Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose

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Mirror, Mirror: On the Nature of Literature

Because of the mirror I cannot touch the me-inside-the mirrorBecause of the mirror I get to meet the me-inside-the mirror     —Yisang, “Mirror,” translated from Korean by Jack Jung
God has created nighttime, which he armsWith dreams, and mirrors, to make clearTo man he is a reflection and a mereVanity. Therefore these alarms.     —Jorge Luis Borges, “Mirrors,” translated from Portuguese by Mildred Boyer and Harold Morland
Sometimes it takes a probeand a camera’s eye to show you 
what you’re looking for.       —Maureen Doallas, “How Argument Go.”
1.
Many people, especially during their teenage years, spend a lot of time gazing at themselves in the mirror. One of my dorm-mates in high school was a pretty dancer. One day she started to get up an hour earlier every morning—the reason, she said, was to study. She did get up early, but she spent that extra hour looking in the mirror and combing her hair. Boys do similar things, too. Walking to the cafeteria during high school, I occasionally passed by a boy: Feet glued to the hallway, he held a stainless-steel spoon and kept glancing at the reflection of his face.
I never took a fancy to mirrors. They bear ill omens in childhood stories. Narcissus, in Greek mythology, grows infatuated with his reflection in the water and eventually dies of unrequited love. The magic mirror in Snow White stirs up the queen’s jealousy and causes a series of misfortunes to befall the innocent princess. My fear of mirrors developed when I turned 14. Two weeks after a friend broke her mirror at lunch break, she was diagnosed with leukemia. That night I did some googling and found that breaking a mirror was considered bad luck in many cultures. I knew I was being superstitious, but immediately checked all three mirrors my mother kept at home to make sure they were stable.
I don’t know whether this is related, but whenever I hear people say great literary works “mirror” society, I pause. The mirror analogy seems universal and timeless. A genre of literature known as Specula Principum became popular in Western Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Specula Principum, which translates to Mirrors for Princes, provided political instructions for rulers. One of the most famous compilations of Chinese history completed in Song Dynasty (1084 AD) is titled Zizhi Tongjian or Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government.

Last year, Shanghai Translation Publishing House, a leading press in China, asked me to translate Mystery and Manners and The Habit of Being for their forthcoming project, The Complete Works of Flannery O’Connor. I was surprised to find that in her time (the 1950s), American critics and readers wanted to enforce an orthodoxy of sorts on fiction writing:

They demand a realism of fact which may, in the end, limit rather than broaden the novel’s scope. They associate the only legitimate material for long fiction with the movement of social forces, with the typical, with fidelity to the way things look and happen in normal life. (“Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction”)


 In the same essay, O’Connor quoted Van Wyck Brooks, a literary critic, biographer, and historian, who called for literature to return to its “traditional” role as a “mirror and guide for society.” To O’Connor, such literature would only “satisfy tired readers” and flatten the originality of the American Southern voice. Interestingly though, the same orthodoxy is actually the literary tradition in China that still prevails today. All the best contemporary works in Chinese are about typical characters involved in big social movements. To Live by Yu Hua chronicles the fate of Fu Gui, an average Chinese man, during the Cultural Revolution. The Red Sorghum by Mo Yan revolves around a group of peasants fighting Japanese invaders during World War II.
As a writer, I—like all other responsible citizens—agree that we need to be socially engaged. But something feels wrong about the aforementioned demand: first the words “typical,” and “social forces.” These terms suggest the life of an individual is unimportant unless it is tied to social movements, and that the artistic elements of fiction are only a vehicle for the work’s larger societal message. Second, the word “fidelity.” I never really liked that word. In her essay “Erasing the Signs of Labor under the Signs of Happiness: ‘Joy’ and ‘Fidelity’ as Bromides in Literary Translation,” poet and translator Sophie Collins discusses the feminine connotation of the word fidelity—women are required to be faithful to men. Fidelity implies a subordinate nature: Translations are asked to be the handmaids of the original texts, fiction that of reality, society, and nation.
I can see why the mirror analogy persists. The reflection of a mirror is objective, dehumanized, and thus faithful. But that doesn’t work in fiction writing (or in nonfiction writing). Art is a selective process, and selection is inherently subjective. If we require writers to exactly follow the orthodoxy, to record the “typical” in a “faithful” fashion, then we are done with fiction.
2.
For the contemporary American reader who respects and cherishes original voices, perhaps there is no need to defend the importance of writers’ subjective feelings. But subjectivity doesn’t only involve insight and point of view. It also contains presupposition and judgment. We are now more conscious of racism, homophobia, and sexism in older American works of literature; and we demand a more faithful representation of minorities in present-day writing. So, the idea of fiction as a mirror endures—writers should be fair, balanced, and objective.
In practice, being fair often turns into being generous. Writers may feel obligated to “correct” for the prejudices of the past. They believe that their writing should reflect their values or group identity. Feminists may avoid showing any female character that is too frail or emotional; minority writers feel the urge to present a positive picture of their ethnic group. As a result, fidelity takes the form of loyalty; art serves as the handmaid of collective values.
In August 2018, after my op-ed was published in The New York Times, I was targeted by cyber bullies. I wrote the piece two days after I learned of my mother’s stroke. Grief, guilt, and grievance overwhelmed me; I couldn’t help but unleash my feelings on the page. I criticized the pragmatic tendency of Chinese culture and medical institutions that are dominated by nepotism and wealth. My Weibo account, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, was soon filled with hundreds of angry and hateful comments. My countrymen called me a “traitor” who “drank her mom’s blood to lip the American dick.”
After the storm passed, I told my friends at home I didn’t care what people had said. But that was a lie. For four months, I wasn’t able to write down a single Chinese word. My English writing also became difficult. I kept torturing myself with the following questions:
1) Was I smearing my country?
2) For whom was I writing?
3) Was my writing contributing to my country anymore?
And soon I had the answers:
1) No. All the points in my essay were facts.
2) When I write in English, I write for readers who speak that language.
3) Probably not.
The last answer killed me. Growing up in China, I had been taught to be patriotic and responsible. What value does my writing have if it doesn’t do my country any good?

In my darkest moment, I started reading Philip Roth, the great American author who, as Brett Ashley Kaplan puts it, was once considered an “enemy” by his fellow Jewish people. Roth’s characters are not pleasant. Take Goodbye, Columbus, his first major work. The Patimkins are filthy rich and snobbish, while Neil’s working-class family seem like boorish fools. But because the portrait is so raw, I can relate to Neil’s desire to fit in with the upper-middle class Jewish American community. Aunt Gladys sounds exactly like my working-class relatives in Shanghai. I understand Neil’s feelings about living with her—he fears being drowned in the unintellectual life that he despises, and he is afraid that all his hard work will come to nothing. Neil is not pleasant either: He bears the defects of both sides. Reading Roth, I know I am Neil, and Neil is me.

I probably sound like I was seeking legitimacy in Roth’s work. Perhaps I was. But I recall my days as a writer in Chinese. After my first collection, People Grow Old, But Never Die, came out in 2014, a friend brought her husband to meet me after a reading. It turned out we’d gone to the same high school. We talked about our shared memories and had a very good time. He said he couldn’t wait to read my stories. Two days later, he was the first person who posted a negative comment online. My friend told me that the dark picture of the neighborhood in my book offended him.
Back then I didn’t question whether my stories were a faithful representation of the lower-class Shanghainese, because, like many authors, my first book is largely autobiographical.
Take “A Sick Tooth,” the short story that earned me a China Times Literary Award in Taiwan in 2011. The father is useless and timid, like my father; the mother extremely economical and pragmatic, like my mother. They are good people, only stricken with poverty. But, looking back, I wonder what good that story did for my city, Shanghai. Or for my parents. As Czeslaw Milosz’s famous quote goes: “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”
But my Shanghai stories never aroused controversy; the readers who enjoy my book find in it their own images, not happy ones though, mostly their deep-buried woes and sorrows. Will the image of Shanghai and Shanghainese be tarnished by my stories? I would not be arrogant enough to think so. The question of whether my stories were useful to my city never arose while I was writing. Lost in a world of insults and curses that people hurled at me last year, I forgot the nature of art. Art is good in and of itself, as Thomas Aquinas puts it. For all my writing, I am performing painful self-reflection and I would be grateful if my readers would do the same after reading my work.
Back in my school days, Japanese horror stories were very popular. There was one titled “Miss Mirror.” One day, a young doctor works the night shift. While washing her hands in the restroom, she sings spells into a mirror. Soon, the image of a ghost appears in the mirror. After I came to the States, I learned about the legend of Bloody Mary. If you chant her name into a mirror, she will emerge.
These thoughts about mirrors came to me randomly, while I was still considering my writing identity. It struck me that I do hope my writing serves as a mirror, not an ordinary one, but a magic mirror that can summon ghosts. I have a theory about the abundance of ghost-in-mirror stories around the world: The ghost is not “the other;” when we look at ourselves long enough, we see our own grotesqueness.
Humans are born self-centered. If I don’t remind myself of the dark and ugly side that I have, I would become a narcissistic being, like in Greek mythology. I need the magic mirror on the wall to tell me the fairest girl is someone else. I may end up feeling unhappy, but at least I can have true self-knowledge. The same can be said of every individual, social group, generation, culture, and nation. As Flannery O’Connor said it, “The first product of self-knowledge is humility, and this is not a virtue conspicuous in any national character.”


3.
In real life, I am all for inclusion and acceptance, for political correctness, that American obsession. I owe everything I have here to social justice advocates. But sometimes I wonder: What would be Philip Roth’s fate if he were a young writer today?
Author and professor Brian Morton, in his essay “Virginia Woolf? Snob! Richard Wright? Sexist! Dostoyevsky? Anti-Semite,” points out today’s college students’ tendency to condemn canonical authors for moral failings. I love the comparison he draws between reading literature of the past and time traveling.     

When we imagine that writers from the past are visiting our world, it subtly reinforces our complacence, our tendency to believe that the efforts at moral improvement made by earlier generations attained their climax, their fulfillment, their perfection, in us. The idea that we are the ones who are doing the time-traveling doesn’t carry the same implication.
If, whenever we open old books, we understand from the get-go that their authors have motes in their eyes regarding important ethical or political questions, it might help us understand that the same thing could be said of us today.

Morton’s analogy reminds me of a story about Nan-in, a Japanese Zen master during Meiji era. Once a university professor came to ask for his teachings. While serving tea, Nan-in kept pouring hot water into the cup after it was full. The professor looked at the cup and said, “It’s already full. No more water.” “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions. How can I teach you Zen?”
If we are too full of our own opinions, we will never be able to see the richness of our predecessors. We must recognize our own limitations (or at least accept the possibility of our limitations) so we can begin to appreciate the merits of others.
On the other hand, racism, sexism, and prejudice persist. In “The Snow Queen,” one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most famous fairy tales, a wicked hobgoblin makes a mirror that reduces everything good and beautiful to nothing. When this mirror breaks into billions of pieces, the shards fall across the earth and become embedded in people’s hearts and eyes, causing them to only see the bad and ugly in other people.
As a writer, how can I be sure that I am not making the same wicked mirror? What is the dividing line between being critical and being hateful? How much liberty can writers take to reveal the darker side of our collective selves?
My answer is: as long as I am making the mirror of truth, and as long as I am using the mirror to reflect myself.
Writers are often called truth seekers. But what is truth? Etymologically, the Middle English word for “truth” is “trewthe,” which derives from Old English word trēowth, which mean fidelity and is akin to the Old English word trēowe, which means faithful. Here it is again: fidelity. That doesn’t help: fidelity to what?
In an indirect way, Flannery O’Connor addresses my question. As a Roman Catholic, the nature of truth is transparent to her: It is with God and with mystery. In a letter she wrote to Alfred Con, then a freshman at Emory University, who felt lost in college, O’Connor says: 

Where you have absolute solutions, however, you have no need of faith. Faith is what you have in the absence of knowledge. The reason this clash [clash of different world religions] doesn’t bother me any longer is because I have got, over the years, a sense of the immense sweep of creation, of the evolutionary process in everything, of how incomprehensible God must necessarily be to be the God of heaven and earth.

I am not religious, though Christianity appeals to me intellectually. However, while translating O’Connor, I realized that she, like all the great writers of the past, shines a light on my narrow-mindedness. Like Alfred Con, I have become biased by “the stimulation of an intellectual life that happens in college.” Meanwhile, without realizing it, I have been experiencing what O’Connor calls a “shrinking of the imaginative life.” Nowadays, truth has mutated into its many degraded kin: values, reality, perspective, and group image. Exposed to them, I took the side of the majority and stuck to it. I rested my skepticism. I have stopped looking for God (truth).
Perhaps, truth is something that transcends all the comprehensible things around us. It is not something that we hold in our hands or that we fight for, but something that keeps us searching and wondering.
Truth also affords writers the liberty to be unfaithful to its degraded kin. In 2016, shortly before I came to the U.S., I asked Gish Jen at her reading in Shanghai the same question that I ask myself today: Immigrant writers take bits and pieces of their native land with them; how can they deliver a full faithful picture of their homeland or ancestors’ land to a foreign readership? Jen’s answer was refreshing, and recalling the moment now, I feel even more grateful. “They can’t,” she said. “Nobody can give a full faithful picture of his/her homeland. But writers have the liberty to be disloyal. And we pay the price for being expelled from Plato’s Republic.”
Today, I find many writers, myself included, driven by the moral demand to write “what it should be” instead of “what it is”—that is, we use the “correctness” of our values to determine “what it should be.” But, as I see it, writing for or against certain values creates propaganda. The problem with the creation of this type of propaganda is that we close our eyes and let our values do the seeing for us. In doing so, we give ourselves the illusion of flawlessness and absolute correctness. When we are complacent in this way, we have turned away from truth.
In the tradition of Zen Buddhism, the mind—the higher self—is compared to a bright mirror. There was a fierce debate between the Northern and Southern Schools in seventh-century China: one school believed that the mirror needs constant cleaning; the other believed that it was fundamentally pure, free, and unconditioned.
This is a polemical debate, and I am no expert on Zen. But this bright mirror matches my ultimate image of the mirror of truth.  To me, a look at our internal ghosts won’t result in a distorted reality, like it does in “The Snow Queen.” When looking in the mirror, we also see our fundamentally good higher selves. We see what we could be. Allow me to once again quote Flannery O’Connor: “to know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around.” Speak to the mirror. Don’t shy away from anything we see. Grope your way out of the darkness and the unknown. Ultimately, we will see the light, in every corner of the world, in others, and in ourselves.
Image credit: Snapwire/Will Milne.

