“Quaint they were, these records, strange and ancient, washed to shore when the Moderan seas finally unthawed.”
So begins David R. Bunch’s first book, Moderan, which appeared as a paperback original from Avon in 1971. It was to be his only book released by a large publisher during his lifetime, and it was never reprinted in the U.S. until now, when New York Review of Books Classics has brought out a new (and expanded) edition for the first time.
New-metal man! It does have a ring. MODERAN! It did seem pretty great in concept, I’m sure, and, who knows, perhaps it had a reasonable chance for success. But all societies, all civilizations, all aspirations it seems must fail the unremitting tugs of shroudy time, finally, leaving only little bones, fossils, a shoe turned to stone maybe, a bone button in the sea perhaps, a jeweled memento of an old old love.
Moderan collects dozens of brief stories set in a future world apparently destroyed by nuclear bombs, a world where the landscape has been entirely paved over with plastic and the surviving humans have transformed themselves into cyborgs, their bodies mostly replaced with metal, leaving only a few flesh-strips as evidence of their old form. The men with the most metal become warriors whose identity is merged with the Stronghold that houses them, and the pleasure and glory of Moderan is the warring of its Strongholds. (Most of the stories in Moderan focus on Stronghold 10, the best at warring.)
The new-metal men hunker down in their Strongholds and wage war against each other. War is the most exciting thing in everyone’s lives, the way to prove strength and superiority: a force that gives meaning. “Plotting for each the other’s total destruction and coming up with countermeasures to protect each his own new-metal hide at all costs are the kinds of human enterprises that put the human animal up close to godliness.” War lets the Strongholds forget everything but the war, because “amidst the stern havoc, the hard contest demands and all the real problems of carnage, there was not time for either doubt, ghosts, or fears.” War is action, and action allows something almost like joy. “I guess I’m happiest,” Stronghold 10 says, “when I’m in my War Room handing the big orange switch of war to ON and pressing the buttons of launchers. Or, to put it another way, I’m not unhappy or worried or asking questions then—and I’ll settle for that.”
Bunch’s language is unique, sometimes reminiscent of E.E. Cummings, sometimes of Kurt Vonnegut, sometimes of folktales and sacred texts, sometimes of advertising and propaganda. With a breathless tone and many words set in blustery ALL CAPS, the stories present a diction appropriate to the hyperbolic masculinity of Moderan, a world that values only macho strength and aggression. Before their body parts were replaced with metal, Stronghold 10 tells us, humans were weak and vulnerable, susceptible at any moment to injury or death. No more. “I am a Stronghold master, BIG, in the armor plate of total invulnerability. My ammo is stacked in heaps roundabout, and I can win ANY war. My blasters stand itchy on the GO pad, ready, at the speed of a metal thought, to launch for TOTAL SMACK.”
The tone throughout is almost always positive, happy, joyful. This is depressing dystopia presented as thrilling utopia. In substance, Moderan bears similarities to various novels of terrible futures (we might make much fruitful comparison between Bunch’s book and Swastika Night by Katharine Burdekin, for instance), but unlike most such stories, Moderan is not told from the point of view of an outsider or a heretic. Rather like Candide’s Dr. Pangloss, Stronghold 10 and the other narrators love Moderan and think it is the best of all possible worlds, indeed the absolute height of achievement, the end of all progress—nothing could possibly be better.
The book begins with a retrospective introduction that works in some ways like the notes and epilogues of such novels as Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid’s Tale: it lets us know that however eternal and immutable the systems of the story’s world seemed, they were as mortal as Ozymandias. The march of time cannot be stopped with metal and strongholds. For all their declarations of immortality, the people of Moderan turn out to be as perishable as the rest of us.
In addition to providing an added level of irony, the frame story offered by the opening pages of Moderan allows some freedom in the book’s organization. The original edition organized the stories into three parts: “The Beginnings,” “Everyday Life in Moderan,” and “Intimations of the End”; the NYRB Classics edition adds a fourth section, “Apocrypha from After the End,” which contains Moderan stories (and one poem) Bunch published after 1971. Some of the stories, particularly the first few, lead logically into each other, but most do not. They are like collected folktales or chapters from a future age’s Bible, sometimes repetitive, sometimes contradictory. I expect the book is best appreciated in small doses, a few stories at a time, rather than chugged down all at once. The individual stories, after all, were first published separately over more than 10 years’ time, and there is a certain flatness to the Moderan setting that is both completely appropriate and narratively limiting. Many of the stories work like inverted picaresques, with, instead of a protagonist wandering off to learn about the world, someone coming to learn something about Moderan and the strongholds. Thematically, this works well, making the monotony of Moderan’s monoculture palpable, but it can be trying for a reader. (In many ways, the most compelling sections of the book are the second and fourth, which are the least uniform in their topics, settings, and narrators.)
Some readers have always found Bunch trying, even in small doses. In a letter published in the May 1961 issue of Fantastic Stories of Science Fiction, a Mrs. Alvin R. Stuart of San Saba, Texas, wrote: “It is downright disgusting to read the rest of the magazine and think, with pleasant anticipation, ‘Good! There’s one more story I haven’t read!’—and then, upon turning to the page, to find such utter rot as this author—and I use the term doubtfully—has been submitting. Some of it reads like something written by a mental patient or a moron.”
In the early 1960s, Bunch’s byline started appearing regularly in Fantastic and its companion, Amazing Stories of Science Fiction, both edited by Cele Goldsmith. Goldsmith remains one of the most extraordinary and undersung editors in science fiction’s history; her taste was broad and eclectic, and she welcomed work that other editors considered a bit too odd. Mike Ashley (perhaps the most knowledgeable historians of science fiction magazines) has written that
Of the authors who debuted in the middle period of Goldsmith’s editorship, four stand out: Roger Zelazny, Thomas M. Disch, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Piers Anthony. There is little doubt that science fiction owes a debt to Cele Goldsmith for putting these writers on the road. All of them had already tried to sell professionally—Le Guin had submitted a story to Amazing as far back as 1939—but none of them had found an editor appreciative of their talents. Only Goldsmith saw through the fantastic trimmings to the creative core…
Though he had sold a few stories to other SF editors, he became a fixture at Amazing and Fantastic throughout Goldsmith’s tenure, allowing him to make a longterm transition from small (often regional) literary journals to the larger audience of science fiction readers. He soon found another champion: Judith Merril, who reprinted him in her annual Best SF of the Year collections, and who asked him for recommendations of literary magazines that she might find material in—advice that helped change Merril’s anthologies from good but genre-bound collections to books with a breadth that still, more than 50 years later, remains nearly unique.
I think it is no coincidence that some of Bunch’s earliest champions were women, and women readers continued to respond particularly well to his work through the years. In the desperate, patriarchal militarism of the 1960s, Bunch’s stories foresaw two tendencies that, many years later, scholar Susan Jeffords identified pervading contemporary American culture: the post-Vietnam “remasculinization” of the warrior image and the fetishization of “hard bodies” as a manly ideal.
Hypermasculinity in Moderan isn’t limited to individual bodies. Now, humans can give the entire planet a hard body:
As it whirls the world in space our planet stands out bold now and surely indestructible, coated as we have plasto-coated it, with nothing to grind it away at the big middle and nothing to wear it out at the far hubs. […] I am harder than the stones were and more mind-set than the animals. SCIENCE HAS MADE A MAN! NEW METAL MAN! Science has coated and made clean the dirty EARTH ball for him to stand on.
An obsession with masculine strength and dominance is vital for warring, but the ideology of the warmongers infects every other aspect of society, turning science into a weapon for the destruction of everything perceived to be weak. The Earth itself cannot survive a world of hypermasculine warriors.
This hypermasculine caricature additionally contains a caricature of the misogynistic trope of the shrewish wife. The New Metal Men haven’t simply hidden themselves in strongholds to protect against missiles and bombs—they have also fled marriage, domesticity, and femininity, like weaponized versions of Robert Bly’s Iron John. Stronghold 10’s wife survives the operation to replace most of her body with metal, and now her husband fears her more than he has feared any attacks from other strongholds. He and the other strongholds see nothing but nagging and emasculation:
All over Moderan that spring, when we were beginners-new and the plans not set-mold, they came walking in, struggling, falling down, getting up to come on, most of them with one aim to view — not to let that disappearing surviving rat husband get away with a thing. I’M YOUR WIFE, seemed, in their minds, to say it all and leave no questions of any kind. Doom was final; doom was sealed-down doom. That gray twilight terror-life of wife-husband husband-wife (WEEAAOOOHH YEEAAOOOHH OOHH OHH) must never be changed, not even by the ending of a world.
The men, having achieved the strength they so desired in their Strongholds, are now free to do with their wives what they always wanted: “We formed a Commission for the Relocation of old New-Metal shrews. We moved them to a place prepared for them, the walled province of White Witch Valley. The walls are high there; it is a prison, vast and maximum-security….”
Misogyny, militarism, and ecological apocalypse go together, with the strong men asserting their right to dominate a natural world viewed as feminine and weak, and therefore worthless. Women and landscapes that don’t bow to the men’s utter domination are deemed enemy combatants, obstacles to be destroyed or remade. Not only do the rulers of Moderan cover the world with plastic, but they also create plastic flowers that can be programmed to appear during certain seasons. The new-metal men seek to eradicate everything alive and replace a few items with artificial stand-ins, things easier to control than the unpredictable, other-than-human inhabitants of the wild. With narcissistic force, they blast and plasticize the world until it resembles their shallow ideal.
