies, poetry collections. Books for people who loved reading.

To pay my bills, I got a job downtown at the Seaport. Once again, I was riding a train for most of an hour a few times a week. Nearly every day I would see a person reading a book that I had on a class syllabus, or a title from my own personal reading to-do list. New York felt like a place I knew, even though I didn’t really know it yet. The covers of books I recognized would stand out like friendly faces—well, hello, Gabo! What’s up, Woolfie? I see you’re a thing they carried, too, Mr. O’Brien!

Because I wanted so much to be a writer in those days, I spent many hours every week at the many bookstores of Manhattan. I bought used books because I couldn’t afford brand new ones. I was always waiting for a new release that I really wanted to show up as a remainder or as someone else’s cast off. If you want something that you cannot afford badly enough, then the packaging itself becomes an object of desire, and I began to be able to identify a book that I wanted after just the barest glimpse of its cover.

My favorite book covers were Vintage International paperbacks; their stately design, metallic hues, and dark tones were so lovely and pure. I would pick up a new author just because of the Vintage colophon. This was how I met Julian Barnes and William Maxwell. They had the right kind of references.

As it so happens, on a crosstown bus many years later, I fell into conversation with a woman who was the purchasing editor for Vintage International. I couldn’t find the words to express my gratitude to her; later, when she got off at her stop, I resisted the urge to ask for her email address. I didn’t want to give her the wrong idea.

Even after I finished graduate school, I still carried a book to the office each day. (In this way, I told myself I was different from those commuter train riders in Chicago years earlier.) Sometimes, at work I’d put the book face down on my desk, but usually I’d leave it out in the open: not to parade what I was reading but as a kind of invitation to anyone who wanted to talk books.

One winter, a colleague stopped by every few days to see how far along I’d gotten in War and Peace. Eventually, he began to offer up his own daily updates on his journey through books like The Count of Monte Cristo and The Killer Angels. I learned that he was a one-time history major who got swallowed up by the corporate world and was trying to find his way out.

Shortly before I got married, I was transferred from the office at the Seaport to the corporate headquarters out in Newark. Once again, I found myself on a commuter train each day. My friends would grimace when I told them about my daily commute. To reassure them that it wasn’t terrible, I pointed out that I had time to read.

Smartphones and e-readers made their debut while I was commuting to Newark. I tried this out one evening when I downloaded The Time Machine onto a first-generation iPad. At the time, I was sitting in bed while my wife slept, and I needed no lamplight because the screen was illuminated. This pleased me at first. But as I read, I realized that the tablet weighed just a fraction too much; it pulled gently at my fingertips, tugging me back to the real world more than a physical book.

The technology for e-readers has improved greatly since then. I read more digital books than physical ones now. I don’t feel quite right about it. But I love the convenience and simplicity of reading via Kindle. I opted for a digital copy of Ian McEwan’s

The Things My Books Carried

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I am in the habit of slipping objects between the pages of whatever book I am reading: sometimes to mark a place, more often because a book is the safest place I know for letters or receipts or tickets or whatever I need to bring with me somewhere.

I have carried books for over two decades of adult life now, years spent largely in Illinois and New York, but also on vacations and trips that go much farther afield. Earlier this month, I went through every book in our Manhattan apartment to see what I could discover.  This meant flipping pages in roughly 700 books, mostly novels, but also poetry books, memoirs, and essays, searching for pieces of my own history.

The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy

A slim copy request slip from Columbia’s writing program, circa 1999. I was workshopping my first novel and adjusting to life in New York City. McCarthy’s rustic prose was like a postcard from the woodsy plain in Michigan where I grew up. On the flip side of the slip, a handwritten list of obscure words in the text I admired — slewed, purl, wale, rictus — words that, alas, I then tried to jam into my own doomed manuscript.

The Blue Estuaries by Louise Bogan

Torn strips of paper mark dozens of poems that I liked as an undergraduate at Northwestern, back when I wanted to be a penniless poet when I grew up. I remember announcing this career path to my parents one chilly bright autumn afternoon while we milled outside Ryan Field before a football game. They took the news remarkably well. Today, I remember nothing of what drew the 20-year-old me to poems like “The Frightened Man” or “Betrothed.”