A Year in Reading: Jianan Qian

My 2018 experience, perhaps like everyone else, is much swamped with all sorts of political news that keeps me in dread and panic. As a result, my reading life is divided into three categories: (1.) I consult history-related books to try to understand our current age; (2.) I read fiction works that match my ambition to live a big life and write a big book; (3.) I translate essay collections from English to Chinese for work. The following three books are the most impressive one in each category:

1. The World of Yesterday
It feels very strange and even terrifying to find every line in this masterly memoir of the 20th century resonating. Stefan Zweig described his childhood as the age of scientific accomplishments—the invention of electric light, telephone, and train—and recalled a unanimous belief that men would eventually vanquish “the last vestige of evil and violence.” From his portrait I felt as if I’d seen my childhood in the Age of Information again—the arrival of personal computers and Internet made us believe that all borders could be trespassed and that the spirit of democracy would soon triumph. But now, seeing the growing dark side of social media and Internet in general, I realize that I too was being naïve.

Zweig quotes Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in his last chapter: “The sun of Rome is set. Our/ day is gone. / Clouds, dews, and dangers come;/ our deeds are done.” I read it with great sadness, but I try to remind myself that even at the night of humanism, we still have our own inner light to illuminate at least the path ahead of us.

2. The Sympathizer
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s stunning debut novel, The Sympathizer, has received much critical acclaim, including the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Reading such a profound and beautiful book, everyone can have very different takeaways. As a fiction writer, I am amazed by how Nguyen can make so many contrasts and contradictions all fit extraordinarily well together in this spy novel: the protagonist’s confession is grandiloquent and yet genuine, the narrative voice has a character but not a name, the conventional idea of fraternity and kinship is challenged and yet confirmed. Any summary or depiction would only narrow the scope of this great work. It is the book about the size of our large, chaotic contemporary world.

3. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose
I have spent my first post-workshop year translating Flannery O’Connor’s The Habit of Being and Mystery and Manners into Chinese for Shanghai Translation Publishing House. This towering canonical American author has refreshed my thoughts on the nature and aim of fiction. Fiction, as she put it in a Catholic way, is about mystery incarnated in specific and concrete characters. O’Connor, in her time, needed to confront the general readers’ demand that novels should demonstrate a “positive image” of a social group, i.e. the South, the Catholics. As a writer in a second language, I am facing the same demand that my China stories should only show the bright side of my country. O’Connor’s response is not only refreshing but also encouraging to me: fiction writers need to show what it is rather than what it should be; the latter means that we have closed our own eyes on the real world.

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Forty for 40: A Literary Reader for Lent

Lent is an annual search, which might explain the popularity of this post. I continue to hear from writers — Christians and non-Christians alike — who are curious about the meaning and significance of Lent. The season is all about the appeal of story; the dramatic power of the Passion narrative. We’ve decided to re-publish this post with updated dates in hopes that it can be a literary companion for the next few weeks — and that it might demonstrate the diversity and range of ways that writers have imagined the season.

“Lent,” wrote Thomas Merton, “is not just a time for squaring conscious accounts: but for realizing what we had perhaps not seen before.” Lent is the most literary season of the liturgical year. The Lenten narrative is marked by violence, suffering, anticipation, and finally, joy. Jesus Christ’s 40 days of fasting in the desert are the spiritual and dramatic origin for the season that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday.

While Advent is a time of giving, Lent is a time of reflection, penance, and reconciliation, all revealed through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Holy Week is a solemn sequence of days leading to the grace of Easter. It is a different form of joy than Christmas; Easter joy is cathartic and transformational. Lent, then, is a time of complex and contrasting emotions. Highs and lows. A time to be shaken and surprised.

Jamie Quatro, whose collection I Want To Show You More arrived like a literary revelation, says that reading is like “the mystery of the Lord’s Supper…a form of communion: author, text, and reader rapt in an intimate yet paradoxically isolated collusion of spirits.” Here is a literary reader for Lent: 40 stories, poems, essays, and books for the 40 days of this season. (Sundays have never been part of the Lenten calendar). Some pieces are inspired by feast days and Gospel readings, while others capture the discernment of the season. Some works are written by believers, while others are crafted by writers who choose the literary word over any Word. This reader is intended to be literary, not theological; contemplative rather than devotional. Bookmark this page and come back each day. Save it for upcoming years. The dates will change, but the sequence of readings and reflections will stay the same: a small offering of communion that might transcend our isolation.

Day 1: Wednesday March 1
Reading: “Ash Wednesday” by T.S. Eliot
Lent begins with dust and darkness. Black-crossed foreheads are the rare time when true ritual bleeds into public view. As Lent is a time of change, it is appropriate to start with Eliot’s famous conversion text. Eliot said “skepticism is the preface to conversion;” The Wasteland and “The Hollow Men,” however desolate, capture the impersonal sense of art Eliot would associate with his new faith. “Ash Wednesday” is the start of a labor. When he writes “suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood,” he knows belief is not easy.

Day 2: Thursday March 2
Reading: Townie by Andre Dubus III
In Luke 9:22-25, Jesus warns his disciples that following him will be a struggle. Self-denial must be followed by a willingness to suffer “daily.” The disciples act on the hope of salvation, much like children following a father. In Townie, Andre Dubus III writes of his father, a man he both loved and hated. Dubus père dies in the final chapters of the memoir, and Andre and his brother Jeb build their father’s coffin, “a simple pine box.” It was a promise, the final chapter of reconciliation to heal a broken family.

Day 3: Friday March 3
Reading: “The Habit of Perfection” by Gerard Manley Hopkins
This Friday is the first real test of fasting for most (Ash Wednesday services make for strength in numbers). William G. Storey writes that fasting “help[s] the body share in the sufferings of Jesus and of the poor.” Hopkins, a 19th-century British Jesuit who has influenced as many secular poets as he has religious ones, dramatizes the ascetic life in his verse. His poems press against the borders of his forms; he wrings multiple meanings out of his language. “The Habit of Perfection” is an acceptance of denial: “Palate, the hutch of tasty lust, / Desire not to be rinsed with wine: / The can must be so sweet, the crust / So fresh that come in fasts divine!” What others think sour, Hopkins turns sweet.

Day 4: Saturday March 4
Reading: “Why I’m Still a Catholic” by Nicole Soojung Callahan
If I could suggest one single essay that dramatizes the difficulty of faith, the struggle of this season, it would be Callahan’s heartfelt essay. She sometimes feels like a “bad Catholic” in the same way as her adoptive parents, who were “lapsed old-school Cleveland Catholics brought back into the fold by a firecracker of a nun in Seattle.” Callahan notes that as “a child, my faith was almost the only thing in my life that made me feel that I was part of something larger —– the only thing that constructed a kind of bridge between my own little island and the larger continents on which other families and clans and communities seemed to reside. Letting it go would mean jettisoning a huge part of who I am, severing that long-cherished connection to a kind of universal family.” Like so many, Callahan is sometimes frustrated with the institution of the Church, and yet this Catholic identity formed by her youth — “annual May crownings, years of lectoring and serving at Mass, First Communion and Confirmation parties, and that dusty bottle of holy water on our bookshelf that my mother never allowed to run dry. I had a catalog of prayers I knew by heart; ancient hymns paired with terrible folk-Mass songs written in the 1970s; the familiar rhythm and beauty of the liturgical seasons” — is something she will always be grateful for, and that she has passed on to her own children. The final section of her essay is lyric, poetic, and worthy of being read aloud: as fine a credo of measured faith as I can imagine.

Day 5: Monday March 6
Reading: “The Tree” by Dylan Thomas
The feast day of Saint Polycarp, who, according to John J. Delaney’s Dictionary of Saints, “was ordered burned to death at the stake…[but] when the flames failed to consume him, he was speared to death.” Polycarp’s martyrdom is one of the oldest, and helps usher the peculiar Catholic genre of saint tales. Polycarp’s fantastical narrative is matched by “The Tree,” a story by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Although a “holy maker” who became “tipsy on salvation’s bottle” as a child, Thomas was no fan of Catholicism (his friend William York Tindall said Thomas was “essentially Protestant without being Christian”). “The Tree” is no devotional tale. Surreal and imagistic, it is the story of an inquisitive but easily misguided boy who crucifies a transient to a tree on a hill in Wales.

Day 6: Tuesday March 7
Reading: “Disgraceland” by Mary Karr
A week into Lent, one’s patience might begin to wear thin with all of this suffering (few human endeavors go awry as quickly as devotion). Mary Karr is the antidote to complacency. In “Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer,” Karr outed herself as a Catholic convert, “not victim but volunteer…after a lifetime of undiluted agnosticism.” “Disgraceland,” from her 2006 collection Sinners Welcome, begins with an account of her birth, whirled into this world to “sulk around” while “Christ always stood / to one side with a glass of water.” She ends on a gorgeous note: “You are loved, someone said. Take that / and eat it.”

Day 7: Wednesday March 8
Reading: “The Teaching of Literature” by Flannery O’Connor
Today’s reading from Luke 11:29 sounds rather harsh: “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah.” This sign will be revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ, which makes this indictment of a crowd feel particularly heavy. While it might be heretical to wait seven days to introduce the work of Flannery O’Connor into a Lenten reader, this is the moment she becomes appropriate. Her fiction will appear later in the reading list, but today is in the spirit of her essay, “The Teaching of Literature,” most often collected in Mystery and Manners. O’Connor laments how fiction is taught to students, particularly when fiction is used as mere symbol: “I have found that if you are astute and energetic, you can integrate English literature with geography, biology, home economics, basketball, or fire prevention — with anything at all that will put off a little longer the evil day when the story or novel must be examined simply as a story or novel.” Pity the generation that sparks O’Connor’s ire.

Day 8: Thursday March 9
Reading: Radical Reinvention by Kaya Oakes
Christ tells his disciples “seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Secular criticism of religion offers the refrain that faith — as practiced by those who claim to be religious — often sounds like certainty, and certainty leads to judgment. (Most believers would benefit from conversations and friendships with atheists). Kaya Oakes’s memoir of rediscovery, Radical Reinvention, traces her search from skeptic to measured believer to reinvented believer. Oakes is funny and thoughtful, and shares the wisdom of her spiritual directors, including a Father Mellow, who says “The Church is both sinner and holy. So are all of us.” She is still undergoing her search, but one thing she’s discovered is that “living a life of faith is not about following marching orders. It’s about finding God in other people, feeling the movement of the Spirit, living the compassion of Christ as best we can.”

Day 9: Friday March 10
Reading: Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen
Saint Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows died from tuberculosis at 24. Gabriel’s popularity in America is marginal, based on his supposed patronage of handgun users (an absurdly apocryphal tale where Gabriel shoots a lizard to scare off Giuseppe Garibaldi’s soldiers). A more likely tale is that his devotion to the Virgin Mary and the Passion were a correction to the extreme vanity of his youth. Gabriel reflects the titular character of Ron Hansen’s novel, Mariette in Ecstasy, a 17-year-old novitiate at a convent in upstate New York. She is first introduced in the novel while standing naked in front of a floor mirror, aware of her beauty, and thinks “Even this I give You.” Hansen’s novel is what would happen if James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime converted. Now a deacon in a Cupertino, California parish, Hansen continues to write powerful fiction.

Day 10: Saturday March 11
Reading: “You Are Not Christ” by Rickey Laurentiis
In today’s Gospel selection from Matthew, Christ tells his disciples to “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” He ends his exhortation with a call to be “perfect,” a sharp expectation, an impossible goal. I often think of Laurentiis’s title in relation to that call. It arrives, first, as a phrase of forgiveness, but Laurentiis’s verse is unforgiving: “For the drowning, yes, there is always panic. / Or peace.” Only nine lines, the poem unfolds and exits like a deep breath, and, like much of Laurentiis’s poetry, weds the sensual with the spiritual. Lent is nothing if not the most physical of seasons.

Day 11: Monday March 13
Reading: “Idiot Psalms” by Scott Cairns
March begins with a scene from Capernaum: Jesus drives an “unclean spirit” from a man. Exorcisms are the perfect fodder for Hollywood — black-clad heroes chant Latin while they struggle with demons — but have a less theatrical role in Lent. Unclean is not a permanent condition. The narrator of “Idiot Psalms” “find[s] my face against the floor, and yet again / my plea escapes from unclean lips.” He seeks forgiveness, which is not as dramatic as Max Von Sydow and Jason Miller performing the Roman rite, but his desire “to manage at least one late season sinlessly, / to bow before you yet one time without chagrin” is palpable.

Day 12: Tuesday March 14
Reading: “The Didache” by Paul Lisicky
Lisicky’s short piece appears in his book Unbuilt Projects. The title is a reference to an apocryphal, anonymous document of early Jewish-Christians, although Lisicky’s narrative is focused on his relationship with his mother. “The Didache” begins with a question: “What were you like the last time I saw you whole?” The piece follows with more questions and considerations, while noting “It’s funny how we end up where we do.” The language of the final sentences becomes comfortably Biblical: “As the broken bread was scattered on the hillsides, and so was gathered and made one, so may the many of you be gathered and find favor with one another.” The lines are a lyrical refiguring of a Didache hymn, and lead toward the conclusion of Lisicky’s piece: “Take. Eat, says the mother, given up and broken, and pushes the sandwich into the lunch bag, and sends me on my way.” A nice reminder that our present, prosaic world is capable of being legendary and graceful.