In a 1966 issue of the literary journal The Smith (which included the Moderan story “The Miracle of the Flowers”), a one-line biographical note declares that David R. Bunch “is a cartographer who maps madness.” This was not a metaphor only: Bunch worked for the U.S. military’s cartographic agency in the era of the Vietnam war. Mapping military madness was his day job.
In an August 1971 letter to Ursula K. Le Guin, James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon) said, “David Bunch just sent me his new Moderan book, a mean treat. I’ve long felt he was one of the most undersung and ill-known landmarks in sf…not much beam-width compared say to Cordwainer Smith but oh what intensity at the focus, what idiosyncrasy, what a one roaring diamond glimpse…” Tiptree’s instincts seem accurate: both the comparison to one of science fiction’s other great oddballs, Cordwainer Smith (I would also add R.A. Lafferty), and the sense that with the Moderan stories, at least, there isn’t a lot of “beam-width” but lots of intensity and idiosyncrasy. Bunch’s non-Moderan stories do show more range of subject matter and style, and he published in a tremendous variety of venues—not only science fiction magazines but also literary journals, including Gordon Lish’s Genesis West, where his byline appeared alongside those of Ken Kesey, Donald Barthelme, Jack Gilbert, and LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka).
Yet Tiptree was right; there is a narrowness to Bunch’s beam regardless of topic or venue. I’m not sure it could be otherwise. He was as interested in poetry as in fiction, and he seems to have approached fiction like poetry, seeking a kind of poetic compression within and between his sentences. The intensity and idiosyncracy are always there, and the poetic compression adds a feeling of density, too. The Moderan stories tell of a world that is trying with all its might to narrow itself into one way of being, a world where ways of living are no more diverse than the plastic that covers the landscape. At times, the stories can feel monotonous in their obsessions, or obsessive in their monotony. It is not that Bunch’s own vision is narrow, but that he depicts a world of ever-narrowing visions, a world where imagination responds only to violence and complexity has died in the rituals of war. Read one or two stories and they seem funny, quirky, jaunty in their satire. Read the whole book, and the full weight of the apocalypse bears down, the full sense of all that is lost, and what was once amusingly odd begins to reveal a dark, hollowed-out core, and laughter starts to catch in your throat.
Other writers would try to make us feel the horrors of this world through sympathetic characters and stories carefully arced toward sentiment. We would know this is a bad world because we would feel pity and fear for the characters we cared about. That is not this book. Throughout his career, Bunch showed no interest in the sorts of scene building and character development essential to social realism and popular fiction. His inclinations were toward much older forms of storytelling, toward myths and folktales and children’s stories, toward archetypes and allegories. (It is best, perhaps, to think of Moderan as a kind of science fictional Decameron or Canterbury Tales.) In the latter half of the 20th century, there were few homes for such writing other than the science fiction magazines, because science fiction thrives on mythic heroes and archetypal situations. Just as importantly, science fiction developed its own style of compressed language, one hospitable to neologisms and to quick gestures that could suggest entire worlds. For a reader of SF, the narrator’s statement on the first page of Moderan of being one of “the beam people, the Essenceland Dream people” is par for the course and sparks a quick imagining of creatures that are somehow composed of energy rather than bodies. Because this is SF, there’s no expectation that Bunch will now explain all the details of beam people—that might have been the expectation in 1926, when Hugo Gernsback first launched Amazing Stories as a way for people to learn about science while they read tales of adventure, but by mid-century, SF’s aesthetic assumptions had developed enough for exposition-heavy stories to be considered clunky. Instead, readers thrilled for off-kilter details that suggested new worlds, and writers such as Robert Heinlein had, in the decade or two before Bunch began publishing, refined techniques for making the most of such details while also keeping a story humming along with exciting plots and characters who conformed to concepts of human behavior and representation developed in the 19th century and promulgated through countless short stories and novels.
In many ways, it was into science fiction (and its related popular genres) that myths and folktales found themselves repackaged in the wake of the 18th century’s rationalism and the 19th century’s storytelling innovations. By putting the techniques of modern science fiction to use in older structures, though, Bunch threw a wrench into his stories’ engines. The effect is, appropriately, a kind of modernism where the expectations common to one form collide with the expectations of another, re-invigorating both. As readers, it’s hard to get our bearings, because everything is both familiar and new: we know how to read old myths and folktales, we know how to read science fiction, we know how to read the language of self-help manuals and advertisements and jingoistic propaganda—but do we know how to read them all together at once?
Perhaps we are ready for David R. Bunch now. Our literature is saturated with dystopias; our news is filled with blustering men who seem to want nothing so much as a stronghold from which to war, war, war; our landscape is covered in plastic. The all-caps exclamations don’t seem out of place in a world of war criminals’ tweetstorms. Discourses intermingle endlessly: yesterday’s satire is today’s business headline, political arguments sound like dulled-down Dr. Seuss, and children’s stories include shelter-in-place instructions. Moderan is catching up to us, or we’re catching up to it. What once seemed so strange as to be almost unreadable now stands inches from the de rigueur.
It is a testament to literary progress that we have reached a point where we might more fully appreciate the achievement of David R. Bunch, but it is a condemnation of the damned human race that each passing decade has leached his stories of their bitter surrealism to the extent that now they may be read as reports on the real.
I once knew a Holocaust survivor, a Russian non-native English speaker with a thirst for learning, who kept a wonderful book: a logbook of obsessive reading with highly particular summaries. “War and Peace,” the survivor notated, “a bunch of people, war, and countries — can’t anyone get along?” “Madame Bovary,” she wrote, “a fancy lady spends a lot of time dreaming until all is lost for love.”
We are deep into a moment in which authors write of lives, often their own, through the habit of reading. Hearing of the trend from afar, a person could ask: does the practice signify a retreat to a self-reflexive cave? A recherché activity, a hall-of-mirrors exercise, a willed innocence? And yet, these last 15 years, books on reading have proliferated at the same time that newspaper space for discussing the magic of reading has shrunk. Consider Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book, a hundred others.
Such authors share the same gleam you find in the self-portrait of Diego Velázquez in “Las Meninas” in which the artist depicts himself as the aware but lowly court servant painting the aristocratic family. The artist supersedes his content, eyes leaping out of the frame at us, becoming our proxy for understanding a given milieu. With similar esprit, in many of these books, the authors gaze back at us reading them, showing how at a crucial point in life, a book or series swayed them unalterably. Reader, I was never the same, these books whisper, confidingly. The earth moved. These books on reading often also move earth, however subtly, achieving what Aristotle demanded for drama: both recognition and catharsis.
In Pamela Paul’s fifth book, My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, she takes us traveling through a landscape of childhood aspiration and adolescently blind romanticism, the accruals and loss of adulthood, all told from a temperament with a fierce, passionate allegiance to principle. Her Bob is a logbook of reading and also a rueful, joyful autobiography of interests and selves, an elegy fond and bittersweet. Bob in its physical form — even when a mate, soon to be ex, actually writes in it himself — survives courtships, marriages, and the most Aristotelian of reversals.
On first reading, I felt the book created a new genre, the polemic picaresque, in which readers get to wander happily with a Michel de Montaigne-like narrator through varied realms while picking up bits of advice as buried treasure. Imagine a guide who seems at first to speak only of her small village and family while showing the reader a local tower, who meanwhile, subtly, persuades us of the greatness of the parish. On my second reading, Paul’s book seemed to be in conversation with Boswell’s travels with Johnson, Sei Shōnagon, or The Canterbury Tales, in which we roam aesthetic terrain with a hapless and memorable group of individuals, the world rich with surfaces while belying the deeper moral conviction and instruction to be had.
The journey is as good as the guide, and one of My Life with Bob’s pleasures is the humorous and affectionate light cast on the narrator’s strong convictions. As a young girl, Paul begins with reading as a quirky hagiography, finding lives to learn and emulate, the horizon of her worldliness as wide as her last book read. Older, she shows great, impulsive agency in making book-inspired choices while becoming increasingly nostalgic for an earlier temporal freedom, leaving her reader to understand that a life too far from books is not just unexamined, but unfelt, unknown, unarticulated.
From the joy-filled vantage of someone illuminated, and even dominated, by books she has read, Paul inspires her reader to revisit works canonical and unsung. As the best memoir writers do, the witty persona Paul creates for her narrator is not so much heroine but more in the spirit of Paul Klee’s “Hero with a Broken Wing”: gifted and burdened by aspiration, she lives the paradox of being the obedient rebel and contrarian student who delights in having a mind with a thousand pockets. If August Wilson says everyone should wake to see the face of our own god in the mirror, in this case, for a very singular reader, the mirror itself is literature.
Below, Paul speaks of seeing her recollection of Bob emerge.
The Millions: You were a reader with a great understanding of privacy. What is your experience of My Life with Bob, an exegesis of such an important relic of the self, traveling out in the world?
