Writing and People

January 10, 2013

The other day, I felt the need to illustrate a particular point to one of my writing classes. This is what I did: I took four short excerpts (2 pages each) from four books. I removed identifying information about the authors from the margins, and then I asked the students to read the excerpts and tell me what they thought they knew about the writers.

Excerpt #1: An old preacher writing to his son.
Excerpt #2: A teenage girl helping her father try to save a horse from drowning.
Excerpt #3: A black midwife going about her day.
Excerpt #4: A man in a post apocalyptic wasteland.

They read an discussed in groups and then we discussed as a class what they thought they knew about the authors and then I told them where the excerpts came from.

Excerpt #1: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Excerpt #2: Everything in This Country Must by Colum McCann
Excerpt #3: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
Excerpt #4: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

The point I was making – or trying to make – is that who we are doesn’t have to be who we write, especially where it concerns gender. The vast majority of the students were unable to nail the correct gender of the writer (I didn’t ask them about gender, I determined their conclusion from which pronoun they used).

The mistake many of us make, be it as writers or people or both is to assume that certain groups of people are fundamentally different from other groups. We aren’t. People are people. It’s only the experiences that are different. The best writers don’t have a magical ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of a different species, they have the ability to imagine other experiences. Once you at least try to put yourself in the position of another person, especially one who doesn’t share your race or gender, once you see what the world shows them, you begin to see that we are all much more similar than we give ourselves credit for.

2011 Reading Year in Review

January 1, 2012

Time for my annual favorite books of the year ramble. This year, I thought it would be fun to start with some trivial numbers from the year (I mean fun for me, you might find it mildly amusing, though).

Books Read: 75
Pages Read: 21,454
Average Pages per Book: 286
Average Pages per Day: 59

Biggest Reading Month: October (8 books, 2141 pages)
Smallest Reading Month: May (5 books, 1169 pages)

Five Longest Books Read:

  1. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – 959 pages
  2. The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt – 883 pages
  3. An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser – 856 pages
  4. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach – 512 pages
  5. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway – 471 pages

Five Shortest Books

  1. Native Guard by Natasha Tetheway – 50 pages
  2. The Simple Truth by Philip Levine – 66 pages
  3. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson – 70 pages
  4. The Art of War by Sun Tzu – 70 pages
  5. Now and Then by Robert Penn Warren– 75 pages

There. That was fun, wasn’t it? Now, if I haven’t scared you away yet, let’s look at the highlights a lowlights of my reading year (rereads are excluded from consideration):

Biggest Disappointment of the Year:

(Note this is not the worst book I read this year, that would be The Hunger Games, which was required for my job. You can find my contemptuous screed on that book here.)

The Marriage Plot by Jeffery Eugenides. A lot of people are putting this on best-of lists, but I just don’t see it. I loved Middlesex, but this book has so many issues and is so rife with misogyny (most notably, a female character whose greatest sexual pleasure comes when her boyfriend rapes her), that I could never get into it. There are some wonderful passages and plenty of good moments, but the book, as a whole, doesn’t work.

Enjoyable Nonfiction:

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson and The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene. A couple of very different titles. Notes might be Bryson’s best-known work and is a delightfully funny read. The Hidden Reality is Brian Greene’s third pop-science book and a great explanation of the various kinds of multi-verse we might live in. I highly recommend both.

Favorite Books of the Year:

Honorable Mentions – Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri (her best, I think), Time Will Darken It by William Maxwell, The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht (a wonderful modern fairy tale), Dancer by Colum McCann, The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett, The Tent by Margaret Atwood, Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

5. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach – Unlike the Eugenides, I agree with everyone listing this as one of the best books of the year. It’s fantastic. I noted when I first read it that a some pop-culture references might cause it to feel dated in a few decades, thus preventing it from being an enduring masterpiece, but overall this is a fantastic book. I was very excited to read it and it absolutely did not let me down. A great exploration of all the different kinds of love that drive us.

4. Zoli by Colum McCann – I love Colum McCann. I gather he considers this book to be a bit of a failure. Oh, that I should fail so. This is such a wonderful and rarely told story. It follows a Roma (Gypsy) poet/singer through post WWII Eastern Europe. The main character is just so real and fascinating. I can’t find anything bad to say about it. If you haven’t been reading Colum McCann, you are doing yourself a disservice.

3. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett – In some ways, this is the most remarkable book on this list. Not because it is an unexpected story, but because it is such a common story. Rich people. Banana republic. Hostage crisis. Kind of writes a terrible book on its own, doesn’t it? But this is beautiful. Patchett goes so many places with this, exploring the constraints of class and language and how they might be overcome through art. Lovely.

2. A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee – Lee’s newest book, The Surrendered, was up for a number of awards and I’m excited to read it this spring, but I can’t imagine it could be any better than A Gesture Life. This book explores one man’s experiences with comfort women while in the Japanese army in WWII and his later struggles to repair his severely broken relationship with his adopted daughter. What really sets this book apart, though, is the beautiful descriptions Lee gives of even the most everyday things.

1. The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt – One of the longest books I read this year, and instantly one of my favorite books ever. This is a complete masterpiece. Byatt takes hundreds of pages to lovingly explore the lives of many beautifully flawed characters. In addition, you get fairy tales, early 20th century England, free-love, socialism, war, and the consequences that spring from all of that. I was hooked on this book from the very first page and spent all my time reading it dumfounded that anyone could ever produce something like this. Unbelievably wonderful. This spring, I plan to start slowly working my way through everything she’s written. I suggest you do the same, and start with this.

On Being Proud of Failure

November 22, 2011

When last we left my writing efforts, I had finished my book – Lonely Human Atoms – and was prepared, in theory, to start shipping it out to publishers and agents. I did send it to one place, but that’s it. I’ve also got more than a few short stories sitting around that could stand to be sent to someone, but only a few of them have been. It feels ridiculous to explain why that is, but I will try.

With nearly all the fiction I write, there is a point at which I feel rather proud of what I’ve put together. This usually comes after I’ve polished it up nicely and feel like it’s “finished.” I submit it or don’t, but then it sits, and the more it sits the more doubt creeps in. Inevitably, I become unsatisfied because I feel like I could have dealt with the religious theme better or been more thorough in research or condensed that one section or whatever. Never mind that I went through all of that the first seven times I revised it before I got to that moment of feeling good about what I’d done. It never stops feeling like a failure, and why would I want to send my failure out to someone?

Enter Colum McCann. I finished his book Dancer the other day and found it wonderful, as I’ve found all of his novels so far (still a few left to read). I’ve reached the point with him that I do with certain authors whose writing consistently moves me. That is, I want to know what he has to say. Correspondingly, I spent the last couple of days reading a bunch of interviews with him. In a great many, he talks about failure. Let me just excerpt one bit from him:

I’m still learning. I hope always to learn and someday write something, well, new. It goes back to the notion that you always fail. If you don’t fail in some way, then you’re in difficulty: the difficulty of sameness. I want to tack that Beckett quote up on every wall I work in front of: No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

It is difficult to explain how much better reading things like this has made me feel. This quote, in particular hits home on a number of levels. For one, most everything I’ve written is different, at least for me. So at least I’m doing something right. I wrote an early novel about a jazz musician. That book is almost certainly never going to see the light of the day, though I may totally rewrite it at some point. Then I wrote Lonely Human Atoms, which is very odd in its quiet way. Now I’m writing these interlocking short stories that, I have only recently realized, are all about me figuring out how I feel about where I come from and how to talk and write about it. All of these projects are failures because they have to be. I’m not going to get it perfect, but imperfection doesn’t make it garbage. Imperfection doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying to get it out there into the world.

So that’s the goal now. I have two goals, actually, that I’m going to start on next month. One is, I want to aim for 20 polished pages of writing a month. That probably won’t happen because, well, that’s a lot, but I want something to aim for. The other is six submissions a month. I’m very bad at trying to sell myself and if I don’t give it a seemingly random number, I’m just going to get bogged down contemplating my failures and we see where that’s gotten me. the idea is send the novel to three people and send out three short stories (I certainly have plenty of those on my hard drive). All of this is a way of saying I’m going to try and take some pride in my less embarrassing failures from here on out.