sainted, salient, saliva, sallied, sally

Posted in Writing on March 21st, 2010 by dylan

Why am I intoxicated today by a 17-page alphabetized list titled “Words That Should Not Be Used in Fiction, a Selection” (and is exactly what it sounds like)?


Label, labia, labile, labored, laconic, lair, lambent, lame, language, lapel, lapels, largely, largess, lash, lashed, latter, laud…

Oh, stop nodding off. Could it be that the list is true, that it’s hard to use lapels without resorting to grabbing by and boutonnieres and other clichés (“resorting to cliché” being itself unforgiveable; forgive me), that lambent works too hard, that lashes are predictably long and dark unless you sear them off in an explosion?

These 17 pages open a book that may remain fantastically obscure—Words, by Andy Devine—and not just because the cover has about as much visual presence as a cloud.

Devine is to writer Michael Kimball what de Selby was to Flann O’Brien in The Third Policeman: an invented genius, exceedingly bizarre. (My mentor, Jim Krusoe, said of The Third Policeman: “This book is so good it’ll make you want to pee in your pants,” a line I stole for a story. And he was right.) Devine, a “conceptual fictional writer” and alphabetical essayist, writes novels and stories, then implodes them into lists of words and punctuation marks. Rigorous about revision, he whittles a couple down to their titles. His life’s work is the subject of much study. (Surprised?) Accordingly, Kimball, as editor, adds to this collection a scholarly afterword, quoting from rare Devine interviews; and I am amazed to find myself joyful over the whole thing.

Here is a snatch of commentary on two lists that launch the book, the second, of course, being “Words That Should Be Used In Fiction, a Selection.”

Of course, these were not essays in a traditional sense. They were both simply lists of words, but it was clear that the lists of words collected into an argument that was an implicit critique of fiction. Devine confirms this in the Maday interview (2009): “I’m talking about these words in relation to fiction. Nonfiction is another matter.”

This feels like getting my brain rubbed right through the dura mater.

Okay, so this is really not you. You are not vastly amused by Devine’s theory that “word choice was one of  the intial points of failure for so much fiction and that by avoiding certain words that failure could be avoided, or at least delayed.

May I then recommend nine pages in the middle titled “A Grammar For Fiction Writers,” which is not a grammar at all; it is the author speaking truth to writers, with periodic rants about punctuation. It’s in list form, of course. The first line got me out of the apartment this morning to do my pages in a coffee shop, and may become one of my mantras, which is more than worth the $8 cost of the book.

Herewith, a Selection.

Fiction writers are only fiction writers when they are writing fiction.

Fiction must be rendered. Revision creates art.

Every work of fiction can be improved.

It is important for the fiction writer to have a sense of purpose even if that sense of purpose cannot save the fiction writer.

The reader should never know what the next sentence is going to be.

And just to keep you off balance:

Words with prepositions in them—downstairs, downtown, inside, outside, upstairs—are good words. Write fiction about people going inside, outside, upstairs, etc.

I don’t really get that, I don’t even agree with it, but the book made me bizarrely happy. Revision creates art—oh yes. Back to work.

Risks and excuses (and more dog therapy)

Posted in Writing on March 7th, 2010 by dylan

This is what I know about myself: the safest thing I can do is take a risk, while the riskiest thing for me is to play it safe.

–from Poet Mom, the blog of poet January Gill O’Neil, author of Underlife

Perversely, when I am several months into writing a story, or several years into a book, I stall. And not just stall. I flee. This happens just as the thing starts to seem like a genuine piece of narrative—albeit still a rambling piece of crud, but one that might soon start to crystalize.

It would be lovely to think that my subconscious is saying, Honey, just let the manuscript percolate for a few months. But I’m suspicious. I think dread of some kind is involved. Dread of failure? Fear of success? Whatever’s going on down there in the writer’s basement, I’m playing it safe, taking no risks: not writing. And the manuscript, far from percolating, becomes a distant object.

I have marvelous excuses. An intensive book tour. Can’t write in hotel rooms; bad ergonomics kill my hands. A friend’s chemo, necessitating a two-week trip. Another friend’s novel, which I line-edited with much pleasure for two weeks. My mom’s fourth hospitalization (involving more dog therapy, of course—that’s Pippin in dreamy splendor at the foot of the bed) and my six-week relocation to L.A.: Who could work? I’m never home; it’s a theme. My shiny new blog. There’s more; shall I keep going?