Pamela Paul: A certain amount of trepidation. I never thought I would write a memoir, and in fact, didn’t think of this book as a memoir until Publishers Weekly announced the deal and called it one. My first thought was, “Oh, no — but they’re right! I guess it is a memoir.”
To my mind, it was to be a book about books, a book about travels, a book about storytelling. But of course, it’s not really about those things. It’s about the intersection of books and life, and about how what we read infiltrates, influences, reflects, expands on, and colors everything else. When we read, even when the book is temporarily put down with a bookmark firmly in place, the stories from inside the book don’t entirely recede from our consciousness. They become part of us. My stories are part of me, and therefore a lot more “me” had to be in this book that I am used to putting. My previous books were all journalistic investigations that had one or two first-person sentences in the introductions before firmly leaving that voice behind. This book is not only about me — it’s about (I hope) all readers and the way all of us experience stories. But it’s obviously quite personal.
TM: What are you reading — or hoping to read — now?
PP: I choose my books on a gut level, to match a strong mood or an urge or even a need. But it’s not a one-step or simple process. That’s one of the reasons I ask what books people have on their nightstand in my By the Book interviews: I’m curious about how people narrow down and make their choices among all the possibilities. Personally, I keep a large pile on my nightstand — on the wide edge of my platform bed, actually — and then a few other piles across from the bed on a room-length wall of built-in bookshelves. Like all readers, I have so many books that I’d like to read, that I intend to read, that I feel I must read, but I never truly know what I’ll read next until the moment I finish the previous book.
This doesn’t mean I don’t plan. I do all kinds of planning! And then I cast those plans aside. Right now, for example, I was planning to be reading Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena because the reviews were strong and so many people I respect have recommended it. The glowing praise for his follow-up collection of short stories pushed that book further to the top of the list. So it was on my shortlist. Then I did something I’ve never done before: I enlisted my two older children to help me decide between reading the Marra, Émile Zola’s The Belly of Paris or Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop next. I read the back covers and inside jackets aloud to them. My daughter voted for Marra and my son for Zola. I read the Zola first, and so had turned to the Marra next to be fair. But a few chapters in, I found that it wasn’t quite matching my mood. This isn’t to say I didn’t like it — thus far, I like it very much and I plan to go back to it. But it just wasn’t what I needed at the moment.
What I needed, I realized, and this is what had drawn me to all three of those books, was a book that was engrossing and serious and relevant to my life right now, but also an escape. And that was accompanied by an urge to read about an earlier era in journalism. Scoop wasn’t quite the right book because I didn’t want humor (I’ve kind of been adverse to comedy, overall, since the fall — read into that what you will, though I hope it means I haven’t permanently lost my sense of humor). “Scoop will be read one day…I do love Waugh.
Then, on a shelf I keep devoted to books about writing and about journalism, I noticed Ben Bradlee’s memoir, A Good Life: Newspaper and Other Adventures. I’ve been wanting to read this book since it was published, which to my embarrassment was in 1995, therefore making it a book I’ve meant to read for 22 years now. I adored Katharine Graham’s Personal History, which I’d read as soon as it came out. I picked up the Bradlee and it fits every need I have at this moment: Serious, yet also entertaining. Relevant to my life (journalism), yet also a departure (journalism back when it was strictly about print). Plus, Bradlee is a terrific narrator. You can hear his distinctive voice, his infectious personality. And the part I’m up to now is very much a different world: His experiences in the Navy in World War II, his early days at a startup weekly newspaper in New Hampshire, his experience as a press attaché in Paris. I’m just now getting back to Washington and his Newsweek years. It’s a delight on every level.
Do other readers go through a version of this elaborate mood-matching process when considering what to read next? I suspect many do. To me, it’s one of the great decisions we get to make in life, and we get to make it again and again: What to Read Next.
TM: What is the relation of risk to your practice of writing? And what was your process in sequencing and editing this book, and did it differ from your others?
PP: This book was completely different from any other book I’ve written. My previous books were essentially argument books: journalistic investigations that set out to explore a subject through research and reporting, marshal the evidence, and make a case. My first book, The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony, came out of personal experience — an early marriage and divorce — but I quite adamantly didn’t want the book to be about me, so after the first paragraph, the first person dropped out. That book still felt personal. I discovered and learned through other people’s answers and lessons that I was seeking to help make sense of my own experience. What did these other young divorced people know that I didn’t yet know myself? What had they learned two or five years after their marriages ended that they didn’t know at the point of rupture? The next two books came out of reported stories that I wrote for Time magazine and expanded on issues around consumer culture that I thought worth further exploration. For all of those books, the driving goal was to prove a point.
By contrast, I had nothing to prove with this book. I am not trying to persuade anyone of anything. So the underlying motivation is altogether different, and that fundamentally changes the writing process. This book isn’t probably not going to change anyone’s mind about anything (except perhaps about the wisdom of writing down what you read). So it has to want to be read for other reasons.
If I had a driving sense of purpose with this book in terms of its relationship to readers, it was to write something that was a pleasure to read. Because I get so much pleasure from books, and from my Book of Books. When people have told me they’ve read my previous books, my knee-jerk response has always been, “I’m sorry.” That may sound ridiculous and self-defeating, but I don’t think my earlier books were particularly fun to read. Enlightening, in certain ways, perhaps. But not enjoyable. I wanted to write a book that might be an actual enjoyable reading experience. And that made the book an actual pleasure to write — even when I was writing about embarrassing or frightening or upsetting experiences, like the end of my first marriage or my father’s death.
But I like that you compare it to a journey because that’s how it feels to me. Like a journey through life with books as constant companion. With little discoveries made, both within and outside of books, along the way.
TM: Having also encountered Thalia Zepatos’s book of advice for the independent woman traveler at a young age, to my detriment or advantage, I was nonetheless happy to see her mentioned. Yet what makes your suitcase so singular is the manner in which your narrator, like a lover or devotee, brings books as an offering to beautiful environments, most notably in an outdoor scene in China. Similarly, a landscape can be ruined for your narrator by the errancy of the particular author you happen to be reading, your mind infected by a particular voice. Books similarly permeate the courtships with men you end up marrying. In such moments, you do a great deal to erase the binary of life versus art, the dichotomy that Cynthia Ozick felt she misunderstood as a dictum from Henry James: “Life! Life, not art!” Was there something not mentioned in your book, whether in early environ or temperament, that may have led to this happy erasure, a habit of convergence? The curiosity the reader has — having traveled with you through travel, jobs, marriages, divorces, children — is whether your narrator would say her highest self, her best part, was formed by reading rather than life?
PP: For me, reading Thalia Zepatos was inspiring in the most concrete sense of the word: It inspired me to something I didn’t feel capable of or well-suited for. I read her book and then did something that was highly unlikely given the cautious, ambitious, responsible, fearful person I was at that time. I threw aside all my life and career goals and set out to do something that I knew I might hate. Something that terrified me. Something that nobody like me would do. As I put it in the book, it was as if 5 percent of me made a decision and dragged along the other 95 percent. It ended up being the best decision I’ve ever made.
TM: Your narrator is similarly remarkable in the complexity of being a success-driven rebel: she is both the child who early on learns not to procrastinate, getting her work done first so she can with easier mind enjoy the poking of her pencil into the carpet, and the principle-driven rebel. Within aspirational milieus, in equal measure, she passionately protests and excels within received dictates. One of the abiding sub rosa questions in the book has to do with the quirkiness of free will and self-determination against given legacies: your narrator finds herself shooting out of a particular set of birthright assumptions. How does this complexity inform your relation to your life in writing and reading these days?
PP: I just wrote a piece adapted from the book called “The Joy of Hate Reading” in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times that describes one of the key ways I’ve come to read and write, which is to challenge myself through words. It’s a way to remind myself of how little I actually know. As a writer, with this book, I set out to write the kind of book I never thought I’d write — a memoir. And as a reader, I am always pushing myself to try out books I don’t think I’ll enjoy. I have a kind of perverse urge to constantly test my own assumptions. To a certain extent this has always been there. I was a supremely unathletic child, always picked second-to-last for sports teams in elementary school (an excruciating experience that I wrote about in my college application essay). But when I got to college, I ended up joining the rugby team. It was an entirely absurd decision to make — I have never once hit a ball with a baseball bat in my life. But I joined the rugby team and I loved it. I still have near-zero interest in sports, but I recently read The Throwback Special because it’s about football. (I loved that too.)
TM: “Without imagination of another’s mind there can be no understanding of that other and hence no love,” Sherwin Nuland writes in relation to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry,” a quotation you cite in your book when talking of a first love. How would you relate BOB to that very same imagination?
PP: Reading is ultimately about empathy — about experiencing another person’s story, his version of events, his voice, his way of viewing the world. To me one of the beauties of literature is that two different people from very different worlds can read the same book, and share that experience, even as if in different variations. You can have a 16-year-old girl in India read The Underground Railroad and a 45-year-old stay-at-home mother in Indiana read that same book. They will read it in different ways, but also, in similar ways, sharing a version of the characters’ experience, both with each other, and with the author. That’s connection.
TM: Everyone who has ever worked in publishing or known anyone with a foot near the industry knows something about towering piles of books that have arrived over the transom. Does your delighted, curatorial rapture about books remain intact or has it shifted emphasis? You speak movingly about your almost physical pain as, in an early bookstore job, you had to tear covers off books to be remaindered. Has the status of books as beloved fetish objects begun to alter or have you become just more focused in your pursuit?
