Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process

This book contains some of the most useful advice about writing that I’ve seen, much better than the random writing classes I’ve popped in and out of over the years. Especially useful is the section about Structure, originally in the New Yorker like the rest of McPhee’s stuff. One example is the cyclical nature of his Alaska tale, how he starts on day 4 of the adventure in present tense, goes to the end and loops the first 3 days as flashback in past, all to support the true nature of when they ran into bears along the way. Also in this chapter is information on the program McPhee uses— Kedit, a bare bones text editor that doesn’t do fancy things like pagination or spell check but will count the number of times you use words, zapping you for over-reliance on certain terms.

One Day a Year

I’m adding this book even though I skimmed the last 300 pages because I can’t stop thinking about it and perhaps it has inspired me to do a similar project. Christa Wolf wrote extensively about her September 27th of each year. This, in addition to a daily journal. But the Sept 27 pieces each year were vastly expanded, trying to give a real sense of the day itself beyond just jotting down the daily details in shorthand like most journal entries. This book is a collection of 40 of those Sept 27 entries, translated from the German. Inspired to read this after this article about Wolf, which raises some of the same pain points I experienced—her writing is best when highly personal and at its most dreary when describing the day-to-day of living as an East German active in the Communist Party. The introduction might have been the best part, wherein she muses, “Is life identical with time in its unavoidable but mysterious passage? While I write this sentence, time passes; simultaneously a tiny piece of my life comes into being — and passes away.”

Robinson Jeffers: Poet of California

Yawn. This kind of hagiography masquerading as a biography does a disservice to its subject. I’m left feeling even more distant from the poet Jeffers than I was before picking up this book in preparation for an upcoming visit to Tor House. Was Jeffers  simply not a very interesting person, or did the biographer do little but spew what passes as the work of a second-grader? The sentence structure is so simplified, it feels like reading a Dick and Jane primer.

Apparently this crew loved to kill themselves with cyanide (it merits its own entry in the index!), as this flat sentence states: “Nora had swallowed cyanide, the sediment from which was found in her glass.” Another example of the terrible writing, w/r/t George Sterling, whose former wife “Carrie, who never stopped loving him, ended her life with poetic flair in August 1918. She carefully arranged her hair, put on a dressing gown and placed a recording of Chopin’s Funeral March on the gramophone. Then she took a lethal dose of cyanide, lay down on her bed and, listing to the somber strains of music, joined her own procession to the grave.” [“Never stopped loving him”? Don’t bother citing any evidence for this, just her suicide, right?] Sterling’s pal Jack London also possibly suicided, but nothing about London’s undying love for Sterling here. Sterling himself later opted out of life with his own packet of cyanide.

Most egregious, as is always the case with these terrible bios of men, is the treatment of women. When Jeffers’ wife Uma is initially introduced, she’s “strikingly beautiful and very intelligent,” reading Faust. While getting her master’s degree at USC, she was a married woman who fell in love with Jeffers, eventually ditching her marriage and studies to drive up the coast and launch his poetic career in Carmel. Her own pastimes became sewing and doing “household chores” (the biographer can’t be bothered to be more descriptive).  “Her children were at the center of her life.” Following the usual playbook, Jeffers has several affairs, one of which was arranged by Mabel Dodge Luhan, who “decided that Jeffers should have an affair. Only the passionate embrace of a younger woman could revivify his spirits and restore the flow of creative energy within… Jeffers either pursued the woman or surrendered to her charms.” Christ on a cracker.

What I’m taking away from this is that Robinson Jeffers lived a charmed life, discovering a wild and serene place where he built a home for his family and where he was able to howl at the moon while writing his poetry, listening to the waves crash nearby. My only consolation is that as time passed, Carmel got increased tourist traffic and grumpy Jeffers put up signs trying to drive people away but they liked picnicking on the rocks below his house, almost driving him away.

Conversations with Friends: A Novel

It’s weird how the same Baffler article could gift me this delight in the same breath as the fairly putrid Asymmetry, but here we are! I very much enjoyed Sally Rooney’s tale of not a love triangle but a love square perhaps? Finishing up college, Frances is our narrator, a strong intelligent poet whose only relationship has been with her best friend Bobbi. Enter a married couple, Nick and Melissa, when Melissa asks to photograph Bobbi and Frances and write up a profile about their spoken word performances. Bobbi pursues Melissa while Nick and Frances sidle up to each other. The couples part, come back together, part again, ending up in a cozy intertwining that is a happy ending of sorts? Along the way Frances is chronically poor from her drunk father not depositing funds for her, fainting due to her newly diagnosed endometriosis, trying to make sense of the Dublin world. Highly entertaining romp.