In Santa Monica’s Diesel bookstore this evening I was amazed to see, as if for the first time, that some writers come out with books on a regular basis and some do not, and that I really have only two choices for my sparse free hours and bad hands: blog-email-Facebook (which has brought many new writers into my world), or work on the terrifying half-done novel. In Diesel, finally, I saw it as a choice—for now, at least, after five months of book-travel and caregiving. And so I hope to unplug, though not to a Luddite extent, and get back in near-daily touch with the novel. I feel almost Seussian about this vow: I will write it on a train, I will write it in the rain, I will write it in my bed, I will write it in my head.  Most important, I promise to take the risk of writing it on the bad days.

(Dog therapists trained and provided by the nonprofit Love on 4 Paws.)

Perfume of the Page

Posted in Reading (as a writer) on March 2nd, 2010 by dylan

My mother sometimes phones to read me a line or a passage, often from The New York Times; and when I was a reporter in my twenties, she called to read me enslaved by the scent of lilac. She savored the idea of a passerby bound to a lilac bush by invisible ropes of scent.

Enslaved is not a word I lightly use; it’s up there on the shelf with holocaust. Yet the entwining of brutality and beauty to create an intangible bond was so heady, and so closely tied to fiction in some way, that the clause has stayed with me for decades.

It came back to me several times recently. This week I discovered In the Library, a perfume from the company CB, whose credo includes: “I hate perfume.” The fragrance In the Library is redolent of

English Novel taken from a Signed First Edition of one of my very favorite novels, Russian & Moroccan leather bindings, worn cloth and a hint of wood polish.

It costs $65. O, I am dying to try this one; so far I’ve only admired the typography on the label, online.

And then there is the far more narcotic odor that rises straight from the page.

I’m still rereading—with exquisite slowness while my mom marvelously recovers—A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. From chapter 4 (trust me, I am far beyond chapter 4 by now):

He would fall. He had not yet fallen but he would fall silently, in an instant. Not to fall was too hard, too hard; and he felt the silent lapse of his soul, as it would be at some instant to come, falling, falling, but not yet fallen, still unfallen, but about to fall.

At this my wrists start throbbing, and I type “last paragraph of The Dead” into Google and find:

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Don’t you love the resonance? Can you smell the ink and yellowed paper yet? (Will you and I both order In the Library and recognize each other in the supermarket by scent?) I’m going to guess, in my ignorance, that Joyce wrote the Portrait paragraph first—but for an earlier manuscript that he called Stephen Hero. Set the record straight if you know.

By now, I’m scrolling down this blog called Falling Faintly to read other marvelous last paragraphs, including some Denis Johnson, for which many thanks, and also another example of repetition that seems to stream from Joyce through Faulkner to McCarthy, genetically speaking; Mendel with his peas would have been entranced.

The Last Paragraph of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

And they are dancing, the board floor slamming under the jackboots and the fiddlers grinning hideously over their canted pieces. Towering over them all is the judge and he is naked dancing, his small feet lively and quick and now in doubletime and bowing to the ladies, huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant. He never sleeps, he says. He says he’ll never die. He bows to the fiddlers and sashays backwards and throws back his head and laughs deep in his throat and he is a great favorite, the judge. He wafts his hat and the lunar dome of his skull passes palely under the lamps and he swings about and takes possession of one of the fiddles and he pirouettes and makes a pass, two passes, dancing and fiddling all at once. His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.

Warning: Page perfume can cause delusional behavior at the keyboard.

Last summer, for a six-week spell, I was reading part of Ulysses (with a group, and a study guide) simultaneously with The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying (with a class at Politics & Prose). Between Benjy, Bloom and the maddened Darl, the scents rising from those three sets of pages so infected my brain that I wrote two new chapters for my novel-in-progress in a kind of stream-of-consciousness. Then (insert head-smack here) I sent them to my agent. Yes, I did. Go ahead and feel smug. Two months went by. Being deaf to subtlety, I phoned.

“I didn’t understand them,” she said. “You weren’t telling a story anymore.”

Joyce tells stories. Faulkner tells stories. Landis, apparently, was blethering.

I still believe in trying anything, but also in sleeping on it, and being rigorous about clarity and story. I trashed the chapters, began groping my way back to Story and my own voice.

It’s all hard, isn’t it?