PP: I feel like I live in a castle of riches at The New York Times Book Review. Not a day goes by when I don’t feel giddy by the unopened cartons of books awaiting me, eager to see the contents inside, excited by the galleys on the shelves and delighted and slightly stunned that I get to take finished copies home with me. Books to me are still treasures. I’m still greedy and I’m extremely grateful. I am not nearly as focused in my acquisitiveness as I should be and have towering shelves of books at home to attest to that weakness.
Image Credit: Marcia Ciriello.
HOST: You’re watching The Reissue Factor, a talent show in which out-of-print books compete for a second lease on literary life. Let me introduce you to our judges, each of whom has to the power to introduce a work to a new generation of readers.
PENGUIN CLASSICS: Don’t forget Morrissey.
HOST: Next, the precious stones lobby is furious with these guys, because they’re flooding the market with lost gems…New York Review Books Classics!
NYRB: We like to call ourselves the New York Review Bling Classics.
PENGUIN CLASSICS: Really, just how many neglected masterpieces can there be?
NYRB: You’re just bitter we scooped you on Stoner.
HOST: And finally, from across the pond, the exacting and ever acerbic Faber & Faber, home of the Faber Finds list.
FABER: I’d just like to state that T.S Eliot was one of our original directors. T.S. Eliot. And now here we are on a reality show.
HOST: Those are our judges, and I’m your host, Jonathan Lethem. Just kidding. He was booked. I’m Ryan Seacrest.
Our first contestant tonight is a mass-market paperback from the 1970s, Never Say Sometime, which describes itself as “read hard and put away wet.” Tell us a bit more about yourself.
CONTESTANT: Well, I guess I’ve always felt less than, worthless, unappreciated. I’ve never known the intimacy of a bedside table, nor the snug fit of a tightly-packed shelf. My first owner picked me up in an airport, then left me in a seatback pocket. I’ve had abandonment issues ever since.
PENGUIN CLASSICS: Yes, but why do you deserve to be republished? And more important, what are you actually about?
CONTESTANT: About? You want to know what I’m about? I’m about watching my best friend getting pulped in front of my eyes. I’m about cold porcelain sending shivers down my spine when I was used as bathroom reading during my teens. I’m about the shame of selling my wife to a seedy used bookstore to make ends meet.
FABER: No, no, no. I can only fault your unfortunate owner for placing you beside the toilet rather than flushing you down it.
NYRB: It’s a little melodramatic for us, so we’re going to pass. But don’t get discouraged — every book has a lost classic inside.
[Two crew-members escort the book off-stage and toss it into a Goodwill donations box, where, in a welcome twist of fate, Never Say Sometime is reunited with its long-lost wife, a failed contestant from a previous episode.]
SEACREST: Next up — and it’s understandably taking its time getting up on stage — is The Falkland Octet, a long out-of-print, eight-part saga tracking the fortunes of a Falkland Islander family from the 1830s to the outbreak of war in…
NYRB: We’ll take it.
SEACREST: Don’t you want to see it first?
NYRB: Nope, we just put it into production a few seconds ago.
SEACREST: Moving on then, we have an elegantly slim academic monograph: a revered cult study on the works of Milton Mutey, a woefully underappreciated figure himself whose own cult novel is set to appear on the show next week. First off, your title?
CONTESTANT: The Novels of Milton Mutey: A Critical Study.
PENGUIN CLASSICS: Catchy. And is that an Oxford book jacket I see?
CONTESTANT: I should certainly hope not. Cambridge University Press, sir, and worn proudly.
PENGUIN CLASSICS: Apologies. And in your dream scenario, who would write the new introduction to your book?
CONTESTANT: F.R. Leavis.
NYRB: I think he’s dead.
CONTESTANT: William Empson then.
FABER: Definitely dead.
CONTESTANT: I feel like Rip Van Winkle. Harold Bloom?
SEACREST: He, I know for a fact, is still alive. We lunched last week at Spago.
NYRB: One more question. What do you see your reissue bringing to a new generation of readers?
CONTESTANT: A timely critical study on the novels of Milton Mutey.
SEACREST: Anyone interested?
FABER: This could be the ghost of old Wonkypenky talking, but we love everything about you, from that old-timey donnish swagger to your Ex Libris sticker. Whatever “it” is, you definitely have it.
SEACREST: I believe we call it…The Reissue Factor!
Our last contestant, a memoir, evocatively depicts a society whose very way of life is threatened by environmental hardships, fearsome predators, and rival clans. Its frank account of the sex lives of early hominids caused quite a stir when it was first published on a cave wall in 50,000 B.C. Make no bones about it though: This Stone Age coming-of-age tale is more relatable today than ever.
[WHEELS SLAB OF PAINTED ROCK OUT ONTO STAGE]
PENGUIN: I’m intrigued, but are we sure this is in the public domain?
FABER: Sorry, it’s a no for us. Lacks emotional depth and the saber-toothed tiger subplot felt forced.
NYRB: We’re worried about the shipping costs.
SEACREST: Anyone know if Goodwill takes granite?
We hate to end the show on a sour note, but we’ve had some great finds tonight on The Reissue Factor. Tune in next week when our panel will include Melville House, Pushkin Press, and New Directions deciding whether to reprint a classic travelogue long forgotten because never written.
The writer and critic John Gardner is perhaps best remembered these days for his novel Grendel, and for a quote on the writing life that has influenced generations of writers ever since: “Art begins in a wound, an imperfection — a wound inherent in the nature of life itself — and is an attempt either to live with the wound or to heal it.”
Gardner spoke from his own experience. He felt responsible for the death of his brother in a farming accident, a death that took him many years to finally approach in his short story, “Redemption.” In his 1978 Paris Review interview, Gardner said, “Before I wrote the story about the kid who runs over his younger brother…always, regularly, every day I used to have four or five flashes of that accident. I’d be driving down the highway and I couldn’t see what was coming because I’d have a memory flash. I haven’t had it once since I wrote the story. You really do ground your nightmares, you name them.”
Trauma, of course, arrives from many sources: the death of a family member, sexual assault, the psychological and physical abuse wreaked by dysfunctional families, discrimination’s poison, the catastrophe of war or famine, or any crushing event that reorients a child’s understanding of the world. The list of harsh surprises is probably endless. Perhaps that is why Gardner’s description of an art-generating wound resonates with any writer searching for the truths of his or her childhood. Damage survived through one’s art can be a heroic story we tell ourselves, a suspenseful tale of personal struggle and possible transcendence. For me, Gardner’s insight certainly helped shape my understanding of the secret imperative behind my early attempts at writing short stories: they were ripples that arose from but could never undo two defining events of my childhood.
When I was just past 10 years old, my mother twice attacked my father: first, with a steak knife over the dinner table, and another evening she slammed his head between the rungs of a stairwell’s banister, wrapping a towel around his neck to strangle him. Each time, I threw myself between them, a mere child wrestling with an adult drama whose origins I knew nothing about. To this day, the motives for that violence remain obscure. My parents somehow managed to stay together, shedding their worst arguments and over time adopting quiet guerilla warfare. In spite of daily counter-evidence, an official line developed that we were a happy family. Any past violence was a story that couldn’t be told.
Other stories awaited me behind the closed door of my room. I entered a world of books. Though I couldn’t have put this into words back then, I must have understood that the more stories and novels I read, the more I increased the real estate inside where I might find a place of my own. My life is unimaginable without books, and that inadvertent gift arising from my parents’ desperate disputes and then silence has provoked my life-long artistic gaze.
Gardner’s insight has helped many writers, but as the years have passed I’ve come to suspect that it also conceals a further truth. A psychic wound can be its own healing agent, may itself contain a gift, and may offer a form of unexpected inspiration. Yet how to embrace this elusive not-damage within the wound?
I, The Divine: A Novel in First Chapters, by the Lebanese-American writer Rabih Alameddine, offers one possibility. This brilliant novel takes the form of a memoir-in-progress being written by one Sarah Nour El-Din. Every chapter in the book is a Chapter One, because Sarah can’t seem to find the proper entry into her memoir. She keeps beginning again, trying to start from this angle, then that angle, searching for the most fruitful approach to the rest of her life’s story. But these failed first chapters give the reader a deeper sense of her marriages, her lover, her son, father, mother, stepmother, sisters, grandfather, her life in Lebanon and in America, and her artistic ambitions.
Eventually a first chapter takes on one of her troubled family’s most shameful secrets: Sarah’s sister Lamia, a nurse who overdosed her patients to death. Sarah feels she can’t begin to explain her sister’s actions, so instead she announces, “I will let her speak for herself” and includes in the chapter her imprisoned sister’s awkwardly eloquent letters. By allowing her sister a voice, something breaks through to Sarah. She begins to see her sister from the inside.