John Adams by David McCullough

A full sheet (minus one) of Forever Stamps from the U.S. Post Office. The picture on the stamps: the Liberty Bell, of course

Stamboul Train by Graham Greene:

Two colorful ticket stubs, mementoes from an official starting point of my own: Flight 438 from Lisbon to Paris on May 30, 2004, Seats 23E and 23F, one for me and one for my wife, Raina, on the flight back home from our honeymoon.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

The business card of a Vice President of Strategy for Razorfish, a major Internet consultancy in the ‘00s — and perhaps the strangest bedfellow possible for a book about Stalinist oppression. But these were my late-20s, a time of routine contradictions, when I fancied myself a professional Web geek by day but a self-serious failed novelist at the night.

Christine Falls by John Banville (writing as Benjamin Black)

The inspection certificate for our brand new Toyota RAV-4 from May 6, 2009. Despite having sworn never to have a car in the city again, Raina and I leased the Toyota because our daughter was two and we wanted to improve our ability to flee for the suburbs and the helpful hands of her parents whenever our nascent parenting skills failed us.

A Multitude of Sins by Richard Ford

A small card reminding me that I have a haircut on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2006 at 6 p.m. on Waverly Street. A decade later I still get my hair cut at the same place, though I now prefer Thursdays.

Devil’s Dream by Madison Smartt Bell

The floor plan for the apartment that Raina and I moved into in 2011, right before our son — our second child — was born. Our new neighborhood’s streets were littered with more trash than our previous, and car alarms would trumpet the start of the work day for livery drivers at 6 a.m., but the apartment felt big enough for all four of us, plus our dog, and in New York City having enough space means having everything.

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell

A yellow Post-It note that says “Waverly and Mercer” and “penne and chocolato,” written in my hand. I know I met many friends near the intersection of these two Village streets over the years — before we’d get pints of Belhaven at Swift or maybe cheap margaritas at Caliente Cab Company — but the meaning has gone just as those friends have left for Westport, Conn., or Chicago, Ill., or wherever friends go.

Love Always by Anne Beattie; Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin; Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre; and many more.

For 10 years, from 2003 through 2013, I commuted from New York to New Jersey each day — an hour each way. I used to tell people that I didn’t mind, because I had so much time to read books. And it’s true, I did a lot of reading then. But I did mind. I slipped three off-peak round trip passes for New Jersey Transit trains in the Beattie; 4 more receipts and three canceled tickets in the Baldwin; and, in the Sartre, six receipts, more than six round trips, perhaps a signal of how hard I worked to find joy in that joyless fusion of philosophy and fiction.

The Stranger by Albert Camus

A greeting card and a blank envelope. The card has a cartoon king on the cover and inside it says, “You rule!” There is nothing else written anywhere.

City of Glass by Paul Auster; A Rage to Live by John O’Hara; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut; This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff; The 9/11 Commission Report; Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson; Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima; and on and on.

During that long commuting decade, I often took not just the New Jersey Transit train but also a local tram in Newark. To ride the Downtown line, I had to buy a lavender ticket from a machine at the top of a long escalator. On the platforms at select stops, conductors would surprise commuters and demand proof that we each had used the ticket punch clocks to validate our 50-cent passes. I find these lavender alibis slipped in the pages of dozens and dozens of books.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles

Inside this hardcover I find the phone number for a taxi company and words written in Spanish: Buena Vista Villas en la picinade abajo. Also, a receipt for a $26 car ride. I know that Raina and I were in Costa Rica for my brother’s wedding in 2005. But I don’t speak or write Spanish. And I don’t know where the taxi brought us.

The Master of Petersburg by J.M. Coetzee

A full-color 3×2 photo strip. Two duplicates of a portrait still from my daughter’s kindergarten year, her tiny face smiling out, forever five years old. I brought this book with me when I went to a writer’s retreat for a week in 2013. I tried but failed to engage in the Coetzee, never finished it. Spent a lot of time looking at the little girl.

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

A piece of notebook paper from 1999 with phrases from the text that I liked (“the smell of lavender,” “like a person who is listening to a sea-shell held to her ear”), and a toll-free telephone number. I dial the telephone digits now, curious, but a recording says the number is no longer in service.

The Triumph of Achilles by Louise Glück

There is, technically, nothing in this book. But it is hardly empty. I can still find the poem marked with a hard diagonal line at the page corner, as if the paper were folded over a knife. “Sooner or later you’ll begin to dream of me,” the poem promises. “I don’t envy you those dreams.” A haunting line called out by an ex-girlfriend who borrowed the book after we broke up. Two decades later, the curse has yet to come true.