Day 13: Wednesday March 15
Reading: The Grace That Keeps This World by Tom Bailey
Variations of faith sustain the characters of Bailey’s novel in the face of despair. The novel contains several first-person narratives, beginning with Susan Hazen, who says her parish priest “plants the wafer that leavens hope in my palm.” Susan’s faith is tested, along with that of her husband, Gary David (an act of violence cleaves their family). The book ends with Gary’s narrative section: “The pines have reawakened me to something that as a forester I’ve long known by heart: The work we live to do is work we’ll never see completed. The snow will continue to fall. The geese will come back, just as they will continue to go. I have my faith. The strength of belief. But this is the truth in our story the pines need to relate. This, they whisper, this is the grace that keeps this world. Honor it.”

Day 14: Thursday March 16
Reading: “The Our Father” by Franz Wright
“The Our Father” appears in Wheeling Motel, Wright’s 10th collection of poems. The poem’s relative brevity is inversely related to its power. To title a poem after such an iconic prayer is to locate the work as both ritual and rhythm. The first stanza reads: “I am holding cirrhosis / with one hand and AIDS / with the other, in a circle.” Wright’s poetry is so pared, having the feeling of being wrung through the emotion of being and distilled into the truest possible language. This first stanza establishes the sense of community: this is truly a collective father. As is often true with those suffering from addition or disease, that which causes the pain overwhelms the self. Wright’s lines break from those diseases toward the shape, “a circle,” that leads to comfort and forgiveness (Wright has written about how his own conversion has helped lift his life from addiction). “The Our Father” moves forward from this first stanza to the actual prayer, which is “simple” and “august,” though Wright compares and connects the bareness of the phrasing to the profound nature of Christ’s life: “you briefly took on tortured / human form to teach / us here, below–” The poem’s honesty continues, though, because the final lines speak to an awareness of the ephemera of existence: “What final catastrophe sent / to wean me from this world.”

Day 15: Friday March 17
Reading: “After Cornell” by Joe Bonomo
Bonomo’s essay, which appears in his collection This Must Be Where My Obsession with Infinity Began, reflects on the darkness and silence of the traditional confessional box: “To intellectually comprehend moral and ethical transgressions—regardless of how domestically petty they might feel to the confessor (last night I bit my little brother) — the confessor must shed anatomy’s garment and step in unencumbered. The fragmented reminder that we are always flesh filtered through the shadowy screen between priest and penitent, and such a reminder could not have been allowed to distract.” Bonomo laments the shift to face-to-face confessions, though he has prepared himself for the change, and the previous box felt “akin to stepping into the Old Age, of black, black, black.” Bonomo’s words bring me back to the confessions of my past: I made the same shift from darkness to (uncomfortable) light. Now my parish opts for the face-to-sheet-to-face confession in a lighted room, and we are given printed Acts of Contrition, columned in the center on a pink sheet. I agree with Bonomo, that something has been lost, or at least transferred, in this coming to light.

Day 16: Saturday March 18
Reading: “Second Avenue” by Frank O’Hara
Critic Micah Mattix writes that “O’Hara believed that poetry was a ‘testament’ of the self and that love was real. Drawing from his Catholic schooling and James Joyce’s aesthetics, in some poems he expressed the view that the artist was as a sort of Christ-figure who suffers to renew our experience of the world.” Mattix notes that O’Hara’s long poem, “Second Avenue,” although a “sprawling amalgam of absurd images, disconnected phrases and quotation, newspaper clippings, short dramatic scenes, anecdotes, gossip, and literary artistic references,” also reinforces this idea of “the image of the artist as God,” and “reverses…the biblical trope of God as light.” Mattix’s reading has altered my perception of O’Hara’s verse, which I have always thought as being more interested in play than profundities. Lent truly is the season of change, as long as one’s eyes are open.

Day 17: Monday March 20
Reading: “The Heart, Like a Bocce Ball” by Luke Johnson
Johnson’s poem begins with the characters “dead drunk,” “cannonballing across the lawn, gouging / handful divots, each of us still nursing / a tumbler of scotch brought home from the wake.” Although temporarily wasted, these “sons and brothers and cousins” aren’t wasting away: they are players, certainly, in this simple game of bocce, but there’s a real sense of connection here. The poem ends with the lines “The heart, like a bocce ball, is fist-sized / and firm; ours clunk together, then divide.” If there were ever a poetic form made for brief devotions meant to stretch throughout a day, it would be the sonnet.

Day 18: Tuesday March 21
Reading: “Their Bodies, Their Selves” by Andrew McNabb
Dray and Sarah Maguire “had lived a clothed life,” but “An accident had changed that.” The center of McNabb’s tight story unfolds in less than an hour, but stretches across the years of this elderly couple’s relationship. One Saturday afternoon, while using the bathroom, Dray falls, smacking his skull on the porcelain. Sarah, “scarred from shingles, melanoma, three ungrateful children and an undiagnosed depression,” fears blood, but instead sees her husband nearly bare (he’d gotten used to taking off his pants when using the bathroom “so he wouldn’t get caught up when he stood”). Sensing her husband’s embarrassment, Sarah undresses herself. Their bodies are in the open; “That is just you, and this is just me.” What starts as a moment of communion becomes a daily act, a presentation of bodies as a means of preservation.

Day 19: Wednesday March 22
Reading: Love & Salt by Amy Andrews and Jessica Mesman Griffith
Andrews and Griffith met in a graduate school creative writing workshop, and their shared literary interest in God soon became personal searches. Love & Salt is their collected correspondence, as well as letters that remained, unsent, as notes. Their epistles are layered and lyric, documents of friendship that are as intimate as they are inviting. In Griffith’s first letter, she longs to finally get Lent right, to live up to the words of Saint Ephraim’s prayer: “How many times have I promised, / Yet every time I failed to keep my word. / But disregard this according to Thy Grace.” The collection will make you long to find as worthy a correspondent as Andrews and Griffith (each of their letters could serve as daily devotions, bringing to life the statement they share from Vivian Gornick: “The letter, written in absorbed silence, is an act of faith.”).

Day 20: Thursday March 23
Reading: “From a Window” by Christian Wiman
Halfway through Lent, the heart can harden. Reflection leads to regret. Christian Wiman, the former editor of Poetry magazine, is the perfect poet for this time. Wiman’s verse has the uncanny ability to swiftly and believably transition from melancholy to joy. His memoir, My Bright Abyss, documents his unlikely journey back to Christian belief after being diagnosed with incurable cancer. Speaking about his return to belief, Wiman says “I have no illusions about adding to sophisticated theological thinking. But I think there are a ton of people out there who are what you might call unbelieving believers, people whose consciousness is completely modern and yet who have this strong spiritual hunger in them. I would like to say something helpful to those people.” “From a Window,” written during an admitted time of despair, says something. “Incurable and unbelieving / in any truth but the truth of grieving,” Wiman watches a flock of birds rise from a tree, “as if the leaves had livelier ghosts.” He presses his face against the window and wonders if the birds were “a single being undefined / or countless beings of one mind,” and admits that their “strange cohesion / [is] beyond the limits of my vision.” He pulls back, his skeptic’s mind reassured that the tree he is watching with a shaken heart is no different now save for the observer, and yet that same independence of existence — the fact that this beautiful, simple moment did not need him to observe it, and that recognition “is where the joy came in.”

Day 21: Friday March 24
Reading: “I Was Never Able to Pray” by Edward Hirsch
Gabriel, Hirsch’s book-length poem about the life and death of his adopted son, contains an unbeliever’s admonition: “I will not forgive you / Indifferent God / Until you give me back my son.” “I Was Never Able to Pray” predates his loss, but presents a similar song. Why would an unbeliever care about God? Designations of believer and atheist, pious and heretic are only useful as generalizations. Hirsch’s critical interests have always dealt with God-wounded writers (including James Joyce and W.B. Yeats), so it is not surprising to see that language extend to his own narrators. In this poem, the speaker wishes to be taken to the shore, where the “moon tolls in the rafters” and he can “hear the wind paging through the trees.” His lines of unbelief arrive on the tongue of faith: “I was never able to pray, / but let me inscribe my name / in the book of waves” as he looks up to the “sky that never ends.”

Day 22: Saturday March 25
Reading: “The Widow of Naim” by Thomas Merton
The non-fiction meditations of Thomas Merton could fill an entire Lenten reading schedule, but his poetic considerations of faith and Scripture are also worthy. Merton studied poetry at Columbia, and was “turned on like a pinball machine by Blake, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Meister Eckhart, Coomaraswamy, Traherne, Hopkins, Maritain, and the sacraments of the Catholic Church.” Yet like Hopkins, Merton lamented his more creative self, “this shadow, this double, this writer who had followed me into the cloister.” Although less than half of Merton’s verse was specifically religious, he did enjoy recasting Scripture into poetry (in pieces like “The Evening of the Visitation,” “An Argument: of the Passion of Christ,” “The Sponge Full of Vinegar,” “The House of Caiaphas,” “Aubade — The Annunciation,” and “Cana”). The Naim sequence only lasts seven verses, and is often lost between the Capernaum centurion and Christ’s reflection on John the Baptist. In Luke’s version, Christ arrives at Naim along with his disciples at the same time a man “who had died was being carried out.” Christ tells the mother of the man, the titular widow, to not weep. He touches the bier, a support for the coffin, and the “bearers stood still.” Christ tells the dead man to arise, and he does. Merton’s poetic recasting begins by moving the initial focus from the arrival of Christ to “the gravediggers and the mourners of the town, who, ‘White as the wall…follow / to the new tomb a widow’s sorrow.’” The mourners meet a crowd of strangers who “smell of harvests…[and] nets,” and who question the mourners: “Why go you down to graves, with eyes like winters / And your cold faces clean as cliffs? / See how we come, our brows are full of sun.” These strangers allude to the “wonder” of the miracle to come. Yet Merton’s twist arrives as an address to the reader that the “widow’s son, after the marvel of his miracle: / He did not rise for long, and sleeps forever.” The man was resuscitated, not resurrected; his gift of life was an ephemeral one. This allows Merton to place the miracle along a continuum, to place the weight of an ancient tale on the shoulder of modern humanity, the crowd.

Day 23: Monday March 27
Reading: “Girls” by Andre Dubus
Dubus contemplates the altar girl at Mass, she being the “only altar girl I have ever seen.” That observation opens to a short reflection about Mary, the “first priest.” He catalogues her potential fears, which begin with her encounter with the angel Gabriel, continue with her need to find shelter to have the child, and then the knowledge “she would lose Him because he was God.” He thinks about how he and this girl at Mass see the “cross as a sign of love,” but for Mary it was “wood and a dying son and grief.” I’ve written a few appreciations of Dubus, but in brief: pair “Girls” with his fiction, particularly “A Father’s Story,” and you have a portrait of a writer, a father, for whom faith is essential.

Day 24: Tuesday March 28
Reading: “Back in Ireland” by Thomas McGuane
St. Patrick would be proud of McGuane’s prose, as close to an American Joyce as possible (particularly his earlier, more sardonic novels like The Sporting Club). His more recent content has moved out West, capturing the spirit of breeding and raising cutting horses in Montana, but his prose retains its Celtic rhythms. “Back in Ireland” is the memory of a long-ago “meandering trip” to fish in southern Ireland: “I was at that blissful stage in my life when my services were sought by no one. I didn’t know how good I had it.” He is thankful for the guidance of a local angler, the type of person “who could never recall when they began fishing, so undivided was it from the thread of their lives.” McGuane notices that the entire town blessed themselves nearly constantly, “a rakish bit of muscle memory that I found myself imitating.” Church might have been a bit too much of a commitment, but the shadow of devotion “seemed to help before a difficult presentation…[of] the listless slob of a brown trout, curd fattened at the outlet of a small creamery on the Loobagh River.” McGuane’s sentences slather as heavy as fellow lapsed Irish-Catholic Joyce: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”

Day 25: Wednesday March 29
Reading: “Prophecy” by Dana Gioia
Gioia’s poetry, essays, and arts advocacy have long made him an essential writer. His recent, spirited essay, “The Catholic Writer Today,” has reignited the debate about the role of writing of faith within secular literary culture. Gioia’s own poems never proselytize. “Prophecy” contains a few direct questions, but is all wonder. What does a child staring out of a window think about? “For what is prophecy but the first inkling / of what we ourselves must call into being?” The prophetic sense can’t be prayed or willed into existence, there is “No voice in thunder.” The necessary “gift is listening / and hearing what is only meant for you.” “O Lord of indirection and ellipses,” the speaker says, “ignore our prayers. Deliver us from distraction…And grant us only what we fear.”

Day 26: Thursday March 30
Reading: “Life of Sundays” by Rodney Jones
Years ago, Jones visited my first undergraduate poetry workshop, and was given a packet of student work. My poem about fishing was in the bunch. Jones read the poem aloud to the class, and then went on to praise my lines. I don’t think they were worthy of his good words, but he wasn’t there to criticize. I might think that he was merely playing a part, but Jones’s poetry tends to be rather forgiving and observant. “Life of Sundays” is no different. Although the speaker doesn’t go to church anymore, “I want to at times, to hear the diction / And the tone.” What happens at the service “is devotion, which wouldn’t change if I heard / The polished sermon, the upright’s arpeggios of vacant notes.” He wonders: “What else could unite widows, bankers, children, and ghosts?” Although his belief has passed, he feels “the abundance of calm” from this ritual of Sundays, a day when the “syntax of prayers is so often reversed, / Aimed toward the dead who clearly have not gone ahead.” “And though I had no prayer,” the speaker says, “I wanted to offer something / Or ask for something, perhaps out of habit.”