Two first chapters later, Sarah writes about a harried day in the life of her despised stepmother Saniya, from what she imagines is Saniya’s point of view. A few first chapters later, Sarah imagines a walk through the streets of New York from her first husband’s perspective. Of course Sarah can’t really know what he contemplated as he navigated from university classroom to apartment, any more than she knows what terrain her stepmother’s thoughts might occupy. But by now the relentless I, I, I of Sarah’s memoir has deepened into the competing perspectives of her extended family. They are no longer mere actors in her story but people with stories of their own, and this realization enables Sarah to move from the role of victim to that of survivor, relinquishing blame through the transformative gift of empathy.
Much like Sarah, for too much of my life I focused on my younger self’s understanding of my parents, turning them into an easy story to tell. We children of dysfunctional families try on certain emotional techniques to survive our parents, to dodge or undermine their worst behavior. Yet if we’re successful at protecting ourselves, in later life we run the risk of holding on to our hard-won tactics too long, and using them — often futilely — against the world, as if the world were our parents. In doing so, we remain locked in childhood without even knowing it.
For writers, the key to avoiding such a fate may lie in our urge to shape our characters’ possibilities. We labor to bestow a depth that allows them to take their first breaths, and by accepting their surprises we may be led to fruitful, unfamiliar territory. These skills we have learned and forged in our writing can be applied elsewhere.
My mother’s name was Edith, not Mom. This is an important distinction for me to remember. Too often, in remembering my parents, I still think of them by their official titles, the names that defined their relationship to me. Yet they were individuals fully existing in their own lives long before I was born. My mother’s father died when she was three. My father, at about the same age, was locked in a rat-infested shed for a day by his older brother. Perhaps the parallel traumas of early abandonment eventually led them to each other.
Throughout her adult life Edith, my mother, smoked heavily but never, ever was her persistent cough to be associated with that smoking. To suggest such a connection invited certain fireworks. My mother also developed an obsession about cholesterol, that dietary evil of all evils. Whenever my mother went into a hacking fit and coughed up phlegm, she announced with some satisfaction that this was a “cholesterol ball” that she had managed to release from her system. She would proudly display her handkerchief to any interested parties.
My mother also developed the habit of driving from our home in Long Island to a town 30 miles away, a 60 mile round trip, to buy a hamburger at McDonalds. I can only imagine the countless unworthy McDonalds she drove past on her journey, but she believed that particular outlet served the best hamburgers, no other could compare. It was wise not to contradict her, or to express disbelief when she asserted that all the traffic intersections on her ride home had been deviously programmed to delay her car at one red light after another.
My mother’s imagination, in these and many, many other examples, used to drive me to infuriated distraction. Why couldn’t she see the foolishness, even the danger of these beliefs? Of course, at the time my exasperation was fueled in part by fear—would I one day become like her, impervious to even elementary logic? Now, I realize that as a child I studied with a master. However emotionally isolated and frightened my mother may have been, she unknowingly gave me the gift of her imaginative skills, and I had just as unknowingly received them. This gift became the key to many of my fictional characters, including the increasingly desperate multiple personalities of the mother in my novel, How to Read an Unwritten Language, and the construction of fantasies that threaten to go awry in my various characters’ interior lives in the story collection Interior Design.
The empathy I needed to create these characters led me to a belated sympathy for my mother. I came to look at her invention of cholesterol balls as an attempt to convince herself smoking wasn’t dangerous. They served to mask her secret fear. My mother’s championing of a singular, incomparable McDonald’s hamburger outlet simply added a little spark into her life, a way to quit the house and the hours of solitaire she played, and go on a small journey. Those malevolently programmed traffic lights on her return drive offered another sort of excitement: despite this conspiracy against her, Edith, my mother, always triumphed and made her way back home.
My father’s name was Bill, not Dad. He was a quiet man who never learned to say, “I love you.” He’d stiffen in a welcoming hug, a nervous smile pasted on his face. His heavy drinking created an invisible wall between himself and his family. He held inside more than I could imagine. By the time of my teen years, he had stopped arguing with my mother and let her have her way, accepting any derision silently. When I was a young man, his passivity symbolized everything I wanted to avoid in my life. I didn’t understand that he had given up on his marriage and further battling meant nothing to him.
Bill, my father, worked for an import-and-export firm that owned a number of commercial buildings in downtown Manhattan. His job was to make sure the company’s buildings came as close to full occupancy as possible. One of the ways he achieved this was by regularly making the rounds, floor by floor of each building, developing relationships with tenants who hailed from Jamaica, India, and Pakistan, Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn and Chinese businessmen and women from Hong Kong.
One summer my father found me a job operating the freight elevators for his company’s buildings — an easy enough task once I got the hang of it, and completely off the books, since I was replacing the regular elevator operators as they took their vacation time. Sometimes my father would take me along on his rounds during my lunch break, and I watched his easy banter with the tenants, the jokes they threw back and forth, his attentiveness to their concerns. Though they all called him Bill and not Mr. Graham, their affection and respect was obvious. I took it all in, shocked that he was so admired, since he’d long been an object of contempt in his own home.
Only many years later did I begin to suspect that my father, Bill, offered this glimpse of his business life so I would see a side of him he buried at home. He attempted to transform himself in my eyes from a one-dimensional to a three-dimensional character. Here is another gift I accepted without knowing I had accepted it — or without acknowledging, unfortunately, that I had any clue I understood what he was trying to give me. Too often I have been a slow learner, and in this case I learned too late to thank him for this, and for something else, perhaps my father’s best gift: his easy camaraderie at work with so many different types of people. I believe his example helped me appreciate my high school encounter with the Middle-English thicket of The Canterbury Tales. Geoffrey Chaucer’s sly generosity revealed the voices and contradictions of the bawdy Wife of Bath, the corrupt Pardoner, the vain Squire, and the rest of that motley group of pilgrims, and showed me how to use, in my first budding attempts at stories, what I’d already gleaned from my father: a necessary curiosity about everyone one encounters.
James Baldwin, with his usual wisdom, has written, “Any writer, looking back…finds that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him cannot be divorced from each other; he could be helped in a certain way only because he was hurt in a certain way.”
We writers are used to looking back, locating in our rough drafts any glimmer that might show the way forward. A story, a poem, a novel, or a memoir won’t reach its best destination without the labor of reconsideration, without the ability to see afresh what is obscure, or incomplete. And neither will the story of our lives.
Let’s say your family has given you…a sweater. A common enough gift, but it’s a terrible, perhaps even an evil sweater. The combination of clashing colors resembles several things you might have once stepped on, in a nightmare. Worse, it doesn’t seem to fit. There are three arms, each one a different and incorrect length, and no hole for the crown of your head to peek through; instead, a round empty circle in the back gapes open about halfway down your spine.
What to do with this? It can’t be worn in any comfortable way. Hide it in a drawer and hope the moths will find it? Place it in the middle of a box of old clothes, deliver it to Goodwill, and rush out the door before anyone notices? Or take the sweater out to the backyard, improvise a ceremony, and then burn it, trying to read the smoke trails as they slip away in the air?
Each of these tactics is a possibility, and they may even be the most popular choices. I’d like to suggest something else. You cannot wear the damn thing, it will never fit, so stop trying. But you can’t ignore it, either. And its destruction would only be an illusion. Instead, take the sweater apart. Unravel it thread by thread. Examine the length, thickness, and color of each thread and discard nothing of what you’ve been given. Then, prepare your own pattern and make a new sweater, one that fits. Or make a set of gloves, a hat with the warmest earflaps, hand puppets, or a scarf. If you don’t like the scarf, take that apart and make a tea cozy.
Whatever you create will still be made from that evil ugly sweater. There’s no escaping that, it will always be there. So make it into something you can use.
An early version of this essay was initially delivered as a craft lecture at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Image Credit: Pexels/Nguyen Nguyen.
The following is adapted from the keynote address Michelle Huneven gave at Writing Workshops LA: The Conference, which took place on June 28, 2014 at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles.
I would qualify to speak to the trouble with writing based on the sole fact that it took me 22 years to finish my first novel. In those years of trying and failing and trying again, and failing again, I even gave up writing fiction altogether and went back to grad school to train for a new career. But I failed to embark on a new career because writing, and all its attendant troubles, wouldn’t leave me alone. In those twenty-odd years, in which I tried and failed to write a book, and left writing and then came back to it and became a working writer who wrote books and also supported herself by writing, I grew intimately acquainted with many forms of trouble inherent in the vocation. And many of those troubles dog me to this day.
1. Trouble the Word
Trouble. Trouble is a great dustpan of a word. Its roots are found in Latin in the verb turbidare, to make turbid; and in the adjective turbidus, meaning disordered, turbid.
Turbid, of course, means unclear, muddied, obscure, and roiled up. We see its root in perturb, disturb, turbulent. Trouble branched off to mean that quality or state of being in distress or annoyance, of having malfunctioned; it’s a condition of debility, or ill health, a civil disorder, an inconvenience, a pregnancy out of wedlock.
The trouble with writing is that it’s awfully like having baby after baby all by yourself.
To get out of trouble, means to clear up, calm down, come out of confusion and distress, and function once again.
When I first sat down to write this piece, I made a list, like a Joe Brainard poem, where every sentence began, “The trouble with writing is——-.” After about 5 pages, single spaced, I thought, well, there is my speech.
Writing trails trouble in its wake like a long train of quarrelsome camp followers.
