The Ballad of the Sad Cafe: and Other Stories

New Price: $11.99
Used Price: $1.25

Mentioned in:

What We Teach When We Teach Writers: On the Quantifiable and the Uncertain

I.
Thirty-six. This is the number of books I will have read, or re-read, in 2010, by the end of October. I keep a “Reading List” page on my website, and the other day, I found myself counting up my 2010 reading. I also found myself dividing 36 by 43, which is the number of weeks between January 1 and Oct 31. It comes out to .84. This is my rate of reading. In 2010, I have read .84 books per week.

Once upon a time I was good at math. If memory serves me right, I think I may have even gotten the highest score possible on a Calculus Advanced Placement exam. I wonder how different my life would be if I had become, say, an engineer; or an economist; or a CFO.

II.
But I am none of those things. I am a writer. I also teach fiction writing. A few weeks ago, partially in response to Elif Batuman’s essay in the London Review of Books, “Get A Real Degree,” Bill Morris wrote a piece here called, “Does School Kill Writing?” Morris wrote: “School wasn’t my death as a writer, it was my birth… 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.”

One of the comments on Morris’s post came from Millions staff writer Emily St. John Mandel:
I would be curious to read a piece on this subject someday from the POV of someone who actually teaches in one of these programs, someone who can talk about whether these programs are capable of transformation, or merely refinement […] whether they’re taking already-accomplished writers and just polishing them a little, or whether these programs can take merely capable writers and make them great. I think it would be an interesting perspective.
III.
“I think the single most defining characteristic of a writer,”  I found myself saying to a friend the other day, when she asked my thoughts on the teaching of writing, “I mean the difference between a writer and someone who ‘wants to be a writer,’ is a high tolerance for uncertainty.”

IV.
Last week, I attended a “lecture on craft” given by Jennifer Egan for Columbia MFA students. After her talk, in which she mentioned that she is an “unconscious writer”—meaning that her first drafts, written by hand on legal pads in nearly-illegible handwriting, are wholly unthinking in regards to craft (it’s in revision that she shapes and carves away and applies conscious craft-thinking)—a student raised her hand and asked what sorts of goals she sets, given said unconsciousness. “Five pages,” she said. “Every day I aim for five pages. It doesn’t matter how much time I spend. I’m after the pages.” I saw a number of students scribbling in their notebooks. I thought I heard a collective exhale of relief. Five pages. Something concrete, something quantifiable. Especially after Egan had also mentioned that she never thinks about point-of-view (the voice of a character or narrator always “just comes to me, fully formed”) and that she has no idea where her prescience re: technological anthropology  (evident in both A Visit From the Good Squad and Look at Me) came from, since she herself is “lame” and “behind the curve” as a technology user.

V.
When you teach writing, you have to have a sort of world-view about it, or else you’ll go a little nutty. Here’s mine: at a certain level, there is pretty-good writing (“capable,” in Emily’s words), there is really-good writing, and there is great writing. Most of us will move among these categories throughout our lives; we’ll aim for greatness and more often than not land somewhere along the way. If you are earnest in this endeavor, if you understand that your pretty-good writing can and must always be getting better, then I can’t see why I, as a teacher, shouldn’t encourage and help you along as best I can.

The truth is that your pretty-good writing may very well get published and make you famous; it’s happened before. Your great writing may never see the light of day. Your really-good writing may get published and be read by very few. You may write something great this time around and something pretty-good next time around and something not-very-good-at-all a few years down the road and never get published at all. It’s happened before. (Read this, and this, if you don’t believe me.) I don’t decide these things. I’m only here to help you write better, because I think it’s important and worthwhile.

As readers, each of us will necessarily put different books into each of these categories, and we may even change our minds about certain books over time.  So I never give my students the once-over and think that only those who comprise the top two categories can or should be encouraged. There are many paths to a writing life; those paths twist and turn and are haunted by the cruelties of subjectivity, along with the inevitably erratic application of our gifts. I can forgive anyone’s so-called mediocrity, mine included, as long as the writer herself is not satisfied with it.

