Becoming a Radical Reviser: The Millions Interviews Matt Bell

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Matt Bell’s new craft book, Refuse to Be Done, came into my life when I was struggling to revise a late draft of a novel. Bell’s book, which provides an overview of the novel-writing process, is useful at pretty much any stage of writing and revision, but I found it especially helpful for the final stages of revision, when you know a book so well that it is very difficult to see it with fresh eyes. Using some of Bell’s exercises, I managed to cut 20 pages from my most recent draft, even as I added two new scenes. What I appreciated about Bell’s tips for the final stages is that they are practical and actionable. In the early and middle stages, the best advice might be to take a walk and hope your subconscious picks up the slack, whereas at the end phases, you can experiment with removing section breaks, deleting chapter openings, and cutting filler words and phrases like “there is,” “there were,” “she thought,” “he saw,” etc.

I’ve
started with the end of the Bell’s book because in some ways it’s the heart of
his craft book and what makes it unique from other guides. Using Bell’s book,
you can successfully take your book from the earliest, roughest draft to a final,
polished edit that you could submit to an agent or publisher. Bell divides his
writing process into three drafting stages. The first stage is generative and exploratory
and involves writing a lot of material that might not make into the final
draft. The second stage is about identifying the story in the first draft and
giving it a robust structure, and the third stage is about refining the
language at the sentence level. The stages he outlines are similar to what I’ve
hit upon over the years and will likely be familiar to writers in many genres,
but they are described in a very clear, approachable way. I wish I’d had this
book when I first trying my hand at fiction.

Bell’s novels include 2021’s Appleseed, Scrapper, and In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. Refuse to Be Done is his ninth book and comes directly from his experience as a novelist, as well as a teacher of creative writing at Arizona State University. Bell described the book to me as an approximation of his teaching persona: conversational, encouraging, and focused on helping the reader or student to write the best book they can. There is an enthusiasm at the core of Bell’s guidebook that makes it especially accessible, much like his monthly newsletter, the straight-forwardly titled “Writing Exercises from Matt Bell,” which provides writing prompts and often includes examples from contemporary fiction.  

I
emailed with Bell about his book a few weeks ago; our exchange is edited for
clarity and continuity.

The
Millions: In your book, you divide the
novel writing process into three stages of drafting. Of these stages, is there
one that you prefer? Has it changed over the years or with different
projects? 

Matt Bell: They all have their pleasures, but I think the second draft is often the one that feels most like what I imagined novel writing to be, before I did it: I’m working from an outline, usually writing more or less linearly through the story, and making the scenes the best they can be before going on. (I couldn’t do this without the exploratory, generative first draft, though, or at least haven’t so far.) I usually know my characters pretty well by then, and the voice of the book is pretty established. It’s the end of this draft that, book after book, feels most like a real accomplishment: at the end of the first draft, I just feel daunted by how much is left to do, where at the end of the second, I feel like I’ve written a novel.

As for what’s changed over the years? Every novel presents its own challenges—it’s absolutely true that the stubborn new novel does not care and is not impressed that you successfully finished the last one—but a lot of skills transfer over. For instance, I’m better at recognizing the various discouragements that always occur at certain stages, and I remember how I’ve pushed through or persevered in the past. I don’t know how much time knowing what to expect saves, but it does short-circuit some of the anxious handwringing.

TM: This brings up a question I’ve been thinking about: what is the
relationship between revision and time management? I notice I sometimes bring
an expectation of efficiency to revision that I don’t bring to a first draft,
and I’m not sure it’s particularly helpful, psychologically.

MB: I love this question, and I’d agree: focusing on
efficiency probably isn’t the most helpful approach with anything in writing,
or at least creative writing, which is so rarely on a real deadline. In
general, I’m trying to expunge all the productivity talk I can from my language
about writing, although I know I don’t always succeed. But I’m not a factory,
and I don’t want to treat myself like one either.

That
said, I do think the layered approach to revision I suggest in the third draft
part of the book is efficient, because it gives you a concrete series of
steps to take, instead of the nebulous “just keep making it better until it’s
finished” vibe that so much of my own education took. As I go through that part
of the process, I can feel the book moving closer to done every single day: it’s
actually one of the places where progress seems most apparent, at least for me.

TM: One important caveat you include is that writers might
need to go back and forth between these stages, and I wondered how often you
find yourself doing that? Has there been a moment in any of your books when, in
the final stages of refining sentences, you suddenly realize you need to write
a new scene?

MB: Yes! I can remember specifically the last scenes I wrote in both In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods and Scrapper. The first was written in the final stages of working with my editor Mark Doten, where he highlighted a couple sentences of exposition and said they needed to be a scene: I thought it would be difficult to write it, so far from the drafting phase of the book, but it was one of the easiest scenes to write. The last scene in Scrapper was written after my last research trip to Detroit, conducted after I’d already drafted and revised the book. There was a film adaption of that book in the works that unfortunately came apart during Covid, but the screenwriter started his screenplay from that last-written scene. He told me, “That scene thematically contains the whole novel,” and I thought, Of course it does. It’s the only scene I wrote with the full knowledge of what the novel is.

I’ve
thought about that conversation a lot. There’s another world in which I started
over again from that scene and wrote a whole other draft—and who knows how much
farther that one might’ve gone? (Thank god the book was already published when
the screenwriter told me so I didnt try to find out!)

TM: Since this book comes out of your teaching, could you
describe what your students’ approach to revision tends to be when they first
come to you? What are the common pitfalls and mistakes that you see them
making?

MB: I think the biggest pitfall tends to simply be an unwillingness to radically revise, which in most cases means rewriting. Especially when you’re starting out, it costs you so much to make the first draft of something that the idea of doing it again is understandably abhorrent: certainly most students would rather write something else than write the same story again, or even a single scene of it. But I think if you can convince students to give it a try, the results are so good that they’ll eventually be convinced to make it part of their process. I’ve got a couple thesis students right now who are committed radical revisers, and it is amazing how much stronger a novel chapter gets with repeated attempts. I’ve seen one student compress 100 pages of action and backstory into a lean 20 over the course of a few attempts, and the sheer thrill we shared going over their latest draft was well-earned.

TM: How do you advise your students to incorporate feedback
into their revision process? You don’t give a lot of specific advice in your
book, only to keep the draft to yourself as long as possible. When do you
incorporate feedback from others? Does it depend on the project?

MB: I don’t usually share my novel drafts at all until they’re at the very end of the process outlined in Refuse to Be Done. Even after 10 years of working with my agent, I don’t tell him what I’m writing until I have at least a first draft down, and I don’t show him anything until I feel like I’ve gone as far as I can on my own. I’m probably a little more secretive than the average writer! But that also means that I am hungry for feedback by the time it comes.

I’ve been lucky to have talented, perceptive editors for my books, good at both plot/structure and at making my sentences shine. There’s always a period of learning to work with an editor (and their learning to work with you), but I’m game to try out just about any suggestion. More and more, I take sentence level suggestions without hesitation: on one draft of Appleseed, I hit “Accept All” without even reviewing the changes, then kept my eye out for anywhere something felt off to me as I reread and worked on other feedback. I tell this to friends, and they reliably gasp in horror, but it saved so much time and anxiety, and in the end there were only a few places where I had to “fix” something that had been done to my sentences. If you have a talented editor you can trust, you might try to do so: a good editor isn’t try to take your style from you, only make it the best version of itself. And, of course, then you’re doing your final edits on top of that help, instead of spending time resisting it.

The other best kind of feedback is actually the place where
an editor or a friend’s attention lights something up in the book for you. For
instance, there’s a thread in Appleseed drawing on the Tree of the
Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis that was there in my submitted draft but
wasn’t as developed as other parts of the book. My editor’s interest in that
renewed my interest in it, and the final version is better simply
because she was so into it. I think chasing a good reader’s enthusiasms about
your draft is a great way to find a door into the next rewrite.