I decided to talk about some of the troubles that I personally have encountered over the years, namely some the mental and spiritual troubles associated with writing as an activity and writing as a way of life–the ways we writers can malfunction and find ourselves confused and roiled up.
Writing is difficult. Writing is difficult in the beginning, difficult in the middle and difficult at the end. And then, when you’ve finished, there is a whole new raft of difficulties having to do with publication—but I will save those issues for a much longer speech entitled The Trouble with Publication.
Writing itself is a series of problems to be solved, problems that constitute the hard work of writing and being a writer. Sometimes you can be surgical and rational in solving various difficulties, but it is the peculiar distinction of writing and much of the creative life that the inherent difficulties of writing have a propensity to become internally, personally disturbing and confusing, agitating, and otherwise psychologically problematic.
When I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I discovered that, by spending a long time on a short story, I could make it pretty good. But all around me, people were turning in truly terrific short stories and saying, “Oh, I wrote it the night before I turned it in.”
There was so little talk of process back then, I really thought that I was the only writer there whose work went through an ugly stage. For years, I thought with deep shame that I was a fraud, up against the truly talented.
It took me about twenty years to realize they were lying, and just armoring themselves for the criticism to come, and pretending not to be as invested in the work as they were.
Thus does the difficulty of writing morph into confusion and perturbation.
The trouble with writing is that we writers are often scared to death.
2. The Trouble with Writing is Writing
A few months ago, I was interviewed by a 3rd grader whose assignment was to interview someone with an interesting job. Her father’s work, running two physics labs at Cal Tech, apparently was insufficiently intriguing. She had only three questions, one of which was, “What do you write about?”
I knew I had to keep it simple. I said, “I write about people who get into trouble and then get themselves out of trouble.” Of course, that describes a great many books, but it strikes me that this also describes my writing process. I’ll take an assignment, or start a short story or a novel or an essay, and soon enough it feels exactly as if I’ve gotten myself into trouble. I actually feel like a bad person, guilty and a little ashamed, like, I’ve gotten myself into this thing, and now I have to do it, and I’m not sure if I can pull it off.
I know too that, even if I manage to write my way out of this hole, it will take time, and cause me aggravation and pain along the way—pain in the form of self doubt, frustration, and one more time, hitting the limits of my capabilities.
I was a restaurant critic for a dozen years, turning in one column a week, 52 weeks a year. Not once did I sit down and just knock one out. Every single review was a tumble into trouble, and a climb back out.
You could say, I took the trouble to do the best I could.
3. It Never Gets Easier
The trouble with writing says the historian who lives next door to me, is that no matter how many times you do it, you start out every time with the sick sense that you don’t know what you’re doing.
The trouble with writing says a novelist friend, is that it never gets any easier. If anything, it gets harder. And if it starts to get easier, you’re probably slacking off or repeating yourself.
4. Getting Down to the River
Dylan Thomas said that he knew he contained a river of poetry within him. The trouble was getting down to that river, and bringing a bucket-full back.
The difficulty is getting down to it. Down to the desk, to the work zone, down to enough quiet and calm that we can even leave for the river. And once we’re there, the difficulty is locating access to that gush or trickle of material we contain. We range back and forth along the banks of the river, wondering where to plunge in.
The great late radical feminist theologian Mary Daley wrote in an introduction to her first book about the trouble she had just getting around to writing it. Everything else—cleaning the house, buying groceries, taking the dog to the vet—took precedence over this thing that she wanted to do more than anything else. Write a book. Daily life was constantly eclipsing her creative life, and eventually she determined that she would have to reverse that, and put her creative life in the foreground and everything else in the background. She came up with a mantra: “I have to turn my soul around.”
I have to turn my soul around.
And after a number of weeks, slowly, it turned.
To write, you have to turn your soul around. And then you have to turn it around again, and again, because there’s always slippage. Even after dozens of years of writing, there is slippage.
5. The Writing Life is One of Interruptions
Writing is a solitary occupation requiring intense concentration, large blocks of time, and all of one’s mental capacities. The trouble is, there are frequent interruptions and constant distractions.
The writing life is a life of interruptions. I used to listen to my friend the novelist Lily Tuck complain about her husband who often traveled for work. Edward wants me to go with him to Madrid…to Athens…to Hong Kong. I was a poor struggling wannabe writer and I would have gone to any of those places at the drop of a hat. Now, it’s me telling my husband, I don’t want to spend three weeks in Italy and the south of France!
Interruptions are inevitable, part of the fabric of the writing life. We must learn how to navigate them. There are meals, and sleep, and family; there are holidays and special occasions—weddings, graduations, funerals.
We have to accept the fact that there will be interruptions, and develop our abilities to get back into writing a little more swiftly each time.
It’s like meditating. In meditation, you return your attention to the breath. Your mind wanders and when you catch it wandering, you return your attention to the breath. You return your attention to your writing. You go off to your nephew’s graduation, you go back to your desk, you get back to work. At the same time, you have to know your rhythms, and allow them. I teach every Monday. The day after, I am never fully back to my writing. Tuesdays are the day for sinking back in. I know this and don’t beat myself up that I’m squirmy and unfocused. Everyone is different but it takes me a day or two to sink back into full writing mode.
There are even more pernicious attacks on the solitary and quiet thing we do.
6. The Trouble with Writing is that it is Fraught with Self-Loathing, Shame, Grandiosity, and Pride
I told you I quit writing at a certain point and embarked on another career. That career was to become a UU minister. In that process, I had to undergo a psychological evaluation—essentially, two psychologists determined my weak points and poked at me for a couple of days.
One psychologist asked why I had quit writing.
I told him that I’d grown up with parents who were highly disapproving and critical, and I must have internalized all that, because I lacked the confidence and self-esteem to write.
The shrink said, “You can blame a lot on your parents, but not that–that kind of self doubt and low self-esteem you’re describing is just part of the creative process.”
This was a revelation to me—that those terrible feelings actually signaled that I was IN the creative process and not that I was failing at it. Of course, low self-esteem and self-doubt are not requirements—Picasso never had many doubts, and nor does Alexander MacCall Smith who can knock out a No. 1 Ladies Detective novel in three weeks. But a great many of us do battle with self-confidence and doubts.
Because writing is so personal, or, more exactly, because its prima materia, or primal material, is the self, many, many writers do experience various troubling, vexatious states around their writing. Recently, I have heard Donald Antrim and Karl Ove Knausgaard and Edward St. Aubyn all talk about the shame they feel around their writing, and I have read that John Banville, whose arrogance is singular—he freely admits this—also admits to feeling a terrible sticky shame about all his work and cannot bear to reread it. I am constantly bolstering my female writer friends, and they me, about the quality of our work, and even its right to exist.
Of course, even as the writing process tends to kick up doubt, fear, and self-loathing for some temperaments, it also kicks up the opposing states of grandiosity, entitlement, arrogance. Some writers think their work can’t be improved, or shouldn’t be edited at all. More of us pingpong between grandiosity and despair. This is a terrible failure of a book, we tell ourselves, and I should really get an enormous advance for it! One writer I knew periodically had to stop working on his novel to compose acceptance speeches for the major awards the book was going to win. (He did actually win several awards.)
The trouble with writing is that it is often a roller coaster pitching us between grandiosity and despair.
As troublesome as they are, these uncomfortable emotional states, can serve to our advantage. Self-doubt humbles me sufficiently, so that I can improve and revise, and accept editorial assistance. And a certain stubborn pride serves me well in the face of awful editing or bad reviews.
7. The Trouble with Writing is that Little Happens the Way You Think it Should
Writing requires an investment of time and thought and the self. In making this investment, we can’t help but kick up a few hopes concerning the returns this investment might give us. When I was writing my first novel for all those years before I quit writing altogether, I had these vague, unarticulated ideas—assumptions, really, that once I published my novel, I would move into a new financial zone, I would be able to find a good job, but mostly, that I would be inducted—indeed welcomed-into the larger literary community and conversation of my generation.
The trouble with writing is that, although rewards do come, and your life does change, these things often don’t happen when and how you imagined them happening.
The year that my first novel was published—and sold overseas and to the movies and got fantastic reviews in slick magazines and newspapers all over the country and was nominated for a few awards–I was completely unprepared for the psychic transition from solitary, intense writing life to the more outward routine of selling myself to readers, and having my work misunderstood–oh, I mean reviewed–in public. I had no idea what to do with the good news I got—you don’t want to call up your struggling writer friends and say, I just sold my book to the movies for a big pile of money! As it happened, my best friend, who could not sell her novel, dropped me anyway, and I ended up the year filling a prescription for antidepressants.
It’s a tricky business we’re in. We work with various parts of the self: our memory, our experience, and emotions, the conscious self, and the unconscious which includes the patterning parts of the brain, and the imagination. These are all skittish entities, not always cooperative. Over time, we get better at accessing our imagination, our knowledge, our storehouse of anecdotes and perceptions, vocabulary and beliefs. We learn to trust that, if we set to work, the structure, direction and shape of a work will reveal itself, and that a character eventually will accumulate enough traits and coherency to come to life. We learn how to get down to that river, and to bring back buckets. But even experience can’t guarantee that we can do all these things every time.
8. Writing is Not Always Trouble and Disturbance
When it’s going well, there is little to match it. Creation is a mighty power–you might even call it divine.