VI.
A writer friend of mine used to always report to me his short story in-progress word counts. I found this funny and endearing. When I was about halfway through a novel draft, I started tracking my word counts and reporting them on my blog. It wasn’t funny to me, though, and probably not endearing to anyone else; I needed markers, a sense of how far I’d come and how far I thought I had to go. I was in the wilderness on this draft. Around the same time, another novelist friend started reporting his word counts on Facebook. I commented on one of his word-count posts: “Let’s make it en vogue to track and report word counts!” He replied, “Yes!”

VII.
Some anecdotes from the lives/careers of some authors I’ve read just this past month, which remind me of the uncertainty of the writing life:

From the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of Tolstoy’s stories: “Of the eleven stories in this collection, only four were published in Tolstoy’s lifetime.” Hadji Murad, Father Sergius, The Devil, and Alyosha the Pot are among the stories published only posthumously. (Hadji Murad!)

Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was published to wide acclaim when she was 23. She received two Guggenheim awards. Throughout her 20’s she suffered many illnesses and was paralyzed on her entire left side at the age of 31, shortly before she attempted suicide. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe was adapted into a play by Edward Albee (while she was alive), and later into a Merchant Ivory film (long after her death).

While writing his luminous novel Light Years, James Salter wrote to Robert Phelps:
I love this book. I’m writing it for myself and an audience composed of me’s […] It’s going to have many beautiful jumps, sauts, perhaps it will be a ballet […] Some things I love in it I love as one loves a woman.
The book received mixed reviews – two bad ones in the NY Times – and sold modestly.

Junot Diaz wrote, regarding the process of writing his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Life of Oscar Wao, five years into it:
I started becoming convinced that I had written all I had to write […] that maybe it was time, for the sake of my mental health, for me to move on to another profession, and if the inspiration struck again some time in the future… well, great. But I knew I couldn’t go on much more the way I was going. I just couldn’t […] My fiancée was so desperate to see me happy (and perhaps more than a little convinced by my fear that maybe the thread had run out on my talent) that she told me to make a list of what else I could do besides writing […] It took a month to pencil down three things. (I really don’t have many other skills.) I stared at that list for about another month. Waiting, hoping, praying for the book, for my writing, for my talent to catch fire. A last-second reprieve. But nada. So I put the manuscript away. All the hundreds of failed pages, boxed and hidden in a closet. I think I cried as I did it.
VIII.
The thing I feel that I cannot exactly teach, but can only hope to model and emphasize to student writers, is this tolerance for uncertainty; for a life that is indeed characterized by uncertainty. As when you learn to drive a stick shift, there is a kind of “friction zone,” where your inner imperative to write and your tolerance for uncertainty cross each other, and the energy balance of that intersection either sets you off into motion, or you stall. I have seen many talented would-be writers stall (especially on steep inclines). Some find their way to restarting (as, of course, Diaz did); others give up for good, they trade in for an automatic.

As a teacher, I try to exemplify and nurture a deep love of reading and of sentence-and-story-making—one’s only stay against doubt and the feeling of non-existence that will inevitably creep in. I try to give student writers enough “gas” to help them manage and master the friction zone, so that they come to know that feeling of ignition, of takeoff, both bumpy and smooth, and develop a liking for it, an abiding passion, even an addiction. When I sit down with a student and suggest that reading this book or that author may help him understand how to better execute a half-baked story idea, and that student eagerly seeks out those works, and keeps asking for more, I feel hopeful about that student’s future as a writer. On the other hand, when a student looks at me blankly and doesn’t even write down the suggestions—doesn’t seem to want to be nourished by literature and get better, but rather simply wants me to praise her originality as is—then I feel I can see the writing (trailing off) on the wall.

IX.
It’s hard to write well. But it may be even harder to simply keep writing; which, by the way, is the only way to write better. In the meantime, aim for five pages. Report your word counts. Track your rate of reading. Teach math on the side if you have to. Whatever you need to do.

Hang in there.

Image: Riforma della scuola via Funky64’s photostream

My Favorites’ Favorites

1.
Many of my favorite books – Dracula, The Rings of Saturn, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – came to me as assigned reading.  Even more than specific titles, I inherited my favorite authors from professors: Nicholson Baker, Harryette Mullen, Turgenev, George Saunders.

This literary bestowal carries on into adulthood as I seek my favorite authors’ favorite authors. At HTMLGIANT, Blake Butler started a broad compendium of David Foster Wallace’s favorite works, encompassing books he blurbed, books assigned on his syllabus, books mentioned in interviews and in passing. It is a nourishing list, a place to turn when I think about what I should read next.

But my road with the recommendations of my favorite authors has been unpaved and rocky.

I devoured U and I, Nicholson Baker’s endearing, humorous volume on John Updike. I loved that he read the copyright page of each Updike book, tracing where essays or excerpts had been previously published. U and I is about Updike, yes, but it is more about Baker wrestling with Updike’s impact on a personal level. Early in the book he lays it out: “I was not writing an obituary or a traditional critical study, I was trying to record how one increasingly famous writer and his books, read and unread, really functioned in the fifteen or so years of my life since I had first become aware of his existence…”

Because the book is about Baker not about Updike, I found it easy to like. Baker recounts the 125th anniversary party for The Atlantic where Tim O’Brien tells him that he and Updike golf together: “I was of course very hurt that out of all the youngish writers in the Boston area, Updike had chosen Tim O’Brien and not me as his golfing partner. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t written a book that had won a National Book Award, hadn’t written a book of any kind, and didn’t know how to golf.”

And so, under Baker’s tutelage, I read John Updike. More accurately, I tried to read Updike, tried and tried. Rabbit, Run. Pigeon Feathers. The Poorhouse Fair. I didn’t finish any of them, I barely started them. I would have scoured Couples for the passage where Updike compares a vagina to a ballet slipper – which Baker mentions – if I could have gotten through the second chapter.

After quoting his own mother and Nabokov, Baker tells me, “There is no aphoristic consensus to deflect and distort the trembly idiosyncratic paths each of us may trace in the wake of the route that the idea of Updike takes through our consciousness.”  Updike is not an idea that is tracing its way – neither trembling nor idiosyncratic – through my consciousness. There is no Updike boat leaving a wake in the waves of my mind like a yacht leaving Cape Cod for the Vineyard.

Rather than accept that Baker and I – being of different eras and different genders – have different taste, I concluded that I must be intellectually and creatively deficient; I am a bad reader. I was disappointed in myself for disappointing the Nicholson Baker in my mind, shaking his bearded head, tut-tutting at me: Poor girl, she’ll never understand.

A few months ago I picked up The Anthologist and started it, in the midst of other selections.  (When the book came out last September, I actually drove twenty miles to Marin to see Baker read. I was the youngest member of the audience by thirty years. But I am afraid to buy a book at a reading, and petrified of the prospect of having an author sign the book. I could make a fool of myself as Baker did when asking Updike to sign a book in the early 80s.)

Then a couple weeks ago I received a mass email from a writer I know about how he was reading The Anthologist, and I felt the urge to pick it up again. He even said, “I’m really loving The Anthologist.”

I haven’t read everything by Baker, but I’ve read a bunch and enjoyed it on my own; yet, his authoritative praise weighs more than my own evaluation.

2.
Recently in Maine in a used bookstore (that was also the bookseller’s refurbished garage), I stumbled on three of Carson McCullers’ books for $1 each.  (In case you are wondering, and you should be wondering, I was not close to Nicholson Baker’s home in Maine, but further up the coast near E.B. White’s former home, near the county fair where Fern bought Wilbur.) The cover of the tattered McCullers paperback proclaimed “One of the finest writers of our time” from The New York Times. I couldn’t recall exactly where I’d heard her name, but it was vaguely familiar. I bought all three.

I started The Ballad of the Sad Café and she drew me into her vivid, textured Southern world. Her descriptions are precise ideas: “The hearts of small children are delicate organs.  A cruel beginning in this world can twist them into curious shapes.”

She commands the reader and directs me what to do: “See the hunchback marching in Miss Amelia’s footsteps when on a red winter morning they set out for the pinewoods to hunt… See them working on her properties… So compose from such flashes an image of these years as a whole. And for a moment let it rest.” This second-person imperative jumped out of the smooth, poetic narrative, but it fit like a nest on a tree. McCullers is unafraid to acknowledge you and make you do what she thinks you should. Yet she maintains authorial distance and control by refraining from the first person while directing your attention like a gentle guide: “Now some explanation is due for all this behavior,” she opens an aside on the nature of love. She then elides authority by saying, “It has been mentioned before that Miss Amelia was once married.”

Even before I’d finished the novella, though, I dug around online to verify my delight. Didn’t I read somewhere that David Foster Wallace liked her? Did I remember a retrospective on her in the TLS? No, I didn’t, I was mistaken. Try as I may, the highest compliment I found was from Graham Greene who said, “Miss McCullers and perhaps Mr. Faulkner are the only writers since the death of D. H. Lawrence with an original poetic sensibility.” Now, don’t get me wrong. Graham Greene is fine, but I didn’t even finish The End of the Affair, and he is nowhere near my top ten. From whom did I inherit McCullers?

My Internet searching revealed some critical acclaim (in the Modern Library Revue column on The Millions, for one) and she is mentioned in the same breath as Saul Bellow, Flannery O’Connor, W.H. Auden, and Tennessee Williams, each time with a different, equally flattering comparison.

But I was disappointed. In myself? In McCullers? In other authors who did not love her as I am growing to?

I suppose if I can find an author and grow to love them outside of a direct inheritance, maybe, too, I could reject select elements of my more obvious literary heritage. Hesitantly, I have begun to dismiss other favorites’ favorites. When a former student of his published David Foster Wallace’s syllabus, I promptly downloaded the PDF. As I read the list, I was very self-assured: I’d been meaning to read Waiting for the Barbarians!  I loved the Flannery O’Connor story he assigned (“A Good Man is Hard to Find”). He boldly included young contemporary writers like Aimee Bender and Sam Lipsyte. But Silence of the Lambs. Really? I would not follow him there. Maybe I am only disadvantaging myself. Silence of the Lambs may be the literary masterwork that could forever change my outlook on literature and fiction, just like Updike was supposed to.

Where I formerly swallowed recommendations whole, I now cull through them – not exactly on my own but in a more independent fashion. I find books, I do not just receive them. Or, I try to.

I am not a bad reader nor am I intellectually and creatively deficient, or, if I am, it is not because I do not like John Updike but for entirely different reasons.

A Year in Reading: Brian Morton

Brian Morton’s novels include Starting Out in the Evening and Breakable You.A few things I loved this year:Carson McCullers, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. Her humor can remind you of Ring Lardner; her fondness for Southern grotesques can remind you of Flannery O’Connor; and her mordant reflections on the difficulty of love can remind you of Proust – but really, there was nobody like her, ever. More than fifty years old, this short novel is the liveliest thing I’ve read in years. If the world of MFA programs moved O’Connor off the pedestal and replaced her with McCullers, it would be a good thing for the future of American literature.It might seem superfluous to add another word of praise for Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, except that it’s impossible to praise her enough for how well she listens. Who else, for example, pays such close attention to the way we never, ever finish our sentences? “‘Man, why you gotta be all…I just ahks a question, that’s all, and you gotta be all…’ Here Levi provided an inconclusive mime that gave no idea of the missing word.”Fade to Blonde, by Max Phillips, is a brilliant homage to (and parody of) the noir tradition. Raymond Chandler said something to the effect that his Philip Marlowe novels were primarily experiments with language; you could say something similar about Fade To Blonde. I’ve never met Philips, but, having heard a rumor that he’s not writing anymore, I want to address him directly: You are a fantastic writer, man! Keep going!More from A Year in Reading 2007

Surprise Me!

BROWSE BY AUTHOR