Monday, April 19, 2010


I seem to be picking up a lot of books these days and then putting them down again and not really getting back to them. There has to be something there on the page that makes me want to return. Sometimes it's an interesting situation or a compelling narrative. Lee Child's books usually start with both, and keep me turning the pages mostly because I get swept up in the plot. If there's not much happening with plot, there's another point of entry: voice. But voice is tricky. There's no one surefire way to be successful in creating voice, and there are a lot of ways to go wrong. As a reader I find myself drawn less to stylistically flamboyant voices (Holden Caulfield, in fiction, or David Foster Wallace, in nonfiction: much as I do admire them, they feel in some ways contrived; artfully contrived, but contrived nonetheless) than to more understated voices that are more subtlely revelatory of character.

For example, one of the voices I have admired for many years is that of Robert Finch, a naturalist on Cape Cod whose work I ran across while I was living in Massachusetts. Here are the first two paragraphs from "Into the Maze," the first essay in his collection The Primal Place:

    One of the occupational hazards of living in a place like Cape Cod is not always knowing where you are. The sea fog that rolls in regularly over the mud flats and salt marshes is not entirely to blame for such chronic disorientation. Nor are the winter northeasterlies whose heavy surf and storm surges break through barrier beaches, destroy parking lots, silt up harbors, and claim waterfront property all that dislocate us.
    Change is the coin of this sandy realm, and as long as we are not too close to it, such change delights us. The seasons flow in their rhythmic variety, a little out of sync with the mainland due to the ocean's moderating influence — which pleases our sense of separateness. With them come in the streaming tides of shorebirds, migrating alewives and striped bass, pack ice in Cape Cod Bay, spring peepers in the bogs, gypsy moths in the oaks, and tourists in the motels and restaurants.
Now, I can well imagine that some readers would read thus far and no farther. But I find myself already won over, ready to read on, ready to spend more time listening to this measured and reasonable and thoughtful voice. There is a precision in the deployment of words, an evident pleasure being taken in the shaping and sequencing of the constituent components of each sentence, an attentiveness both to the natural world and to its representation in words, that I find encouraging: I'd like to read more of this.

I bring all this up because I just spent a whole lot of this past weekend listening to just such a voice, that of John Ames, the narrator of Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead. It's a book that has been around for a while. It's a book that I have heard good things about and held in my hands at the bookstore several times. But when I gathered, from reading the book jacket, that it was narrated by a Congregationalist preacher and consisted in some part at least of his reflections on the scriptures, I thought to myself that it was not really the sort of thing I was going to enjoy. (I should mention that my own experiences being raised as a Christian had rather too much to do with why I have spent my entire adult life as a Buddhist, and have been in no particular hurry to revisit the theological landscape of my upbringing.) But I recently got an email from my friend Nick recommending that I read Marylinne's new book of essays Absence of Mind. It turns out that that book is not available around here just yet, but I found a copy of Gilead on the shelf of my school library, so I opened it up to the first page and started to read and immediately got hooked on the voice.

John Ames, the narrator, is, it turns out, not just a preacher himself, but the son of a preacher, and the grandson of a preacher. He is, at the time the novel opens, 76 years old, and the father of a seven-year-old son. He has been diagnosed with heart disease, and is not expecting to live long, and has decided that he will take it upon himself to write an extended letter to his son, so that when the boy grows up he will some day be able to find out what sort of man his father was. The novel is that letter. It is written in the first person and addressed to the second person, the son, addressed as you throughout the book. There's a subtle and satisfying displacement at work here, because when I am as a reader find myself addressed as "you," I am in effect being asked to imagine myself as the grownup version of that boy, being given the opportunity to take the measure of the man, my father, who has labored on my behalf in the production of this narrative.

The great strength of the novel is in the character of John Ames. He's a thoroughly admirable man. That he is intelligent, thoughtful, self-effacing, compassionate, appreciative, and serious of purpose in a completely innocent way is evidenced by literally every word that comes out of his mouth. He is much concerned throughout the book with the attempt to understand, and to communicate what he does understand, about what his life has been, in the face of what can only be understood as deep mysteries. He's much concerned, for obvious reasons, about the whole business of fathers and sons: what motivates them, what they hope for in one another, how they fail one another:

    I believe I'll make an experiment with candor here. Now, I say this with all respect. My father was a man who acted from principle, as he said himself. He acted from faithfulness to the truth as he saw it. But something in the way he went about it made him disappointing from time to time, and not just to me. I say this despite all the attention he gave to me bringing me up, for which I am profoundly in his debt, though he himself might dispute that. God rest his soul, I know for a fact I disappointed him. It is a remarkable thing to consider. We meant well by each other, too.
    Well, see and see but do not perceive, hear and hear but do not understand, as the Lord says. I can't claim to understand that saying, as many times as I've heard it, and even preached on it. It simply states a deeply mysterious fact. You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A man can know his father, or his son, and there still might be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension. (7)
He is also a man much given to appreciative reflection, and he is often able to articulate his sense of the heartbreaking beauty of the world in language which is both sparse and eloquent:

I walked up to the church in the dark, as I said. There was a very bright moon. It's strange how you never quite get used to the world at night. I have seen moonlight strong enough to cast shadows any number of times. And the wind is the same wind, rustling the same leaves, night or day. When I was a young boy I used to get up before every dawn of the world to fetch water and firewood. It was a very different life then. I remember walking out into the dark and feeling as if the dark were a great, cool sea and the houses and sheds and the woods were all adrift in it, just about to ease off their moorings. I always felt like an intruder then, as I still do, as if the darkness had a claim on everything, one that I violated just by stepping out the door. This morning the world by moonlight seemed to be an immemorial acquaintance I had always meant to befriend. If there was ever a chance, it has passed. Strange to say, I feel a little that way about myself. (74)
The long and the short of it is that the book succeeds, even in the absence of what might ordinarily be thought of as plot, because of the authenticity and the authority of the voice. That's not to say that nothing happens in the book. Plenty does, some of it rendered as memory, some of it as action in present time, action which ultimately puts all of John Ames's hard-won wisdom to the test. But what I find most admirable in the voice is the character of the man as revealed by it. He is doing all that he can, in full recognition that it may never be enough:

I'm trying to make the best of our situation. That is, I'm trying to tell you things I might never have thought to tell you if I had brought you up myself, father and son, in the usual companionable way. When things are taking their ordinary course, it is hard to remember what matters. There are so many little things you would never think to tell anyone. And I believe they may be the things that mean most to you, and that even your own child would have to know in order to know you well at all. I remember that day in my childhood when I lay under the wagon with the other little children, watching them pull down the ruins of that Baptist church, and my father brought me a piece of biscuit for my lunch, and I crawled out and knelt with him there, in the rain. I remember it as if he broke the bread and put a bit of it in my mouth, though I know he didn't. His hands and his face were black with ash — he looked charred, like one of the old martyrs — and he knelt there in the rain and brought a piece of biscuit out from inside his shirt, and he did break it, that's true, and gave half to me and ate the other half himself. And it truly was the bread of affliction, because everyone was poor then. There had been drought for a few years and times were hard. Though we didn't notice it much because times were hard for everybody. And I guess that must have been why no one minded the rain. There had been so little of it. One thing I do remember is how the women let their hair fall down and their skirts trail in the mud, even the old women, as if none of it mattered at all. And then the singing, which was very beautiful as I remember it, though I'm pretty sure it could not have been. It would just rise up with the sound of the rain. "Beneath the Cross of Jesus." All the lovely, sad old tunes. The bitterness of that morsel has meant other things to me as the years passed. I have had many occasions to reflect on it. (102-3)
This is a book that took me by surprise, and turned out to be, from start to finish, a more satisfying read than I had thought it would be.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Reality Hunger: The Hip Hop Angle

This Too Shall Pass

Got this link from Nick today. Gotta see it to believe it.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Writer's Workshop: Starting a Story from Scratch

On Friday we had YA author Neal Shusterman as a guest at our school. He did a large-group presentation to 375 eighth graders, met separately with three grade eight classes, and then hosted a question-and-answer session with about 40 guests at the high school library after school. I had been given to understand that he was a very good speaker and worked well with kids; that impression was certainly confirmed on Friday.

In this post I mostly want to walk through a Writer's Workshop activity he led with one of the grade eight classes. It was a fun activity, it worked well with the kids, it conveyed some valuable notions about the writing process, and it strikes me as being highly portable. It's the kind of activity any English teacher might want to try as a change of pace, and it would be easily customizable to highlight whatever other topic or theme you might be working on at a given time. I like activities like this, structurally simple but conceptually rich. I'm writing it down partly to capture it for my own benefit, and partly so that if any of you want to play with it, you will have a place to begin.

Step One

Neal began by telling the students that we were going to write the beginning of a story together, but that we would start by doing a brainstorming activity. The idea was to try to pull the idea for a story "out of the clear blue sky." He explained that we'd start by brainstorming some titles, and that there would be only three rules: 1) it can't be connected to a title or story idea that already exists, 2) that it can have no names of real people, and that 3) it doesn't have to make sense.

So he began calling on kids, and writing their suggestions down on the board as they came up with them: "Aquarius Island," "Angry Rabbits," "Goats of Glory," "The Innocent Apple," "Writing in Mexican," "The Boy in a Dress," "The Girl Who Talks Too Much," "The Pig Lady," and so on. He kept encouraging kids to come up with more, and told them that the trick was not to think too hard.

Step Two

Once he had a list of about 40 titles on the board, he said, "Okay, these are good titles. But here's the deal, we're not going to use any of them. Instead, we're going to take words and phrases from what's here, look for random connections, and come up with a new set of titles." So he took a different color marker and began studying the list of words on the board, circling certain words in one title and certain words in another title, asking the students to help him find interesting or odd combinations. (He also told the kids, "Don't shout out. I won't use your suggestion if you do. Just raise your hand and I'll call on you." That was a subtle but very effective move, I think. It immediately established an expectation of how the exercise would play out.)

He kept working through the list of titles on the board until the kids had juxtaposed pretty much every word that was in every title with words from some other title or titles. Then he looked over the board and wrote down five of the "new" titles, which turned out to be "The Yawning Book," "iPod Dress," "Skater Monkeys," "The Angry Hand," and "Sinking Up." Then he asked the kids, "Why do you think I picked these five titles?" and the kids were quick to pick up on the fact that these titles all basically raise a question in your mind, they "make you think."

Then he had the kids vote on which title they thought they would want to work with, and the vote turned out to be heavily in favor of "Sinking Up."

Step Three

Neal erased the board and writing the title "Sinking Up" in the middle, and led the students through another brainstorming exercise. "When you think of the word "sinking," what comes to mind? What sort of things sink?" He drew a circle around the word "Sinking," called on kids to answer and generated a thought map of their responses (Titanic, submarine, water) on the board in blue marker. If the kids began to slow down, he'd re-frame the question or come at it from a different angle: "What else sinks?" "What things have to sink?" "What things never sink?" "What are things where it's critical, where it's a matter of life and death, that they don't sink?" "What about metaphorical kinds of sinking?"

Once he got done with "sinking," he, he took a red marker and then went through the same questioning process with the word "Up." At one point he asked when going up,  which is usually thought of as being a good thing, would be a negative. ("You want to play against the obvious.")

Step Four

The final step was to begin translating the conceptual frame provided by the title into the specific events of a story. He began by noting that some of the symptoms of being underwater and being too high up, like on a mountain, would be similar: heart rate up, difficulty breathing, coldness, oxygen deprivation. Then he began thinking out loud, modelling the process of coming up with a story. "So let's say we have two characters. They're best friends. One is a mountain climber, one is a diver. And something goes wrong. What could the problem be? They could be stuck in a vessel. So what if we fool the reader? We get them to think they're underwater, but they're really on mountaintop."

So he takes a marker and writes a sentence:

"When we found the fuselage, we thought we had enough oxygen to get back."

Then he led the students in a brief discussion about that first sentence. "What information is given? What do we know? What do we want to know?" He continued adding sentences, and talking them over as he went along:

"Jim and I climbed in. Everything seemed exactly the same as the moment it crashed here. "This kind of cold preserves everything," Joe said. He'd done this kind of recon before. The bodies didn't bother him any more. Thinking back, I wondered if the guys who found our bodies would be bothered either.

And that's pretty much where we were when the period came to an end. Over a period of about half an hour we had gone from nothing at all to a story starter with characters, setting, action, dialogue, and questions to be explored. Along the way there was a lot of useful, thought-provoking discussion, and a lot of laughs as well. I liked how Neal modelled the act of writing, complete with the secondguessing and the crossouts and the wondering out loud. The students were left with a story they had helped to create, and they were invited by their teacher to try their hands at moving it forward and seeing where it would lead. Not bad for a half hour cold call with kids he had never worked with before.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Reality Hunger

I spent part of last week reading David Shields' provocative manifesto Reality Hunger, in which he develops a multi-threaded argument that goes something like this:

The novel as a literary form is outdated and inadequate to the task of accurately representing life in the 21st century. The whole idea of authorship and ownership of ideas is itself a relic, embedded in a set of assumptions about reality that may never have been true, and certainly are true no longer. We've been stripped of our certainties. Reality in the 21st century is cacaphonous, it's an ongoing collision of voices and points of view competing for our attention. If the characteristic postmodern genre in art is collage, and the characteristic genre in music is pastiche (as in the layer and sampling in much hip-hop music), the characteristic genre in literature is the essay, but stripped of its pretensions artfulness and egocentricity. The form of the essay he envisions is exploratory and discontinuous and multilayered and, well, a whole lot like Reality Hunger.

The book is divided up, semi-arbitrarily into 26 chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet. (I say "semi-" because each chapter is in fact a purposeful, if loose, sequence connected to a theme suggested by the chapter subtitle.) Across these 26 chapters are divided, semi-arbitrarily, 618 sequentially numbered prose passages, the majority of which were borrowed or stolen or cribbed or bent or concatenated by David Shields from other sources. I read somewhere that it was originally his intention to present these passages without attribution, which would certainly be consistent with his overall argument, but that his publisher insisted on the footnoted references which appear in the back of the text. The sources themselves serve as a sort of intellectual credentialing: he's read and absorbed and is now recycling Thoreau, Barthes, Walter Benjamin, William Gass, Jonathan Rabin, Robbe-Grillet, Simic, Ozick, Geoff Dyer, and W.G. Sebald - and that's just a random sampling from the first page of nine pages of footnotes. I often found myself flipping back and forth as I read, to see if what I was reading was coming from Shields or from someone else. The cumulative effect was to get to know the inside of Shields' head, including the stuff bouncing around in it, in a way that would not have been possible, or would at least not have been similar, if he had simply trotted out his ideas as a single, coherently shaped (and therefore inherently artificial and un-realistic) argument. Which is, I take it, his point. Or one of them.

One idea that Shields returns to often is that the lines between fiction and nonfiction are much fuzzier than most of us are accustomed to believe they are, as in this passage (#106) attributed to Vivian Gornick:

Memoir is a genre in need of an informed readership. It's a misunderstanding to read memoir as though the writer owes the reader the same record of literal accuracy that is owed in newspaper reporting. Memoirs belong to the category of literature, not journalism. What the memoirist owes the reader is the ability to persuade him or her that the narrator is trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of the experience at hand. A memoir is a tale taken from life — that is, from actual, not imagined, occurrences — related by a first-person narrator who is undeniably a writer. Beyond these bare requirements, it has the same responsibility as the novel or the short story: to shape a piece of experience so that it moves from a tale of private interest to one with meaning for the disinterested reader.

It all makes for a fascinating but somewhat uneven read. It's not unlike a musical jam session. There a whole sequences when he will get going with a sequence of riffs that build upon and play off each other and it's like great jazz, surprising and heady and exhilarating. And there are other sequences which become too loosely connected or too random or which lead too far afield. Or maybe it's just listener/reader fatigue setting in, the feeling of being overwhelmed by too much information and too many ideas and closing down.  Again, like life.

I found myself in agreement with maybe 30 percent of what he had to say, in strong disagreement with another 30 percent, and there's another 40 percent that just slipped through the cracks in my brain. I am not convinced, for example, that fiction itself is doomed as a major literary form, or that plot, as a literary device, is itself necessarily boring. James Wood has an interesting New Yorker review in which, having established Shields' argument and methodology, he then uses Shields' critique of the artificiality of fiction as a framework within which to consider The Surrendered, the new novel by Chang-rae Lee. I think he sums up my own reaction well when he says

His complaints about the tediousness and terminality of current fictional convention are well-taken: it is always a good time to shred formulas. But the other half of his manifesto, his unexamined promotion of what he insists on calling “reality” over fiction, is highly problematic.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Free Write

I feel like writing tonight. I've been doing a ton of reading the last week or two, and I've thought at one time or another about trying to put together a post about each piece individually, but one of the reasons I haven't, and one of the reasons I've been posting more fitfully recently, is that putting together a post is of that nature is basically a lot of work. It's almost nine o'clock in the evening now. I'm nearly always in asleep at or near ten o'clock, because I've found that my biorhythms are happier if I go to bed and wake up at a regular time. When I was younger I could stay up reading or working until eleven or twelve o'clock and be the worse for wear the next day. No longer.

So anyway, I thought that rather than start working on a post with a purpose I'd do what I maybe most enjoy doing as a writer, what I used to ask my students to do back in the day when I was actually teaching (I'll be teaching a class again in the fall, thank god), what I have gotten away from doing for some reason as my sense of what I've been trying to do in Throughlines has become more formalized, which is, just write. It's not like there's ever a dearth of words. Writing, as I have come to understand it and value it, does not have to be a formal, purposeful activity. It can be, and perhaps ought to be, at least some of the time, more of a welling up, like a song.

Of course, this is not the way we teach writing in school, at least not most of us, and not most of the time. Writing as we teach it, and as students learn it, is about meeting certain kinds of formal and structural and logical expectations that have been preordained by our subject-area teachers. We're told what to do, we give it our best shot, and we get it back, most often, with a grade on it, based on somebody's rubric or standard. I had a conversation with a colleague today about exactly such a situation, about how a student she had been trying to help had given an assignment his best shot and it had come back with some dismissive comments and a disappointing grade. And as we talked about it I was feeling sympathy for the student and disheartenment about the situation itself. Why does school have to be this way? What is the point? Where else but in school is anyone ever going to hand you back something you have written with a grade on it? And why would we want to do that, anyway? And once it has been done, and the damage is evident, how do we redress it?

Just before I sat down to write I was reading Frank Smith's The Book of Learning and Forgetting, which I found out about on Wes Fryer's blog. It's a book with a lot of what seems to be to be very clear, straightforward, commonsense thinking about literacy, and here's what he had to say (well, a piece of what he had to say) on the subject of damage control:

Students who have "failed" school literacy instruction for 10 years have learned that they can't read and write, that they don't want to or expect to, that they are "dummies." They must be persuaded that none of these things is true, that they are as competent (and as worthwhile) as anyone else—and probably know a great deal about reading and writing. None of this is accomplished without skill and sensitivity in intimate personal relations.

Well, it seems my song has become less lyrical. I've somehow drifted into expository mode, which may well be my default mode. The starling croaks, the raven himself is hoarse. At lunch today I mentioned that I was waiting for someone to take the bit in his teeth and the woman I was talking to looked startled. I'm not sure whether because she was not familiar with the expression or because she knew it and was shocked that I was using it in that context. I often do not know what is going to pop out of my mouth until it has already escaped. Which is, essentially, the mode I'm modelling here. I started up there at nine. Now it's ten to, and I'm ending down here. But this, this texture, these words, these commas, these repetitions, they push themselves up from underneath, like seeds, like starts, like birds startled into sudden flight. Charming, I'm sure: Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine, and thrice again to make up nine.