Archive for quotes

First readings of the semester

This semester, we’re starting out with George Saunders because I can’t think of a better introduction to anything than that.

George Saunders

We’re reading “Speaking of Style” by Debra Spark from her book Curious Attractions where she talks about style really being about your vision of the world. I’m pairing it with “Sea Oak” by George Saunders (a story so funny [and tragic] I tried reading it aloud to my husband but was laughing so hard I could only get through the first scene) as well as “The Tenth of December” from the book by the same name. These stories are clearly written by the same author, but have very different outlooks on the world. In class we’ll read highlights of this interview with Saunders from The New Yorker. Here’s a excerpt:

“Getting through that and finding yourself at the other end of the tunnel—it opens up a certain space in the artistic mind, I think. Living through those twenty-five years and then making a fictive world that had only pitfalls and misfortune would feel false. And/or incomplete. If you think of a work of fiction as a kind of scale model of the world, then the positive valences—where things turn out better than you thought they would—ought to be in there somewhere, too. Something like that.

“So in this book—although there’s still a lot of cruelty and darkness and all of that—I found my eye being drawn to the moments when things don’t go totally down the shitter, and asking, well, how does that happen? I started to feel that, at certain points in some of the stories, the most interesting aesthetic motion—the plot twist, if you will—was the one that swerved away from what I might call the habitually catastrophic.”

Ah, George Saunders. I read your work and have to practice my Jealousy Abatement Breathing.

What I’m reading: Blackout by Sarah Hepola

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“Not taking a drink was easy. Just a matter of muscle movement, the simple refusal to put alcohol to my lips. The impossible part was everything else. How could I talk to people? Who would I be? What would intimacy look like, if it weren’t coaxed out by the glug-glug of a bottle of wine or a pint of beer? Would I have to join AA? Become one of those frightening 12-step people? How the fuck could I write? My livelihood, my identity, my purpose, my light–all extinguished with the tightening of a screw cap.”

What I’m reading: The Wife, Meg Wolitzer

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You sound bitter, Bone would say.

That’s because I am, I would tell him.

Everyone needs a wife; even wives need wives. Wives tend, they hover. Their ears are twin sensitive instruments, satellites picking up the slightest scrape of dissatisfaction. Wives bring broth, we bring paper clips, we bring ourselves and our pliant, warm bodies. We know just what to say to the men who for some reason have a great deal of trouble taking consistent care of themselves or anyone else.

‘Listen,’ we say. ‘Everything will be okay.’

And then, as if our lives depend on it, we make sure it is.”

What I’m reading: Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life

“These memories of who I was and where I lived are important to me. They make up a large part of who I’m going to be when my journey winds down. I need the memory of magic if I am ever going to conjure magic again. I need to know and remember, and I want to tell you.”

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What I’m reading: Tumbledown by Robert Boswell

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“People encounter life in vastly dissimilar ways. Some insist their days are orderly and unchanging, vessels on a slow-moving assembly belt, each identically filled by invisible hands. For others, the days are relentlessly complicated and unpredictable, as different, one from another, as patients waiting to see a therapist. But for everyone there comes a day when the filling no longer fits the vessel, when the therapist finds himself pouring out his heart to the patient, when air is indistinguishable from water and out is the rough equivalent of in, a day when even the voice of god carries a dubious tremor.”

What I’m reading: “Malaria” by Michael Byers

“When I was in college in Eugene I had a girlfriend named Nora Vardon. We had fallen together sort of accidentally, I talked to her first at a vending machine where we ere both buying coffee, and things progressed in the usual slow ways, we went out one cold night to look at the blurry stars, and that led to some kissing, and from there we started the customary excavation of our families, revealing, not quite competitively, how crazy they both were, she with a raft of depressives and schizophrenics and me with a bunch of drunks, mainly the men on my father’s side. She had an open, genial, feline face, with big cheeks and dark eyes, and a big, soft body that was round in parts and that was covered for three months out of the year, with the big textured bruises left by lacrosse balls. She was very pretty, really, and I counted myself lucky to be around her. I was skinny and out of necessity got cheap haircuts, so I wasn’t much to look at, and I tended to be secretive, I suppose you could put it that way, although I had nothing to be secretive about, being only twenty and unadventurous.”