Atonement by Ian McEwan

A tiny, white, blank, one-inch-by-a-half-inch Post-It note.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

A Polaroid taken last year when it was my son’s turn to be in kindergarten: We are seated together in his classroom on a morning I don’t precisely remember — just as, I suppose, the father in The Buried Giant cannot quite recall his own son — although anyone can see this moment still matters by the bright and radiant looks on our faces. And will always matter, I like to think. Even if that’s not possible to prove.

After I finished this long walk through the books of the last 20 years, I asked myself whether I should leave the found objects or take them out. Should I strip the books clean for whoever comes through next — perhaps for my children when they are adults, if their taste in books resemble mine at all? Or shall I leave the objects more or less where I found them, a story-within-the-stories that tells the tale of one reader’s life for anyone who cares to sleuth out the details? This wasn’t a hard decision, as you’d guess. The objects go back. The page turns.

Image credit: Pexels/Suzy Hazelwood.

One More for the River: On Writing Challenges

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To satisfy his creditors, Fyodor Dostoevsky famously wrote The Gambler in four weeks. He was a roulette demon with a habit of losing more than he won. If he finished this new book in less than a month, all his debts would be cleared; if he failed, he’d lose everything. Dostoevsky pulled it off, of course; and in a final coup, he later married the stenographer who’d helped him.

I’ve read the big Dostoevsky novels, but nothing of his ever stuck with me quite like this story behind the story, a Behind-the-Music tale for the literary history books. No one ever argues that The Gambler is Dostoevsky’s best, but still — how was it possible to create a coherent story in such a short time? What did it feel like to compose so rapidly, and under such terrible pressure?

I first learned of Dostoevsky’s gamble in graduate school when I was a 22-year-old babe taking his first steps into the woods. I wrote a novel as my MFA thesis, and I had grand ambitions for myself and my work. Skip ahead eight years, and I still thought of myself as an aspiring novelist, but there was one problem: I hadn’t published anything. Not even a lick of a story online. This might not have worried me except for one new wrinkle: I was about to be a father. I had not yet written the book that I wanted to write. I knew that having a baby didn’t mean I could never write again. But I did know that I wouldn’t have the time or the leisure that I’d had previously.

I began my first compositional race against the clock late on a Monday night in December. I barricaded myself into our spare room — destined to be the baby’s room. Fifteen hundred words, I told myself. Just do fifteen hundred words a day. The story came easier than I expected. It proved easier than I thought to create characters as I went. Coming and going each day was not that hard because I would think about the story during the day while at work.

By the end of the month I had 70,000 words about (what else?) a young man with artistic aspirations who was worried about having a baby because he still hadn’t made his mark in the world. I re-read the whole manuscript and I was surprised at how good it was. Not objectively good — trust me, the piece had problems — I mean it was surprisingly good for me. An idea had been made flesh. Forget what I had made: I had done something that felt important for me.

The baby arrived before I finished revisions on the book. But that’s all right — being a Dad did not turn out to mean abdicating as an artist. An agent picked up the manuscript the next spring, and we sent it out to publishers just in time for my little girl’s first birthday. Too quiet, they said. Lovely, they said, but no way to sell it. Put it away, the agent said. Think about something new.

On one hand, this was terrible news. On the other hand, the rejection carried less sting because I had spent less than eighteen months on this manuscript — far less than the years that I had spent on previous failed efforts to sell a novel.

I do not know when I decided to do it all over again. My daughter was old enough that her sleep patterns were predictable. I had notes on the storyline that I wanted to tell. I knew that I could make the dining room table work for a month as my desk — now that the spare room was gone — and yet, I kept putting off the project.

Finally one March evening while I sat in a parking lot waiting for Chinese take-out, I realized that what I needed was a partner. I wrote a text message to my friend, the musician Matt Lenny, who I knew was trying to overcome his own perfectionist habits and record an album. I proposed a contest. He would compose, perform, and record a full album, and I would draft the text of a new novel — all within a thirty-day period. Then we’d get someone to judge which was better.

