“Have regrets. They are fuel.”

Posted in Writing on February 26th, 2010 by dylan

Ten rules for writing fiction, an article from The Guardian, recently went viral at The Grotto—a group of about 35 San Francisco authors who share office space and comradeship. Thanks, Natalie Baszile, for the link.

Don’t be put off that the piece starts with Elmore Leonard, whose ten rules you read nine years ago in The New York Times. (Does he sound more sonorous in The Guardian? I didn’t spot the word hooptedoodle this time.)

Anyway, the UK reporter kept working the proverbial phones, reaching Annie Proulx and many others. A few favorites:

Roddy Doyle

Do give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy.

Geoff Dyer

Keep a diary. The biggest regret of my writing life is that I have never kept a journal or a diary.

Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire.

Anne Enright

Remember, if you sit at your desk for 15 or 20 years, every day, not counting weekends, it changes you. It just does. It may not improve your temper, but it fixes something else. It makes you more free.

Jonathan Franzen

The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than “The Metamorphosis.”

You see more sitting still than chasing after.

Zadie Smith

Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.

And two resources from my own stash:

Janet Fitch keeps a weather journal, and says why on her blog:

It’s hard to remember February when you’re sweltering in the firepit of August.  I couldn’t invent the dinnerplate sized rosettes of sempervium swollen with rain in a rock wall, or the slow purposeful bees visiting the white lantana, this liquid warbling of songbirds–mockingbirds, robins!

She goes on:

I do the weather to stay tuned to the phenomenon of the real world.  Reality is not virtual.  The weather is everything–-time of day, light and shadow, scent, textures and patterns, sound, the three dimensions, distance, what’s blooming, what’s bare…and how I feel this morning, after rain…

And here are links to four (written) fiction lectures by Michael Kimball on HTML Giant. I love that Michael quotes writers like Gary Lutz and  Sam Lipsyte. Here’s the beginning of Story & Plot:

“Fuck the plot.” Edna O’Brien says that in a Paris Review interview. She then goes on to say this: “What matters is the imaginative truth.” I don’t know what she means, exactly, by “imaginative truth,” but I can imagine what she means.

It reminds me of something that somebody told me Rick Whitaker said: “Plot tells you how their life turns out. What the fuck do I care about how their life turns out? I want to know their heart.”

And that reminds me of this quote from Andy Devine: “We all know how the story ends. If you have the baby, then the baby will die. If you fall in love, then the love will end.”

I care deeply about story. But I love these quotes, and pre-ordered Andy Devine’s book, Words. No, I was not remotely influenced by the fact that Andy Devine and Michael Kimball are the same smart, generous and enviably productive person.

I have a bunch of readings coming up fast—in in LA, SF, DC, Charlottesville, and AWP in Denver. It would be lovely to see friends.

Dog & Poem Therapy

Posted in Reading, writing, healing on February 20th, 2010 by dylan

Spend three weeks at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica and you will meet quite a few canine therapists. Moe, a standard poodle, was particularly healing for my mom; he ascended to her bed on lanky paws, folded them beneath himself like a colt, and rested his long muzzle on her hand. Kiki, a golden Lab, sat on the chair and gave my mother the long, appraising gaze of a consulting physician. And Jasmine,  a Sheltie, leapt catlike onto the bed with collie-like fur that felt as if she’d been lolling under a sunlamp.

We also had a poetry therapist. My friend Heather Hartley, whose debut collection, Knock Knock, just came out, emailed a poem every other day for me to read aloud. Dear Heather, I could not wrap my tongue around e. e. cummings’s “I was sitting in mcsorley’s.” (Sample verse: he’s a palping wreaths of badly Yep cigars who jim him why gluey grins topple together eyes pout gestures stickily point made glints squinting who’s a wink bum-nothing and money fuzzily mouths take big wobbly foot)

But the next day’s poem delightfully fit the dog party that took place in Room 2292: two therapy dogs in the room at once. Turns out the dog therapists visit schools, too, where children with reading difficulties–kids who can barely read aloud in class–will happily struggle with a book if Moe or Jasmine is listening to their efforts in a quiet corner. Stammer all you want, you will never get a harsh word from a golden Lab.