TM: Okay, I admit I gasped at the idea of just hitting “Accept All,” though I can see how that’s a useful strategy in the final stages of revising. Do you think there is any danger of over-revising in the final stages?

MB: I mean, that “Accept All” thing probably is lunacy, but a little wildness late in the process feels good too! It opens me up rather than shuts me down. I think there is likely danger in over-revising, and I think you see it especially in places like the openings of novels: they’re almost always screwed down a bit too tight. (Including mine, for sure.) There’s so much pressure on those pages, and we spend so much time with them, and in the end we do some damage in our attempt at perfection or acceptability or even just hooking the reader. I always think of Zadie Smith taking about rewriting the first 20 pages of On Beauty over and over: “I can hardly stand to look at my novels in general,” she said, “but the first 20 pages of each in particular give me heart palpitations. It’s like taking a tour of a cell in which I was once incarcerated.”

TM: How do you see research fitting into the revision
process? I get the impression from your book that it’s something to fit in as
needed but I wondered if you ever take a more structured approach?

MB: I think there are a couple of kinds of revision-related research, for me. One is simply the going through the book and making sure you’ve got your facts right: in Appleseed, for instance, I wanted to make sure the science in my science fiction was more or less plausible, and in some places I needed it to be as airtight as I could make it. (Not much point writing about climate change if you get the climate science wrong.) But there’s also a real joy—maybe especially in that second draft phase—of doing research with the plot already in hand: by then, you know what your book is interested in, which means certain details catch your attention that would’ve gone right by if you’d researched before you started. That’s one of the stages of research that actually feels most enjoyable to me: where the novel is acting as a filter, letting through only what pertains in the material you’re sifting through.

TM: What craft books do you rely on? Did you look to
any writing manual as a guide for this one?

MB: Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English came out around the time I was drafting this book, and I know it was a model of how to organize the material and how to stay in a conversational and encouraging voice. I really love the two Writer’s Notebook collections of lectures that Tin House put out, as well as Graywolf’s Art Of series. I just picked up Peter Ho Davies’s new The Art Of Revision from them, because apparently I’m not done learning about my own subject either! I think Matthew Salesses’s Craft in the Real World and Paisley Rekdal’s Appropriate are two essential reads for anyone writing today. Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style gave me the language to talk about sentence structure that I always wanted and didn’t have. Lately I’ve been obsessed with Samuel Delany’s About Writing and Charles Johnson’s The Way of the Writer, both of which are made of short, punchy essays full of wisdom. And Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel feels like an essential text for me: a lot of my way of thinking about what I want my life as a novelist to be was shaped by Smiley’s willingness to share how she’s lived hers.

A Year in Reading: Hannah Gersen

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Last fall, I ordered a large, overstuffed “chair-in-a-half.” It was to be my reading chair, a place where I could go and no one in the family would bother me. True to its name, this chair cost about 50 percent more than I thought it should, and I felt a rush of adrenaline when I hit the buy button. A few minutes later, an email informed me that the chair would arrive six months later, in early February. I complained about this to everyone in my household. “The winter will be half over by then!” Little did I know, we’d be getting a winter-and-a-half, overstuffed with snow and ice. I also didn’t realize that when cold weather hit, the last thing I’d want to do on the weekends was sit in chair within earshot of my children. Instead, I went out for long, freezing walks so I could listen to albums and podcasts uninterrupted.

When my chair finally arrived, it was as cozy as I hoped but unfortunately, it did not make me invisible. I had to wait until after my kids went to bed to really make use of it. There were many nights when I dozed off after a few pages of reading. This was a year when I didn’t finish a lot of the books I started. But there were some wonderfully extended reading sessions when I stayed awake for hours. Here are some of the books that I remember from those evenings.

My first chair read was Patricia Lockwood’s novel No One Is Talking About This, which I checked out from the library. I read this in two sessions and wasn’t tempted to look at my phone the whole time because reading it, especially the first half, was like being on the Internet—but a highly refined, dreamy version.

I downloaded Uncanny Valley by Anna Weiner, which seemed like the right format for a memoir about working in Silicon Valley. I loved the ambivalence at the core of this memoir and the slight passivity of the narrator, the way she just sort of went with the cultural tides and lived to tell the tale.

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff was another memoir about work, a coming-of-age story about turning away from a profession in order to follow a calling. It made me deeply nostalgic for the New York City of the late 1990s, when email was still new.

Jamaica Kincaid’s My Garden (Book) made me want to plant a garden and to follow my obsessions to the ends of the earth. It was a balm to read at the tail end of winter.

I read two Stefan Zweig novels in a row: Confusion and Journey Into the Past. I can barely remember what either is about now, but I loved the feeling of reading them, the dense emotional mood of a late-night confession.  

Over the course of a week, I read Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country. The pacing of this novel about a year in Moscow gives the feeling of what it’s like to move to a new place—the slowness of time at the beginning and then the way everything speeds up as life becomes busier and more complex.

Speaking of excellent pacing, I know I’m the last person to read Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko but I finally got to it and was totally swept up, as everyone promised I would be. It’s an epic but it’s also warm and intimate. I loved reading it.

After Pachinko, I had trouble settling into a new book so I reread a novel I remembered loving when I first read it, 15 years ago: Stoner by John Williams. It was as just as good the second time, although I was somewhat troubled by the portrait of the wife. She was more of a villain than I remembered, evil in a way I hadn’t reckoned with on the first reading. What I admire about the book is the way it seems to capture one man’s entire life and the forces of history acting upon him. There’s a weight and depth to it, though it’s actually a pretty short novel.

Another book I reread was Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. I recently wrote about it for this site, but long story short, I was stunned by what a total masterpiece it was. I’d loved it as a teenager but hadn’t come close to understanding what it was really about back then.

I read Amitov Ghosh’s The Great Derangement and it changed the way I thought about the climate crisis and about fiction about the subject. (Incidentally, he mentions Vonnegut as one of the first contemporary writers to reckon with the subject.)

Finally, I read How to Write and Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee. It’s a series of essays about writing, money, publishing, and just plain life that has the flavor of a coming-of-age novel. This book is a gift to writers.  

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The Millions 2021 Gift Guide for Readers and Writers

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It’s time again for The Millions annual gift guide for the readers and writers in your life. If “social-distancing” was last year’s suddenly ubiquitous turn-of-phrase, this year it’s “supply-chain issues.” So, shop early, shop used, shop local, and if your favorite author has a book coming out soon, preorder it!

A Dream LibraryWhat reader hasn’t dreamed of a private library with floor-to-ceiling books? This miniature version will keep the fantasy alive while saving on construction costs. It’s also a fun craft project for writers who need a break from revising. 

A Little Free Library Little Free Libraries were a lifesaver during the pandemic, and are a serendipitous way to find and share books. They’re a great DIY gift for anyone who likes used bookstores, because it’s like having a tiny one right outside your door.  

Magic 8-BallThe writer’s life is one of uncertainty. Let the Magic 8-Ball answer writers burning questions, e.g. Will The New York Times review my book? Will I get a call from Terry Gross? A nod from Reese or Oprah? Does my cat like me? Is it time to water my cactus? Should I have another cup of coffee?

Jekyll & Hyde OrnamentIf the past few months of articles about literary ethics have taught us anything, it’s that writers have a dark side to complement the light. Remind your writer friend (or yourself) of their two faces with this Jekyll and Hyde ornament.