The psychologists tell us that creativity is an adult state of play. When you’re deep deep in it, in the state of flow, when there is clarity and absorption, and the clock hands twirl, that is writing at its best. Flow: to get there takes time and effort—you could say, you have to take some trouble to reach flow. It’s like getting an endorphin high when you’re running—according to a friend who lately has become a runner, it took her running almost daily for three weeks before she experienced her first endorphin high, and even then she only began to feel it when she was three miles into a run. Three months and three miles…The same timetable, roughly, could apply to writing in a flow state. You don’t just sit down to it. You can’t induce it by swallowing a pill. No drug, prescribed or illicit, can get you there. Only steady, regular work can get you there.
To create the ideal circumstances for writing, and to protect those circumstances, to keep our soul and body properly positioned to write, you would think, would be the great aim of our life.
9. Writing is an Act of Faith, and Delaying Gratification
The trouble with writing is that it’s a weird, lonely occupation with only intermittent and unpredictable satisfactions and rewards—except for the satisfactions and rewards that come from the struggle itself, and they, too, can be elusive.
Writers have to be able to delay gratification. To work without immediate pleasures. To delay gratification in general is the great sign of maturity. In writers it is absolutely essential.
If the ability to delay gratification is the great sign of being a mature human being, with the internet we have all regressed, because the internet gives us everything that writing does not: it gives us what we dream about when sitting alone at our desks: contact with our tribe and the sense that we’re in a community; for posting mere snippets, we get liked, retweeted, favorited, shared, tagged, and notified; we get emails and instant messages and invitations to chat online. We read daily what our friends and also some of our most esteemed writers have to say about writing and life. That great conversation I thought my first book would induct me into? Here on Facebook are some of the great writers of my generation tweeting away, offering links to articles, vaunting their politics, singing the praises of their colleagues’ work.
The internet reminds me of smoking—which I gave up almost 27 years ago—but whenever someone talked about cancer or heart disease it made me want to light up. Just talking about the internet this way, makes me want to check my email or log onto Facebook. Excuse me for a minute…
I am not an isolationist when it comes to writing. I believe in writing groups and in exchanging work with friends and there is nothing more compelling than in-depth literary conversation. I also believe in leaving my desk and going out in the world to observe and research in service of book and soul. I have to replenish, refuel. Yesterday, I finally went to see the new permanent display at the Huntington: a illuminated, hand-copied edition of The Canterbury Tales; a Guttenberg bible, an original quarto of Hamlet that’s four hundred years old. And then we walked through the cactus gardens there which, as I like to say, is one of the few psychedelic experiences you can have without ingesting a drug. Somehow, this felt more generative, more like a part of writing to me than the same amount of time spent on Twitter and Facebook.
The trouble with writing is that it’s a dynamic balancing act, we are always seesawing between concentration and interruption, grandiosity and despair. The trouble with writing is that there are long dry stretches in the ugly stage, and the rewards, when they come, may not come when we need them the most. The trouble with writing is that even when some of our dreams and hopes and expectations do come true, they don’t relieve the difficulty of writing, or the solitude of writing, or the weird rollercoaster emotions of writing.
The trouble with writing is writing.
So keep going. Keep the faith. Go home to your desks and get yourself into some deep deep, trouble. And then write your way out of it.
Image via aukirk/Flickr
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
Even before it became officially so in the United States, April has long been the poet’s month. “April” (or “Aprill”) is the third word of one of the first great poems in the English language, The Canterbury Tales, and the first word in The Waste Land, which does its best to feel like the last great English poem. April — “spungy,” “proud-pied,” and “well-apparel’d” April — is also the most-mentioned month in Shakespeare, along with its springtime neighbor May, and it has given a poetic subject to Dickinson, Larkin, Plath, Glück, and countless others. Why? Do we like its promise of rebirth, its green and messy fecundity? Its hopefulness is easy to celebrate — and easy to cruelly undercut, if you’re T.S. Eliot rooting his lilies in the wasteland of death.
Eliot wasn’t the only one a little tired of the ease of April’s imagery. In 1936 Tennessee Williams received a note from a poetic acquaintance, a high school student named Mary Louise Lange who had recently won “third honorable mention” in a local literary contest. “Yes, I think April is a fine month to write poetry,” she mused. “All the little spear-points of green pricking up, all the little beginnings of new poetic thoughts, all the shafts of thoughts that will grow to future loveliness.” A few days later, Williams, oppressed by the springtime St. Louis heat, despairing of his own youthful literary prospects, and perhaps distracted by all those “spear-points” and “shafts,” confessed to his diary that he was bored and lonely enough to consider calling on her: “Maybe I’ll visit that little girl poet but her latest letter sounded a little trite and affectatious — ‘little spear points of green’ — It might be impossible.”
In our man-made calendars we often celebrate Easter and baseball’s Opening Day this month, but the April date most prominent in our lives now is April 15, the American tax day since 1955. Lincoln, who died on that day, had Whitman to mourn him, but Tax Day found few literary chroniclers until David Foster Wallace’s last, unfinished novel, The Pale King, which turns the traditional, eternal rhythm of the seasons into the flat, mechanical repetition of bureaucratic boredom. In the IRS’s Peoria Regional Examination Center where Wallace’s characters toil, the year has no natural center, just a deadline imposed by federal fiat and a daily in-box of Sisyphean tasks, a calendar that in its very featureless tedium provides at least the opportunity to test the human capacity for endurance and even quiet heroism.
Here is a selection of recommended April reading, heavy on birth, death, and rebirth, and a little boredom:
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (late 14th century)
When you feel the tender shoots and buds of April quickening again, set out in the company of Chaucer’s nine and 20 very worldly devouts, in what has always been the most bawdily approachable of English literature’s founding classics.
The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville (1857)
It’s no coincidence that the steamboat in Melville’s great, late novel begins its journey down the Mississippi on April Fool’s Day: The Confidence-Man is the darkest vision of foolishness and imposture — and one of the funniest extended jokes — in American literature.
“When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d” by Walt Whitman (1865) and The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot (1922)
Whitman’s elegy, composed soon after Lincoln’s murder and the end of the Civil War, heaps bouquets onto his coffin, and a livelier, more joyful vision of death you’re not likely to find. You certainly won’t in The Waste Land, written after a war equally bloody and seemingly barren of everything but allusions (to Whitman’s funeral lilacs among many others).
On the Road: The Original Scroll by Jack Kerouac (1951)
The legend of On the Road’s frenzied composition is partly true: Kerouac worked on the novel for years, but he really did type a complete, 125,000-word draft on a 120-foot roll of paper in three frenzied weeks in April 1951, a version finally published in 2007.
“Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King (1963) and At Canaan’s Edge by Taylor Branch (2006)
April is both the month that King, jailed in Alabama in 1963, scribbled in the margins of newspapers an open letter to the white moderates of Birmingham who counseled patience toward segregation, and the month of his murder in Memphis five years later, a scene whose seven solemn pages close the final volume of Taylor Branch’s 3,000-page trilogy, America in the King Years.
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey (1968)
Outfitted with trailer, truck, ranger shirt, tin badge, and 500 gallons of water, Abbey began his first workday, April 1, watching the sun rise over the canyonlands of Arches National Monument, the first moment recorded in this cantankerous appreciation of the wild inhumanity of nature.
Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion
In the “cold late spring of 1967,” Didion took her notebook and her eye for entropy to meet some of the young people gathering in San Francisco, where she diagnosed the end of the Summer of Love before it had even begun.
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
April in Erdrich’s North Dakota is cold enough for the sudden blizzard that opens Love Medicine and buries June Kashpaw, who had stepped out into the snow in search of a man who could be different from all the rest.
The Sportswriter by Richard Ford (1986)
Beginning with a Good Friday reunion with his ex-wife on the anniversary of their son’s death, Ford’s indelible ex-sportswriter Frank Bascombe reckons with balancing the small, heart-lifting pleasures of everydayness with the possibilities of disappointment and tragedy that gape underneath them.
The Age of Grief by Jane Smiley (1987)
Smiley’s early novella is still her masterpiece, a story of a family laid out by flu and a young marriage struggling to survive the end of its springtime that’s as close to an American version of “The Dead” as anyone has written.
My Garden (Book) by Jamaica Kincaid (1999)
“How vexed I often am when I am in the garden, and how happy I am to be so vexed.” Midway through life, Kincaid started planting in her yard in most “ungardenlike” ways, and her garden book is willful and lovely, made of notes in which she cultivates her hatreds as passionately as her affections.
The Likeness by Tana French (2008)
Ireland’s French crafted an intrigue with equal elements of the Troubles and The Secret History in her second novel, in which Detective Cassie Maddox is seduced by the mid-April murder of a student who had been playing with an identity disturbingly close to her own.
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (2011)
Don’t expect a novel when you open up The Pale King, culled from manuscripts Wallace left behind at his suicide. Read it as a series of experiments in growing human stories out of the dry soil of bureaucratic tedium, and marvel when real life, out of this wasteland, suddenly breaks through.