Day 27: Friday March 31
Reading: “First Day of Winter” by Breece Pancake
It is difficult to not write about Breece Pancake in elegiac terms. Even one of his closest mentors, the great James Alan McPherson, said “there was a mystery about [him] that I will not claim to have penetrated.” His friend John Casey felt the same way, saying Pancake, who converted in his 20s, “took faith with intensity, almost as if he had a different, deeper measure of time.” Pancake’s fiction does arrive with an almost overwhelming sense of inevitability, from “The Way It Has To Be” to “Time and Again.” “First Day of Winter” is equally unsparing, although Pancake wrings a drop of hope from these characters. “Hollis sat by his window all night, staring at the ghost in glass, looking for some way out of the tomb Jake had built for him.” That tomb is his parents’ farm. His mother’s “mind half gone from blood too thick in her veins,” his father blind. Jake would not take in his parents at his own home. Hollis wrestles with a car that won’t start, its “grinding echoed through the hollows, across the hills.” His knuckles bloodied from the cold, he tells his father about Jake’s rejection, but Jake is the prodigal son. Hollis’s plan is no better: he intends to take his parents to the state nursing home. As often occurs in Pancake’s stories, there seems no way out, particularly not for Hollis, whose jealousy of his brother is clear (he has to watch his mother fawn over a photo of Jake and his family). Hollis snaps and tells his mother of Jake’s rejection, and that breaks his father’s spirit. They leave the room, and Hollis goes outside, where their “land lay brittle, open, and dead.” Back inside, Hollis hears “the cattle lowing to be fed, heard the soft rasp of his father’s crying breath, heard his mother’s humming of a hymn.” Like that, in the span of a sentence, Pancake breaths light, however faint, into this world: “The sun was blackened with snow, and the valley closed in quietly with humming, quietly as an hour of prayer.”

Day 28: Saturday April 1
Reading: The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert
Echoing the language he used to describe his writing of Emma Bovary, Flaubert said “I was in Saint Anthony as Saint Anthony himself.” Flaubert began the novel in 1848 but it was not published until 1874. An early audience of friends said he should burn the book and never speak of it. Flaubert, undeterred, said “It is my whole life’s work.” That work is a novel in the form of a play, a dramatization of St. Anthony’s tempestuous night in the desert. Michel Foucault called Flaubert’s phantasmagoric masterpiece “the book of books.”

Day 29: Monday April 3
Reading: Resuscitation of a Hanged Man by Denis Johnson
Johnson was once asked how he would “characterize the theological questions you ask about religion or to God in your work,” and responded in turn: “Ah, now — this is a question I’ve learned to run from, and it’s the chief reason I avoid giving interviews. If I’ve discussed these things in the past, I shouldn’t have. I’m not qualified. I don’t know who God is, or any of that. People concerned with those questions turn up in my stories, but I can’t explain why they do. Sometimes I wish they wouldn’t.” He owes the question to Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, a novel the main character of which fails at the action of the title, and then replaces despair with drugs and work as a radio DJ. Leonard English “didn’t kneel in prayer each night out of habit, but fell to his knees on rare occasions and in a darkness of dread, as if he were letting go of a branch. To his mind, God was a rushing river, God was an alligator, God was to be chosen over self-murder and over nothing else.” He prays to sleep with a woman he likes, but he doesn’t “pray anymore for faith, because he’d found that a growing certainty of the Presence was accompanied by a terrifying absence of any sign or feeling or manifestation of it. He was afraid that what he prayed to was nothing, only this limitless absence. I’ll grow until I’ve found you, and you won’t be there.”

Day 30: Tuesday April 4
Reading: “The Lord’s Day” by J.F. Powers
Although Powers won the National Book Award in 1963 for his novel Morte D’Urban, critic Denis Donoghue writes “I think Powers knew that his native breath was that of the short story.” Powers was the poet laureate of the Midwestern priesthood. His “priests are shown in the world, quarreling with their colleagues and pastors, grubbing for money, angling for promotion, playing golf, drinking beer, passing the time. If they have an intense spiritual life, we are not shown it…[and yet] no matter how commonplace or compromised the priest there is still are relation between him and the Christian vision he has acknowledged.” The daily life of a priest is not a sequence of miraculous highs and ecstatic visions. It is hard, slow work. A priest is a counselor, writer, politician. Powers capture this splendid service like no other writer. “The Lord’s Day” is the best introduction to his work, a slice of clerical domesticity. An unnamed priest has been stung twice by bees attracted to a mulberry tree near the rectory porch. Despite the pleading of a nun, he takes an axe to the tree. His body, “a fat vision in black,” is a contrast to the 12 women of the house, “the apostles” (“It was the kind of joke they could appreciate, but not to be carried too far, for then one of them must be Judas, which was not funny.”). Their shared home is not quite the picture of joy. The house is “sagging” and “daily surpassed itself in gloominess and was only too clean and crowded not to seem haunted.” The sisters sit around a table to count the collection from Mass. The parish has bills to pay. One nun says “Come on, you money-changers, dig in!” Another: “Money, money, money.” Powers smirks his way through his tales (my own experience with nuns is that they are the most hilarious and pious people I have ever met, their Baltimore Catechism shadows long since replaced with light). Not all the sisters find humor in this work; some wish Sundays were days of rest. It is a day of rest for the priest — he is off to a round of golf. The lead sister, “determined to make up for the afternoon, to show them that she knew, perhaps, what she was doing,” creates a ruse to hold-up the priest. She asks him to inspect the stove, which has been smoking. Annoyed, he says the problem is not the stove, but the only remaining mulberry tree, the one he’d spared. “If you want your stove to work properly, it’ll have to come down.” Rather than end the story with grace, Powers leaves the reader with the nun’s curt thanks. Frustrated, she leaves the priest, “only wanting to get upstairs and wash the money off her hands.”

Day 31: Wednesday April 5
Reading: “Annunciation Overheard from the Kitchen” by Mary Szybist
Szybist’s Marian poems appear in Incarnadine, which won the National Book Award. Szybist’s epigraph for the collection is from Simone Weil: “The mysteries of faith are degraded if they are made into an object of affirmation and negation, when in reality they should be an object of contemplation.” Szybist’s entire book is concerned with the Annunciation. As a young Catholic, Szybist “reached a point where I found myself unable to pray. I was devastated by it. I missed being able to say words in my head that I believed could be heard by a being, a consciousness outside me. That is when I turned to poetry.” In “Annunciation Overheard from the Kitchen,” the narrator is “washing the pears in cool water,” listening. This might not be the annunciation, but it is an annunciation. That leveling of experience is not meant to devalue the precedent — Szybist might be lapsed, but she is certainly not spiteful — but to rather raise the contemporary moment. The speaker more than simply listens, she is open to sound as “Windows around me everywhere half-open– / My skin alive with the pitch.”

Day 32: Thursday April 6
Reading: “Blessing the Animals” by R.A. Villanueva
Villanueva crafts quite the scene to begin this poem from his debut, Reliquaria: “In a parking lot beside the church, cleared / save for bales of hay and traffic horses,” are goats, llamas, border collies, and terriers. Someone “will garland parakeets with rosaries.” Cats are held like children as the priest crosses himself “beside the flagpole where I learned to pledge allegiance.” The narrator’s daily ritual is to fold the flag into triangles and bring it to the headmaster. Villanueva’s poems contain two planes: the devoted, lyric representations of faith and tradition, and the mischievous human impulse to break free. However responsible the narrator might be, he is still a young man who would dare a friend to “throw a bottle of Wite-Out” at the statue of Jesus in that same parking lot, who would taunt God one moment while kneeling to pray to him the next.

Day 33: Friday April 7
Reading: “Quid Pro Quo” by Paul Mariani
Mariani’s poem is set in an empty university classroom, where a colleague asks the narrator “what I thought now / of God’s ways toward man” after his wife’s miscarriage. The colleague merely expects a downward gaze, a smirk. Instead, the narrator raises his middle finger “up to heaven,” taunting God. Later, the narrator and his wife have a successful birth; it’s no small feat, this miracle, and the narrator is aware, leading to his wonder: “How does one bargain / with a God like this, who, quid pro quo, ups / the ante each time He answers one sign with another?”

Day 34: Saturday April 8
Reading: “The Road to Emmaus” by Spencer Reece
Reece, an Episcopal priest, has found inspiration in the “spiritual journey” of T.S. Eliot, often feeling “in conversation with him.” Although “The Road to Emmaus” alludes to a resurrection appearance of Christ, Reece’s verse, like so much poetry in the spirit of Lent, brings the ancient world to our seemingly mundane present. His first line, “The chair from Goodwill smelled of mildew,” sets the atmosphere for a conversation the narrator has with Sister Ann, a Franciscan nun. “Above her gray head, / a garish postcard of the Emmaus scene…askew in its golden drugstore frame.” Cleopas and an unnamed disciple, while speaking about the disappearance of Christ, are joined by the “resurrected Christ masquerading as a stranger.” The narrator of the poem has lost a love, and Sister Ann comforts him as he reflects on the past, including an AA meeting in a Lutheran church basement, when they “ate salads out of Tupperware,” but felt “like first-century Christians — /a strident, hidden throng, electrified by a message.” The poem moves in many directions, not least of all Sister Ann’s grace when she tells him “Listening…is a memorable form of love.”

Day 35: Monday April 10
Reading: “Gilding the Lily” by Lisa Ampleman
If we think of Lent as a season of re-naming, of reconsidering who we are and how we are, then Lisa Ampleman’s prose poem, “Gilding the Lily,” is a perfect representation of the season. “To keep anxiety at bay, my friend called chemo dragonfly love.” Ampleman’s poem is like a work of pastoral care; her narrator shows how we may weather grief and suffering by transforming them. Her friend “called nausea erotica. Just the same, we name our storms to lessen them — not a tropical cyclone, but Arabella, with ballet shoes and bun…Not hair loss, but deep conditioning.” The poem’s final line is terminal: “At the funeral I learned she was born Passalacqua: to cross the river, to pass a glass of water.” Our contemporary idea of the religious sense is hampered by the criticism that religion or belief feels like a whitewashing, or worse, an opiate. This is to misunderstand and neuter the power of faith. Poems like “Gilding the Lily” remind us that poems, like prayers, can be small salves. Sometimes they are enough.

Day 36: Tuesday April 11
Reading: “Saint Monica Wishes on the Wrong Star” by Mary Biddinger
Biddinger’s Saint Monica chapbook places St. Augustine’s pious mother in a Midwestern present. Young, modern Monica is imperfect. She fails. She even gives incorrect “details / outside the psychic’s booth at the fair.” Monica, like Walker Percy’s Binx Bolling, is transfixed by film. She has always wanted to be different, but “Who could blame / her, though? They lived in Michigan, / where nothing ever changed.” While working at a local pub, Monica wonders what would happen if she breaks a pint glass while washing it: “Would she have to wait for the flush / of blood, or would the transformation / be instantaneous?” Biddinger’s poetry makes any transfiguration seem possible.

Day 37: Wednesday April 12
The River” (pdf) by Flannery O’Connor
Although “Greenleaf” (pdf) has been considered her “Lent” story, O’Connor’s entire canon is fodder for the season. “The River” is the story of Harry Ashfield, a boy of “four or five” years, who spends the day with a sitter, Mrs. Connin. She is the prototypical O’Connor character: stern, judgmental, witty, and closer to God that anybody else she knows. She decides to take the boy to the river, where a preacher has been healing believers. The boy smirks his way through the story, and takes on the name of the preacher — Bevel — before the sitter learns his real name. She feels it is her Christian duty to right the wrongs of his upbringing. O’Connor tells the story filtered through his voice, and his day with Mrs. Connin is illuminating: “He had found out already this morning that he had been made by a carpenter named Jesus Christ. Before he had thought it had been a doctor named Sladewall, a fat man with a yellow mustache who gave him shots and thought his name was Herbert.” Later, Mrs. Connin presents Harry to the preacher for baptism in the river, and also says “He wants you to pray for his mamma. She’s sick.” The preacher asks the boy for explanation, and it is simple: “She hasn’t got up yet…She has a hangover.” O’Connor’s next line — “The air was so quiet he could hear the broken pieces of the sun knocking the water” — captures the atmosphere of her fiction. O’Connor’s Catholic sense was a skeptical sense. Her skepticism can easily be misread as cynicism. The boy is baptized, but, like so many of O’Connor’s stories, “The River” ends on a solemn note. Yet that is not why she is appropriate to Lent. O’Connor belongs to this season because she offers no easy paths toward God. In fact, those who think they know the route — who might even deny it from others in word or deed — are due the severest rebuke.

Day 38: Thursday April 13
Reading: The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
If there ever were a writer willing to dine with “tax collectors and sinners,” it was Greene. If I ever get too sentimental about faith, reading Greene keeps me in check. He was the first to admit he was no saint (he would probably admit to being the antithesis), but novels like The Power and the Glory capture the tension between belief and sin. Greene’s novel plays it serious, but his essays and letters about his conversion are predictably wry. He once received useful advice from a Father Trollope: “See the danger of going too far. Be very careful. Keep well within your depth.” Greene’s novel about an atheist lieutenant chasing a “whiskey priest” across Mexico is part thriller, part theological treatise, all Lenten document. Take off work on Holy Thursday, get this book, and read it cover to cover.