Socks Inspired by a Poem These beautiful, long-lasting socks are inspired by a poem by Shikishi Naishinnō: Still in snow, the mountains are silent, yet the pine trees sing of spring

My Favorite NotebooksI love these slim, college-ruled notebooks from Muji. They are versatile, lightweight, and at $2.99 for five, a bargain. Pair them with a set of freshly sharpened pencils for a budget-friendly gift.


How To Write An Autobiographical Novel I like to recommend a craft book every year, and I recently caught up with Alexander Chee’s 2018 essay collection How To Write an Autobiographical Novel. This isn’t a prescriptive “how-to” guide with writing prompts and time management tips, but is instead a much more personal collection of essays about the writing life. It’s unusually frank about money, publishing, and the unpredictability of the creative process. It also includes a wonderful portrait of Annie Dillard—whose book Living by Fiction is also worth gifting.  

Luxury BathrobeEveryone’s robes have taken a beating from two years of pandemic life. Maybe it’s time for a bold print, cashmere, or zig-zag stripes.

Postcard from a Famous AuthorEvery year, The Common hosts a postcard auction, giving readers the chance to bid on handwritten, personalized postcards from their favorite writers. This year’s authors include Joy Williams, George Saunders, David Sedaris, Alexander Chee, Phoebe Robinson, Jeff Tweedy, and The Millions own Emily St. John Mandel. Bidding ends Dec. 1, so don’t procrastinate on this gift.  

Book Lover’s Advent CalendarThis is another gift to order right now, so you can count down to Christmas with an advent calendar for bookworms. Behind every window is a quote about the literary life. There’s a version for kids, too.

A Bard-inspired PuzzleA friend recently told me that jigsaw puzzles are the perfect companion to audiobooks. For me, they are a welcome distraction when I need a break from the screen. This 1,000-piece puzzle of Shakespeare’s world provides inspiration and productive rest to writers and readers alike.

An Alternative E-ReaderIf you want to give someone an e-reader but don’t want to support a certain online shopping site that rhymes with shamazon, then try the Kobo Clara HD E-Reader. It’s also great for borrowing e-books from the library.

A Forthcoming BookAre you friends with an author who has a book coming out? Do you feel friendly toward an author? Preorder their forthcoming book! This could also be a good holiday gift for someone if a favorite author has a book coming out in the spring. Let them know you preordered the book, and a few months later, when they’ve completely forgotten the holidays, a book will magically arrive in the mail.  

A Little Bit of Good LuckThis paperweight, which contains a real four-leaf clover, might just be the little bit of luck a writer needs to take their project over the finish line.

Diagnosing Billy Pilgrim: On Tom Roston’s ‘The Writer’s Crusade’

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1. A couple of months ago, when I was feeling stuck in a revision of the novel I’ve been working on for too long, I decided to reread Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Slaughterhouse-Five. My reasons for rereading were a writer’s reasons. I was having trouble balancing speculative and realistic elements in my novel and I wanted to see how Vonnegut did it. Vonnegut was one of my favorite writers in my teen years, someone I read and re-read, but at some point in my 20s, I stopped reading him. When I picked up Slaughterhouse-Five, my memories of the book were vague. I knew Vonnegut would use the device of time travel to tell the story of his experiences in World War II; he was taken as a prisoner of war and survived the bombing of Dresden, Germany. I also knew, from Charles Shields’s biography of Vonnegut, And So It Goes, that it was a difficult novel for Vonnegut to write, one he approached from many different angles over two decades. And so, pencil in hand, I opened the book in an analytic spirit, hoping to learn a thing or two from a great writer.

If you’ve read the book recently, you may guess what happened: I pretty much dropped the pencil after a couple of pages. Everything about the book surprised me; it was almost as if I’d never encountered it before. I had completely forgotten that the first chapter is told from the point of view of Vonnegut, the writer, and reads like a memoir. It’s all about how hard it is to write an autobiographical novel, and the misgivings Vonnegut has about turning his war experiences into an entertaining narrative. He claims to have written and discarded thousands of pages, and it feels true; he comes off as genuinely anxious and tired in a way that it surprisingly raw. But the thing that really startled me was Vonnegut’s depiction of Billy Pilgrim’s time travels.

For those of you unfamiliar with the structure of Slaughterhouse-Five, I will quote from the book I’m supposed to be reviewing—and will eventually get to, I promise—Tom Roston’s The Writer’s Crusade: Kurt Vonnegut and the Many Lives of Slaughterhouse-Five:

Vonnegut writes the first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five as if it’s nonfiction, but then the next nine chapters are about a fictional character, Billy Pilgrim, who travels in time and is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, and whose war experiences loosely parallel Vonnegut’s, all of which makes it metafiction, meaning it upends the conventional fictional narrative by blurring the line between the author and the story being told.

Pilgrim’s time travel, combined with the metafictional aspects, are what give Slaughterhouse-Five its extraordinary power. On a storytelling level, the time travel element allows Vonnegut the writer to escape the bonds of linear narrative. I believe he needed to do that for this particular book because he could not bring himself to write a story about a massacre of human life that followed the laws of cause and effect. Instead of building momentum around the question of Pilgrim’s survival, Vonnegut shapes the novel around Pilgrim’s traumatic memory of the bombing of Dresden, inching closer and closer to it until the final chapter, when we get the full picture of what happened to Pilgrim during the war, and why he was never the same afterward.

As a teenager, I took the time travel elements in Slaughterhouse-Five literally and enjoyed them as funny sci-fi elements. Reading it as an adult, Billy’s time traveling immediately struck me as tragic, a symptom of deep trauma. I felt I was in the company of a man so haunted by terrifying memories that he was unable to settle into the present. It’s possible that I’m still taking Vonnegut too literally, reading his characterization of Billy as early reporting on what we now call PTSD. But the parallels are quite eerie.

Here’s Vonnegut, describing Billy’s state of mind, in an opening chapter:

Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next.

And here’s a passage from Bessel van der Kolk’s bestselling study of trauma, The Body Keeps the Score:
Dissociation is the essence of trauma. The overwhelming experience is split off and fragmented, so that the emotions, sounds, images, thoughts, and physical sensations related to trauma take on a life of their own. The sensory fragments of memory intrude into the present, where they are literally relived.

And here’s Roston, again, describing how Vonnegut uses time travel in Slaughterhouse-Five:

By splintering reality, time, memory, and Pilgrim’s identity, Vonnegut aestheticized one of the primary effects of trauma, dissociation, in which there is a disconnection or lack of continuity between one’s thoughts.

One of the most remarkable things about Slaughterhouse-Five is its ending. The war is over, but there are anonymous, brutal deaths right up to the very end. Then, a bird tweets in Billy’s direction and the book ends. There’s no emotional catharsis for Billy, and no feeling of victory for the reader. This was as Vonnegut intended. In a preface to a special edition of Slaughterhouse-Five, (included in the Library of America’s collected Vonnegut, Novels & Stories, 1963-1973), Vonnegut rejects the idea that he gained any knowledge from his war experience. In witnessing the firebombing of Dresden he says he “learned only that people become so enraged in war that they will burn great cities to the ground and slay the inhabitants thereof.”

2.
When I finished Slaughterhouse-Five, I found myself wondering if Billy Pilgrim could be understood as having PTSD, and to what extent Vonnegut might have suffered from it. That’s how I happened upon journalist Tom Roston’s new book about Slaughterhouse-Five, one in a series of “books about books” published by Abrams Press. In The Writer’s Crusade, Roston argues that Slaughterhouse-Five was ahead of its time, and that “our views of its central themes—war, trauma, and the delicate act of telling war stories—have finally caught up with Vonnegut’s accomplishment, allowing us to see it, and the author, more clearly.” Roston structures his analysis of Vonnegut’s novel around the question of “whether or not Slaughterhouse-Five can be used as evidence of its author’s undiagnosed PTSD.” Although Roston poses the question sincerely to people who knew Vonnegut, it’s also a useful rhetorical device, and one that leads him down different research paths as he delves into Vonnegut’s notes and early drafts and talks with Vonnegut scholars, trauma experts, psychologists, and veterans who have personal experience with PTSD.