Asymmetry: A Novel

If only Lisa Halliday had released this as short stories instead of trying to asymmetrically forcing the two stories into a non-coherent whole, I would have enjoyed it more. Hooray for the first part, wherein she writes what she knows, drawing on her relationship with the much older Phillip Roth who plied her with gifts and contrasted wildly to her younger life. But part 2 comes along to remind you of how bad writing can be when so removed from what you know. And then there’s some weird coda that supposedly knits the whole together, an interview with the Roth-ian character. Did literary America all conspire to push this book forward? I did not enjoy the shift off a cliff it never recovered from.

They Live

Jonathan Lethem’s analysis of John Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live is delicious and insightful. While not required to have seen the movie immediately before reading, it certainly helps as he calls out details that you missed upon a cursory viewing. Somewhat questionable is his insistence on the nod to gay porn, but he makes a fairly compelling argument (Nada taking his shirt off for no good reason, Frank’s deep-throated come hither invitation to join the homeless camp, their strange grappling in the alley) and backs it up by referencing the fact that Carpenter wrote several porn scripts in the 70s. Lethem guides us minute by minute through the romp, pulling out the obvious references (shot by shot comparison to Hitchcock, nods to John Wayne, etc.) and pieces of the plot you’re likely to overlook in the lead-up to the best sequence, the appearance of the ghouls & slogans when wearing the Hoffman glasses. I’m definitely interested in watching this again with fresh eyes.

The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft

George Gissing almost had my complete admiration with this book of curmudgeonly wisdom from a writer retiring to a peaceful life in the countryside until he slapped me with a throwaway sexist comment near the end: “Little girls should be taught cooking and baking more assiduously than they are taught to read.” Yowza, Gissing. Up until that point we were mind-melding, but that was the record scratch that brought me up short. Perhaps I’m too sensitive; Woolf didn’t seem to mind that bit when she wrote her essay about his talents.

Before the casual, devastating sexism popped in, I was wholly loving this story of a retired writer who lucked into an inheritance from a friend that allowed him to spend his remaining years peacefully reading and thinking in the countryside, wandering on walks, watching the seasons, learning the names of the wildflowers he encountered, hating the sound of the human voice to disrupt his reveries.

His advice for letting the day’s news wait until later in the day is refreshing for those of us addicted to refreshing the internet/Twitter for the latest gossip: “Generally I leave [the newspaper] till I come back tired from my walk; it amuses me then to see what the noisy world is doing, what new self-torments men have discovered, what new forms of vain toil, what new occasions of peril and of strife. I grudge to give the first freshness of the morning mind to things so sad and foolish.” Later, he adds: “Every day the world grows noisier; I, for one, will have no part in that increasing clamour, and, were it only by my silence, I confer a boon on all.”

He frequently reflects on his earlier toils, making his living by his pen, dodging poverty by the skin of his teeth. Mostly, he did it alone. “I never belonged to any cluster; I shrank from casual acquaintance, and, through the grim years, had but one friend with whom I held converse. It was never my instinct to look for help, to seek favour for advancement; whatever step I gained was gained by my own strength.”

On living alone in cheap lodgings: “I was easily satisfied; I wanted only a little walled space in which I could seclude myself, free from external annoyance… A door that locked, a fire in winter, a pipe of tobacco–these were things essential; and, granted these, I have been richly contented in the squalidest garret.”

My kinship with Gissing grew even more with his delight in reading. “To the end I shall be reading– and forgetting. Ah, that’s the worst of it! Had I at command all the knowledge I have at any time possessed, I might call myself a learned man. Nothing surely is so bad for the memory as long-enduring worry, agitation, fear. I cannot preserve more than a few fragments of what I read, yet read I shall, persistently, rejoicingly. Would I gather erudition for a future life?  Indeed, it no longer troubles me that I forget. I have the happiness of the passing moment, and what more can mortal ask?”

He also hated the sounds of the city. “Every morning when I awake, I thank heaven for silence… I remember the London days when sleep was broken by clash and clang, by roar and shriek, and when my first sense on returning to consciousness was hatred of the life about me. Noises of wood and metal, clattering of wheels, banging of implements, jangling of bells–all such things are bad enough, but worse still is the clamorous human voice. Nothing on earth is more irritating to me than a bellow or scream of idiot mirth, nothing more hateful than a shout or yell of brutal anger. Were it possible, I would never again hear the utterance of a human tongue, save from those few who are dear to me.”

