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.

Michael Chabon

October 7, 2009

Yesterday, Michael Chabon’s new book Manhood for Amateurs came out. I finished it at about 2:00 this afternoon. I have written sporadically about Michael Chabon as part of various posts on broader topics, but I haven’t actually written expressly about him.

Michael Chabon is my favorite living writer, and he maybe my favorite writer, period. I do not think I am alone in this feeling as he has frequently been referred to with breathless quotes about being the best, or one of the best, or among the best writers of his generation. But the approval of various literary magazines and book reviewers isn’t really the point. There are plenty of well reviewed writers who I do not particular care for. The point is that Michael Chabon is my favorite writer. Why, you ask, is he my favorite writer? I have no idea really.

Oh sure, I can talk about all the nerdly writer things that he does so well. His ridiculous vocabulary. His ability to string together absurdly long, but still wonderful sentences. His fully fleshed-out characters (I’m big on characters). But as with any art, it is pretty impossible to explain exactly what it is about his writing that really does it for me. There are lots and lots of writers that have a wonderful way with the sentence, large vocabularies, and create beautiful characters whom you fall in love with even as you see their flaws and watch them fail. So why Chabon?

The best I can do when I try to think of an answer is that Chabon and his characters often seem to occupy head space that is pretty nearly identical to my own. His characters (and, indeed, Chabon himself, if his nonfiction is any indication) seem to struggle with the same things I struggle with. They are generally happy, though predisposed to isolation. Despite this predispostion, they would love, really, to be in the middle of everything. They can see the humor in their own misfortune even as everything is falling to pieces around them (if you are prepared for failure, after all, it cannot help but be a little funny).

But even that doesn’t quite do it. I really am not sure I can define it. (Then why the hell are you writing this blog? you may wonder. Because it is my blog and I want to, I answer.) His writing has a twinkle, I think. It is the same twinkle that most of my favorite books have (I am thinking especially of Winesburg, Ohio). The thing about Michael Chabon is that this twinkle seems to be present in nearly everything he does, even the things that don’t quite work (I’m looking at you, Gentlemen of the Road). What most authors are lucky enough to catch in a bottle once or twice in their lives he seems to have in ready store and under complete control. This little bit of magic is something I try to put into my own writing it is what I strive for.

His work is so important to me that I can sum up my career (dubious though that term may be, at present) and growth as a writer with a simple story: The first time I read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the book for which he won the Pulitzer, I thought that ever trying to write again would be pretty pointless. I could never hope to do that, after all, so why bother. I did bother as it turns out (thus the existence of this blog and the myriad of tales of variable length at rest on assorted drives both hard and flash and, occasionally, in print), and I have read the book a few times since. The last time I finished it and when I finished his most recent book this afternoon, I had a thought quite different from the first time. I need to write, I thought. If I try, I might be able to do that.