Day 39: Friday April 14
Reading: “Today is Friday” by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway claimed to receive “extreme unction” from a priest while on an Italian battlefield in July 1918. A decade later, he would claim to be a “very dumb Catholic,” and planned to not speak about his Catholic conversion because he knew “the importance of setting an example.” Matthew Nickel, one of the few critics to resurrect Hemingway’s found faith, explains what while Hemingway was not publically “comfortable being known as a Catholic writer,” he was no nominal believer, having “performed the rituals of Catholicism for forty years: attending Mass, eating fish on Fridays, having Masses said for friends and family, donating thousands of dollars to the churches in Key West and Idaho, celebrating saints days, and visiting and revisiting important pilgrimage sites and cathedrals.” The Old Man and the Sea, The Sun Also Rises, and “Hills like White Elephants” hit loud and soft religious notes, but “Today is Friday” has always unsettled me in a particularly Lenten fashion. Only hours after Christ is crucified, three Romans soldiers are drinking at a bar with a “Hebrew wine-seller” named George. Add Hemingway’s oddly contemporary speech (“Lootenant”), and “Today is Friday” is an odd play. Two soldiers banter about the wine while one feels sick; his pain is “Jesus Christ.” The first soldier says “He didn’t want to come down off the cross. That’s not his play.” The second soldier wonders “What became of his gang?” The first soldier, who “slip[ed] the old spear into him…because it “was the least I could do,” says Christ’s disciples “faded out. Just the women stuck by him.” “Today is Friday” sounds like how Hemingway would have explained the Passion while seated at a bar. The uncomfortably comedic play ends with a sting. The soldiers leave the bar and the third, uneasy soldier speaks truth: “I feel like hell tonight.”

Day 40: Saturday April 15
“Christ’s Elbows” by Brian Doyle
Novelist, essayist, and poet Doyle is the literary antidote to cynicism. I’ve never seen a writer so good be so positive, and do so without lapsing into sentimentality. Doyle’s Mink River is a gem of a novel, but his shorter pieces make for effective reflection. His essay “Joyas Voladores” is a personal favorite, and “What do poems do?” shows how Doyle turns every narrative moment into an opportunity for revelation and epiphany. The narrator visits a kindergarten, where children ask ridiculous questions before arriving at the eternal query of the poem’s title. Doyle delivers, starting with the observation that poems “swirl / Leaves along sidewalks suddenly when there is no wind.” The next 10 lines are the best appreciation I’ve ever seen of the power of poetry. Doyle’s poem should be required reading for all teachers. “Christ’s Elbows,” an essay from his collection Leaping: Revelations & Epiphanies, is the perfect end to a season of change. Doyle asks us to think about the physicality of Christ, a man who died at his physical peak. He admits that scriptural “accounts of [Christ’s] body in action are few and far between,” so Doyle wants us to act on faith, imagining a young man serving as a carpenter’s apprentice or running in fields. Doyle wonders: “Did his hand swallow the hand of the girl he raised from the dead?” Christ, an itinerant preacher, likely had a form much like a marathon runner. Doyle considers the one moment — other than as he hung on the cross — when Christ’s physicality was in full view: “when he lets himself go and flings over the first moneychanger’s table in the temple at Jerusalem.” Like a good priest, Doyle pauses his discussion, and says “think of the man for a second, not the eternal Son of Light.” Think of a man charged and ready. A man who, after the drama of the moment, “would resume the life and work that rivet us to this day.” A life and work that “upends our world, over and over.” The glory and the grace of tomorrow will come soon enough, but for now, Doyle suggests, “Perhaps the chaos of our plans is the shadow of his smile.”

Image Credit: Flickr/echiner1

Doing Laundry with Marcel Proust

I used Leap Day to catch up on my Marcel Proust reading. And my laundry. Now, it’s March, I’m doing laundry again, and I’m finally caught up and well into Volume II. I was keeping a good pace with Volume I until mid-February, when my son had a week off from nursery school. During that same week, my husband was traveling in Australia. So it was just me and a three-and-a-half-year-old and a bad Skype connection for six days. I planned activities and playdates but foolishly did not schedule a babysitter. Also, it didn’t occur to me that it would be summer in Australia, and that when I dialed up my husband for an end-of-the-day chat, it would be morning where he was, and that he would be wearing sunglasses, a short-sleeved shirt, and a helpless grin.

On the second-to-last day of winter break I was so exhausted that I went to bed at eight, shortly after my son fell asleep. I slept deeply, waking up the next morning with the sense that I was in my childhood bedroom — that feeling Proust describes so well in the opening pages of Volume I. I closed my eyes and held onto the illusion, wondering if I noticed and identified the feeling because I had been reading Proust or if the feeling itself had arisen from reading Proust. And then my son called for me to make his breakfast and the sensation of being in my old bedroom vanished.

At that time, I was still reading Volume I, finishing up the last pages of the third section, “Swann in Love.” I was only managing a few pages a day, which was maybe an apt way to finish “Swann in Love,” with the slow pace of my reading mimicking the protracted period in which poor Swann, tormented by jealousy, can’t get enough time or attention from his lover, Odette. The worst part is, even when he’s with her, he can’t enjoy her company. And then, one morning, after a strange dream, his love dissipates and he famously wonders how he could have spent years of his life pining “for a woman who did not please me, who was not my type!”

This is probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve read “Swann in Love,” because even though I haven’t finished Proust’s novel, I’ve returned to “Swann in Love” several times and read it as if it were a stand-alone novella. When I first read it, I was most struck by Proust’s insights about romantic relationships, specifically, the role that memory plays in shaping our idea of a person, and how those memories create a narrative of “falling in love.” We use memories of shared experiences to build a story for our love and then we live in that story, inhabiting it so completely that we no longer see it as a fiction. Falling in love means abandoning an objective point of view for a subjective (some might say delusional) one. Somehow Proust manages to dramatize this change in perception in Swann’s story, making it feel epic and emblematic.

Over the years, I’ve approached “Swann in Love” from an apprentice fiction writer’s perspective, wondering how on earth did he do it? In earlier readings, I’ve thought the genius of the narration had everything to do with Proust’s prose style — his beautiful sentences and insights, his similes, his sense of humor. Now I think what matters most is the distance from which Marcel tells the story. Finding the right narrative distance is a problem I’ve been tackling in my own fiction, so maybe this is just projection on my part, but as I reread “Swann in Love,” this time, I kept thinking about the fact that Marcel introduces the story of Swann’s love affair with Odette as one that happened before he was even born. It’s a story he’s telling secondhand, “with the precision of detail which it is easier, sometimes, to obtain about the lives of people who have been dead for centuries than about the lives of our most intimate friends.”

Marcel never says who told him the story of Swann’s love affair, though there are occasional references to Marcel’s grandfather, who was friends with Swann’s father, and has a somewhat paternal and disapproving view of the younger Swann. We also meet Swann in the Combray sections of Volume I. He first appears as the visitor whose unexpected appearance disturbs Marcel’s bedtime routine, preventing Marcel from receiving a kiss from his mother. In this way, Swann is a father figure of sorts. But most of the time, Swann is like the fun, bachelor uncle whose unpredictable visits and dilettantish, social existence is in contrast to the staid routines of Marcel’s traditional, middle-class family. Swann fascinates the young Marcel, even more so after his “unfortunate marriage” to Odette, the coquette who is not even “his type.” But the younger Marcel of the Combray years doesn’t know her as Odette, he doesn’t know her “type,” and he has not yet heard the story of Swann’s tortured early years with her. All young Marcel knows is that his parents do not approve of the woman Swann has married.

To tell a story well, you need the right combination objectivity and intimacy. It’s important that Marcel’s fascination with Swann begins in childhood. Marcel will always have a memory of Swann that is visceral and associated with his family and his childhood home; he will always feel that he knows Swann in a deep way. That’s where the intimacy comes in. The objectivity comes into play as Marcel begins to wonder about Swann and the world he inhabits — a world that Marcel’s parents conceal or else know very little about. Looking back on my own childhood, the most interesting stories were the ones that my parents only told in part. I would have to piece the untold parts together like a reporter, using logic, deduction, and my own observations to make sense of what little I knew — as young Marcel does with Swann. Marcel’s questions about Swann’s life and his love affairs are essential questions of childhood: what is love, what is sexual desire, what is society, what is class, what, in short, are these mysterious forces that are shaping life but which no one alludes to directly?

A couple of months ago, I saw the movie, Brooklyn, based on Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name and was struck by how well it translated to film. It’s not an especially dramatic story. It follows Eilis, an ordinary Irish girl who immigrates to Brooklyn in the 1950s and has to decide who she will marry and where she will live. Her choices are not very surprising or bold. And yet, in both the book and the movie, Eilis comes across as a brave heroine. Her ordinary life seems larger than life. Even with the period details, there was something slightly out-of-time about the story; it was almost like a fairy tale. Some critics objected to the tone, wishing for something more gritty and realistic, but I don’t think it would have had the same emotional depth without it — the same mix of intimacy and objectivity. In an interview with Tóibín, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the story was from his childhood, one he heard secondhand at an emotional moment in his life:

My father died when I was 12. We were living in a small town in the southeast of Ireland. An old woman came to our house to pay her condolences. She told a story about her daughter, who had left Ireland to live in Brooklyn. She never said “America” or “New York.” She always said “Brooklyn.” Like it was a country all by itself. The way she talked about her daughter’s experiences there — working in a big department store on Fulton Street, marrying an Italian boy — there was something magical about it. I knew even then that one day I would tell that story.

Flannery O’Connor famously said that anyone who has survived childhood has more than enough material to write fiction. When I first heard that quote, secondhand and out of context, I assumed she was referring to the trauma of adolescence, and that it was her way of saying, “if you can’t get a story from that transformation, you probably won’t get a story from anything.” That’s part of what she’s saying, but having read the quote in context, her main point seems to be that it’s not life experience that makes you a good writer; it’s your contemplation of whatever experience life gives you. More than any writer I know, Proust shows how the half-stories we hear in childhood, the people we meet, the histories and landscapes we absorb, can be excavated in adulthood, with an adult’s sympathetic imagination.

Is Experience Overrated? One Writer’s Checkered Résumé

After two years of college I dropped out because it was a waste of time and money. Since boyhood I had known I wanted to be a writer — a real writer, a novelist — and after 14 years inside classrooms I’d come to the conclusion that I needed to get out into the world and start harvesting the stuff novels are made of, a substance so vital and valuable that it became the title of a memoir by the great Martin Amis. I’m talking about experience.

By the time I left college I had worked any number of jobs, which are a form of experience in that they send us into the world and force us to figure out how to survive there. Beginning at an early age, I had delivered newspapers, caddied, worked as a bar boy, a dishwasher, a busboy, a bartender. But now I believed I needed something more daring, something more artistically remunerative. The way to have something worth writing about, I reasoned, was to have adventures. This meant two things: plunging into unfamiliar worlds and traveling.

I wasn’t the first aspiring writer to come to this conclusion. Surely Ernest Hemingway couldn’t have written his stories and novels if he hadn’t fished the rivers of northern Michigan, seen combat in the First World War, lived and loved in Paris, hunted big game in Africa, watched the running of the bulls in Pamplona, and battled marlins off the coast of Cuba. Hemingway’s fiction lives on the page because it’s grounded in physical worlds he knew intimately and was able to describe with spare beauty. Other writers I admired had pursued lives of action, from Herman Melville to Jack London, Joseph Conrad, and even Henry Miller, though his adventures were decidedly more seedy than swashbuckling.

Given all this, I was delighted to land a job as a farmhand in Vermont a week after dropping out of college. The place was a sort of nursery for broken-down thoroughbred racehorses from nearby Green Mountain Park, the last stop for many of these nags before they were turned into dog chow or glue. The huge, jittery horses terrified me, but I found I loved the manual labor — baling hay, digging post holes, cleaning stalls, putting a roof on a barn — and above all I was thrilled to be accepted into a raffish blue-collar crew that consisted of a ham-faced Vermont farmer, a hard-drinking cowboy with a broken leg, a petty-criminal greaser who had his eye on the foreman’s hottie teenage daughter, and a gifted old black trainer who nowadays would be called a horse whisperer. I knew I wouldn’t have met any of these people if I had stayed in school.

When the racing season ended I pocketed my $500 life savings and drove my wheezing ’54 Chevy pickup cross-country, then proceeded to work a string of odd jobs up and down the West Coast, in kitchens and vineyards, dairy farms and orchards. At night I worked on my apprentice novel — a murder story set on a Vermont racehorse farm. I threw the manuscript out, of course, but the experience wasn’t a waste. It taught me how far I had to go before I would be able to consider myself a beginner, and it led me to ask myself if I wanted to spend the rest of my life working minimum-wage jobs to support my writing. The answer was no.

It was at about this time that I discovered a remarkable non-fiction book by the short story master Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, which stunned me with this insight: “The fact is that anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot. The writer’s business is to contemplate experience, not be merged in it.”

This turned my world upside down. If I wanted to become a novelist, according to no less an authority than Flannery O’Connor, I didn’t need to wander the world harvesting experiences. I needed to figure out a way to get paid to contemplate experience and then write about it. The best way to do that, I guessed, would be to get a job as a newspaper reporter and serve my apprenticeship in the typhoon of a daily paper’s city room. My father had done this. So had Mark Twain, Hemingway, Ring Lardner, Tom Wolfe, and countless others. But this was the aftermath of Watergate, and I knew it would be impossible to land a coveted reporter’s job without a college degree. So I sold my ’54 pickup, took a bus back across the country, and returned to college to finish my final two years.