In structuring his book, which is a mixture of literary criticism, biography, and a cultural history of PTSD, Roston borrows from Slaughterhouse-Five, with an opening chapter that reflects on the process of writing and researching The Writer’s Crusade, and his ambitions for it. Roston recounts a reporting lead that he chased for some time, hoping to uncover a secret side of Vonnegut. But it’s hard to break news on a writer whose novels, particularly Slaughterhouse-Five, have been combed over by two generations of critics and hundreds of thousands of readers. Reading Slaughterhouse-Five through the lens of psychological trauma is also not a new angle. Roston notes that as early as 1974, the literary critic Arnold Edelstein describe Pilgrim’s time travel as a “neurotic fantasy” to help cope with the trauma of war.

No writer wants to be diagnosed through his work, and perhaps the best thing that Roston does in his book is to give context to the question of whether Slaughterhouse-Five is an autobiographical portrait of Vonnegut’s own war trauma. Roston writes in depth about the novel itself and how it came to be written, including the nitty-gritty of Vonnegut’s literary career before he became famous for Slaughterhouse-Five. (One of my favorite details from this section was just how lucrative the short story market used to be; Vonnegut supported his family on short stories, and even bought a house in Cape Cod.) Roston also provides a history of war trauma and how our understanding of it has evolved over the years. Although the negative psychological effects of war have been observed since ancient times, the symptoms of PTSD were not defined until the late 1970s, when it became apparent that many Vietnam veterans were having difficult adapting to civilian life. In 1980, PTSD was added to the DSM-III, and has now become so well-known that that people refer to it in casual conversation to describe any number of symptoms in the wake of traumatic events. Roston calls it as “the signature mental disorder of our age” and tries to untangle its popular definition from its clinical one. He also brings in the expertise of veteran-writers, such as Tim O’Brien, as well as veterans with an affinity for Vonnegut’s work. He wants to hear how they interpret Slaughterhouse-Five, given their experiences with war and trauma.

It’s with the help of a veteran that Roston finally attempts to diagnose Billy Pilgrim and Vonnegut, using a Veterans Affairs-issued PTSD screener. He brings many voices into the discussion, including Vonnegut’s children, literary critics, psychiatrists, and Vonnegut himself. Billy, being a fictional character, is elusive. Vonnegut, even more so. Those who knew him personally have varying opinions as to the extent of his war trauma and whether it falls under the diagnostic rubric of PTSD. Certainly, Vonnegut could be diagnosed with the loose, popular definition of the term. Speaking for himself, Vonnegut did not regard himself as someone with PTSD, and did not see Billy Pilgrim as an alter ego. In interviews later in life, Vonnegut revealed that Billy was loosely based on a private he knew in war, who died of malnutrition a few weeks before the war ended because—it seemed to Vonnegut—he had lost the will to live after witnessing so much senseless violence. Nor did Vonnegut conceive of the time travel element as a way of representing the symptoms of PTSD. Instead, he saw it as a comic device to lighten the heavy mood of the book. (So, my adolescent reading wasn’t totally stupid.) Roston doesn’t argue with Vonnegut’s analysis, but he does observe that at least some of Vonnegut’s reluctance to dwell on the past is generational. Vonnegut may have gotten in touch with war buddies and made his share of desperate late-night phone calls—as detailed in the opening chapter in of Slaughterhouse-Five—but he wasn’t visiting the VA for help. “To the best of my knowledge,” Roston writes, “Vonnegut never sat in a room with a VA-organized group of veterans to process his feelings.”

Vonnegut also avoided overly autobiographical interpretations of Slaughterhouse-Five because he didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a writer traumatized by war, or as someone whose impulse to write was related to his war trauma—and anyone who looks at his life and work can see that this isn’t the case. But Slaughterhouse-Five is a special book. To say that it is Vonnegut’s most personal doesn’t seem quite right, in part because I don’t know Vonnegut personally. (If I had to guess, I’d pick Cat’s Cradle as the book closest to his heart.) After re-reading it, and reading Roston’s book, I think it’s actually the novel that has the least to do with Vonnegut. In the strange way of great works of art, it escapes the confines of Vonnegut’s autobiography as well as the PTSD diagnosis. Maybe it even eludes war and instead speaks to a feeling of bewildered pain that is universal to all human beings when confronted with violence. The flights to Tralfalmadore feel like a way to get some distance from the psychic mess we’re all in on this planet. Roston concludes as much in his final analysis: “As much as I’ve tried to pull out the threads on Slaughterhouse-Five to determine its relationship to war trauma, a book can never be just one thing.”

Birding While the World Burns: On Charles Hood’s ‘A Salad Only the Devil Would Eat’

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A few years ago, I became unexpectedly obsessed with mushrooms. It started, as so many unlikely obsessions do, with research for a novel. I didn’t need to know much about the world of fungi to write the scenes I had in mind, but the more I read about mushrooms, the more I wanted to know. I began to see them everywhere: popping up from the mulch of street trees, crouched at the sides of buildings, and creeping across rotting park benches. I was living in Brooklyn at the time, where nature felt scarce and paved-over, but suddenly my eyes were drawn to vacant lots, construction sites, and the narrow strips of unclaimed land between buildings. Where I once might have focused on the unsightly pieces of trash and felt depressed about microplastics and chemicals in the soil, I was more inclined to lift a soggy piece of cardboard to see what was growing underneath it. Even though nothing had changed, New York City became more alive to me, and I became a little bit happier in my day-to-day life.

Looking for mushrooms in rotting park infrastructure is what Charles Hood would call, “the joys of ugly nature.” His debut essay collection, A Salad Only the Devil Would Eat, is a book that celebrates the nature that we can access every day in our own backyards—and if we don’t have backyards, then in a parking lot, garbage dump, or whatever scarred, imperfect spots are nearby. Writing from his home in Palmdale, Calif., Hood has learned to embrace a landscape that he describes as “sections of creosote edgeland that collectively are not quite original desert, not quite exurban wasteland, but an in-between zone of once-grazed, sometimes-trash-filled, always fascinating possibility.” Hood acknowledges that for most people, this area looks like it “has been hit about ten times with the ugly stick and left for dead,” but his ongoing thesis, which he returns to throughout his essays, is that our vision has been clouded by fantasies of empty, pristine wilderness and nature writing that “too often drifts into High Church rhetoric.” Hood’s own writing is a tonic, full of specific, weird details. If find yourself consulting a dictionary as you read, it’s because Hood is a widely published poet, and brings a poet’s magpie vocabulary to his prose. The title of his collection comes from his assessment of his local plant list: bitterbrush, burro weed, creosote, jumping cholla and Mormon tea, i.e. “a salad only the devil would eat.”

Everything I’ve quoted from in the above paragraph comes from Hood’s opening essay, “I Heart Ugly Nature,” a witty meditation that sets the stage for the 13 essays that follow. Hood’s conversational, personal writing examines his obsessive-compulsive relationship with bird lists, his addiction to field guides, his mixed feelings about taxidermy and zoos, his awe of whales, and his love of pine trees, palm trees, and penguins. A handful of pieces are more journalistic in tone, delving into the history of Los Angeles’s water supply, Aububon’s Birds of America, and the red dye that is harvested from cochineal, a parasite that grows on the prickly pear cactus and “make the cactus pads look like they have been spackled with crusty toothpaste.” I learned a lot reading these essays, but in an offhand way. It’s a book that celebrates the delights of amateurism, the facts that you stumble upon when you’re reading for something else, or the rare bird you happen to notice when you’re out on a whale watch.

Embracing contradiction is an important part of Hood’s credo, and a theme he revisits often. In his essay, “Love and Sex in Natural History Dioramas,” he admits that he loves dioramas even as they obscure reality, observing that there are never any pieces of trash in a diorama, or airplane contrails in the painted sky; the only evidence of human influence is that fact that the animals are arranged with the male animal cast as protector, in order to present a narrative that is pleasing and familiar to visitors. “They [dioramas] are useful, attractive, artistic, but also colonial and limiting and laden with daddy issues.” Another contradiction Hood leans into is his love of list-making, a hobby that is both second nature and “darkly addictive.” He has to quit his bird list because it was taking the fun out of hiking: “Too often I came back from a trip unhappy over something stupid—like not seeing the suchity-such, which Joe Money-Wad had seen only a month earlier. Never mind all the other things I had seen.” Instead of birds, Hood now counts mammals, a hobby that takes him all over the world to collect sightings. Does he feel guilty over his carbon footprint? Oh, yes, but at the very same time he relishes his adventures, and feels pride for his mammal list, which is creeping up to 1,000.

There are writers who would dwell in their climate anxiety for a beat longer than Hood does, and I couldn’t decide if I minded that he didn’t. Mostly, I felt relieved. Over the past decade, I’ve read many books and articles that detail the current climate crisis, and while I think it’s important to know the extent of the damage, and to investigate strategies for repair and restoration, we also need writing that looks for the bits of joy amidst the profound losses. It’s crucial, of course, that Hood is honest about what has been destroyed. If he reaches for optimism, it’s only for his own sanity, not because he’s in denial. In “Fifty Dreams for Forty Monkeys,” an essay about the futility of wildlife management (among other things) Hood writes about the necessity of accepting nature as it exists in reality: “Because the thing is, I live when I live, and while I can yearn for the passenger pigeon or the truly stupendous and entirely extinct Carolina parakeet, that won’t help get me through the day. I have to love what the day allows me to love.”

Maybe the difference between Hood and journalists like Elizabeth Kolbert, Bill McKibben, and David Wallace-Wells, whose recent books Under a White Sky, Falter, and The Uninhabitable Earth anticipate future catastrophes, is that Hood stays very much in the present, looking at what animals and plants are doing now to cope with the changes at hand. He’s not particularly interested in technological or political solutions that humans might employ to deal with the climate crisis and believes that “our best action on behalf of nature may be inaction: stand back and let it do its thing, see what happens.” Investigative journalist Cal Flyn makes similar insights in her recent book, Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape, which looks at the way that nature has rebounded in toxic spaces abandoned by humans, such as the exclusion zone in Chernobyl, and Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. Her reporting backs up many of Hood’s casual observations about the hidden virtues of “ugly nature” and the folly of human interventions. I don’t mean to suggest that either writer recommends that we continue to burn fossil fuels or destroy wildlife, only that both writers observe how nature can thrive when left unbothered.

I suspect that off the page, Hood is a lot more pessimistic, but in his writing, he’s trying to keep the darkness at bay. He also tries to keep the human perspective at bay, nudging us to remember that it’s just one point of view, among many. One of my favorite throwaway lines in this collection comes after Hood shares the pet names that zookeepers gave to four captured penguins: Mo, Smo, Andy, and Mandy. Another writer might have commented on the inanity of the nicknames. Instead, Hood observes, “what the penguins named the keepers, we do not know.”

FOMO, but for Books

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We were getting ready to go to the community pool last weekend, packing all the things we needed: towels, sunblock, water, change of clothes, etc. My husband glanced in the bag to double-check everything and then casually asked if there was a reason I’d packed two books and a magazine.

“To read,” I told him.

He looked at me. We have two children, one eight and one three. The three-year-old cannot swim. The eight-year-old can and requires an audience. There is perhaps a 10 minute window when I might be able to read uninterrupted. And yet I had to bring those books. Because…what if I did have time? And what if, when I got there, I just wasn’t in the mood to finish Elizabeth Kolbert’s Under a White Sky? (But what if I was?) What if, instead, I wanted to dig into Daniel Okrent’s history of prohibition, Last Call, which was due at the library very soon. Or what if I was in the mood for fiction, and I felt like reading the literary magazine that had just come in the mail?

“You never read at the pool,” he said. “You stay in the water and swim.”

This is true. My husband is the one who reads near bodies of water. He also has a realistic grasp on the number of hours in a day. He always brings one book with him on vacation, and he reads that one book. Sometimes he brings a book he’s already read, to guarantee that he will like it. This summer, he’s been bringing The Sun Also Rises to the pool, a novel he’s read at least three times before. It’s a great summer read. I love the part where they go fishing and have a picnic and keep the wine bottles cold in the stream. Just thinking about that scene makes me want to read that book again.

Sometimes I think I have FOMO, but for books. It’s particularly acute in the summer. When I go on vacation, I always take too many books with me. On my first big trip with my husband—before we had children—I packed five novels and then bought magazines at the airport. I read the magazines on the plane and the novels languished in my bag. There was no time to read. We were traveling around Spain, walking and eating and talking. And I knew that would be the case. Yet I packed the books. In my mind, we were traveling to a place where we would somehow have time to see all the sights and also relax for several hours every morning, and to read books. A place with 30-hour days.  

I ask myself where this fantasy comes from and I think—as with so many things—it goes back to childhood. When I was 10 years old, my family moved from New Hampshire to western Maryland. It was the year of Brood X, and I remembered the thick whine of the cicada song in the air when we arrived. I was bewildered by the humid weather and I didn’t know anyone. The kids down the street invited me to Vacation Bible School, so I went there, where I read the Bible and learned the Lord’s Prayer while my mother unpacked. When that was over, my mother took me to the library and told me to get out as many books as I wanted. When we got home, she gave me a glass of lemonade and the foldable wing chair and told me to find a spot outside in the shade to read—preferably a place where she could see me from her office window.

And so began a summer ritual that lasted through middle school. I loved how unrestricted summer reading was. You could read as much as you wanted, and whatever you wanted—there was no one interrupting you to do homework in other subjects or to get ready for soccer practice. You could read more than one book at once, dipping into one and then another and back again. You could skim over the sections you didn’t like; nobody was going to quiz you. You could read books you were too young for—hello, John Irving!—and books you were too old for—hello, Anne of Green Gables for the 10th time! You could read comics and sci-fi and celebrity biographies alongside the classics. You could go ahead and read the books that you might be assigned in high school—Ethan Frome, The Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Stranger—because what if you weren’t assigned them and then you didn’t get to read them?  

Henry James once wrote, “Summer afternoon, summer afternoon—to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” I’ve always assumed this quote refers to reading. I doubt James was hanging clothes out on the line or preparing dinner. He definitely wasn’t sitting by a pool and rating a cannonball jump on a scale of one to five at the request of a small child. I don’t begrudge James his summers, but I do assume that he, unlike most people I know, was able to hold onto them well into adulthood. My leisurely afternoons began to disappear midway through high school, when I started to work in the summers, and were gone by my 20s—though I did have more empty afternoons for reading in my 20s than I do now. But in my 20s, the Internet began to encroach on my time, and I also began to read with greater purpose—to learn the craft of writing or to gain knowledge to think critically about a particular issue. Of course, I read to be entertained, too, and to be absorbed in another person’s way of seeing things. That has never gone away. But the haphazard reading of my childhood summers is gone, and sometimes I think I’m chasing it, when I pack too many books.

Then again, maybe they’ll return to me, sooner than I realize. Just last week, our local library branch finally opened for browsing. My son headed to the children’s area and returned, 20 minutes later, with a tall stack. My pile was more modest—just two books. But as we walked home together and my son chatted about what he would read first, I took vicarious pleasure in his excitement. I wish I could say that I read alongside him, but the truth is cleaned up, attended to his younger sister, made lunch, and then finished up some of my own work. But summer isn’t over yet, and with a little planning, I may yet sneak in a few afternoons.  

Bonus Links:—A Summer Reading List for Wretched Assholes Who Prefer to Wallow in Someone Else’s MiseryAlternate Routes: A Summer Reading ItineraryThe Problem with Summer Reading

Image Credit: Pixabay

How to Get the Muse to Visit

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A classic piece of writing advice is, “Don’t wait for the muse.” But I’ve always felt this is dismissive of muses. You need the muses to write. The trick is, you have to show up for your muse, the same way you show up for your friends and family. This hasn’t been the easiest year to show up for anyone, let alone muses, and I’ve noticed there are a lot of suggestions floating around on the Internet about time management and productivity and setting boundaries with your children. This advice isn’t about that. This is about you getting more time with the Muse. Maybe you two will make something great, or maybe you’ll make something absurd and ridiculous. The Muse doesn’t care if your work is worthwhile and neither do I. I just want you to have more fun. And I want to have more fun. I wrote these for myself, obviously. 

How to Get the Muse to Visit

Send an invitation. Designate a specific time and place.You have to put out treats. She’ll like whatever you like. Salted almonds. Triscuits. Apple slices. Sunflower seeds. She enjoys a pot of tea or a cup of coffee. But not too strong. No booze. She’s not a drinker and doesn’t appreciate chatting with people who are tipsy.Tell her she can arrive whenever she wants, and that you’ll be doing some pre-writing exercises to get warmed up while you wait. Then do some pre-writing exercises. Ask your characters some simple ice-breaker questions, nothing too heavy and nothing that you need to know for the fiction you’re writing. Things like, “What’s the best meal you ever had?” “Who was your first crush?” “What songs do you like to listen to when you’re cleaning up?”Don’t make a fuss when the Muse shows up. Just say, “Hey, you want to sit over here by me and trade gossip?”Have some gossip ready. Tell her something about yourself or someone you know that you would never write down because you wouldn’t want it getting back to you. If you don’t have any gossip, read her poetry.Do not read her anything you wrote the day before, even if she helped you write it. You’ll bore her. She hates being bored.Do not invite the Editor. The Editor has offended her many, many times. She will clam up if the Editor is around, or just get up and leave. Do not invite Envy and Jealousy. I know there are times when you want to entertain them, but if they show up at the door when you’ve invited the Muse over, just politely ask them to come back another time. The Muse doesn’t like them because they monopolize the conversation, telling the same stories over and over again. Do invite your relatives and friends who have passed away. The Muse loves to talk to the dead. Don’t go on the Internet, even if it’s to jog your memory or to fact-check something you or the Muse has said. You can fact-check later with the Editor. That’s the kind of thing editors like to do. Don’t talk about the publishing world, review coverage, marketing strategies, Twitter threads, or “best-of” lists. Save that for your pity party with Envy, Jealousy, and FOMO. If you’re working on a particular project and you would like the Muse’s help, say to her, “Hey, I’m just working on this little thing—it’s no big deal, if you don’t have time, I understand, I’m just mentioning it because I think it might be fun for you, and you’d get to work with these really interesting characters, what do you think?” And then just start telling her about the project and see if she says anything. If the Muse doesn’t say anything, don’t panic. She’s listening. Maybe you gave her a hard problem. Or maybe she’s testing you. Have you been inviting her around enough? Invite her to come back the next day. And the day after that. And the day after that. Ask her specific questions. Give her puzzles to solve. Tell her she can try anything. Eventually, she’ll start talking.If the Muse has nothing to say about the project that you’re working on, and you really are stuck, ask her what she wants to work on. Tell her it can be anything in any genre. Tell her you aren’t going to try to sell it and that it will just be between the two of you. She can say anything she wants and you will never tell anyone. She needs to know that she can tell the truth. And she needs to know that she can ask you anything and you will tell the truth. Lastly, and this is the most important thing: if the Muse isn’t showing up for weeks on end, double-check to make sure the front door is open. Or at least a window. She really wants to talk to you, but you have to let her in.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

Year in Reading: Hannah Gersen

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Looking back on my reading list, I was shocked that the year began with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I re-read it in January because I was writing about Greta Gerwig’s film adaptation of the novel. Does anything seem more unlike the doomscape of 2020 than the joy and optimism of Gerwig’s Little Women? To be honest, rereading Little Women was a bit of a slog, especially the first half, when Marmee gives so many lectures. But the second half, which was originally published as a second volume called Good Wives, was unexpectedly modern, with many scenes devoted to the business of writing and publishing. A few weeks after I read the book, I watched the first two episodes of My Brilliant Friend on HBO and was surprised to see the girls passing Little Women back and forth — a detail I had forgotten from Elena Ferrante’s novel. But it makes perfect sense. The book is a talisman for girls who want to be writers. 

I never finished watching My Brilliant Friend. It was a year of not finishing a lot of things — TV shows, books, manuscripts. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was drawn to dense histories: Russell Shorto’s The Island at the Center of the World, Adam Higginbotham’s Midnight in Chernobyl, and Tony Judt’s Postwar. I guess I was trying to get some perspective. But I never finished any of them. 

What I did get through were memoirs. Before the pandemic started, I read Ruth Reichl’s Save Me The Plums, about her time at Gourmet magazine, which was abruptly shut down by Condé Nast in 2009 — one of the many casualties of the financial crisis. I enjoyed it so much that I went back and read Reichl’s previous memoir, Garlic and Sapphires, about being a restaurant critic for The New York Times. If Save Me The Plums felt like a nostalgic look back at the magazine world, Garlic and Sapphires felt retro to an almost Mad Men-degree, taking place in a quiet, internet-free world. In contrast to today’s never-ending news cycle, Reichl’s busy, deadline-driven life actually seemed pretty chill. If someone didn’t like her column — and they often didn’t — her editor got letters in the mail. Can you imagine? Me neither. And I grew up in that world. 

I followed Reichl’s memoir with Cat Marnell’s How To Murder Your Life, which I thought was going to be an addiction and recovery story, but turned out to have more in common with Little Women and Save Me The Plums. Marnell’s memoir is as much about becoming a writer and working in the magazine business as it is about drug use and addiction. She and Reichl both show how precarious print media always was, with magazines getting by on corporate advertising budgets and a labor force of young people willing to survive on perks — a business model that proved to be completely unsustainable after the arrival of digital and social media. Their memoirs aren’t marketed as works of history but they both captured the end of an era.

As New York locked down, I read Good Talk by Mira Jacob, a graphic memoir about talking to your kids about race and identity and family and other complicated subjects. It’s the kind of memoir that makes you feel close to the author, and the whole time I was reading, I was wondering how Jacob and her family were doing in the pandemic — I knew they lived near me, in Brooklyn. Shortly after finishing it, I received an answer to my vague worries in the New York Times in the form of a fresh comic from Jacob. They left the city. 

In May, I joined the exodus and relocated to the suburbs of New Jersey. As we drove back and forth to New Jersey, looking for a new apartment, we kept our kids entertained with an audio book of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in Big Woods, narrated by Cherry Jones. Children weren’t allowed inside the empty apartments, due to COVID restrictions, so my husband and I took turns looking while the other waited in the car, listening to Cherry Jones describe all the delicious foods Ma was making. Little House in Big Woods turned out to be the perfect pandemic read, since Laura and her family are basically in quarantine all the time, with no one ever coming to their isolated homestead and Ma always undertaking elaborate baking and craft projects. 

I hate unpacking. It feels so anti-climatic after you’ve done all the work of packing. After we moved, I had a procrastinator’s appetite for reading and tore through two West Coast memoirs: Miss Aluminum by Susanna Moore and Stray by Stephanie Danler. Both were haunted by trauma and tinged with glamour. I read Sea Wife by Amity Gaige, which was also haunted by trauma — and by the dream of escape: escape from marriage, escape from land, escape from domestic life. It was a good late-night read. 

In July, our library started doing curbside pick-up, so I ordered Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley after re-watching the movie on Netflix. I didn’t think the book could be any better than Jude and Gwyneth bathed in the golden light of Southern Italy, but I found a novel that was darker than the movie, and more coherent. In the movie, Ripley kills in passionate moments, out of jealousy or fear; in the book, he’s calculating, killing out of self-interest. He wants a good life for himself, with nice clothes, and nice furniture, and good things to eat and drink. He doesn’t take pleasure in murder but he’ll do what he has to do to maintain his standard of living. As soon as I finished the first Ripley novel, I started the second one — Ripley Underground — which wasn’t as good but delivered the same ice-cold truth. There was a moment when I was convinced that I was going to spend the rest of 2020 reading Ripley novels, because they seemed like the only thing that could capture the chilling superficiality of the Trump Administration, but when I started the third one I realized I’d had my fill — for now. It’s a perverse comfort to know that Ripley’s always there for me, wearing his elegantly tailored clothes and sipping Pernod.

After Ripley, I craved emotion. I read a bunch of first-person novels, one after the other: Writers & Lovers by Lily King, Want by Lynn Steger Strong, Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld, Weather by Jenny Offill, Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead, and What Are You Going Through? by Sigrid Nunez. Nunez’s book was the one that really got me, and the one I would recommend for this year in particular. It’s a book about trying to control death, but you can’t, the most you can do is acknowledge the suffering of other living things. It’s a heavy insight but Nunez delivers it lightly; the novel feels spacious and conversational and there’s a scene with a cat that I want to spoil but won’t. I’ll just say that the scene — and the novel — is a worthy companion for the dark winter ahead.

More from A Year in Reading 2020

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The Millions Annual Holiday Gift Guide for Writers

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I’ve written and erased at least 20 introductions to this year’s gift guide. I don’t know what to say except: we all really need a holiday this year. And with many of us staying close to home and avoiding family gatherings, a thoughtful gift may be more appreciated than ever before. So, here’s a guide with a little something for everyone. Although this list uses affiliate links, I encourage you to buy from local, small businesses whenever possible. Most independent bookstores will order books that are not in stock and many will ship gifts for you. 

A Laptop Stand2020 was the year of WFH and it looks like 2021 will continue the trend. A laptop stand will encourage good posture and help avoid back pain and eyestrain. I use a simple platform that raises my laptop up a few inches, but my husband, who spends his day on Zoom, recommends this adjustable platform from iLevel, which is easy to reposition up or down for optimal camera angles. 

A Portable DeskWhen you’re not at your desk—when, say, your children are using it for remote schooling—a portable lap desk can help you turn your bedroom, sofa, or comfy chair into a work space. This bamboo model from SongMics comes recommended from my sister, who has been using it throughout the pandemic.

Wake Up & Work NotepadThis daily notepad strikes me as more approachable than a bullet journal or even a daily planner. To me, this notepad says, “I’m here for you on the days when you’re feeling productive, but no pressure!” It also includes a place to note daily water intake and meal plans.

Drinking French by David LebovitzIf your friend ends her writing day with a cocktail, I recommend this charming cookbook. Even if you never get around to making its excellent recipes, they’re worth reading for Lebowitz’s descriptions of life in Paris. Combined with the beautiful color photographs, it’s easy to imagine whiling away an afternoon in a French cafe. 

So You Want To Publish a Book? by Anne TrubekThis nuts-and-bolts guide to publishing aims to draw the curtain on the publishing industry, defining terms and processes that are generally only known to insiders. Author Anne Trubek founded her own press, Belt Publishing, six years ago, and this guidebook makes an argument for the importance of small presses to writers and readers. 

Freewrite Smart TypewriterI often use Freedom, the Internet-blocking software, to help manage the daily distractions of email and “research” rabbit holes, but the Freewrite Smart Typewriter takes Internet-blocking to a new level. Available in either desktop or traveler size, the Freewrite looks like a cross between a word processor and a small electric typewriter. It allows you to save everything you type to online cloud storage such as Dropbox and Evernote, but does not have web-browsing capabilities. It also has limited editing features, so that writers are forced to keep writing instead of fussing with a particular sentence. This machine would be ideal for early drafts, and for working from home in a small space.

A Potted PlantPlants are beautiful and quiet companions, the perfect audience when you need to read your work out loud but aren’t necessarily looking for feedback. You can’t go wrong with a pothos plant, which will grow anywhere and doesn’t need a lot of coddling, but if you really want to go low maintenance, you can get your friend a cactus. Planet Desert delivers potted cacti and succulents, and Bloomscape is great for leafy green plants, and also ships plants directly to your home.  

A Postcard from a Famous AuthorYou have to act fast for this gift, which will not be available after today. Every year, The Common holds a postcard auction, allowing readers to bid on the chance to receive a handwritten, personalized postcard from acclaimed authors. This year’s auction includes Ann Patchett, David Sedaris, Min Jin Lee, Anne Carson, and Edmund White—to name just a few. Online bidding takes place at charityauction.bid/postcards and ends today, Nov. 30.  

A Literary FacemaskEtsy has tons of book-themed facemasks, and your local independent bookstore probably also has a bin of them near the cash register. My personal favorite is from Litographs, whose products I have recommended in previous gift guides. As with their t-shirts and tote bags, their mask is printed with famous literary quotations in a tiny font. 

Making Comics by Lynda BarryThis self-help book teaches you to draw and write your own comics and helps you to establish a daily creative practice. I think this would be a wonderful gift for a writer at any stage of their career, because it’s the kind of book that opens your mind and gets you thinking in a different way. Its drawing and writing prompts could help you to get out of a rut, kickstart a new project, or simply provide an activity to help get through pandemic life.  

White Pens & Black PaperReverse the contrast with a black paper notepad and what have been consistently rated the best white pens. Novelty may not be the mother of invention but it’s definitely the fun aunt.

Literary Postage StampsBack when paper submissions were still a thing, stamps were something that writers bought by the roll. Now, they’re more of a special occasion item, which is all the more reason to choose ones with flair. Encourage your friends to write you some letters with these literary-themed stamps, including “Voices of Harlem” forever stamps, and Walt Whitman 85-cent stamps. There’s also a “The Snowy Day” stamp, which looks lovely on holiday cards. 

An Extremely Comfortable Reading ChairEver since the fall weather set in, I’ve been looking for the comfy chair of my dreams. We have comfortable-enough chairs in our apartment, and even two bean bags, but I’m looking for the kind of chair you can read an entire novel in, the kind of chair that embraces you, the kind of chair that your children will want to sit in but you will not let them because it is YOUR CHAIR. This might be a gift you need to buy for yourself, and that’s okay. You deserve it.  

Meander, Spiral, Explode by Jane AlisonThis craft book looks at the patterning of non-linear narratives. It invites readers and writers alike to think about storytelling methods that don’t fall within the classic Aristolean ideal of beginning, middle, and end. Writing for The New Yorker, Katy Waldman described it “a deeply wacky pleasure,” which sounds like what we all need right now.  

Literary Tarot CardsThese Rumi and Emily Dickinson “Divining Cards” feature quotes from the great poets to “Inspire, Provoke, Contemplate and Answer Life Questions.” Perhaps they can also help writers with thorny manuscripts. 

When Things Fall Apart by Pema ChodromThis recommendation comes from my older sister, who teaches wellness classes as part of a work readiness program. She describes it a classic book for turbulent times and one that might help to conquer writer’s block. 

Letting the Days Go By

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Back on Feb. 29, the extra day in this year of years, I stayed up to watch Saturday Night Live and saw David Byrne’s remarkable performance of “Once in a Lifetime.” I know the song well, although I usually get the title wrong, referring to it as “letting the days go by” or “same as it ever was,” which, along with “once in a lifetime,” are lyrics from chorus. My husband Mike has pointed out to me that both of my misremembered titles have a meaning that it opposite to “Once in a Lifetime.” But one of the reasons I love “Once in a Lifetime” is that it is somewhat at odds with itself, not only lyrically, but musically as well—although I didn’t really understand that until I read this article on NPR, watched this video, listened to multiple versions of the song on Spotify, and finally, after years of having it on my to-watch list, saw Jonathan Demme’s concert film Stop Making Sense. Yes, I fell down a “Once in a Lifetime” rabbit hole. This was in early March, before quarantine had even started. But a certain anxiety had set in. At the playground, parents were standing farther apart during after-school chats, and everyone had stopped sharing snacks. I happened to have two annual check-ups scheduled for the first week of March: my doctor and dentist. My doctor assured me that the new coronavirus was nothing to worry about, while my dentist advised me to come in immediately for a follow-up appointment to fill a cavity. The day after I got my tooth filled, I went into Manhattan for a morning screening of Crip Camp, a documentary that I was planning to review for my blog. I could have asked for a screening link, but I wanted to go into Manhattan. Maybe I knew, in the back of my mind, that it would be the last time. I wore gloves on the bus and subway, and a lightweight scarf over my nose and mouth. I got off the train at Eighth Avenue and walked four long blocks to the Landmark 57, a new theater that I’d never gone to before. I didn’t realize, until I got there, that it was in the silver, triangular building that my son refers to the as “the cake slice” whenever we drive up the West Side Highway. I took a photo of it with my phone before I headed home.The photos that follow the cake slice building are mostly of my kids, stuck inside, in crowded messy rooms, or of my kids, outdoors, in wide-open empty spaces. One of our favorite places to go for our daily Cuomo-approved constitutional was the parking lot of the shipyard, a place that is usually pretty empty, but which had become totally barren of cars, pedestrians, and commuters. Gone were the cruise ships and the ferries and the water taxis. My kids scootered past piles of empty shipping containers and yelled as loud as they wanted. Then they went home and watched Disney+ while Mike and I tried to figure out where we should go. We had been planning a move from Brooklyn to Queens—a future I was so certain of at the beginning of this year that I had begun to research nursery schools in our new, chosen neighborhood. I was concerned about the timing of everything, and I feared I was too late for the school I wanted, and too late with the camp sign-ups, and I was annoyed with my anxieties because I never wanted to be the person who was worried about getting her kids into a particular school or themed day camp. I first listened to “Once in a Lifetime” when I was a teenager. I heard the lyrics as description of mindless acquiescence to the status quo: “You may find yourself in a beautiful house/with a beautiful wife/and you may ask yourself, ‘Well…how did I get here?’” Byrne’s performance of the song in Stop Making Sense seemed to support my interpretation. Halfway through the song he dons a bizarrely oversized suit, making him look like a child in adult’s clothes, or an overstuffed puppet. His dance moves suggest sleepwalking as he stumbles backward and repeatedly hits himself on the forehead with an open palm, as if trying to wake up —or realizing a terrible mistake. To my teenage ears, even the chorus was damning: I thought the phrase “letting the days go by” was a kind of accusation, a way of saying, You’re wasting your life. I hear the song a little differently now. Now, it strikes me as a description of how we get through life: we let the days go by, riding on the backs of accumulated habits. But sometimes we stop and wonder: how did we get here?  I’m having one of those moments now. Maybe you are, too. The pandemic has had a way of slowing everyone down. Also, we moved to the suburbs. So did several of our friends. And so we are literally finding ourselves in strange houses. We’re part of a wave of New Yorkers that you may have read about the newspaper: people who left the city in the wake of the virus, seeking more space for home offices and classrooms. Mike and I are now renting the first floor of a house in Montclair, New Jersey that is at least twice as big as our old apartment and a lot cheaper. We’re kicking ourselves that we didn’t move out here years ago—except that we never would have, because all of our friends were in Brooklyn and Mike could walk to work and I didn’t have to drive anywhere. I can’t drive, by the way—I mean, I can, but it’s been 20 years since I’ve gotten behind the wheel. Montclair, fortunately, is very walkable, but the simple fact that I’m going to have to start driving again—that I won’t get everywhere on my own two feet or in the company of strangers on public transportation—is what leaves me really feeling the question: How did I get here?  When Byrne was on SNL in February, he was promoting his limited-run musical, American Utopia, which was a kind of a career retrospective for him. You can see it now on HBO; Spike Lee filmed it shortly before Broadway was shut down. I watched it last weekend and that’s what led me down the “Once in a Lifetime” rabbit hole a second time. Byrne has always struck me as a slightly detached performer, but in American Utopia he seems much more emotionally present, or maybe just more expressive. He sings more forcefully now and he dances with more precision. He’s older, too. You hear the strain and age in his voice as he aims for higher notes; maybe you worry a little when he executes a back-bending dance move—as he does frequently for “Once in a Lifetime.” When I saw Byrne on SNL, I thought he had the look of a mad, prophesying preacher, someone who’d come to a new realization of the divine late in life. The mystical imagery of the lyrics jumped out at me: had there always been so much water? Had the color blue always been so important? Above all, had it always been an ecstatic song? The joyful version of “Once in a Lifetime” was always there. You can hear it in Angelique Kidjo’s cover, which she sings melodically, at a slight faster tempo, with a horn section and back-up singers. And you can hear it in the instrumentation of the original. But I don’t think you can hear it in Byrne’s early vocal renditions. When he was young, I don’t think he really knew what he had on his hands. I think he was just following his intuition and trying to make the song work.  My personal theory of “Once in a Lifetime” is that the song has a will of its own, and that it wanted to exist in the world. It came together very slowly, starting with a bass line that The Talking Heads recorded during a jam session inspired by the music of Fela Kuti. Bassist Tina Weymouth gets credit for coming up with the riff, but she claims that her husband, drummer Chris Frantz, yelled it to her during rehearsal as and adjustment to what she had been playing. When the song was ready to be arranged, producer Brian Eno misheard the rhythm of the riff, adding a rest at the beginning of the measure. When he realized his mistake, he decided he liked the odd arrangement, and wrote a call-and-response chorus to go with it. The band thought the chorus sounded like a preacher leading a prayer, which led Byrne to the weird world of televangelists. He found his now-iconic lyrics—“And you may find yourself…”—by imitating their Biblically-tinged cadences. Borrowed beats, borrowed lyrics, misheard bass lines, bad transcriptions: the basis of this song about the unconscious way we move through life was made without much conscious thought. And yet it is probably one of The Talking Heads most beloved songs, the kind of song people know without even realizing they know it. A few weeks after we moved to our new apartment, my landlord, who lives above us, filled me in on all the local lore. Apparently, Montclair used to be a weekend destination for Broadway performers. She tells me that the house down the street from us hosted marvelous parties, and that Marlene Deitrich was a frequent guest. How my landlord knows this, I don’t know, but I was able to fact-check the next bit of ancient gossip she shared, which was that the house across the street was once occupied by a musician and composer named Herman Hupfeld. You’ve probably never heard of him, but in 1931, he wrote “As Time Goes By”—one of those songs you know without knowing, and may find yourself humming every once in a while.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.