Most houses were quarrelsome, but his was not. “What proportion of the letters delivered any morning would be found to be written in displeasure, in petulance, in wrath? The postbag shrieks insults or bursts with suppressed malice.”

Thinking vs. reading: “I read much less than I used to do; I think much more. Yet what is the use of thought which can no longer serve to direct life? Better, perhaps, to read and read incessantly, losing one’s futile self in the activity of other minds.”

More on reading: “How the mood for a book sometimes rushes upon one, either one knows not why, or in consequence, perhaps, of some most trifling suggestion… often it happens that the book which comes to mind could only be procured with trouble and delay; I breathe regretfully and put aside the thought. Ah! the books that one will never read again. They gave delight, perchance something more; they left a perfume in the memory; but life has passed them by for ever. I have but to muse, and one after another they rise before me. Books gentle and quieting; books noble and inspiring; books that well merit to be pored over, not once but many a time. Yet never again shall I hold them in my hand; the years fly by too quickly, and are too few. Perhaps when I lie waiting for the end, some of those lost books will come  into my wandering thoughts, and I shall remember them as friends to whom I owed a kindness– friends passed upon the way.  What regret in that last farewell!”

On coming to grips with old age: “As I walked today in the golden sunlight–this warm, still day on the far verge of autumn–there suddenly came to me a thought which checked my step, and for the moment half bewildered me. I said to myself: My life is over. Surely I ought to have been aware of that simple fact; certainly it has made part of my meditation, has often coloured my mood; but the thing had never definitely shaped itself, ready in words for the tongue. My life is over. I uttered the sentence once or twice, that my ear might test its truth.”

 

 

America Day by Day

Simone de Beauvoir falls in love with New York on her first visit to America in 1947, spending four months exploring the U.S. from coast to coast. This book was a revision of her diaries, translated by Carol Cosman. It’s always fascinating to travel back in time and get someone’s fresh perspective on the world you currently live in, with buried details that otherwise would go unremarked. Is it true that flophouses in New York had tramps sleep sitting on benches with their arms leaning on a rope and supporting their heads on their arms, then when their time is up, someone pulls the cord and they fall forward awake? Was it the custom in the 1940s that Valentine’s Day was a day when young girls gave gifts to their boyfriends but not vice versa, or did she get that wrong? She did, however, nail this: “There’s always some holiday going on in America; it’s distracting. Even private celebrations, especially birthdays, have the dignity of public ceremonies. It seems that the birth of every citizen is a national event. The other evening at a nightclub, the whole room began to sing, in chorus, ‘Happy Birthday’, while a portly gentleman, flushed and flattered, squeezed his wife’s fingers.”

In Chicago she stays at the Palmer hotel and an old woman guards the entrance to the hallway, pocketing Simone’s hotel room key for her. Arriving in LA, she’s whisked around by a friend of hers who bought a car a few days earlier just so they could get around. Some of the rich, idle characters she encounters get put in their place neatly: “The rest of the time he’s bored, like everyone in America with too much leisure time. He goes off in his big car to meet other people who are also bored, he takes them to other people’s homes, and when he’s managed to get a large enough group together, he thinks he’s really having a good time.”

Her visit to San Francisco is a bit flat since she knows no one here. But she hated Playland at the Beach, calling it “a sad little amusement park like Venice in Los Angeles.” And she mentions that a sign on the Bay Bridge has a $5 fine if you run out of gas on the bridge, and there’s a small device at the beginning of the bridge that discharges cars of any electricity accumulated. Weird!

Back in LA: “The entrance into Los Angeles is a long, burning agony… Above the valley the heat is almost always temperate and bearable, even in summer…. How harsh work must seem in this indolent climate… I understand why, in Hollywood, ambitions weaken, minds grow dull, and only the immediate seems real. The intense blue of this sky is at once too easy and too hard.”

The Odyssey

This is the translation of Homer’s Odyssey I’ve been waiting for—the first English translation of the ancient Greek text by a woman. The retelling of this ancient story from a woman’s perspective is a marvel and I felt closer to the text than in previous readings. The Odyssey is a smorgasbord of entertainment: detailed descriptions of lavish feasts, fantastic adventure tales, a love story, murders, enchantment, a guide to etiquette. The rosy-fingered dawn and wine-dark sea are you constant companions.

