Art in America

From Alexander Chee in The Paris Review on becoming an American writer:

"Only in America do we ask our writers to believe they don’t matter as a condition of writing. It is time to end this. Much of my time as a student was spent doubting the importance of my work, doubting the power it had to reach anyone or to do anything of significance. I was already tired of hearing about how the pen was mightier than the sword by the time I was studying writing. Swords, it seemed to me, won all the time. By the time I found that Auden quote— 'poetry makes nothing happen'— I was more than ready to believe what I thought he was saying. But books were still to me as they had been when I found them: the only magic.

I wrote to them that weekend and told them that art endures past governments, countries, and emperors, and their would-be replacements. That art—even, or perhaps especially, art that is dedicated somehow to tenderness—is not weak. It is strength. I asked them to disregard the cultural war against the arts that has lasted most of their lives, the movement to discredit the arts and culture in American public life as being decorative interruptions of more serious affairs, unworthy of funding or even of teachers. I told them that I can’t recall the emperors of China as well as I can Mencius, who counseled them, and whose stories of them, shared in his poetry of these rulers and their problems, describe them for me almost entirely. And the paradox of how a novel, should it survive, protects what a missile can’t."

Tales of War and Redemption

An insightful article from Phil Klay, author of Redeployment (for which he received the National Book Award in fiction in 2014). The discussions on witnessing violence and suffering were interesting to me, as were those on the stories of saints, which I think Catholics especially will relate to. An excerpt:

"The violence I have seen has left me feeling hollowed out, unable to gild all the agony with some beautiful meaning. As I watch the catastrophe that has befallen Iraq, it now seems absurd to cheaply suggest that it built toward any greater purpose, or paved the way for greater peace and prosperity, or that it is anything more than a net increase in the suffering and horror of a world awash in blood, or that there is even a realistic prospect for any kind of justice, some kind of restitution or payment or balancing out, even in a small way, for what has been erased.

In the modern era, we do not want to hear of death as a sacrifice, as an atonement or a gift. Religious claims are tenuous, and pain is certain. Pain provokes our sympathy, and our outrage, while hope of the resurrection serves as little more than a hypothesis. German writer Ernst Jünger once declared pain the “authentic currency of our age.” Perhaps this is why many consider it something of an embarrassment to speak of God in public, or to speak clearly and forthrightly of our experience of transcendence. We’re much more comfortable talking about trauma. Physical trauma, done to bodies."

To Keep Watch

I keep coming back to this beautiful New Yorker piece by Kathryn Schulz. An excerpt:

"All of this is made more precious, not less, by its impermanence. No matter what goes missing, the wallet or the father, the lessons are the same. Disappearance reminds us to notice, transience to cherish, fragility to defend. Loss is a kind of external conscience, urging us to make better use of our finite days. As Whitman knew, our brief crossing is best spent attending to all that we see: honoring what we find noble, denouncing what we cannot abide, recognizing that we are inseparably connected to all of it, including what is not yet upon us, including what is already gone. We are here to keep watch, not to keep."

To Lift Mens' Souls

From William Faulkner's Nobel speech in 1950, an apt and important reminder:

"Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.

I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail."

American Names

From Philip Roth in The New Yorker:

"A Newark Jew—why not? But an American Jew? A Jewish American? For my generation of native-born—whose omnipresent childhood spectacle was the U.S.A.’s shifting fortunes in a prolonged global war against totalitarian evil and who came of age and matured, as high-school and college students, during the remarkable makeover of the postwar decade and the alarming onset of the Cold War—for us no such self-limiting label could ever seem commensurate with our experience of growing up altogether consciously as Americans, with all that that means, for good and for ill. After all, one is not always in raptures over this country and its prowess at nurturing, in its own distinctive manner, unsurpassable callousness, matchless greed, small-minded sectarianism, and a gruesome infatuation with firearms. The list of the country at its most malign could go on, but my point is this: I have never conceived of myself for the length of a single sentence as an American Jewish or Jewish American writer, any more than I imagine Dreiser and Hemingway and Cheever thought of themselves while at work as American Christian or Christian American or just plain Christian writers. As a novelist, I think of myself, and have from the beginning, as a free American and—though I am hardly unaware of the general prejudice that persisted here against my kind till not that long ago—as irrefutably American, fastened throughout my life to the American moment, under the spell of the country’s past, partaking of its drama and destiny, and writing in the rich native tongue by which I am possessed."