It ended up working out — eventually. After graduation I spent five months knocking on doors at newspapers until I got my first break, a cub reporter’s job on a Gannett daily in a Pennsylvania tank town, starting pay $140 a week. I was, just barely, a professional writer. More newspaper jobs followed, as a reporter and columnist at bigger papers. I kept writing fiction on the side, sometimes giving up the steady newspaper paycheck to travel and work as a magazine freelancer, a New York City bicycle messenger, a construction worker, a Nashville disc jockey. Once, when particularly hard up, I even worked as an “actor” in a porn movie. As justification for this dubious career move, I turned to Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer:
Then one day I fell in with a photographer; he was making a collection of the slimy joints of Paris for some degenerate in Munich.He wanted to know if I would pose for him with my pants down, and in other ways. I thought of those skinny little runts, who look like bellhops and messenger boys, that one sees on pornographic post cards in little bookshop windows occasionally, the mysterious phantoms who inhabit the Rue de la Lune and other malodorous quarters of the city. I didn’t like very much the idea of advertising my physiog in the company of these élite. But, since I was assured that the photographs were for a strictly private collection, and since it was destined for Munich, I gave my consent. When you’re not in your home town you can permit yourself little liberties, particularly for such a worthy motive as earning your daily bread.
My apprenticeship wound up lasting a lot longer than I’d expected: after my college graduation, 16 years passed before I finally published my first novel. When a second followed, I quit my last full-time newspaper job and supported my fiction writing with freelance assignments from anyone willing to pay me — daily newspapers, glossy magazines, college alumni magazines, this and other websites, the rich friends of a rich dead man in need of an upbeat obituary. It has been almost 20 years since I saw my last steady paycheck, and in that time I learned that no writer can afford to be choosy when it comes to earning his daily bread.

In those years I also published a third novel and finished several that haven’t found a buyer. Writing hasn’t made me rich or famous, but I’m still alive, I’m still paying the rent every month, and I’m still writing every day, which is the thing I most love to do.

My big mistakes, I now realize, were to equate adventure with experience and to believe that the writer’s job is to be merged in experience. There’s nothing wrong with adventure, for writers or anyone else, but as Flannery O’Connor taught me, it’s unnecessary for a writer. She rarely left her home in Milledgeville, Ga., and Marcel Proust rarely left his bedroom. They understood that the writer’s business is to contemplate experience, and, just as important, to realize that all experience, no matter how seemingly trivial, can be put to use. The experience of spending a day alone in a jail cell would hardly qualify as an adventure, for instance, but it’s an experience that could make for a rich short story or novel, in the hands of the right writer. The point is that action and adventure — harpooning a whale, say, or getting cut down by shrapnel — are not impediments to writing, but they aren’t prerequisites either.

And then there is what Martin Amis called “main-event experience” in his memoir Experience, the ones that put us through the emotional meat grinder. I have experienced my share of these, including the death of both parents, a sibling locked in a fight with addiction, lost friendships and loves. These are not uncommon experiences but they’re powerful, and they’re definitely worth contemplating, for writers and everybody else. The reverberations of main-event experience are the gold mine.

There’s also nothing wrong with including the experience of work in fiction. The wheat-threshing scene in Anna Karenina comes immediately to mind, as do the gorgeous horrors the poet Philip Levine found inside the Detroit auto factories where he worked as a young man. But as I look back at my checkered résumé, I see that the only job that directly fed my published fiction was my time as a bar boy in a suburban Detroit country club during the summer of 1968, a year after the city was ravaged by a vicious race riot. My experience of working amid rich, white auto executives and black waiters from the inner city made its way into my third novel, Motor City Burning. That’s not much of a return on an investment of so many years. All writing is in a sense autobiographical, but the point is that unless you’re writing baldly autobiographical fiction à la Henry Miller or Proust or Karl Ove Knausgaard — which I am not — you will probably not profit much from your work experience. Your job is to contemplate all of your experience, then set loose the dogs of your imagination.

Come to think of it, I wish my résumé wasn’t nearly as long as it is. Given how little I’ve been able to use my work experience in my fiction, I’ve come to see all those thousands of hours of working to pay the rent as time that could have been more profitably spent writing, or reading, or contemplating my experience. But few writers are born rich, and few people who are born rich become writers, so I realize I don’t have any right to lament my middle-class fate. It’s hardly unusual, and it could be so much worse.

All I can do, all any writer can do, is figure out a way to get someone to pay me to write. And keep contemplating my experience. And keep writing about it, every day.

Image Credit: Flickr/Kevan.

You Must Read Kevin Barry

1.
When I wrote an over-the-moon review of Kevin Barry’s debut novel, City of Bohane, here last year, I thought I was letting readers in on a well-kept secret.  I thought wrong. The book got acres of good reviews on both sides of the Atlantic – along with a growing army of devoted readers – and it went on to win the IMPAC Dublin Award, one of the world’s richest literary prizes, besting such brand-name authors as Michel Houellebecq and Haruki Murakami.

Now Barry is back with a new collection of stories called Dark Lies the Island, his second. It shares the virtues that made Bohane such an astonishment – prose that rollicks and judders and constantly delights; a keen ear for the spoken language of Barry’s native western Ireland; and above all, at least in the very best stories, a way of lassoing moments of mystery that have the power to transform the lives of Barry’s characters, a motley Irish medley of disturbed young women, devious old spinsters, blocked poets, thugs, boozers, exiles, and tortured civil servants. There is rich music, high humor, and deep blackness on every page.

I believe this collection of 13 stories can be divided into two roughly equal halves. Half of them are not so much fully formed stories as sketches, riffs, slices of life. If this sets them in a minor key, they are nonetheless uniformly compelling. In “Across the Rooftops,” for instance, two young people fail to connect with a first kiss. End of story. In “Wistful England,” a lovelorn Irishman lives in misery in East London with a bunch of alcoholic ruffians until, one boozy night, his old lover reappears, then promptly vanishes. End of story. In “The Mainland Campaign,” an I.R.A. bomber plants a bomb in a guitar case in a London bookstall, then boards a bus with a blonde German girl. End of story.

Doesn’t sound like much, but there are fully lived lives in all of these sketches, and the writing is a seamless marvel. Here’s an Irish heat wave: “It was dogs-dying-in-parked-cars weather.” Here’s the wave of Americans washing up in Berlin in 2005: “Daily, the gauche and Conversed hordes priced out of San Francisco and Brooklyn were arriving, with their positivity, their excellent teeth, and their MFAs. They could be spotted a mile off in the clubs – their clothes were wrong, their hair was appalling and their dancing was just terrible.” (I was boots-on-the-ground in Berlin at the time and, trust me, this nails it.) And here’s the description of an ornament in a van carrying two brothers, Patrick and Tee-J Mullaney, back into their fated, inescapable life of crime: “Mr. McGurk was a plastic leprechaun attached to the dashboard on a spring and he bobbed along comically as the Hitachi sped. How he had ended up being called Mr. McGurk neither of them could remember. Both brothers would do Mr. McGurk’s voice but Tee-J did it brilliant. He did Mr. McGurk as a cranky old farmer who was always giving out. Mr. McGurk was six inches of green plastic but entirely alive. He was made alive by their love for each other.”

And here is an exchange between the title characters of “Ernestine and Kit,” two charming maiden-aunt types who roam the Irish countryside looking for children to snatch. Of course they don’t see themselves as kidnappers or monsters; they’re guardian angels saving children from horrible parents and worse lives. Here’s the chilling way they rationalize their behavior:
“Would they be hair extensions?” Kit wondered as they passed a young blonde pushing a pram along the roadside verge.
“You can bet on it,” Ernestine said.  “The way they’re streaked with that silvery-looking, kind of…”
“Cheap-looking,” Kit said.
“Yes.”
“Gaudy!”
“A young mother,” Ernestine said.
“Got up like a tuppenny whore,” Kit said.
“The skirt’s barely down past her modesty, are you watching?”
“I am watching. And that horrible, horrible stonewash denim!”
“Where would the whore be headed for, Kit?”
Kit consulted the road map.
“Lechaun is the next place along,” she said.  “Only a stretch up the road from here. Her ladyship is headed into a pub, no doubt.”
“Drinking cider with fellas with earrings and tattoos,” Ernestine said.
“In by a pool table. In a dank old back room. Dank!”
“You can only imagine,” said Kit, and she made the sign of the cross.
“A jukebox and beer barrels and cocaine in the toilets. The misfortunate infant left to its own devices.”
There is no way for this sketch to end other than badly. Deep blackness, indeed.

2.
Then there are the fully formed stories, half a dozen small masterpieces. In “Wifey Redux,” a civil servant whose perfect marriage is fading finds himself fretting that his sexy teenage daughter is about to relive the tragic arc of her mother’s life. The story opens with this gem: “This is the story of a happy marriage but before you throw up and turn the page let me say that it will end with my faced pressed hard into the cold metal of the Volvo’s bonnet, my hands cuffed behind my back, and my rights droned into my ear – this will occur in the car park of a big-box retail unit on the Naas Road in Dublin.” A whole world in a single sentence.

Later, the fretful father describers the type of boy his daughter tends to fall for: “The usual type – so far as it had been established – was black-clad, pale-skinned, basically depressed-looking, given to eyeliner and guitar cases, Columbine types, sniper material, little runts in duster coasts, addicted to their antihistamine inhalers, self-harmers, yadda-yadda, but basically innocent.”

Such music never stops coming, much like that gorgeous oily black river that flowed through Barry’s fictional city of Bohane.

In “Wifey Redux” and the other top-flight stories of this collection – “Fjord of Killary,” “Beer Trip to Llandudno,” “Doctor Sot,” “Dark Lies the Island,” and “Berlin Arkonaplatz – My Lesbian Summer” – the lead characters experience something that might be called an epiphany, a moment when the deep mystery of life touches them in surprising and unexpected ways and changes the course of their lives.

Flannery O’Connor, a practicing Roman Catholic, chose to see these critical moments, these epiphanies, through a religious lens. In her non-fiction book Mystery and Manners, O’Connor groped for an understanding of such moments and their importance to fiction:
I often ask myself what makes a story work, and what makes it hold up as a story, and I have decided that it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies. This would have to be an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that is both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity. The action or gesture I’m talking about would have to be on the anagogical level, that is, the level which has to do with the Divine life and our participation in it. It would be a gesture that transcended any neat allegory that might have been intended or any pat moral categories a reader could make. It would be a gesture which somehow made contact with mystery.
O’Connor was discussing her short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” in which an escaped convict and his two sidekicks slaughter a family after they wreck their car. The last to die is the Grandmother, who makes the critical gesture. As O’Connor wrote:
There is a point in this story when such a gesture occurs. The Grandmother is at last alone, facing the Misfit. Her head clears for an instant and she realizes, even in her limited way, that she is responsible for the man before her and joined to him by ties of kinship which have their roots deep in the mystery she has merely been prattling on about so far. And at this point, she does the right thing, she makes the right gesture.
The climactic scene of the story goes like this:
She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, “Why, you’re one of my babies! You’re one of my own children!” She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them.
Things do not turn out well for the grandmother, obviously, yet her gesture was not futile.  It not only gave us a classic short story, but it planted something in the Misfit’s heart. As O’Connor put it in Mystery and Manners:
I think myself that if I took out this gesture and what she says with it, I would have no story… I prefer to think that, however unlikely this may seem, the old lady’s gesture, like the mustard-seed, will grow to be a great crow-filled tree in the Misfit’s heart, and will be enough of a pain to him there to turn him into the prophet he was meant to become. But that’s another story.
I have no idea if Barry is a practicing Catholic like O’Connor, an agnostic, an atheist, or a Hindu. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that he has absorbed O’Connor’s lessons and used them in his own way to magnificent advantage. Here is the booziferous title character of “Doctor Sot,” who visits a colony of itinerant Rastafarians on the edge of town to give medical advice, then proceeds to get drunk with them and wreck his car, winding up stranded for the night under a blanket with a beautiful young woman:
But after a time her eyes did close. Doctor Sot slid a hand from beneath the blanket and lightly, very lightly, he laid it against her face. He felt the tiny fires that burned there beneath her skin. Her lashes were unspeakably lovely as they lay closed over her light sleep. If Doctor Sot could draw into his palm these tiny fires and place them with his own, he happily would.
Doctor Sot’s gesture – placing his hand on the young woman’s face and feeling the tiny fires that burn there – is enough to reacquaint him with the mystery and magic of life.  It is, in a word, his salvation. Take such moments religiously, or don’t. Either way, you must read this impossibly gifted, unspeakably lovely Irish writer named Kevin Barry.

No More Model Airplanes: Essential Writing about Writing

In his essay,  “How to Write in 700 Easy Lessons: The Case Against Writing Manuals,” Richard Bausch protests the proliferation of instructional books about writing, and laments all those wanna-be authors who, rather than read novels or short stories, seek out books on how to write their own.  He asserts, and rightly, “The trouble of course is that a good book is not something you can put together like a model airplane. It does not lend itself to that kind of instruction.”

I never read how-to books on writing until I was faced with the prospect of teaching writing; before then, I simply read, period.  The writers I loved (and even the writers I hated) taught me, indirectly, about writing.  In a class of beginning writers, the ones with the strongest sense of storytelling and character, and with a grasp for prose that is vibrant and surprising, are often the ones who read voraciously, widely, and deeply.  A good reader isn’t necessarily a good writer, but a good writer must be a good reader.

In the past few years, though, I have sought out some books and essays on craft and technique.  I’ve found that some of these texts are useful for articulating the intuitive; it’s when I’m having trouble with my work–or, more likely, wrestling with my manuscript in revision–that explicit instruction has led me out of whatever hole I’ve dug myself into. I haven’t read the kinds of how-to manuals Bausch rejects; I prefer the books that deal with “the aesthetics of task,” as he puts it.  I’ve read and enjoyed–and, sometimes, enjoyed disagreeing with–such books.  I’ve also enjoyed, in preparing a lesson for an introductory course, going back to the basics.  It reminds me of taking a ballet class for non-dancers; as someone who studied ballet for years (never seriously, mind you), the painstaking review of the plié can be illuminating. After all, it’s the step that allows the dancer to do everything else.  One just has to remember that learning to plié spectacularly won’t make one a spectacular dancer–or even a dancer.   There’s technique, but there’s also passion, soul, grace, daring.