A very skillful 80 page introduction lays the groundwork for your appreciation of the book, complemented by a translator’s note that picks apart some of the tangled threads I’ve been thinking about translation over the years. Wilson asserts that the original text is much simpler than the convoluted, highly stylized versions we’ve gotten in the past (“The notion that Homeric epic must be rendered in grand, ornate, rhetorically elevated English has been with us since the time of Alexander Pope. It is past time, I believe, to reject this assumption.”)

Her aim is for simple, ordinary, straightforward English in order to highlight the fact that Homeric writing is also not stylistically pompous. Even more impressive, her version is the exact length as the original text with same number of lines. “I chose to write within this difficult constraint because any translation without such limitations will tend to be longer than the original, and I wanted a narrative pace that could match its stride to Homer’s nimble gallop.”

The best part of her Translator’s Note is calling out that it’s traditional to “bewail one’s own inadequacy when trying to be faithful to the original, [but she believes] we need to rethink the terms in which we talk about translation.” Hers is an entirely different work than the original. And her translation avoids the usual sexism brought into the other attempts. It is eye-opening to read Wilson’s translation go toe-to-toe with Fagles’ and this becomes more obvious. For example, after Telemachus’s famous lashing out at Penelope telling her to shut up and leave the talking to men, Wilson has Penelope’s reaction as “That startled her.” Fagles’ reaction for Penelope was that she was “Astonished.” And in Book 3, during Nestor’s sacrifice of a cow to Athena, Wilson has: “Then Nestor’s daughters and his son’s wives, and his own loyal queen, Eurydice, began to chant.” Fagles translation is laughable: “The women shrilled their cry, Nestor’s daughters, sons’ wives and his own loyal wife Eurydice, Clymenus’ eldest daughter.”

Being a Writer: Advice, Musings, Essays and Experiences From the World’s Greatest Authors

Writers love books about writers, but this one doesn’t merit picking up. Someone has cherry-picked their favorite phrases and wisdom about writing from a variety pack of authors and pulled it into a coffee-table-esque book meant to inspire you to get off your arse and write. However, all was not lost, I did pick up a few tidbits:

  • Jack Kerouac gives (rightful) praise to Gertrude Stein—”When the question is therefore asked, ‘Are writers born or made?’ one should first ask, ‘do you mean writers of talent or writers of originality?’ Because everybody can write but not everybody invents new forms of writing. Gertrude Stein invented new forms of writing and her imitators are just ‘talents.'”
  • A bolt of truth splits me in half from Thoreau: “How vain it is to sit down and write when you have not stood up to live.”
  • Thomas Mann: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
  • Katherine Mansfield: “Looking back, I imagine I was always writing. Twaddle it was too. But better far write twaddle or anything, anything, than nothing at all.”

Meet the Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living

Zzzzzzzzzz. I need to come up with a term for books like this, stretched out prose pulled from a blog by print publishers desperate for eyeballs. My own eyeballs got strained by rolling in their sockets at the obvious tips: stop eating at restaurants! that daily coffee adds up! wow, why do women spend so much money on makeup & clothes?! look how cheap we can get furniture on Craigslist! Besides the lack of anything interesting to say w/r/t frugal living, you have to suffer through the tale told from the perspective of a woman who has been begging this guy to marry her as soon as they graduate college (barf) and then them desperately trying to have a baby (double barf and also contrary to frugality). In the end they win b/c they find a decent house to buy in Cambridge, MA, that they rent out and survive on that income while living on their homestead in Vermont which miraculously came with fiber Internet already installed.

Being Here Is Everything: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker

An excellent, short biography cobbled of artist Paula Modersohn-Becker out of a collection of letters and journals. She lived a short life (1876–1907), marrying a widower (Modersohn) in 1901 and then spending most of her final six years trying to create a space alone to paint, traipsing off to Paris to escape the muddy winters of northern Germany. Her death, like so many others, brought on after giving birth, that most dangerous of activities. Her friendship with Rilke gives the most color to this biography, his rapturous letters and poignant “Requiem for a Friend” written on the year anniversary of her death. A wonderful effort by Marie Darrieussecq to bring Paula to life for us a hundred years later, giving us just enough detail to make us realize how much we missed by her not living longer.

Sharp: The women who made an art of having an opinion

I had high expectations for this book which led to disappointment. Dean’s intent is to tell the story of 20th century NYC intellectual life  through the lens of all the important ladies, with connections between them all that she claimed had never been explored before. Each chapter attempts to daisy-chain into the next, a sort of handshake between the women, from Dorothy Parker to Rebecca West (with tiny digression to Zora Neale Hurston) to Hannah Arendt to Mary McCarthy to Susan Sontag to Pauline Kael to Joan Didion to Nora Ephron to Renata Adler to Janet Malcolm. At some point it devolves into a gossipy tone and drones on about the various in-fighting, squabbling at other authors via print, pointed letters, etc. (One good bit of gossip was in McCarthy’s letter to Arendt about Saul Bellow requiring his London audience to remain seated for 10 minutes after he finished so no one would ask for his autograph.)