Moral Courage

From Susan Sontag in At the Same Time:

"At the center of our moral life and our moral imagination are the great models of resistance: the great stories of those who have said no. No, I will not serve... Courage has no moral value in itself, for courage is not, in itself, a moral virtue. Vicious scoundrels, murderers, terrorists may be brave. To describe courage as a virtue, we need an adjective: we speak of 'moral courage' -- because there is such a thing as amoral courage, too."

Beauty Laid Bare

You should read this lovely WSJ essay on the importance of books, and then go read a book! I'm currently halfway through Moby Dick (which I try to read every couple years), and next on my list: Spaceman by Mike Massimino, The Life-Writer by David Constantine, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood. What are you reading? Also, this from Annie Dillard:

"Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened, and its deepest mystery probed? … Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaning, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power?"

A Mystery and a Mess

Novelist Bonnie Nadzam on not having a writing process. Honestly, I'd like to wake up in the morning and leisurely have breakfast, read for an hour, write for two, eat lunch, run, write for three more hours, and enjoy my evenings with friends, but that's not remotely possible with a full-time job. This confession of hers gave me hope that I can still be a writer while doing all the other things that life demands:

“I have no process; if I did have a process, I would have no confidence in the process. I didn’t do any of the things you’re supposed to do when writing. I didn’t a have an office or separate room in which to write. I didn’t have a desk. I sat on the floor, or on a zafu on its side, or on the porch, or out back, or at the coffee shop, or at the wine bar. I didn’t write every day and certainly not at the same time every day. I was working full time and sometimes more than full time at a job unrelated to art or teaching or writing. I didn’t go to any retreats or residencies or conferences. I checked my email in mid-sentence. Frequently. I didn’t write straight from my gut, so-to-speak — I thought as deeply as I could about the book on every level — sentence, theme, character, overall structure, and still, I might add, ended up surprised by the results and making discoveries I cannot explain and that I’m relying on readers to tell me about. I re-read and studied carefully my favorite novels. I listened to a couple of them on audio, when I needed my hands free to do things like laundry or painting. I read a few dozen other novels, too. I simultaneously worked on another book (Love in the Anthropocene, cowritten with Dale Jamieson). I interrupted myself continually to garden, make elaborate dinners, renovate the house, go running, and tend my own dying father. I got pregnant. I slept on my side for 18 hours a day during the last three months of the pregnancy and didn’t write or read a thing, I mostly just drooled. Then I had twins. I moved twice, once selling and once buying a house. I had way too many people looking at early drafts. I just kept swimming in the mess until it all felt more or less right. And then it was time for it to go into production and I had to stop.  It’s all a mystery and a mess and that’s why I do it. This is both the source of and the salve for all the anxiety involved. It’s awful and wonderful. It’s like when you’re crying so hard you start laughing. There should be more words like bittersweet.”

Houellebecq's Imagined World

Interesting Paris Review interview with Michel Houellebecq, author of Soumission (Submission), a controversial "political fiction" about France in 2020, under the rule of a Muslim political party. Houellebecq is a professed agnostic (once a professed atheist), so I was surprised by some of his thoughts on religion. The interviewer says, "You could also say that what really interests those people is going to Syria, rather than converting." He responds, "I disagree. I think there is a real need for God and that the return of religion is not a slogan but a reality, and that it is very much on the rise." Further, "I remain in many ways a Comtean, and I don't believe that a society can survive without religion." I suppose that's rational from a sociological perspective, but my experience has been that most atheists and agnostics are hostile to religion and dismiss it outright. I guess I'll have to read some Comte.