Get Drunk!

by Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)

One should always be drunk. That’s all that matters; that’s our one imperative need.  So as not to feel Time’s horrible burden that breaks your shoulders and bows you down, you must get drunk without ceasing.

But what with? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you choose. But get drunk.

And if, at some time, on the steps of a palace, in the green grass of a ditch, in the bleak solitude of your room, you are waking up when drunkenness has already abated, ask the wind, the wave, a star, the clock, all that which flees, all that which groans, all that which rolls, all that which sings, all that which speaks, ask them what time it is; and the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock will reply: “It is time to get drunk! So that you may not be the martyred slaves of Time, get drunk; get drunk, and never pause for rest! With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you choose!”

(Translation by Michael Hamburger, cited in more depth in comment below.)

Heather also emailed Cecilia Woloch‘s “Be Always Late.” It resonates deeply and wildly with the Baudelaire; I can’t find it online but intend to track it down in print.

Thick handles swirling by

Posted in Reading (as a writer) on February 15th, 2010 by dylan

I’m rereading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, because my brain deletes all critical data on some mysterious schedule. So I just had the great pleasure of remembering (again) that the first chapter is a collection of sensory impressions that alter as Stephen matures. Meaning: as his brain changes neurologically from a baby’s to a older child’s.

Dean used to read aloud to me a John Updike short story called “Wife-wooing” from the collection Pigeon Feathers, and somewhere is a sentence about the two-year-old baby that goes, “Language is to him thick vague handles swirling by; he grabs what he can.” Joyce opens Portrait with Stephen at (I’m guessing) a slightly older two than Updike’s toddler, caring intensely what words mean, and remembering them.

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo…

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.

I love how that first paragraph is singsong, like a parent’s voice. The second has a marvelous lurching quality, like a toddler’s gait or attention span. And it’s so much more interesting to guess Stephen’s age from concrete details than to be told it outright. Joyce gives us a song fragment followed by Stephen’s phonetic (mis)pronunciation, and also this:

When you wet the bed, first it is warm then it gets cold. His mother puts on the oilsheet. That had the queer smell.

Quickly the memories lengthen from clauses to paragraphs, from memory fragments into complex scenes. Sentences begin to take poetic flight. Language deepens. That stuttering-lurching quality, in which Stephen’s baby-brain stumbles from one impression to the next, falls away. By the end of a 43-page chapter we have a 10-page scene packed with political allusions and adult complexities (observed and reported by a child, or from a POV that is part Stephen-child, part Joyce) that takes place during a single Christmas dinner.

Back to the beginning, however. Just one page in, Joyce leaps from the moocow to this:

The wide playgrounds were swarming with boys. All were shouting and the prefects urged them on with strong cries. The evening air was pale and chilly and after every charge and thud of the footballers the greasy leather orb flew like a heavy bird through the grey light. He kept on the fringe of his line, out of sight of his prefect, out of the reach of the rude feet, feigning to run now and then. He felt his body small and weak amid the throng of the players and his eyes were weak and watery…

Joyce doles out adjectives conscientiously, to give a flash of color, or a shot of movement, or discomfiture. (And note that lovely repetition of “weak,” no accident.)

But no amount of rereading or parsing can help me understand exactly how Joyce takes Stephen from toddlerhood to Clongowes, his boarding school—a period of maybe three years, I’m guessing—in less than a page and a half. And it’s not just the three years. In that short space he tells us rhymes and a song of Stephen’s childhood and his Ireland, shows us Stephen’s mother playing a hornpipe on the piano so the little boy can dance; introduces Uncle Charles and Dante (Stephen’s aunt), makes it clear that Irish Republican politics were fiercely felt and discussed, and that the neighbors had a little girl whom Stephen planned to marry (a statement his mother and Dante make him apologize for)—we’re immersed in that house and its music and talk.