I have good news and bad news about this contest. Good news: I wrote over 2,500 words after work each day, and Matt recorded twelve tracks on weekends and late at night, and we both limped across the finish line in time. We were relieved and a little giddy afterward and proud of what we had done. Here’s the bad news: Matt didn’t like the songs enough to release the album in their current form. And my agent hated the novel. So everything went into the deep freeze of the hard drive.

My grad school mentor, the brooding and kind-hearted author David Plante, would sometimes refer to unsuccessful books as “one more for the river.” As a student in his twenties with a chartless ocean of writing challenges ahead, this metaphor made me uneasy because I so desperately wanted to arrive somewhere with my work. But more than a decade later, after trying and failing repeatedly to sell a work despite mustering all the inner creativity that I had, I began to see how important David’s metaphor was. There is a freeing quality to the sense that you have only a brief relationship with writing that you care for and craft as best as you can. In the end it’s all just ballast.

The duel between Matt and I had no tangible artistic outcome. It barely made a ripple in the river. Yet I return often to the story of what we did when I speak about writing and why I enjoy it. What was there about that torturous month that enlivened me so? Perhaps it was the competition. Or the sense that I did not have the time to doubt what I was doing or what I was creating: that I just had to keep writing, keep going, keep powering through. Sometimes the means is also the end.

Finally, not long after the birth of my second child, a magazine published a short story that I had written. The magazine had a relatively small circulation, but it felt meaningful to finally have my work selected. Or at least it did for about ten minutes. The river swept up what I wrote and rolled on. Or maybe I rolled on. This is what was becoming clear: I was made happy not by the product of my writing, but by the process.

As a boy, I was afraid of so much of the world around me. I was a poor sleeper. I worried about everything and everyone. I saw the possibility of terrible events everywhere. “You’d finally relax,” my father says, “when you sat at the table in the kitchen and began to draw and make up stories. You could sit there for hours just working at the details.”

Thirty years later  I was at a weeklong writing retreat in upstate New York.  I spent that week in a tower studio with a view of the Hudson just outside Catskill, NY. I was the artist in residence during the low season, and so I was almost the only person there. The writing challenge that I had given to myself was this: I wanted to write an entire novel in less than a week. This was sheer masochism. But it felt like something that I could achieve. The tower had spare but comfortable amenities. I had a space heater that I would fire up whenever the temperature fell to 55 or lower; but if I ran the heater warmer than 68 degrees, the black hornets hiding in the knotholes of the tower would rouse from their sleep. Otherwise, I was alone with the latest idea that I had for a novel.

The second day of the writing also happened to be my thirty-seventh birthday. Near dusk I sat back and stared out the window at the setting sun to the west. I had written 20,000 words in the last two days, and I needed to write 35,000 more in the next two-and-a-half to fulfill my goal. I was absolutely exhausted. But I also had the sense that this was the best possible thing I could be doing with myself at that moment. This habit of writing offered me a place where I could go to contemplate the sublunar landscape of the heart — without having to stay in that dark place forever.

I finished the draft before I left the tower. I went home and edited it for a few months. Now it is a book that I am very proud of. I’d rather not tell the story about trying to sell it. Whether that book sold is not the point. The point is that writing it was a breakthrough. I saw what writing did for me, and after that, I had no more illusions about whether I was or was not a writer.

The prolific twentieth-century novelist Georges Simenon published more than 160 novels during his career, and he wrote many of them in just 11 days. It is said that John O’Hara could sit at a typewriter at the New Yorker offices and bang out a story in one go. And of course there is that inveterate old gambler Dostoevsky. Mine has been a life full of writing projects that are large and grandiose in design, even if they aren’t ultimately grand in execution. I am at the end of a sustained writing fugue that has had me write an essay a month for 24 straight months. Each challenge is useful, irrespective of what it creates. There is relief in burning on just the pure oxygen of ideas.

Whenever I wonder why I keep finding ridiculous challenges, I think about that tower upstate. In memory, I can still inhabit the space of the moment. I can still feel how I am tired — my wrists ache and my back hurts from bending over the desk, which is really just a paint-spotted board thrown over some brackets attached to the window. I miss my family. I miss the rest of the world. But I am headed somewhere. I’m channeling something. I feel like I am putting my entire self to good use. Does the world end if I break this trance to walk down three flights and return to the world again without finishing the novel that I’m working on? Do the stars fall from the sky if I give up? I suppose not. But then again, I don’t really want to find out, either. So I keep writing.

Image: Pexels/Kelly Lacy.