There are a few books on writing that I’ve not only been useful for teaching, but also inspiring and instructional to me personally.  They  have me thinking deeply not only as a writer, but as a reader, too; perhaps that’s the difference between such texts and the ones Bausch rejects.  Aside from the usual suspects–The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, for instance, or Mysteries and Manners by Flannery O’Connor–here are some of my favorite books on craft:

How Fiction Works by James Wood provides an excellent explication and appreciation of the free indirect style, or, as I prefer to call it, the close third person.  The third person is the trickiest of points of view, in my opinion, for it can vacillate wildly in terms of distance from the character(s); Wood’s way of describing a close relationship between narrator and character makes this one approach to point of view easy to understand without stripping it of its complexity.  I also love the short chapter breaks–often only a couple of sentences long.  They’re pleasurable to read.

Now Write!, edited by Sherry Ellis, isn’t a book on craft at all, but, rather, an anthology of writing exercises from writers like Dan Chaon, Alexander Chee, and Jayne Anne Phillips, among many others.  I use this book all the time when assigning shorter pieces to my students.  I’ve also recommended it to students who want to keep up a regular practice of writing without the pressure of working on a longer, self-designed project.  A couple exercises a week–from “Why I Stole It” by Robert Anthony Siegel, to “The Photograph” by Jill McCorkle–will hone anyone’s powers of imagination and description.  I’ve done these exercises along with my students, and they remind me that writing without a final product in mind can open new avenues, and introduce me to characters and story lines I heretofore might not have entertained.  This kind of writing feels as fun as reading.

Lately, I’ve been obsessed with The Art of series, edited by Charles Baxter and published by Graywolf Press.  In each slim volume, a notable writer examines one element of writing from a craft perspective.  Baxter’s own volume, The Art of Subtext, explores plot and scene without reducing them to formula, without turning fictional characters into pawns on a chessboard. He manages to discuss character desire and motivation in a way that doesn’t make me think of overly-simplistic screenwriting rules.  My class had a great time discussing Baxter’s analysis of the great J.F. Powers story “The Valiant Woman,” which introduced many in the room to an oft-overlooked writer.

I’ve recently been re-reading Joan Silber’s The Art of Time, discussed on this site by J.C. Sirott.  One of the things I love about writing fiction is how I can play with time, compress it and expand it, and I love analyzing these approaches with my students.  Is there nothing sexier than starting a paragraph with, “Five years passed”?  Is there nothing juicier than  crouching into a dramatic moment between two characters?  Silber’s discussion of “selected concreteness” in The Great Gatsby is sharp, as is her examination of Anton Chekhov’s “The Darling.” Again, the reader in me delights, asks me to look again, and look more closely.

Lately, I’ve been reading the series’ books on poetry.  A couple of weeks ago I assigned Mark Doty’s The Art of Description; what Doty says about poems and their capacities can be applied to fiction:

What descriptions–good ones, anyway–actually describe then is the consciousness, the mind, playing over the world of matter, finding there a glass various and lustrous enough to reflect back the complexities of the self that’s doing the looking

If that’s not a new and beautiful way to articulate perspective and point of view, I don’t know what is.

I’ve also found a few essays on writing online, which I’ve taught with great results:

Zadie Smith’s “Fail Better,” an essay on voice and what it means to write well, informed my reading of Emma Donoghue’s Room (and my subsequent review). I find myself coming back to it, both in my own work, and in my teaching.  The essay asks: What is voice and truth?  What does it take to write well?  How can one refine one’s consciousness?

William Boyd’s “Brief Encounters” is a succinct overview of the short story from the perspective of one of its best contemporary practitioners.  I like his distinction between a event-plot story and the Chekhovian one.

Elizabeth Bowen’s “Notes on Writing a Novel” is full of strong opinions, none of them supported with examples (She writes: “What about the idea that the function of action is to express the characters? This is wrong. The characters are there to provide the action.”).  The piece is a series of declarations about the novel, and some of them wow me, some confuse me, and some leave me cold.  Whatever the declaration, though, I admire Bowen’s confidence, and there are some nuggets of real genius here:  “Nothing can happen nowhere” (when she’s discussing scene), and (regarding dialogue): “Speech is what characters do to each other.”

Now, I’d like to know–teachers, students, writers and readers–what are your favorite books on writing?

Does School Kill Writing?

In 1936 the University of Iowa became the first school in the United States to offer a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in creative writing.  Forty years later there were only a dozen such programs in the world.  Today, according to an article in the current issue of Poets & Writers magazine entitled “The MFA Revolution,” there are nearly 200 creative writing MFA programs worldwide, and at least 4,000 aspiring writers apply to these programs each year in the U.S. alone.  “What is clear,” the article concludes, “is that the burgeoning network of fully funded MFA programs is rapidly becoming the nation’s largest-ever patronage system for young artists.”

Whenever the words “patronage” and “artists” appear in the same sentence, questions must be asked.  Is this mass patronage system a boon for American fiction, or is it a poison pill?  Do creative writing programs nurture genuine talent, or are they spawning a torrent of technically accomplished books that are devoid of felt life?  And more broadly: Just what good does schooling of any kind do for a writer?

In The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl points out the “seemingly banal” fact that virtually all contemporary American fiction writers have attended college.  “In previous generations this would not likely have been the case,” McGurl writes, “both because fewer individuals of any kind went to college before the postwar advent of mass higher education and because a college education was not yet perceived as an obvious…starting point for a career as a novelist.  Rather, as the un-credentialled, or rather press-credentialled, example of the high school graduate Hemingway makes clear, the key supplementary institution for the novel until mid-century was journalism.”

In a dazzling essay in the London Review of Books called “Get A Real Degree,” the brainiac Elif Batuman deftly fillets McGurl’s claim.  “According to the internet,” she writes, “writers have, in fact, been going to college for hundreds of years.”  In a footnote she lists dozens of writers, from Balzac to Joyce to Graham Greene, and the universities they attended.  She concludes: “I have been able to find only a handful of famous novelists who, like Hemingway, avoided university in favour of journalism.”  She names Defoe, Dickens and Twain.  (The deftness of this filleting job is greatly enhanced by “according to the internet” – sly shorthand for “as any high school sophomore with a laptop could have found out.”)

Batuman, a Harvard grad with a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Stanford, argues persuasively that the problem is not that virtually all American fiction writers go to college and that growing numbers of them then go on to grad school; the problem is that they study the wrong things.  She comes down squarely in favor of writers studying literature as opposed to studying how to make fiction.  After conceding that the creative writing program is equally incapable of ruining a good writer or transforming a bad one, she asks: “Why can’t the programme be better than it is?  Why can’t it teach writers about history and the world, and not just about adverbs and themselves?”

One result of the creative writing boom, according to McGurl, is that MFA grads are producing “more excellent fiction…than anyone has time to read.”  Which, according to Batuman, is precisely the problem: “That’s the torture of walking into a bookshop these days: it’s not that you think the books will all be terrible; it’s that you know they’ll all have a certain degree of competent workmanship, that most will have about three genuinely beautiful or interesting sentences and no really bad ones, that many will have at least one convincing, well-observed character, and that nearly all will be bound up in a story that you can’t bring yourself to care about.  All that great writing, trapped in mediocre books!  Who, indeed, has time to read them?”

McGurl’s spurious claim about the place of college and journalism in writers’ lives brought back my own experience as a young man trying to figure out a way to reconcile my urge to write with the need to make a living.  As it turned out, college and journalism figured largely in the solution.

I went directly from high school to Brown University in the fall of 1970 because that was what was expected of me, the grandson of a distinguished professor and son of a college graduate who became a newspaperman and then a successful Detroit auto executive in the post-war boom years when all Detroit auto executives were successful and almost always sent their children to college.  I knew even then that I wanted to be a writer – a real writer, a novelist – and so in my freshman year I was thrilled to win a coveted spot in a course called “Writing Fiction” taught by the late R.V. Cassill, who had just published a fat bawdy novel about the Profumo scandal called Dr. Cobb’s Game. The things I remember most vividly about Cassill are that he wore a beret, he chain-smoked Gauloise cigarettes, and he tried to seduce my girlfriend.  I guess he was part French.

His weekly classes – now they’re called “workshops” – were torture, a dozen bright sensitive kids sitting around a room tearing apart each other’s stories and egos.  In the requisite end-of-semester written summary of my performance and prospects, Cassill needed all of eight words to cut my heart out: “Mr. Morris works hard but possesses limited talent.”  I haven’t set foot in a creative writing classroom since.

Cassill’s evisceration did have one positive result.  It made me realize that since college couldn’t teach me how to write, I would have to teach myself.  I would have to keep reading copiously, of course, but I would also have to live, to gather “experience” I could write about.  I was still under the spell of the worst advice anyone ever gave an aspiring writer: Write what you know.

So I dropped out and took off, traveling cross-country and working jobs as a farmhand, racehorse groom, dishwasher and fruit picker while writing an apprentice novel that achieved the one thing such exercises can be asked to achieve: it gave me the courage to keep writing.  In time, my resume would grow to include jobs as a bartender, New York City bicycle messenger, telemarketer, porn actor and Nashville disc jockey.  Always I was writing on the side, only rarely about my personal experiences.

It wasn’t until many years later that I came to understand that “experience” was beside the point.  It was Flannery O’Connor who set me wise.  “The fact is that anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days,” she wrote in a collection of essays called Mystery and Manners.  “If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t make it out of a lot.  The writer’s business is to contemplate experience, not to be merged in it.”

One hot dusty day I found myself high up in an apple tree in Sonoma County, California.  As I twisted a fat green Gravenstein apple off a branch and laid it gently in my canvas shoulder bag – “Treat ’em like eggs,” was the foreman’s mantra – a voice whispered to me: Do you really want to do this kind of shit work for the rest of your life? I knew the answer.  No, I wanted to be a writer, which meant I needed to find a way to get paid to write while continuing my apprenticeship as a novelist.  I needed to get a newspaper job.  Which meant I needed to get a college degree.

So after a two-year hiatus I went back to school, where I studied whatever interested me – geology, drawing, French novels, Russian history, Italian neo-realist movies, anything but creative writing.  I also put together an independent-study project – I spent my senior year researching the history of the city of Providence and writing a book-length monograph.  With an eye toward life after graduation, I published a handful of articles in the student newspaper.  School wasn’t my death as a writer, it was my birth; and it would not have happened without the guidance and support of inspiring teachers, access to magnificent libraries, and every student’s most precious gift, free time.

When I finally graduated, Nixon had recently flown away in disgrace to San Clemente and every swinging dick in the land ached to be the next Woodward and/or Bernstein.  It was a buyer’s market and I was selling untested goods.  I spent nine months roaming up and down the Eastern seaboard, from the Adirondacks to Savannah, pounding on doors at podunk newspapers and listening to one editor after another tell me: “Come back when you’ve got some experience.”  It was all I could do not to shout at them: “How the fuck am I supposed to get any experience if nobody’ll give me a job?!”  Finally the publisher at a small Gannett daily in a Pennsylvania backwater gave me a shot – a job covering local school boards for $140 a week, and don’t even think about asking for overtime pay.  Of course I jumped at it.

I’m convinced I would not have gotten even that dismal job offer if I hadn’t possessed a college degree.  I still recall the job interview, the way the publisher’s eyes got big as dimes when I told him I had a bachelor’s degree in English from an Ivy League school.  The days of Defoe, Dickens, Twain and Hemingway were long gone by then.  A college degree was a bare-bones requirement for even the lowliest cub reporter’s job, and in retrospect I can’t say that that turned out to be an altogether bad thing.  Newspaper writing flourished from the 1960s until the Internet caused newspaper executives to commit mass hari-kari beginning in the 1990s.  (For a hilarious gloss on this unpretty group suicide, I refer you to Jess Walter’s novel The Financial Lives of Poets.)  I worked on daily newspapers off and on from 1976 until 1996, and I became so convinced I was part of a golden age that I deluded myself into believing it was destined to last forever.  But even during those golden years – or, rather, that long twilight – there were gruff, unsettling voices of dissent.

One of the loudest belonged to Lewis Grizzard, a booze-marinated Atlanta columnist who made a fortune writing best-selling comedy books that trafficked in the author’s cracker upbringing and his disdain for anything that smelled of sophistication, including college graduates, feminists, Yankees and anyone who could write grammatical sentences of more than eight words.  A typical Grizzard book title was Chili Dawgs Always Bark at Night.

Grizzard had a lucrative side career as a lecturer and stand-up comic, and I remember being sent to cover one of his performances at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.  This would have been in the early 1990s, when Grizzard’s fame was at its peak, shortly before the booze and a faulty heart ganged up to kill him at the age of 47.  That night in Durham, inevitably, he got off on the topic of how newspapers had gone to hell.  Why, reporters wrote on whispering machines called computers instead of on clattering manual typewriters!  Newsroom floors were spongy carpet instead of creaky hardwood!  The green eyeshades and spittoons were gone – and, by implication, so were the pints of sour mash in bottom drawers!  To top it off, newsrooms were crawling with college boys – and, sweet baby Jesus, college girls! (Grizzard’s spiel conveniently omitted the fact that he held a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia.)  “When I walk into the average newsroom today,” he moaned, “I don’t know whether to write a column or ask if I can take out a loan.”  Of course the audience lapped it up like corn liquor.

Grizzard was not alone in lamenting the passing of romance from the newspaper business, the death of the supposed good old days of “The Front Page” and “Get me rewrite, sweetheart!”  What the nostalgists failed to realize – or admit – was that most American newspapers before the mid-1960s were dreadful, full of factual errors, dry writing and dreary layouts.  Those computers and college educations Grizzard despised so much helped produce the best written, best edited and most visually attractive newspapers in the history of American journalism – not to mention the flowering of magazine writing, non-fiction books and the uneasy but fruitful marriage of fiction and journalism by the likes of Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Marshall Frady, Gay Talese and many others.  Computers and college educations didn’t kill the American newspaper; on-line car ads and real-estate listings and classifieds did, with a generous assist from newspaper executives who were pie-eyed drunk on years of artificially fat profits.

Furthermore, those newsroom Hemingways with their high school diplomas and their hip flasks were, for the most part, hacks.  I know this, second-hand, because my father worked on newspapers in the 1940s and ’50s and he told me stories.  The exception who proved the rule, according to my father, was a colleague at the Washington Post in the early 1950s.  His name was Al Lewis and he was a legendary police reporter – even though he was barely able to write English prose.  He and my father collaborated on a series of articles about a D.C. racketeer that nearly won a Pulitzer Prize.  That is, Lewis did the legwork and my father, a fine writer and lightning fast typist, did the writing.  Lewis’s street smarts wouldn’t have amounted to much without a college boy like my father to distill his raw knowledge into readable prose.  It was Al Lewis, incidentally, who broke the story about a break-in at the Watergate complex in the early hours of June 17, 1972.

So I’m dubious when people fret that school is killing writing – that college boys ruined newspapers and the growing horde of creative writing MFAs is ruining American fiction today.  Flannery O’Connor graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and spent some time at the Yaddo artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and neither experience bleached the color, the humor, the horror – the felt life – from her fiction.  Sometime in the early 1960s she wrote: “Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think universities stifle writers.  My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.  There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher…  In the last twenty years the colleges have been emphasizing creative writing to such an extent that you almost feel that any idiot with a nickel’s worth of talent can emerge from a writing class able to write a competent story.  In fact, so many people can now write competent stories that the short story as a medium is in danger of dying of competence.  We want competence, but competence by itself is deadly.  What is needed is the vision to go with it, and you do not get this from a writing class.”

Elif Batuman adds in her essay: “In technical terms, pretty much any MFA grad leaves Stendahl in the dust.  On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read.”

As if to prove their point, last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review carried a review of a slim new novel called All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang.  It’s a story, according to the review, of the paths followed by “two budding poets” who come together at “a prestigious unnamed writing school in the Midwest.”  Chang, the reviewer notes, is a 1993 graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been its director since 2006; she has received fellowships from Stanford, Princeton and Radcliffe; and her new novel poses “provocative” questions: “What is the relationship between talent and craft, genius and mediocrity?  Can writing be taught?  Does anyone ever improve?  Yet the central characters in All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost are neither mad enough, wise enough nor even, so it seems, well-read enough, to dare answer them.”

It’s bad enough that Chang has written about a cloistered world she knows too well.  It’s worse that her story is one that you almost certainly can’t bring yourself to care about.  What’s worst of all by far, though, is that her characters are not even well-read enough to answer a bunch of inane questions.  Apparently they’ve been too busy at their prestigious writing school studying adverbs and themselves.

Like Elif Batuman, I’ll pass.  School can’t kill writing.  But who, indeed, has time to read such books?

I Heart Chekhov; Better Than Booze or Smokes

Let us turn now to three faults far graver than mere clumsiness – not faults of technique but faults of soul: sentimentality, frigidity, and mannerism […]
Mannered writing, then – like sentimentality and frigidity – arises out of flawed character.  In critical circles it is considered bad form to make connections between literary faults and bad character, but for the writing teacher such connections are impossible to miss, hence impossible to ignore […] To help the writer […] the teacher must enable the writer to see – partly by showing him how the fiction betrays his distorted vision (as fiction, closely scrutinized, always will) – that his personal character is wanting.

-John Gardner, from The Art of Fiction
1.
John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction has been a standard in writing classes for decades.  Along with Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners (“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers.  My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them,” she wrote), I think of The Art of Fiction as the masochist’s craft book. In Gardner’s text, you’ll find no warm fuzzies or self-helpy exhortations to discover your inner artist (as in Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within or Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way), or to keep at it, no matter how shitty your drafts (as in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird).  Gardner treats the writer’s vocation with strict gravity; the path is both narrow and demanding, poseurs be warned and beware.

Thus, one reads Gardner for a trenchant kick in the ass; or, perhaps, when one has been working wretchedly at writing for some time and is ripe for someone to put him out of his misery: Not everyone is a writer, Gardner (and O’Connor, too) might say (to the horror of writing programs across the country who want your tuition dollars). Why not try your hand at water colors?

As both a student and teacher of writing, the above passages from The Art of Fiction have stopped me in my tracks.  Faults of soul?  Show the writer that his personal character is wanting?  Imagine if book reviewers, as common practice, heeded Gardner’s entreaty.  We’d see reviews that looked something like this (italics represent text from The Art of Fiction):
Jack Scribbler’s description of the protagonist Billy in his moment of crisis shows Scribbler’s essential frigidity; that is, clearly, Scribbler is less concerned about Billy than any decent human being observing the situation would naturally be.  Scribbler’s essential indecency is the problem here; it is clear that he lacks the nobility of spirit that enables a real writer to enter deeply into the feelings of imaginary characters.  In a word, Scribbler is cold-hearted and turns away from real feeling, he knows no more of love, beauty, or sorrow than one might learn from a Hallmark card.
Or, like this:
It is clear that Jill Hack, in repeatedly intruding herself into the narrative with stylistic tics that do not serve the subject matter, is primarily focused on proving herself different from all other authors; apparently, she feels more strongly about her own personality and ideas than she feels about any of her characters or all the rest of humanity.

In other words, reviews would be pointedly personal; what is wrong with the writing equated with what is wrong with the author.  What would it mean if we all began drawing such short, direct lines from the work to the person?  Likely we’d see an increase in reviewer-writer rows — online a la Alice Hoffman, or at Graydon Carter’s Waverly Inn – and many of us, helpless to survive such sharp knives to our souls, might give up the literary ghost earlier rather than later in our careers.

2.
But what if we flip the supposition and consider the converse: if bad writing “arises out of flawed character,” it would follow then that the wellspring of good writing is good character (to be clear: good character – as in the cultivation/manifestation of the writer’s humanity – not good characters, which is, of course, another way of going at it).  For aspiring writers, there will always be matters of craft and style; but how many of us, writers and teachers alike, imagine focusing our development as writers on personal character?   And what, at any rate, would that look like?

Well… it would look like Chekhov.

3.
A new film adaptation of Chekhov’s 1891 novella The Duel, from award-winning director Dover Kosashvili, recently opened at Film Forum in New York City and has me thinking about all the ways in which Chekhov is studied, admired, referenced, emulated, and, yes, adapted.  Chekhov in fact rivals Shakespeare in the most-frequently-adapted-for-the-screen category.

Given how readers typically respond to screen versions of their most beloved books, it may not be surprising that the film left me wanting – to reread Chekhov’s exquisite novella, that is (which, subsequently, I did). It’s a fine film – well-acted, near-perfectly cast, shot beautifully to capture both the open landscape and confined domestic settings of a Caucasus seaside town (Manohla Dargis of the New York Times described the film as “very satisfying and tonally precise”) – but the project of condensing and dramatizing a Chekhov story may be a bit like trying to see figurative shapes in a Rothko painting: some things – works of art which approach perfection, in particular – simply are what they are.

4.
Praising Chekhov, I realize, is a little like rooting for the Yankees (or Duke; or Roger Federer).  Writers across the aesthetic spectrum, from Nabokov (“Exact and rich characterization is attained by careful selection and careful distribution of minute but striking features”) to Cornel West (“If I have to choose between Chekhov and most hip-hop, I’ll go with Chekhov”) to Flannery O’Connor (“Chekhov makes everything work – the air, the light, the cold, the dirt”) to Tennessee Williams (“Chekhov!  Chekhov!  Chekhov!”) laud the good doctor as unmatched in the short story form.  Writing teachers and books on fiction craft invariably herd students to the altar of Chekhov – “Read Chekhov, read the stories straight through,” Francine Prose urges, in a chapter devoted to Chekhov in Reading Like a Writer. I am aware of just one literary giant who bucked the crowd: “Chekhov wrote about 6 good stories,” wrote Hemingway.  “But he was an amateur writer.”

Yet it’s difficult, and arguably fatal, to teach Chekhov’s “style.” “Chekhovian” is in fact no compliment, it implies a near-replica, which, in the case of Chekhov, is worse than no replica at all.  As Annie Proulx notes, in a Chekhov story, “everything seems chaos and only a little is revealed or resolved. But enough is revealed and resolved to give shape and form to the story.  I do not like the pseudo-Chekhovian trailing away.”  Eudora Welty described Chekhov’s stories in this way:
The revolution brought about by the gentle Chekhov to the short story was in every sense not destructive but constructive.  By removing the formal plot he did not leave the story structureless, he endowed it with another kind of structure – one which embodied the principle of growth […] in each and every story, short or long, it was a structure open to human meaning and answerable to that meaning.  It took form from within.
But what to do with such abstract analysis? “Open to human meaning and answerable to that meaning” sounds right, and profound; trying to emulate (or adapt) something which takes “form from within” is another matter.

5.
The quietude of Chekhov’s talent contributes, perhaps, to the whiff of backlash one sometimes detects in the air; a dubiousness of the emperor-has-no-clothes variety. Somerset Maugham wrote:
[Chekhov’s characters] are not lit by the hard light of common day but suffused in a mysterious grayness.  They move in this as though they were disembodied spirits.  It is their souls that you seem to see… You have the feeling of a vast, gray, lost throng wandering aimless in some dim underworld;
and Virginia Woolf wrote
We have to cast about in order to discover where the emphasis in these strange stories rightly comes… The soul is ill; the soul is cured; the soul is not cured.
I understand both Maugham and Woolf to be enthusiasts of this mysteriousness, this strangeness; and yet, given their assessments, it is perhaps understandable if a contemporary reader of Chekhov finds his stories boring, shapeless, lacking in dramatic movement, unsatisfying — even if, lacking Hemingway’s balls, said reader feels sheepish saying so in the company of the literary set.

In “The Husband,” a man and his wife dislike and misunderstand each other; both are miserable, they grow only more impermeable, yet each seems to reach for something – empathy, intoxication, or something ultimately unnameable.  In “The Two Volodyas,” a young woman married to an older man has a fickle and restless heart and falls into adultery, only to find herself as restless as before, albeit more acutely intimate with her own “shabby,” fretful soul.  In “The Black Monk,” an overwrought young scholar retires to a country estate and begins to grapple with madness – or the light of genius, we don’t know which – the normalization of which, for the sake of his fiancée, results in a life of mediocrity, and death in isolation.   In “The Lady With a Pet Dog,” a vain married man flirts with an unhappily married woman; an affair ensues, grows tiresome, but then rekindles, and the two find themselves strangely, unexpectedly devoted to each other despite the hopelessness of their situation.  And in “The Kiss,” a shy, undistinguished army officer is the beneficiary of an aristocrat’s daughter’s mistake — she kisses him in the dark, thinking he is the other half of her secret tryst — and a euphoria fills his imagination as he fantasizes a continuation of the intrigue; only to realize bitterly that the incident was a non-sequitur and that no such consummation will ever come to pass.

Why, then, do these stories of anti-climax, of unconsummated longing, of isolation and impenetrability, inspire me so?  And how might they make me both a better person and, following our line of argument here, a better writer?

6.
I read Chekhov repeatedly, in marathon sessions, story after story, for consolation and for a kind of cleansing out of both personal and writerly bullshit. I go to him not exactly for writing instruction, so much as to enlarge my writer’s vision; which is to say to deepen my capacity to see and feel more honestly (Chekhov is “all eyes and heart,” Ted Solotaroff wrote). Chekhov teaches me to sit still and steady, companionate with all of life’s unseemly warts, unexpected beauty, sadness and futility; and to settle in with all of it — my creeping perfectionism, self-importance, and fidgety A.D.D. be damned.  I go to Chekhov, frankly, when I am anxious or depressed.  His stories invariably unlock and loosen a stuckness in my spirit — maybe like what nicotine or alcohol has done for writers throughout the ages – and nourish me in a way that helps me both to keep writing, and to keep living.

What we learn best from Chekhov is, then, this writer’s character – in Gardner’s words, “nobility of spirit,” and “decency”; in Solotaroff’s, “all eyes and heart” — without which we cannot possibly tell the stories which must be told, in a way that, as Annie Dillard’s writes, “seizes our lives, and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered […] press[ing] upon our minds the deepest mysteries.”  In reading Chekhov we begin to develop a profound underground system of roots that feeds the life and growth above. His stories burst our bubbles, yes, by flouting the climax-and-resolution paradigm; but they also pull back the veil on how much untruth we generally wallow in, and how petty fears, vanity, and self-delusion breed (tragically and often unnecessarily) all manner of soul sickness – not to mention frigidity, sentimentalism, and mannerism in our writing.

Perhaps most importantly — most skillfully — Chekhov does all this with gentleness and humor.  Reading his stories keeps us honest, and humble, but somehow also light-hearted.  (It was perhaps that tender touch of silliness – Laevsky’s rather hilarious, panicky ennui – and Chekhov’s loving characterization of Nadya as hungry for life, not merely vain – “all of it, together with the heat and the transparent, caressing waves, stirred her and whispered to her that she must live, live…” — which I missed most in Kosashvili’s adaptation.) To my mind, nowhere is there a more direct line between man and work – in the positive sense, as opposed to Gardner’s negative sense — than in the case of Chekhov.  In other words, to write like Chekhov, one must be like Chekhov — see what Chekhov sees, feel as Chekhov feels, love as Chekhov loves – which is to say recognize and embrace life as it is, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health — which he helps us to do by writing stories that have, as Avrahm Yarmolinksy put it, “the impact of direct experience.”

“To be an artist means never to avert your eyes,” the Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa said.  With his keen yet gentle gaze, Chekhov reminds us that to be a human being means the same.  And with perhaps a more compelling, living argument (i.e. his body of work) than the austere Gardner, Chekhov challenges us to consider which comes first, the artist or the man.

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