And every line conveys not only concrete sensory information but has abstract implications. If Mrs. Dedalus simply changes the bed when Stephen wets it, she must be kind; if he is made to apologize for the marriage statement, perhaps the neighbors are Protestant; if the family can afford a piano, they aren’t poor yet. (Their furniture will soon be carted off, and in Ulysses, Stephen’s younger siblings sell his books in order to eat.)

One and a half pages.

Talk about not needing to move people in and out of rooms!

Much gratitude to friends who sent good wishes and fabulous poems for my mom. We are back in hospital (I like it the British way) and managing to laugh a lot.

Love dog poem

Posted in Poetry on February 3rd, 2010 by dylan

A nurse brought my mother a medical Ouija board, a yellow folder bearing the alphabet, for pointing. It also features complaints and demands (pain, hot, nausea, lights off) but my mother is too precise with language for prepackaged conversation.

Yesterday Dr. Burrows came to do a bronchoscopy, explaining directly to my mother, bless him, what would happen: first consent, then anesthesia, then the unpleasantness. “Okay, Mom?” I said. (She can’t talk with a tube down her throat so I took the consent part seriously.) She nodded. I signed.

“Any questions, Mom?”

My mother typed with one finger on the yellow Ouija—slowly, because it’s not Qwerty—as the nurse and respiratory therapist filled syringes, adjusted dials.

T. H. E.

“The,” I said.

N. E. W.

“New,” I said.

Y. O. R. K.

“York?” I looked at her with wonder. All day she’d refused to let me read to her. I kept telling her about this Amy Gerstler poem, “Interview with a Dog,” that would make her day.

T. I. M. E. S.

“Mom? You’re about to go to sleep—you want The New York Times?”

She looked at me with intense read my mind eyes. I stroked her forehead till they closed.

In the morning I reminded her: “You asked about The New York Times, right before anesthesia. You want me to read you the paper?”

My mother, her face still tentacled with tubes, typing hand swollen with edema, pointed carefully at the Ouija board:


And then gestured for a pen so she could write, laboriously, on the floppy newsprint pad: Read me dog poem.

I showed her the enchanting cover first. I told her, “No one tells Amy Gerstler what a poem is, or isn’t.” And it seems I’d packed the right book after all. Love dog poem, my mother wrote, and touched her heart.

Read “Interview with a Dog” at coconutpoetry, where it’s the second poem down; better yet, buy the marvelous collection Dearest Creature. Herewith, a mid-poem excerpt, but please don’t settle for just this.

Q: OK. I just gave you a bath. Then you went and rolled in manure.

A: Will you barbeque soon? Will you let me lick the grill when it cools?

Q: No, really. How come I get you all nice and clean and you immediately roll in something stinky?

A: Humans don’t get true grooming, which only takes place using the tongue. Toothpaste, mouthwash, and deodorant are what’s “stinky.” Soap’s revolting. Terrible invention. Why have it in your lamplit, carpeted, doorlocked lair? Dung is informative, complex—full of news flashes from the body’s interior. Shit’s an encyclopedia, volumes of urgent correspondence your organs wrote if only you knew how to read. What’s learnt from smelling shampoo? It just causes sneezing, erases articulate fumes. Bulldozes olfactory signposts. Washing is book burning.

Gusev: “The sea has no sense and no pity.”

Posted in Reading (as a writer) on February 1st, 2010 by dylan

I had trouble packing for L.A. last night. Not shoe trouble, I always have shoe trouble, but what-to-read-to-my-mother trouble. She’s in the I.C.U. at St. John’s Hospital, Santa Monica, “nearly comatose,” my father says.

“You mean heavily sedated?” I asked from DC.

“I’m staying in the room with her,” my father says, “and she doesn’t know I’m here.” Comatose, sedated, what’s the damn difference? He loathes the machine that “breathes her” and he loathes the machine that delivers liquid Nutren Replete. Each snakes a tentacle down her nose or throat.