Joris-Karl Huysmans, the French novelist, plays a central role in Houellebecq's novel. He says, "Huysmans [is a classic case] of a man who converts for reasons that are purely aesthetic. I almost have trouble imagining such an aesthete. For him, beauty was the proof. The beauty of rhyme, of paintings, of music proved the existence of God." I'll also have to read À Rebours, but from the ideas presented in Soumission -- this one about aesthetic conversion particularly -- I can't say I completely disagree with the views of this "neuralgic misfit" (New Yorker).

Houellebecq's firmly anti-Enlightenment beliefs are completely antithetical to mine, but as someone who is interested in religion as a cultural phenomenon, I enjoyed his book and have spent some time thinking about the imagined world in which a Muslim party rules France and an alliance between Catholics and Muslims is possible. It seems unlikely to me, but we do live at a time when the seemingly impossible -- for better or worse -- becomes reality.

Spend It All

Some more advice on writing from Annie Dillard:

"One of the few things I know about writing is this: Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Don’t hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The very impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful; it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes."

Literary Truth

I'm currently reading My Brilliant Friend, the first book in The Neopolitan Novels series by Elena Ferrante. Her writing is beautiful, and I can't wait to finish the series. The passage below is from an interview in The Paris Review, which is interesting in its entirety, but particularly on this point about literary truth:

"The most urgent question for a writer may seem to be, What experiences do I have as my material, what experiences do I feel able to narrate? But that’s not right. The more pressing question is, What is the word, what is the rhythm of the sentence, what tone best suits the things I know? Without the right words, without long practice in putting them together, nothing comes out alive and true. It’s not enough to say, as we increasingly do, These events truly happened, it’s my real life, the names are the real ones, I’m describing the real places where the events occurred. If the writing is inadequate, it can falsify the most honest biographical truths. Literary truth is not the truth of the biographer or the reporter, it’s not a police report or a sentence handed down by a court. It’s not even the plausibility of a well-constructed narrative. Literary truth is entirely a matter of wording and is directly proportional to the energy that one is able to ­impress on the sentence. And when it works, there is no stereotype or cliché of popular literature that resists it. It reanimates, revives, subjects ­everything to its needs."

Like a Medieval Monk

From Camille Paglia, in response to the question: How did you learn to write? And there's more on her writing style and process in an interview here.

"Like a medieval monk, I laboriously copied out passages that I admired from books and articles — I filled notebooks like that in college. And I made word lists to study later. Old-style bound dictionaries contained intricate etymologies that proved crucial to my mastery of English, one of the world’s richest languages."

I never thought to describe it that way, but that's been my process too. And I've always put pen to page in actual notebooks or in the margins of books, which is why half of my storage unit in New York is full of paper! I'm growing a collection here, too. . . eventually I'm going to need a monastery.

Compasses and Architecture

Lovely passage from Rebecca Solnit in The Faraway Nearby:

“What’s your story? It’s all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story. Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there. What is it like to be the old man silenced by a stroke, the young man facing the executioner, the woman walking across the border, the child on the roller coaster, the person you’ve only read about, or the one next to you in bed? We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or to justify taking lives, even our own, by violence or by numbness and the failure to live; tell ourselves stories that save us and stories that are the quicksand in which we thrash and the well in which we drown, stories of justification, of accursedness, of luck and star-crossed live, or versions clad in the cynicism that is at times a very elegant garment"

The Enemy of All Good Things

From Elizabeth Gilbert on creative minds and perfection:

"Perfection murders joy. You cut yourself out of the game before you even start. You cut yourself out of the game because you’ve decided it’s never going to be as good as your ideal. But this is on us. We have a certain responsibility to take that on and allow ourselves to release work which is imperfect – which, by the way, is all work! You’re never going to please everyone. I mean, there are people who think the Sistine Chapel is gaudy."

Smooth Rivers

In response to: Did any writer influence you more than others? Joan Didion in The Paris Review:

"I always say Hemingway, because he taught me how sentences worked. When I was fifteen or sixteen I would type out his stories to learn how the sentences worked. I taught myself to type at the same time. A few years ago when I was teaching a course at Berkeley I reread A Farewell to Arms and fell right back into those sentences. I mean they're perfect sentences. Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes."