There Is No Handbook for Being a Writer

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I became a writer relatively late, well into my 40s. That makes me a second-career or mid-career writer, even though by now, I rarely use the qualifiers at all. Like millions of other people in the world, I now identify myself simply as a writer. It seemed like a great act of personal delusion (or vanity) to think I could join the ranks of such an exalted club, the one full of people whose tools are only mind and pen, and it took me a while to get there.
I do not recall the exact moment, but I do remember the awkward conversations during the most self-doubting times. There was, for instance, the dinner party where my friend, the hostess, seated me beside a Pulitzer Prize-winning author as if we had something in common.  I had recently finished the first draft of a novel, and on my desktop floated the files of a dozen or so essays that were in the process of being ignored by the legions of editors who received them in their inbox. I was 49 years old.
“You’re both writers!” my well-meaning friend said, her enthusiasm no salve for the mortification I was certain awaited me when the famous author lobbed me the inevitable question.
“So what do you do?” he asked before the appetizer even arrived.
Up until that point, I had answered that question in terms of what I used to do: I worked in television news, produced for Barbara Walters, had a career in broadcast journalism and, later, Internet media. Now, I was embarrassed to utter what I was working frenziedly in hopes of becoming — to some extent, him.
“I’m a substitute French teacher,” I said. Not exactly a lie, but an obfuscation. I’d yet to figure out how to officially admit myself to a profession where, unlike medicine, hairdressing, law, nanoscience, teaching, or carpentry, there was no real barrier to entry. Anyone could declare herself a writer. Opportunity was just one click away, since the algorithms read my web searches and, it seemed, my mind. “Get published!” flashed my computer screen, as if it were as simple as booking a cheap flight to Chicago.
I may have been born with a need to write, but I had to learn to be a writer. My decades-long resistance came from something deeply connected to the idea of work. Writing had seemed self-indulgent, something for the independently wealthy, or the domain of rare, mad genius. In 1982, I graduated with a degree in Russian Studies and a fat folder of overwrought prose from my creative writing classes. My characters tended to be deranged Muscovites who shambled along the promenades of the Côte d’Azur –homage, I suppose, to Andrei Bely, Alexander Blok, and Anton Chekhov, my literary gods at the time. But after college, that was that. I never entertained the idea that people had careers as writers. Journalists, yes, those who went to work and were handed actual assignments, called it a day, and went out for beers. But men and women who scribbled all day crafting a single beautiful sentence and swilling liters of black coffee like Honoré de Balzac? Work was a place with an office, colleagues, a supply closet full of Scotch tape and Post-its. A ladder to be scaled as quickly as possible.  In such jobs, it would be easy to measure success. In such jobs, my missteps would be clear and quantifiable. In such jobs, you got paychecks and raises and had to deal with bosses and the copy machine. Plus, I could not afford not to work and did not understand that there was another way to be a writer — to work at a bookstore, as a bartender or a copy editor and ply the craft before breakfast.
So I had a career, moved laterally and upwards across Manhattan to other positions and across the ocean for several more. I jumped around a lot, went from ABC to CBS to NBC, to producing an A&E biography on the Pope, back to ABC, to two Internet media companies. A stifled artist was scratching through all of my work identities, and though my jobs were fascinating I never really had the mettle to soldier on. I turned down more opportunities than I can count, and often thought to myself, “Because now it’s time to write.” At the last minute, bank account draining, courage always eluded me, and I moved on to another producing job.
Throughout my professional years, I kept diaries, journals, reporter’s pads, and notebooks. At times, I untangled those disparate threads into orderly prose. I started 14 novels in an attempt to make sense of whatever was churning both in and around me. They were extractions from life, and I remember my consternation at the pointlessness of writing them down only for myself. The locations were uniformly exotic — Prague, Dubai, Marrakech, Damascus, Krakow — and they all contained a conflicted journalist protagonist who looked remarkably like me.
My family and I pulled up stakes from Manhattan and departed for rural New England, downsizing to a fraction of our former lives. I had no excuses left. In the face of unemployment, another birthday, panic, and with a tiny bit of savings, I leapt into the canyon. For once, I wrote with the expectation of reaching someone else. When I talk to other second-career writers, this desire to speak and be heard gathers urgency during long, restless nights, as it did for me. I met each day with the words, “If not now, when?” I had few expectations, and not a drop of legitimacy, but had begun to do the hard work in hopes of earning some.
So far, I had only been an employee, so I needed to innovate — to build my own scaffolding for a working day, rein in distraction, construct a module that both contained and gave shape to my new profession. There was the writing itself, and then there was the career part: polish my work, get published, get an agent, get noticed, get paid. I discovered a bursting kernel of ambition within myself, and a competitive streak. I had few publishing connections and was never particularly lucky, but I wanted this badly.

I wrote exhaustively. Emboldened by the craft and discipline of authors I admired, I read prodigiously, too, with purpose and urgency. I scribbled down sentences that sang to me and tacked them to my wall: Mark Helprin, Shirley Hazzard, Dawn Powell, Margaret Atwood, Monica Ali, Michael Ondaatje, Leonard Michaels, Marilynne Williamson, always Anton Chekhov. These are the writers I loved during those heavy fiction years, and their words drove my vision, sometimes straight into a brick wall. Chock it up to the futility of trying to measure up.
A lifetime of dammed-up words continued to unleash itself. I revised my stories for the hundredth time and sent them to busy editors the world over. Back then, my confidence soared in proportion to my productivity, and I overestimated what a no-fail combo that would be. I was slow to accept how much I had to learn and every day that passes, I’m making up for lost time. Early on, I joined a writer’s group, and then another. They were full of inspiring people, but I quickly phased myself out. Then friends I respect suggested an MFA in creative writing. I pushed back, stubbornly, and instead got a Masters in International Relations. I thought it might behoove me to prepare myself for when the writing failed, so I could pursue my back up plan as Ambassador to France. Quite unexpectedly, an experience at grad school provided the material for my first big magazine piece, sent cold to an editor. I went to bed bitter with frustration and woke up with a career.
I’m not 22 or even 42 and do not have the benefit of time, but I do have one advantage. I arrived here fully formed, certain of only one thing: there is no handbook for this. There is trial, error, and work, work, work. My disappointments are often followed by a glimpse of hope. The first novel found an agent but not a buyer. I was briefly destroyed. I wrote an essay about a woman I had met in the Soviet Union, sent it to an anthology, and accidentally became a travel writer. 
At first, the emotional game of skeet nauseated me, but I adapted. Vulnerability was the price of admission.  I was a mother of two teenagers and sliding into my sixth decade, but the energy I had surprised even me. Early on, I looked around at publishing success and felt uneasy.  There were moments I believed there were actually more writers than readers. Who the hell did I think I was, pecking away in the woods? Every time I read about a middle-aged first-time writer, I needed to know his or her story. Was there luck, powerful connections, or just raw genius? I’ve relaxed greatly on this front. We can all take out the yardstick and measure other writers’ successes, especially now that social media seems custom-made for crowing. I have tried to stand tall through many failures and to stay humble when I am published. One person’s day of game-changing news could be another’s morning of crushing disappointment. If we’re honest, envy is often baked into the writer’s cake, especially one waiting for a big break.  It is also, rationally, a complete waste of time. 
It helps to realize that each single victory is just that: one check in the plus column. Every day I whipsaw between euphoria and despair and I’ve gotten used to this as an occupational hazard of my job. After 20 years in television, highs and lows are nothing new. A dropped satellite feed from Moscow during the evening broadcast served to instill in me some coping skills. Now, even if I’m awash in anxious tears in the morning, I know I’ll be fine by my third cup of coffee.
Money is not the only determinant of writing achievement these days, though it certainly would be nice to make some. Has someone read, responded, reached out? If yes, then I’ve succeeded. If no, I gather up my satchel and walk on. I’ve watched many of my projects stall, crater, or simply go nowhere. Another proposal that gained no traction, countless rejected stories.  And then, a book of essays on France I never imagined I’d write was, briefly, a bestseller. On it goes along that thrilling continuum of inspiration, exhaustion, and elation.
I have no method, really, but I’m working on one. Given the writing advice that streams on my feeds several times a day, I’m inspired by how open we are to upping our game. Still, I’ve found that no pithy maxim about the writer’s life can give me courage on the many days mine flags. Sometimes the best I can do is collect snippets like I did on the road as a journalist and scribble them on note pads or just toss them in a pool of ideas, and wait for the bold lines of a shape to take hold. I flip around questions that are to me endlessly invigorating — big ones about love, choices, family, and passing time. In middle age, looking back is a reflex and creatively a gold mine. I never stop writing even if I haven’t written a word for a month.   
Although writers are solitary, writing is not an activity that should happen in total isolation. Television was an entirely collaborative medium consisting of journalists, researchers, cameramen, editors, correspondents.  I miss the days when my colleagues and I ordered cheeseburgers from the joint downstairs. Engagement is invigorating, and the act of listening soothes my loneliness. I don’t do either nearly enough, and some days I strive to belong not just to the family of writers but to a community of them as well. I could stand to be a more generous and more vulnerable colleague.  I’m considering another writer’s group.
I do have some credos. One of them comes from my husband: You’ve only failed when you’ve stopped trying. The next one comes from my father: Work as hard as you can, and then work harder. The last one is mine, and the most obvious: I am writing because I want to. I no longer believe that the job of writer has the whiff of exaltation, as I once did. I believe we should give that honor to triage nurses, firefighters, and anyone who teaches children. But it does take courage to lay it all down; it requires some kind of raw, foolish power to believe in the inevitability of your thoughts and the words they form.
Many second-career writers have it much worse than I do, and I assume many are much better off.  But we all arrived here — if the endless peaks and valleys can even be called a destination — against the noise of a ticking clock. I’d like to say that maturity brought me resolve at last, but I think it was desperation. I try to remember that time is on my side because I can no longer waste it. I’m in my 50s, and there is a lot of life still to be sorted out. I have aging parents, children, a marriage, and friends. Immense cares that eat up vast swaths of my days and, soon, an empty nest. I compete against the minutes and hours, and at midlife, they begin to pass with unnerving speed. No sense wallowing; there’s work to be done.
Image Credit: Flickr/David Turnbull; Pixabay.

The Admiral in the Library: The Millions Interviews James Stavridis

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I recently attended a talk in Boston given by Adm. James Stavridis, the dean of the Fletcher School — Tufts University’s graduate school of Law and Diplomacy — his alma mater (and mine). The subject was global security, and during the course of his very sobering talk, he gave a fascinating sidebar on the importance of reading novels — of stories. Among the books he mentioned were The Orphan Master’s Son, The Circle, Matterhorn, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and Station Eleven.

Stavridis has had an illustrious, globe-spanning career in the U.S. Military including three years leading U.S. Southern Command and four years (2009-2013) as the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. When we met before dinner, we quickly launched into a rapid-fire chat about books we had recently read. It seemed to me, he had read everything. Through military ventures in Haiti, Bosnia, the Persian Gulf, and Libya (among other operations Stavridis commanded was the 2011 NATO intervention that led to the downfall of the Muammar Gaddafi regime) on aircraft carriers and battleships, while serving at the Pentagon and on Navy destroyers, one thing has been consistent: his love of reading, and his need for books to help make sense of this increasingly complicated world. His exuberance for the written word inspired me to return to Boston and finish our conversation.

Marcia DeSanctis: When I met you last month, you told me you had just put down My Life in France and it had you in tears. That surprised me.

James Stavridis: Why?

MD: I suppose because you’re a four-star admiral.

JS: Well, even four-star admirals read quirky books and this is an incredibly quirky, wonderful book about discovering yourself and discovering your life. Julia Child comes to France, kind of searched around for what to do with her life, essentially. Newly married and falls in love not only with her husband but with France and with its cuisine and with its culture. The voice in the book is so authentic and so beautiful, so wonderfully rendered. And the part that really had me in tears — because everything I said to you is actually quite joyous and upbeat — is the end of the book where she recognizes that, as she hits her 80s, she cannot continue to go independently to the small home in the south of France where she had centered so much of her life. And you can feel her untethering from something that has meant everything to her.

MD: You also mentioned you like books about chefs.

JS: Oh, I love books about chefs. Who doesn’t? I love, particularly, chef memoirs. Anthony Bourdain is just fantastic, Kitchen Confidential. Or The Devil in the Kitchen (Marco Pierre White) is just fabulous.

MD: So the reason I asked to interview you was because I recently attended a lecture you gave in Boston, which was a frank assessment of the crises that are facing our planet now and the people on it. You covered it all — climate change, ISIS, epidemics, poverty, inequality, cyber risks. And then you posted a slide about novels. Can you tell me why you inserted a slide about novels and why you chose the ones that you did?

JS: Well, first of all, because reading is integral to my life. And I think, in the end, we solve global problems not by launching missiles, it’s by launching ideas. So as a tool for understanding the world and for understanding how you can change the world, I find fiction incredibly important. One that I put up pretty frequently is The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, which is a superb book about North Korea. And North Korea’s an almost impenetrable country. But through a decade of meticulous research and endless interviews and then, an understanding of the human sensibility in an extraordinarily dystopian world, Adam Johnson gives us a portrait of life in North Korea. It’s not a burlesque, it’s not satire. It is, in every sense, life in a world where everything is a half a beat off the music. It’s a gorgeous novel.

I think a second book I had there was The Circle by David Eggers, which is a world in which all of the social networks kind of merge into one. So picture Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, everything merged in one huge social network where the motto is “Privacy is Theft.” And the idea is that by complete transparency, we can transform the world. Overlaid on it is a coming of age story of a young woman who has her first job at the Circle. In the largest sense, by one of our most creative contemporary writers, David Eggers, it is a story about what we hold to ourselves, what is privacy, and what transparency can provide but take away from each of us. I think that is an enormous debate that spans the distance from Edward Snowden to Julian Assange to Chelsea Manning. It’s a profoundly important novel that helps us deal with this collision between privacy and transparency.

MD: And you think a novel has the power to help deal with it?

JS: I do, I do absolutely. In the most prosaic way, novels are stories. So recognizing there are differences in how people learn and what people want to read, for me — and I think for the vast majority of people — stories are the best way to learn.

MD: You also discussed Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.

JS: Dystopian literature is very interesting. Most of it is unspeakably bleak. But some dystopian literature really is about how you come back; it’s about resilience, so I love that novel.

Station Eleven is about the world after a brutal pandemic that kills 99.9 percent of the population. And it’s a novel about choices that people make in crisis. And so the protagonist chooses — and I love this part — to become part of a wandering troupe of Shakespearean actors with a kind of ragtag orchestra attached to it, that wanders around this devastated countryside putting on plays and concerts. And think about that for a minute and what that implies about the resilience of the human spirit, about the importance of art, the importance of music, the importance of drama — all those things are powerful in this. It’s such a wonderful construct. And, at the end of the novel, they got to an airport where another band of outcasts have managed to find a way. And in the distance, they see a light on a hilltop — not a bonfire but an electric light. It’s a symbol that we can recover, we can come back. It’s a very hopeful novel.

I was just testifying with Bill Gates on the Hill yesterday, not to namedrop, but we were talking about global health and pandemics and the importance of speed and alacrity in response. Part of what can help us prepare for a pandemic is imagining how horrible the outcome would be. Thus, a book like Station Eleven helps us do that.

MD: Interesting. So in your talk, you confirmed what most of us know, that in a world gone mad or potentially gone mad, novels are these kinds of islands of sanity and escape, even ones that are difficult to read like A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

JS: Yeah, oh, that’s an absolutely wonderful book.

MD: I agree. So explain to me, why reading matters and the importance of books, particularly fiction, in your life.

JS: Well, first of all, I developed a reading habit very early. My parents moved to Greece when I was eight years old. In those days, in the 1960s, Greece effectively didn’t have television. Certainly no English language television. So my mom would take me down to the embassy library on the weekends and I’d pick out books. And then, it became a lifelong habit and I’ve always had a book in my hand. I read constantly. I read probably 80 percent fiction, 20 percent nonfiction. And I have found through reading fiction, I understand the human condition better.

You said a moment ago that a novel is a sanctuary in the middle of this violent world. Let’s remember that occasionally, novels are also moments of violence in an otherwise very peaceful life. It can be the opposite. And so if you can think of a novel as a kind of simulator where you imagine what you would do in a stressful, dangerous situation, it becomes, I think, a very helpful learning tool about ourselves.

And, helpful to understand other places and cultures. I’ve recommended on occasion a novel about Afghanistan called The Afghan Campaign by Steven Pressfield, which is not about the current NATO campaign, it’s not about the Russian campaign, it’s not about the British campaign. It’s about the first campaign, which is that of Alexander the Great and the Greeks’ attempt to conquer Afghanistan, which turned out roughly the same as all the other ones. And the reason is because you can drop a line — a plumb line — from 2,500 years ago to the present day in terms of the toughness of Pashtuns and their culture. And so to read a novel like that, even set in an ancient time, could help you understand Afghanistan and its place in history.

Lastly, I think novels are a way that we can explore the unimaginable. So here, I’m thinking of science fiction and fantasy even, which I think are not only entertaining but powerful in terms of how they open our minds. I’ll give you an example. Ender’s Game, which is a classic science fiction novel about a cyber force defending its world. It makes me think, “Should we have a cyber force today?” Today we have an Army, a Navy, an Air Force, and a Marine Corps. We don’t have a cyber force. But when I read a science fiction novel about the future, I think, “Boy, we’re going to need one pretty quick.” I have a lot of pragmatic, real world reasons for that, as well. But fiction can reinforce that and open up what’s often unimaginable to us.

MD: Do you believe that there is a single most important novel about conflict — or let’s say two, an old one and a new one, a classic and a contemporary — that really encapsulates the bad and the ugly about war?

JS: Yeah, I’ll give you a modern one, Matterhorn, which is by Karl Marlantes. It’s about Vietnam and combat at the micro level. It’s about a young Princeton graduate who becomes a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps and his first 60 days in combat. It won the National Book Award. It’s magnificent.

I’ll give you one from the middle period. Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, about the psychology of war, is quite terrific. All Quiet on the Western Front, a World War I novel by Erich Maria Remarque, is incredible.

For contemporary historical fiction written about a battle 2,500 years ago, I’d recommend Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, which is about the Battle of Thermopylae. And there’s a powerful line in that book, which I think is very true, which is that the opposite of fear is not courage. The opposite of fear on a battlefield is love. Because warriors in combat fight for the love of those with whom they are in combat. That’s a powerful idea. Actually, I have to give you one other.

MD: Great.

JS: Because I’m an Admiral, I get to give you a nautical book.

MD: That was one of my questions, actually.

JS: So the best seagoing books about combat, in my opinion, are by a writer called Patrick O’Brian. He wrote a series of believe it or not, 20 novels and they’re all set from about 1800 through 1815. They follow the life and times of a British sea captain, Jack Aubrey. They are terrific. Picture Jane Austen going to sea and writing about maritime combat. They are that good. I think they may be the best writing of the late-20th century. The reason they’re not more widely celebrated is because they’re perceived as maritime warfare genre. But these are big, chewy, fascinating books about life, relationships. About a third of them are set ashore in early 1800s Great Britain, two-thirds set at sea. The combat scenes are incredibly realistic.

MD: Do you have a favorite book about the sea?

JS: I think it’s hard to argue with Moby-Dick. It’s the greatest sea novel of all.

MD: Do you have an opinion about 9/11 books? I’ll name a few — The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud; The Submission by Amy Waldman; Homeboy by HM Naqvi; Falling Man by Don DeLillo.

JS: I like Don DeLillo, I liked Falling Man. I don’t lean to 9/11 books as a general proposition. I had a near death experience at 9/11. I was in the Pentagon and my office was right on the side of the building that was hit by the airplane.

MD: You spent your career up until now with the military. Do you read books that are critical of U.S. policy and the wars themselves?

JS: Of course.

MD: There are many.

JS: Oh, sure.

MD: Shattering depictions of the war, soldiers’ reality, and the aftermath.

JS: Oh, gosh, yes. Both fiction and nonfiction. I’ll give you a couple that I loved. I like Green on Blue by Elliot Ackerman, just came out. I like Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. I like Yellow Birds (Kevin Powers), I like The Book of Jonas (Stephen Dau).

In terms of nonfiction, critical, I think is Fiasco by Tom Ricks — it’s harsh, but, in many ways, accurate. It’s about Iraq. Most of the really harsh books are more about Iraq, less about Afghanistan, I think because Afghanistan’s probably going to come out okay.

MD: Yes. What about Dexter Filkins?

JS: I love Dexter Filkins. The Forever War I think is a masterpiece. And you know, I signed 2,700 letters of condolence to young men and women who died under my command. And when I’m in Washington, I often go to Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery and visit with them and that will be with me forever. So I read those books partly to honor them, partly because it’s a big part of my life, partly because I feel it’s my responsibility.

MD: How do you have time to do all this reading?

JS: I stay up late at night, do it on airplanes, use technology to make it easy.

MD: I was going to ask — Kindle or hard copy?

JS: Both.

MD: Books on tape? Do you do Audible?

JS: No, I don’t. What I do now, as opposed to going out and buying a stack of books, is I’ll read on the Kindle and then say okay, that’s a terrific book, and buy it. Like I just read Into the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides, which is a book about a polar expedition and it’s fantastic. It’s nonfiction but it reads like a novel. It’s kind of in Eric Larson style if you know his work.

MD: I do.

JS: I’m reading currently his new book, Dead Wake, about the sinking of the Lusitania. It’s just fantastic. Oh, gosh. Fabulous, fabulous writer. So if I think a book will stand up to it, I’ll own a copy of it. I own about 5,000 books and I’m trying to not own 10,000 books.

MD: You have a long reading list at the end of your autobiography The Accidental Admiral. One of the books is Generation of Winter by Vassily Aksyonov.

JS: Yeah, it’s a beautiful novel.

MD: I wrote my senior thesis on him, by the way.

JS: Stop it.

MD: Yes, about Aksyonov.

JS: Is he still alive, by the way?

MD: No, he died a few years ago. He’s not one of the better known Soviet-era writers. Why do you think this is an important book?

JS: Because it raises issues of ethics in command. It’s also, I think, a portrait of a really interesting period in Russian society that transitioned from the World War II generation and how they were effectively betrayed. And I think it’s also a novel about civilian control of the military. I just think it’s a very clever, haunting novel and the characters are beautifully developed.

Is it as good as [Fyodor] Dostoevsky or [Leo] Tolstoy or [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn, [Nikolai] Gogol? No. But…

MD: You have a lot of Russians on that list.

JS: Oh, yeah. I love Russian literature.

MD: If you met Vladimir Putin, what would you suggest he read?

JS: I’d start — and I’m sure he’s read a lot of the — well, actually, no, he was a KGB Colonel, so maybe not. He’s certainly not from the intelligentsia, he’s from the thugocracy.

MD: Thugocracy.

JS: Thugocracy, absolutely. I think I’d start him on Dead Souls by Gogol because it’s such an absurdist novel and it’s about trying to grasp power and watching it slip through your fingers. I’d probably force him to read The Brothers Karamazov and focus on the Grand Inquisitor scene. But you know what he’d say back to me? He’d say, “Okay, I’ll read those, but, Stavridis, if you want to understand how tough Russians are and why your sanctions aren’t going to work, read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Solzhenitsyn. And so I think we could have a lively conversation about the motifs of Russian literature.

MD: Fair enough. You also included one of my favorites, The Good Soldier Svejk. What does that book teach you about command? Not much, right?

JS: No, not much at all. Another terrific novel — I forget if it was on my list, I think it was, is called One Soldier’s War by Arkady Babchenko. You should stop everything you’re doing and read this book.

MD: Really? Why?

JS: If you like Russia and you’re interested in this topic, it’s about a Russian conscript fighting in Chechnya in the 1980s. It’s an inside look at the Russian military and its extraordinary dysfunctionality and the cruelty of its counter-insurgency technique, which led, obviously, to the complete disasters there. I mean, it makes the U.S. performance in Vietnam look like an Olympic gold medal by comparison. It’s a powerful, powerful book.

MD: I noticed you had Anne Applebaum’s book on the list, which I thought was really a masterpiece. I mean…

JS: Gulag.

MD: Gulag: A History, yes.

JS: Yeah, it’s a brilliant book.

MD: Of all the global concerns now — and there are many — what do you think is the most fertile ground for future literature?

JS: Of what’s happening now, I think it’s the Arab Spring, which the term itself has become this sort of grand irony. But I think what’s happening in the Arab world today is a lot like the Reformation, which ripped apart the Christian faith, created the wars between Protestants and Catholics, destroyed a third of the population of Europe. It led to, among other things, William Shakespeare’s plays, Martin Luther’s writing. So I think the big muscle movement is in the Arab world and I think those novels are being written. They’ll have to be translated. They’ll start to come out, though. But the searing quality of what’s happening in that part of the world, I think, will unfortunately lend itself to a dark vein of fiction going forward. I think another place is India, and I love contemporary Indian fiction.

MD: Name a few that you love.

JS: The Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga, and even better is White Tiger. I like Salman Rushdie. He’s a little dense and somewhat impenetrable. I like — I forget his name. Sea of Poppies is his best book. It’s fantastic. It’s historical fiction set, oh, probably 200 years ago. Hang on, let’s see. [Looks it up on iPad] Yeah, Amitav Ghosh. Sea of Poppies. So there’s a few. But I think Indian literature will lend itself to big, big novels coming out.

The United States will continue to produce, I think, terrific novels from young novelists and from old novelists. Can there be a better writer alive today than Cormac McCarthy, who’s 80-plus years old and keeps writing these masterpieces one after the other? It’s unbelievable.

MD: It is.

JS: And we have brilliant, brilliant young writers, certainly in the English speaking world — this novel, The Luminaries (Eleanor Catton) She’s a New Zealander, youngest person to ever win the Man-Booker Prize. And the book is just — oh, my God, it’s magnificent. It’s just unstoppable.

MD: Tell me what you like about it.

JS: I love it because it’s so complicated and the fit and finish of it are just extraordinary as a technical accomplishment. Secondly, it is about a fascinating period in the Gold Rush in New Zealand in the 1850s. And thirdly, the characters in it are so both crisply drawn but feel like they’re just from contemporary life. They feel like they have walked in from people you know. It’s really good. I’ll tell you, it’s like Cold Mountain, which I know you’ve read, by Charles Frazier. It’s that good.

MD: That’s a good war book.

JS: It is a good war book a book that shows both sides of it, with the coming home piece, too.

MD: I wanted to get some final thoughts about some of the books you highlighted in your talk in Boston (Matterhorn, The Orphan Master’s Son, Station Eleven, The Circle). Is this the literature of hope or is it the literature of despair about the world we live in now?

JS: What we hope from our writers is that they give us both. Despair’s part of the human condition as is joy and hope and love. And there are wonderful novels on both sides. And as I look back at literature over the ages, I think that’s largely been the case. I think you go back to Voltaire writing in the midst of the French Revolution, the world’s collapsing. I mean, the world is on fire. It’s really falling apart. We like to act like the world’s falling apart. It’s actually not. It’s actually going to hold together and it’s getting better. And that’s hard to see in the thicket of the day-to-day anguish over — justifiably — over Syria and the Ukraine and people flying airplanes into the side of mountains. But if you really rise your head above it and you look at violence in the world, levels of war, we’re better than we’ve ever been. Fewer people are killed in war, fewer people die of pestilence. We’re getting better by really any conceivable metric.

So back to Voltaire. He’s writing in a world that really is on fire. What’s the novel he writes? Candide. You know? “I must tend my garden.” It’s pretty terrific. And that’s a book I read once every year or two. And you know, there are those who say, “Oh, it was all a big satire and you know, he’s actually debunking the theory of optimism.” I don’t think so. I think Candide is a book of optimism and a book of hope from a guy who was very cynical. But I think in his heart, he felt like the outcome of this revolution and everything that was falling apart would eventually be a better world, and I think we’re getting there.

MD: Anything you’re looking forward to?

JS: Well, I wake up every morning hoping that this will be the day that Hilary Mantel’s third volume comes out after Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. I love Hilary Mantel because she’s a brilliant writer. But what I love about the trilogy is the reversal of character in which Thomas Cromwell, always portrayed as the villain, is suddenly the hero. And Sir Thomas More, the saintly Thomas More, is the insufferable prig. And I find it a to be a powerful piece of fiction because it reimagines the world. Because no one knows. No one knows. I mean, that was 400 years ago and no one knows.

MD: Last question. Do you have a favorite movie about the Navy?

JS: The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial by a country mile.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Slow Language of Sculpture, the Fast Language of Words

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My husband is a sculptor and he worships stone. Travertine, granite, marble, onyx—these are the interlopers in our bed, the other women in my married life, and I cannot compete with their charms. The love my husband professes for me exists in the shadow of the love he has for his work, the pieces he fashions from the great slabs of rock which appear with regularity at the top of our rural driveway. They are his constant, devoted companions and they feed his passion in a way that no person can ever do. I don’t begrudge him the objects of his obsession, but I do get twinges over the easy partnership he has with his material, so unlike my own relationship with words. A writer can learn a lot from a stone carver, and I’ve been watching him a long time.

Our accounts differ as to when we got together, which is another story from the wholly empirical slept together. That was three years after we graduated from college, or about seven years after first laying eyes on him in Geology 201. He was a big, muscular man with a kind face that was often obscured behind facial hair, the kind that betrayed an unconscious lack of grooming, like a shipwreck survivor, rather than stylistic affect. I was enrolled in Rocks for Jocks to fulfill a science requirement and compensate for my left-brain shortcomings. I assumed he was taking the course for the same reasons. He was a rugby player, the center of the scrum, the place where brawny gentlemen dig their feet into the grass and push heavy objects – other giants – with their shoulders. It was more fun than football, which he had played in high school, and the guys were smarter. After hours, he could be seen running around campus drunk and mostly nude with his teammates – nudity, apparently, gives the sport its British old-boy bona fides – singing bar songs. He did not appear to be capable of splitting atoms, like other people in our class apparently were doing elsewhere on campus, such as the Engineering buildings that seemed as closed and remote as prisons. He was known as a nice guy and I liked him enough, but I never imagined myself his wife.

I had no idea that he spent his free time making pottery in the entrails of the fine arts building. He was soon to be a sculptor, with stone as his medium. It was what he wanted to be since he was nine years old, when he traveled to Italy and saw Michelangelo’s Slaves and a marble carving at the Bargello in Rome of two men fighting. He was struck that such a powerful story could be stuffed into a chunk of stone. Rocks, therefore, were already his obsession because they were in his DNA. His paternal grandmother was born among the artisans of Massa di Carrara in the breast of great marble mountains. His other side was Scottish brute force, descended from the Orkneys, with its coastline battered for eternity by the harsh Atlantic. Earth science, along with art history, was starting to lay a direct intellectual pipeline to the passion that has fueled him through every day of his adult life, a majority of which has now been spent with me.

His life revolves around shipments of stone. It comes from quarries or mountains in northern New York, Minnesota, Turkey or Italy via trucks or container, sometimes in the hundreds of tons. It usually arrives to our property later than scheduled, in an eighteen-wheel rig driven by a trucker who’s been lost for hours since the end of his mandatory, ten-hour union break that morning. The stone (and the driver) is met by my husband with hot coffee and great arm waving, a one-man crew on a supply ship greeting ocean-borne sailors. Then the process begins of loading them onto forklifts in multiple trips to his outdoor studio below. There, they get stroked, admired, stacked up, and finally queued up for the final journey thorough his imagination into sculpture.

I know the lingo now—roughbacks, cores, endcuts—and he inspects these raw chunks of the planet much like a butcher scrutinizes his chops and roasts. But I don’t pretend to understand the fire ignited in him possibly at birth that makes him an artist above all else. On a recent winter day, I stood in the warmth of my kitchen and watched his trips up and down the driveway. He was impervious to the cold, ginger with his payload, which he treated as if it were crystal stemware. I saw his mouth moving and eyebrows lift brightly. I asked him what he was saying. A prayer? No, he said. He was singing. Happily, I noticed, just a tune in his head, while snow and wind pounded the windshield of the forklift, which bore a twenty-ton, ice-cold slice of blue granite. The drill marks were visible. Stone freshly and visibly hewn from the earth excites him, as if it connects him to the ages, his Paleozoic lifeline. On these days, his normal state of high contentment turns giddy.

When he carves a hefty sculpture (and I differentiate here, because some stretches of time he will devote to smaller, more mobile pieces for indoors or the wall) he positions the stone with the forklift onto the center ring of the clearing where he works. This is the area that is equidistant to all the tools and machines and the big covered space: the wet saw that is plugged into one wall, the compressor that when activated, sounds like an idling 767, and resting on a rusting job box, a vulcan’s wet dream of chisels, hammers, rasps, and pickaxes. With one stroke and then another, he confronts that stone with hunger and lust the way some of us might tear into a rare steak. First he lays into it with a jackhammer affixed with a foot-long rock bit. Chunks, some the size of a toaster, drift to the ground. He is sheathed in a one-piece suit, mustard yellow or Santa Claus red, made of dense gauge cloth. His knee-high boots were once black, but they are so caked with dust and water they appear, from a distance, to be pale white. A respirator covers the area from the bridge of his nose to the chin, and safety glasses obscure the rest of his face. A pair of chopper-issue headphones covers his ears with a thick, padded brace. He is oblivious, a study in concentration. If a UFO touched down unleashing a couple of Hooters waitresses, he would not look up. He does not notice me and if I have an urgent message to convey – from our son or his accountant, for example – I have to throw a pebble and aim carefully for his feet to break the spell.

To me, the workshop is not welcoming. It is a precarious festival of blades, edges, and sharp objects. It is bitter cold most of the year as well and rife with the kind of fine-particle dust that not only will ravage your lungs with silicosis but will smear and smudge and release itself in puffs. It is akin to cake flour, and the handprint that ends up on the thigh of my jeans will stay there until the laundry washes it out. When he uses the wet saw, the dust on the ground turns to clay. When I walk down there, I never wear the right shoes.

I seemed to be unusually present the time he carved a 3 ½ ton pillow to perch astride a wealthy person’s swimming pool. I had to interrupt him a lot because of a family crisis that demanded more of us than we had, and he always seemed ecstatic to see me, as if it was a great joy to be pulled back to this planet of decisions and responsibility. I witnessed the rock hammer give way to a slimmer drill bit, and then to hand tools like the chisel. He intervened often with the wet saw, a brutal conglomeration of steel that shreds the granite while spewing water with a screeching metal-on-metal din that makes my teeth ache. The pieces get smaller and smaller as they land on the ground and begin to form a carpet of refuse, all the bits of stone that are in the way of forming this object.

Within a week or so, he begins to hone away the roughness with a grinder affixed with a diamond blade that spins at 3000 rpms. A pillow about 40 inches long by 28 inches wide has emerged from the stone. I can see the crystals and veins – blue, black, teal, specks of gold that will reflect the sun – and he has fashioned a soft, undulating space where a person can drape herself comfortably on the warm rock. In a day he will fire up the acetylene torch and flame the sculpture to make it smooth like velvet. Or, in some places he will use diamond paper to sand and polish to a high gloss if he’s inclined. This end phase can be painstaking and he insists that it is where and when the ordinary becomes transcendent.

When I can no longer stomach something I’ve been writing, I tell him, “I’m done. There’s no more I can do.”

“You have to hone the edges,” he says.

“I’m done honing,” I whine.

“You have to grind and whittle,” he says. “It’s the most important step in any work of art.”

My husband contends that little separates our creative worlds, mine stationary and his physical. After all, don’t I spend the day banging my head against the corner of the desk, trying to make a sentence, just like he bashes his own thoughts into meaning? Maybe so, but I maintain that the comparison ends there. His artistic life consists of the transference of ideas to the tactile world through the medium of mostly igneous rock. Every cut he makes is deliberate and joyous, an action with a purpose: to tame the stone and the edges into an object that exists already, one that—maybe decades ago—took shape in his head. His tools provide him with a sense of measure, balance, and even logic because they guide him to the sculpture’s inevitability. He’s an artist, who offers an object of beauty for people to love or buy, and he needs to justify the space it will take up in the world.

My words live in a swarm of chaos and I have no idea how I’ll lay them down until the deed is done. My need is for concentration while I untangle the knots and wrangle the pieces into a linear thought. When I manage to do this, a couple times a day if I’m really lucky, I’m buoyed by a sense of reward that makes the tortuous act seem close to pleasure.

Sometimes, the differences between our artistic lives are highlighted by circumstances, usually his, which shift more than mine. At the end of the truck delivery day, for example, I’ve written six hundred words and he’s removed 120 tons of granite from seven trucks, and carted it to his stone yard. We uncork a bottle of wine, and I ask him how he’s doing.

“Lotto baby,” he says. “This is the most secure I can feel. I have a couple of hundred tons of stone and I know pretty much what it’s going to look like. Once I have the material, the physical act of making the piece is almost insignificant.”

“That can’t be true,” I say.

“All I need is time,” he says. “The pieces are already in my head.”

It can be hard for me to share in his joy, and not to envy him and the confidence he has in what he calls the “slow language” of stone, as opposed to the fast one of words, the one I live and breathe, the one where I disappoint myself, regularly. That is my world, the purgatory of high expectation and low output. I tend to measure my work in what I haven’t yet done, and in what remains unwritten. For him, productivity is quantifiable, in the dust and shards that fall away.

“If I never had another idea in my life, I still couldn’t execute half my ideas. I’ll always have a 20-year backlog. That’s the beauty and disadvantage of working in a slow language. But the upside is that nothing ever comes out that isn’t severely scrutinized and edited,” he says.

Even though he insists he’s just a “physical writer,” I respectfully disagree. There’s no “delete” function, no cut and paste, no teeth gnashing over a mistake he can’t change, but instead, must integrate into his plan. My writer’s life is not filled with this or any kind of lucidity. In this sense, sometimes togetherness can feel like solitude.

Many people are in awe of his work, especially when they witness (or know about) the brutal setting where he creates it. He never makes me feel like the philistine that I am when I struggle to understand his sculptures, especially the most conceptually obscure ones – hollow torsos and ten-foot high padded granite cells. Maybe those narratives should be clear to me, but they aren’t. But they are beautiful and I do try to impart enthusiasm as best I can, especially knowing the physical price he pays so willingly. His work involves constant exposure to elements and danger that seems to emanate from another century – like the third, B.C. The drills and wet-saws and compressors that are the tools of his trade could slice off a limb or his head, and he shrugs off the anecdotes of constant near misses. I try not to worry about his forklift capsizing under the groaning weight, or getting a hand or himself flattened during an offload. Nicks, lacerations, abrasions, and stitches are every-day occurrences, but he is careful, at least he says so. I choose not to question him, or even to watch him work. It frightens me to see him engaged in his backbreaking daily activity. I wonder if he has no fear out there precisely because he has no doubts. There’s not a man in the world that can do what he does – I’m pretty convinced of that – but nor would they want to. I know a lot of writers who fake it, myself included half the time, in my motionless little space. Such posing would be impossible for a stone carver, a real one at least. Confidence gives him sure footing, and conviction makes the days and years fly by. This happens as a matter of course—with or without money, with or without commissions or gallery shows, and with or without me panicking about his safety or our family’s next meal.

When we first started dating, I was interested in prepped-out bankers with BMWs, or Europeans with no visible means of support, but fully loaded with beach houses and refrigerators stocked with Dom Perignon. Judging from my past of men with money, he was an unlikely match for me. He wasn’t exactly the wild man he had presented at college, but he had summarily dismissed his fancy pedigree and all manner of creature comforts to go carve marble in Carrara. There, he copied classical statuary for wealthy Texans to put in their Fort Worth rose gardens. He was armed with an honors history degree, rudimentary Italian, and nothing more than a feeling that home would be anywhere there was a hammer and chisel. If he had not been so pure about his mission, his drive might have seemed put-on. But it came to him naturally, whether it was the simple exercise of making a woman’s figure out of giallo di Siena while grappling with its pocks and veins, or the adventure of experimenting with patina, textures, and finish. From the beginning, there was something unforgivable about stone that suited this man, who may have been genetically programmed to conquer it.

I was in love with him, but I also loved the idea of him. I believed that an artist so skilled at turning crags into forms so lovely they seemed half alive would be soft as a cub with me and would make my flesh feel worshipped. His hands were chewed up but he was gentle, and the allure of how he spent his days imbued him with mystery that even back then, I didn’t bother to fathom. Our backgrounds were similar, but we were turning out as opposites. I worked at jobs I loved but quickly tired of and he studied history and collected ten-ton art books, carved stone, and made art. I went off every day to an office where I carried out that day’s duties while he met the day elated to go to some dingy, unheated studio. I filled up my desk drawers with first chapters of novels I wanted to write, but I abandoned them for the paycheck I thought I needed. But I still thought myself a writer because I stood apart from my surroundings. He, meanwhile, was determined to change the way we look at things. I saw in him the courage I lacked, and so I tagged along, marrying him and his unbendable spirit, hoping some of it might transfer to me.

I left behind the men with health insurance and suits and ties, as well as any semblance of security or what I then called “normal life.” I didn’t acknowledge how ill-suited I was for adventure, nor could I predict how unpredictable my life with the stone carver would remain. I wasn’t sure of my place on the creative continuum, but even before he started his life as a sculptor, he knew his, and it had little to do with anyone’s – especially his—expectations of success. But I learned how to be an artist, even if his encouragement was a tad too simplistic. “You should be writing, honey!” he’d say pretty much every day, as if it were as easy as changing my shade of lipstick. I was fueled by all the stories living inside my head, but unlike my husband, I couldn’t pound them into being with a pile of tools. The courage would have to come from somewhere else. I would have to will them out, and I began to, with his help.

Before we had children, I was second in line, and once they came, I was third. He’s a good husband and he’s a better father, but best of all, he is an artist. I still envy his indisputable belief in the order of things, his clarity about what he is put on earth to do. I am used to the tenderness he has for the stones he carves so masterfully into pillows and chairs and giant megalithic landscapes and female forms and other shapes we call art. We humor him on the highway when he sees a jutting cliff in the distance, jams on the brakes and marvels at the striations or the crevasses—the absurd lure of the granite. Wherever we are, he pulls over to visit a quarry, to swim in it if possible, to feel the rock with all of his body and read its lines. It is, in a way, how I treat books and language, but it seems easier to quantify passion when you can feel it beneath your feet.

Our children see a man who is devoted to his work and keeps hours as rigorous as any corporate lawyer. Whether or not they know it, his excitement fills up the house. He has imparted to them and me the singular beauty of getting up and doing what you love, and never needing to complain about your job. For him, and by example for me, every day (even a dark one) is a great day at the office. In the evening, sometimes long after dark, he walks back to the house covered in dust, with satisfaction brightening his aura. He believes that what he is doing matters.

But I will always be left out of his creative life, removed from the intersection of man and material. This means that I will always be removed from him, even if he genuinely believes that our work is more than just parallel. Aren’t we both just unraveling stories, wherever they manifest themselves? Yes, but mostly, no. So his single-mindedness comes at a cost, even if it has taught me how uncomplicated– how straightforward – an artist’s creative life can actually be. I admire his certitude, and the psychic effortlessness of his pursuit. He masters the material, whereas words tend to rule me until one of those moments of ecstasy, which fades and tries to make way for the next one.

The question I ask many years later, is would I have chosen differently? It’s because of him that I finally quit my last office job, the kind that made me pine for the life I knew I was missing. And I would rather live with a passionate man than a searching one, even if the object of his obsession will never be me.

Image Credit: Flickr/josefstuefer.