Reprinted in Best American Short Stories 2013 

Reading like a writer who is reading like a reader

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Tim Parks, a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, has some great advice about how to get the most out of reading and examples of how he reads. I assigned these articles recently in my Advanced Fiction Writing class and thought they were very helpful in thinking about how we prepare for workshops. Some highlights:

“Always make three or four comments on every page, at least one critical, even aggressive. Put a question mark by everything you find suspect. Underline anything you really appreciate. . . . We are no longer passive consumers of a monologue but active participants in a dialogue.”

“But if writers are to entice us into their vision, let us make them work for it.”

“As I dive into the opening pages, the first question I’m asking is, what are the qualities or values that matter most to this author, or at least in this novel?”

“I’m on the lookout for how each character positions himself in relation to [these qualities].”

“Getting a sense of the values around which the story is organizing itself isn’t always easy; I might chnage my mind two or three times. But let’s say that the mere attempt to do that gives me something to look for. After that the next step is to wonder what is the connection between these [qualities].”

Students had interesting responses to these articles. While they recognized they didn’t want to be “passive consumers,” they were concerned that reading a book too critically would suck the fun out of it. I get this, I do, and have talked about it briefly here, but these articles brings me to two conclusions: the books like the ones you want to write are the ones you need to read most closely and critically, and that reading critically brings its own kind of pleasure.

1) So many of my students want to write popular genre work because they love to read it, and I think that’s great, but the problem here is that these works are the ones they need to read the most closely. They know they need to read Jane Eyre critically, but if what they love is Dean Koontz and they’re not willing to read this critically, are they understanding how it’s really put together? Which is a better model for them? Charlotte or Dean?

And while I understand that they don’t want to lose that excitement of gobbling up a novel, isn’t it a different kind of pleasure to read critically? Think of a child shoving in tater tots versus an adult with a more sophisticated palette enjoying a meal bite by bite. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, but they provide a different kind of pleasure.

That said, sometimes I want to shove tater tots blindly into my mouth until my pants don’t fit and my eyes are glazed by carbs. Go for it, I say, but just make sure it isn’t the only thing you’re eating.

What I’m reading: The Other Side, by Lacy M. Johnson

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“Twice a week he comes to pick me up from our old apartment to take me on another miserable date. I don’t let him hod my hand. I don’t let him kiss me. I say, Maybe we should do this only once a week. Then, Only twice a month. Meanwhile, with no one to watch over me, I eat less. I start taking diet pills in addition to the other pills and fall in love with the constant and perpetual neural hum of time travel: how the world slows, how the mind speeds through it.”

What I’m reading: The Kept by James Scott

“The room lurched. Elspeth gripped the table more firmly, gave more of her weight to it, afraid she might pass out.

He brought the baby closer. Elspeth could smell it, the sweetness of its skin, and she reached out a quivering finger and ran the back of it along the child’s cheek and a thrill spiraled through her. The rush of that soft skin. Everything inside of her moved faster, her heart larger, her bones stronger, her hearing clearer, her vision brighter. The memories she kept chained inside her broke free, including those she banished beyond all others.”

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What I’m reading: After I’m Gone by Laura Lippman

“Ten years. Ten years. Rachel missed her father every day. Not consciously, but his absence was a part of her, like a vine that wraps around a structure, sustains it even as it weakens it. She assumed Linda and her mother felt the same way, but they seldom spoke of him. They allowed themselves a handful of nice stories–‘Remember the time at Gino’s?’ ‘Remember the bumper cars?’ ‘Remember the time at the Prime Rib?’–and that was all.

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