Image Credit: Flickr/Roger Sadler
The first time I ever heard of Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians was in a comment posted on Twitter. I follow a lot of avid (even rabid) readers, and one of them had, apparently, stepped out of their comfort zone to give this book a try. She had decided to follow the crowd and read this novel that was being called “Harry Potter for grown-ups.” She was not a fan. She called it a rip-off and accused Grossman of stealing from her beloved J.K. Rowling. Her response was so strong, so passionate, that my curiosity was piqued.
I looked up Grossman to see what he had done before. It turns out that he knows something about good writing. Grossman is the lead book critic for Time and has made a career out of both praising the efforts of writers who take risks and calling out those who he felt were overrated. He knew that he was entering dangerous territory when he set about writing a book that bears even a passing resemblance to anything as recognizable as the Harry Potter franchise. It was a big risk to take, but it has paid off, as evidenced by the The Magicians’ bestseller status.
The anticipation for his follow-up, The Magician King, has been building all summer, with some readers looking to it to fill the void left by the final Harry Potter film. It is well-suited to the task. Like The Magicians before it, the book is a collection of carefully chosen allusions to the books that have influenced Grossman as a writer. While these allusions were off-putting to some readers, they are a large part of the appeal for the readers who grew up reading the same books he did. I have to admit; each new reference that I stumbled across made me smile a little wider and drew me in a little further.
After seeing the wide-range of responses that the book has received, I found myself hoping that responses like the ones that first caught my attention were in the minority. Grossman has assured me they were.
The Millions: What sort of comments have you had regarding the many literary allusions that are found throughout The Magicians?
Lev Grossman: There have been fewer than you would think. There was a lot of focus on it before the book came out, which was worrying. Publishers Weekly dismissed the book as “derivative.” Viking’s own lawyers delayed the book’s publication – they demanded rewrites to make clearer the differences between Fillory and Narnia. But following publication almost all the readers and critics I heard from have read the similarities correctly, as allusions rather than theft. People like them – they like the fact that they’ve read the same books I have. It’s a way of recognizing our shared culture.
TM: Has anyone ever questioned you about similarities that they saw between what you wrote and another book? What did they point to, and how did you respond?
LG: I’ve seen it here and there, in blog comments and Amazon reviews – people harping on the Harry Potter allusions. But it’s a very small minority. Early on I toured the Harry Potter conventions, talking about what I was doing and the spirit in which it was intended, to try to get the word out. I think that helped. But when people do think you’ve plagiarized from another writer, rather than alluded to them, the reaction is extreme. They get angry. It’s a dangerous game; you have to get it right. Allusions can be very polarizing.
TM: As you wrote the novel, were you aware of your inspirations? How did you keep them from overtaking your story? How did you keep from crossing the line?
LG: I think I’m more aware of my influences than some writers – maybe it’s my training as an academic, but I look for them: Rowling and Lewis, obviously, but also writers like Ursula Le Guin, Neal Stephenson, Waugh, Hemingway. In truth, it’s difficult sometimes to know where the line is, to avoid getting overpowered by a strong influence. But it’s also energizing. I think Harold Bloom was right in Anxiety of Influence: some writers need to feel like they’ve gone to war with their literary progenitors, then made their peace with them.
TM: One of the criticisms that I have seen regarding the allusions in the text is that so many of the references (Gulliver’s Travels aside) are to relatively recent works. The expectation is to see mythology or Shakespeare or some other “classic.” Are the modern references lost on readers? Does it make a difference?
LG: It’s interesting, isn’t it, how allusions to contemporary works have a different resonance than references to “classic” literature. They’re certainly not lost on readers, but they can sound a bit cheap and hollow. It’s a difficult line to walk – you want your characters to live in a realistic version of the contemporary cultural environment you see around you, but if you get too specific with your references, they can take on that gimmicky quality. And they date rapidly. I spent a lot of time and effort fine-tuning the allusions in The Magicians, to get the right balance.
TM: If you had to explain the difference between alluding to another work and copying that work to a classroom full of students, how would you go about it? What sort of examples would you use? Would you refer to your own writing?
LG: The key, to me, is making it clear to the reader that you’re borrowing another writer’s elements for a reason. You have to make sure they know not only what you’re doing, but why you’re doing it. It can be confusing for a writer. Initially when I would make allusions to C.S. Lewis, I would avoid overtly criticizing or satirizing Lewis’s work, out of respect, and a worry that I would outrage Narnia fans. I quickly realized that the danger isn’t going too far, it’s not going far enough. If you’re going to borrow from Lewis, you have to travesty him, openly poke fun at him, say something about him. Anything less and readers will see your allusions as merely plagiarism.
TM: What is your favorite literary reference in the novel? Do people pick up on it?
LG: The Magicians is a web of allusions – they’re thicker than most people realize, and nobody gets them all (even me, probably). One of my favorite sequences in the book has Quentin and his friends turning into geese and flying south to Antarctica. This is an allusion to one of my favorite moments in one of my favorite novels, The Once and Future King, in which a young King Arthur is changed into a goose by Merlin as part of his education. I thought it stuck out by a mile when I wrote it, but surprisingly few people catch it.
TM: What references have others pointed out to you or asked about?
LG: People most often point out the more obscure references – it’s a good feeling when you pick up on a reference to something that’s really arcane, that you know hardly anybody else is going to spot. Cellists sometimes write to me about the Popper exercises that the characters at Brakebills have to do. They’re a reference to a famous book of cello etudes that I tried, and failed, to master during my brief career as a cellist. It’s something I put in there for myself, really, but when people spot it, it makes them happy.
TM: Were there any new influences that you were aware of as you wrote The Magician King? What should readers be watching for as they read?
LG: The Magician King’s ancestry is a little different from that of The Magicians, so it draws from a somewhat – but not entirely – different palette of references. It’s a book about journeys and quests, so there are allusions to T.H. White’s and Malory’s accounts of the Quest for the Holy Grail, and to The Odyssey and The Aeneid as well. It’s also a little more of a mystery than The Magicians was, so there are nods – there’s one in the first paragraph – to Raymond Chandler. But the most consistent presence is still C.S. Lewis, in particular Lewis’s own take on the epic, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
Grossman has put together A Brief Guide to the Hidden Allusions in The Magicians for Tor.com. It paints a pretty interesting picture of the world that Grossman lives in and the one he has created. The Magician King is full of the same pop-culture references and allusions to the works of Rowling, C.S. Lewis, and George R.R. Martin as The Magicians. Some are a bit more direct, such as Quentin referring to Janet as “Fillory Clinton.” They are also more time sensitive.
What The Magician King has that was a bit lacking in the first is a rich undercurrent of mythology and folklore. When searching for the root of all magic, it only makes sense that they turn to the “old gods,” an allusion to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. They are the ones who harnessed the magic that gave rise to Fillory, and, it would seem, they are none too happy that it has fallen into mortal hands. Here are a few of the less modern references from Grossman’s new book The Magician King:
p. 8: “Good luck,” Julia said. “Dryads fight. Their skin is like wood. And they have staves.”
“I’ve never seen a dryad fight,” Quentin said.
“That is because nobody is stupid enough to fight one.”
In Greek Mythology, the dryads are tree nymphs most closely associated with oak trees. They appear extensively throughout literature, typically as shy creatures who keep to themselves. It is C.S. Lewis who made them fighters, putting them alongside Aslan and the Pevensie children.
p. 22: “Et in Arcadia ego.”
A Latin phrase, meaning “I too was there in Arcadia.” It was meant as a memento mori, or a reminder of one’s own mortality. Here, Quentin is remembering that Alice’s death was not then end of the darkness that exists in Fillory.
p. 101: “They straggled to a stop in front of it, a brave company of knights assembled before the Chapel Perilous.”
The Chapel Perilous first appears in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. It is where Sir Lancelot fends off the advances of the sorceress Hellawes. This is just one of many Arthurian references throughout the novel, though it is the least direct.
p. 182: “At the end of the poem, hadn’t he run to the Goat (by which he meant the constellation Capricorn, a footnote gallantly informed her) to find New Love? Or was it lust?”
Julia is referring to John Donne and his poem “A Nocturnal Upon S. Lucies Day.” By the end of the poem, Donne has decided to move on, just as Julia decides to leave magic behind for good.
p. 185: ViciousCirce and Asmodeus
The screen names of Julia and one of the other members of Free Traders Beowulf (a reference to the sci-fi role-playing game Traveller). ViciousCirce is a refrence to Circe, a minor goddess of magic in Greek mythology who plays an important role in The Odyssey. Asmodeus is the king of demons, mentioned in The Book of Tobit. Julia is very surprised to find the person behind the screen name is a 17 year old girl.
p. 321: Reynard the Fox
A European trickster figure from medieval times, Reynard is described by Grossman as “some kind of anti-gentry, anti-clerical hero of the peasantry.” There are references to Reynard in both The Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
p. 338: “Benedict is in the underworld. He is not a ghost. He is a shade.”
A shade, in various mythologies, refers to the spirit of someone that is residing in the Underworld. Quentin is sent to visit Benedict there, making a trip similar to the one Aeneas makes to visit his father in The Aeneid.
The Magicians is very much a product of the world that Grossman grew up in and the type of life he led. Geeks everywhere could find something to identify with in that book, be it Harry Potter or Advanced D&D. The Magician King appeals to a wider audience, bringing the old and the new together, and creating a whole new mythology.