I flew in this morning to be with my father, and, I thought, to read to my mother. Even people under anesthesia supposedly hear their surgeon’s comments, so why not nourish my mother’s delicious and crystalline mind? She is taking (is taking, is taking) a class on Pushkin at UCLA; she has all the books by and on Pushkin a girl could want. So: Chekhov? But often someone is going to die in Chekhov. Or is living in privation. Is that right? Packing under duress, I suddenly can’t remember a word of Chekhov (below), despite three translations on our shelves. Packing, I’m frantic for engaging books that won’t make my mom laugh—what if she chokes on a tube?—and in which no one lives in privation, or dies.

Because privation might make her sad. Privation runs back generations in our family. When my mom’s mother was a girl in Cominets Podalsk,  Russia, she and my great-grandmother carried other people’s laundry on their back to a lake, scrubbed it in cold water, wrung it out, and carried it home on their backs, heavy and wet. This went on until my grandmother was old enough to quit school (about the equivalent of third grade, I think) and walk to work in early darkness, alone, past a church graveyard to a cigarette factory. It was freezing; the children in the factory needed gloves. But with gloves one can’t roll cigarettes.  So no gloves.

So no privation.

I consider Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband. It is the story, in what Carson calls “tangos,” of a marriage seen through to its end. What if my father turns the book over and reads this, and wonders if his own marriage is being breathed up by a machine? So no Anne Carson. I love the verbal delicacies in two recently reread story collections: Maile Meloy’s Half in Love, and Pia Ehrhardt’s Famous Fathers, but both write about adultery, and my parents will be 55 years intertwined in July.

The perfect choice would be Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, which we both love, endlessly. I’ve read it twelve times. But my mother so connected with certain scenes, and re-tells them with such raw emotion, that I would not get through them. Pilate, at her daughter Hagar’s funeral, saying and singing the words: My baby girl. My baby girl. My baby girl. My baby girl. Looking into each person’s eyes in that church, saying it differently each time, asking it, praying it—my baby girl, my baby girl—and then calling out: And she was loved!

Mom, forgive me, I would break down.

Impossible to go wrong with the exquisite Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But Stephen is beaten at Clongowes, I think, for losing his glasses. I think. Even if I misremember, could his unhappiness carry some resonance from my mother’s childhood?

After some internal debate over which of three editions to pack (vintage, fragile, or tattered), I pack Portrait from sheer love of both Joyce and Stephen. But wait—if Ulysses opens with Stephen newly motherless, does his mother die at the end of Portrait?

Surely we won’t get there. Surely by then my mother will be demanding coffee and Pushkin and Dr. Dog, the therapy dog from her last hospitalization.

Which was only a week ago.

I add two poetry collections by Amy Gerstler: Medicine and the new (signed!)  Dearest Creature. I will get to say “skeleton tea” out loud, with envious enunciation. And my father will get to voice his disappointment with modern poetry and hark back to his hard-drinking days in Scotland with Hugh MacDiarmid and that crowd.

In lieu of the Ferragamo pumps, I slot in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, because Smith is funny and smart and spirited and so much better-read than I am—she and my mother might commune across the beeping machines. (My mother once commented that I could not call myself educated if I had not read Don Quixote; mortified, I dove for Don Quixote and found it so sad I couldn’t finish it. Zadie Smith has undoubtedly delivered entire lectures on Don Quixote.)

“Be careful,” my husband warned when he spotted Zadie in my suitcase. “An old woman dies in that book.” I’d forgotten.

And then I understood that it was hopeless.

Because an old woman dies in every book worth reading. Or a young man is punished for losing his glasses, or a marriage tangoes off a cliff, or a dying man drags himself out on deck one last time to look at the fathomless ocean—which Chekov story is that? Is it “Gusev?” Why can I remember nothing I’ve read at this moment, just titles and vague images, just a snapshot from 23 years ago in which my mother, with the sun full on her yellow hair and her apricot-colored skin and her maroon silk suit, reaches out to touch her daughter’s face as if all that brilliance and all the secrets of long marriage could actually stream from her fingertips to my flesh?

Perhaps it did. It was my wedding day and I am still married. My mother would know if that story was “Gusev.” All I can do is pack the wrong books Saturday night, and show up Sunday in the I.C.U., where I discover that I have no voice for reading at all, no will to do anything but smooth her sunstruck hair and tell her I am here.