I began this book with an appreciation for a handful of the women (Sontag, Adler, Parker, and Ephron) and generally enjoyed their chapters. A better book would have been able to engage me with the rest, to tease me into wanting to give their works another try (my god I’ve attempted Rebecca West at least 8 times now).

The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative

I wonder if you get health benefits simply from reading this book. Florence Williams covers a lot of scientific ground in her exploration of how humans react to nature in ways that reduce stress and make us more sane and healthy. The senses are scrutinized individually: smell (aromatherapy benefits of tree exhalations), sound, sight. Brain waves are measured with EEG machines in the field. Surveys are meticulously taken. Fists are shaken at the omnipresent planes flying over her house in DC with negative comparisons to her previously idyllic life in Colorado.

I began to weary a bit of the attempt by science to pry out the mystery of why nature helps us and was happy when stumbling on Williams’s own misgivings: “I find the intellectual compulsion to break apart the pieces of nature and examine them one by one both interesting and troubling. I understand it’s the way science works… [but the] poets would find this is nonsense.” All of her encounters with virtual reality simulations of nature in the experiments seemed to be a bust, nothing can compare to the sensations of being outside. She travels around the world, citing pithy quotes from Edward Abbey to Frederick Olmsted to Ellen Meloy to Wordsworth (Bill AND Dorothy!) to Thoreau to Emerson and Whitman (why no Annie Dillard?), forest bathes in Japan, desert hikes for 3 days with a group of university students, whitewater rafts for a week with women veterans recovering from PTSD, and much more.

Tidbits:

  • There’s evidence that “more introverted or neurotic people are more annoyed by loud noises” than other people are. Fantastic.
  • Our brains are similar to birds in the parts that hear, process, and make language. “Humans share more genes governing speech with songbirds than we do with other primates.” This may help explain why we have a “primal affiliation” with bird sounds that soothe us (if you don’t hear birds, something might be wrong).
  • Fight for proximity to a window wherever you are: hospital, office, etc. Even Florence Nightingale’s 19th century nursing textbook showed the importance of light second only to fresh air.
  • Five hours a month in nature bare minimum for sanity. “Just 15-45 minutes in a city park, even one with pavement, crowds and some street noise, were enough to improve mood, vitality and feelings of restoration.”
  • Alone or with friends? Psychologist Wohlwill wrote that “natural environments experienced in solitude seemed especially restorative to people who are mentally fatigued or socially stressed.” But research suggests that if you’re depressed or anxious, social walking in nature helps if you’re with people you like. It’s better to be alone if you want to boost creativity, self-reflect, or solve problems in your life.
  • Exercise of any sort is beneficial; physical activity changes the brain to improve memory, slow aging, improve mood, lower anxiety, help depression.
  • To combat self-wallowing, get out into nature to see that the universe is bigger than you.
  • Psychologist Searles in 1960: “The nonhuman environment, far from being of little or no account to human personality development, constitutes one of the most basically important ingredients of human psychological existence… Over recent decades we have come from dwelling in another world in which the living works of nature either predominated or were near at hand, to dwelling in an environment dominated by a technology which is wondrously powerful and yet nonetheless dead.”

 

Neon in Daylight

A love letter to NYC in the best possible way. A woman escaping from her stifling post-grad life in London stumbles onto a 6 month house/cat-sit and discovers herself while falling in love with New York. Kate, the narrator, changes with each experience, growing more unpredictable as she downs drugs and sheds inhibitions. The best parts are the meaty bits I love about NYC, the grimy hot summer, the sweaty subway, the people packed and interesting. The flimsier part of the book is the wobbly plot structure—Kate sees Inez in a bodega on her first jet-lagged night, buys the same brand of cigarettes as Inez, then (serendipitously!) Inez runs into Kate in Washington Square and asks if she’s the Kate looking to buy Adderall. No, but (gasp!) her name is also Kate, and thus begins a friendship. Another coincidence—Kate meets Bill (famous old author) at a gallery party and gosh if he isn’t Inez’s father! The hubbub comes crashing to a climax at a Halloween party where the three end up and Bill’s old Warhol-factory-pal shoots himself on his 88th birthday.