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."


This article on lost books is interesting. I don't share the author's fascination with "book-shaped holes in the intellectual firmament," but I do love manuscripts. An excerpt:

"Why does a manuscript hold more value to us than a published, finished product? 'It depends on what you want to experience,' says de Hamel. 'It is quicker to read Chaucer in a modern edition. But that personal thrill of touching and turning the pages of the original is incomparable. We all want to touch hands with history.'"

Does the Book of Kells lose any of its allure when a mass-produced paperback version is available to buy just feet away, in Trinity College Dublin’s gift shop? No, says de Hamel: 'There are things you’ll see in an original manuscript that even a microfilm or digitised surrogate cannot convey – drypoint glosses, erasures, sewing holes, underdrawing, changes of parchment, subtleties of colour, loss of leaves, patina of handling – even smell and touch and sound, which can transform knowledge and understanding of the text when its scribes made it and first readers saw it.' So, when we mourn lost manuscripts, it’s not just over the disappearance of words, we are also losing an understanding of the process of their creation – the author’s scribbles, their hasty additions, their fraught deletions."

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."

The First White President

A very powerful essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates. An excerpt:

"The American tragedy now being wrought is larger than most imagine and will not end with Trump. In recent times, whiteness as an overt political tactic has been restrained by a kind of cordiality that held that its overt invocation would scare off 'moderate' whites. This has proved to be only half true at best. Trump’s legacy will be exposing the patina of decency for what it is and revealing just how much a demagogue can get away with. It does not take much to imagine another politician, wiser in the ways of Washington and better schooled in the methodology of governance—and now liberated from the pretense of antiracist civility—doing a much more effective job than Trump… The first white president in American history is also the most dangerous president—and he is made more dangerous still by the fact that those charged with analyzing him cannot name his essential nature, because they too are implicated in it."

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."

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.”

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.

What We Think About When We Run

From a recent article in The New Yorker, What We Think About When We Run:

"Golf rounds are slow and baseball games borderline endless, but the actual moments of play are comparatively brief and highly focused; like faster, reflex-reliant sports—basketball, soccer, ice hockey—they do not conduce to abstract thinking. In endurance running, by contrast, one thinks at great length while doing the activity. To run five or ten or twenty-six miles is, as much as anything else, to engage in a sustained way with the deep strangeness that is the human mind.

. . . Confronted with difficulty of any kind—a throbbing ankle, a stitch in the side, cold, hunger, headwinds, loneliness, despair, boredom, grief—runners will inevitably talk about 'running through it.' In its more modest connotation, the phrase simply means to keep going. But the grander meaning is that 'through it' means 'past it.' That is the runner’s great article of faith: that a better mood will supplant a worse one, pain will ease up, joy will kick in."

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."

Wedding Hens: A Folktale

From the archives, written June 2015 - My grandmother reads as much as I do, and often asks for book suggestions. You can imagine the dark and dreary titles I recommend (ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, and Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, for example). I write about depressing things, too, she says. To put my mind on cheerier topics, she recently sent me a picture of one of her sewing projects - colorful hen pincushions with white lace tails - and asked me to write a story about them. The longer explanation is that my cousin, who lives and works in Africa, is getting married this summer. She brought fabric from Nairobi, Kenya, from which my grandmother made the pincushions. As such, the story was to be about marriage and fertility and should not be sad. After doing some research on Kenya, I tried my hand at folktale writing. My first attempt at the genre is below.

Over five million years ago, a length of time we can hardly fathom, a volcano higher than the Himalaya spewed lava and ash and gas from the center of the earth. Sitting just south of the equator, this powerful volcano called Kiinyaa was more volatile and dangerous than the people had ever known. Life along the fault line was nasty, brutish, and short, and tales of death and destruction were passed down from generation to generation. Yet in the face of this dark reality, stories of courage and heroism were also inherited and passed down through the ages. It was said that during periods of quiet, when the volcano stood still, intrepid tribesmen would climb the rocky edifice in an attempt to reach the summit and peer into the dark abyss.

Many attempted and most failed, but one tribesman lived to tell his tale. He reported demons and spirits and truly horrible creatures from the deep, but the bit of his story that survived in meticulous detail involves a curious pattern of rocks interspersed between the debris at the summit. They were rocks of red and yellow and green and blue, arranged in such a way as to resemble the plumage of colorful birds. The tribesman called these multi-colored rock formations hens, because that seemed the closest approximation. They were a sign, legend has it, that life in the shadow of the volcano would continue and the sun would shine radiant again.

Eventually Kiinyaa became extinct and no longer spewed molten ash. Two periods of glaciation followed, and the peak of the great mountain was covered in an ice cap. A new generation of explorers discovered different anomalies of nature that they recorded and passed down to their children. Chief among these discoveries were the intricate crystalline patterns in the ice that looked like lattices and webs. These patterns were said to represent the delicate nature of human life, and were evidence of the existence of a greater power.

The majestic ice cap slowly eroded the mountain, and new peaks and valleys were formed. Life-giving streams began to flow down the jagged sides, and deep pools formed in the molten craters. These rivers and lakes brought new life to the region, and nourished habitation for generations to come. And quite unlike other tribes on the African continent, the people of the volcano multiplied exponentially and grew prosperous. They began to build their houses with doors and windows facing the mountain, for they attributed the blessing of abundant life to the ancient volcano and the sacrifices of their ancestors.

In the years to come, every bride of the village received a curious looking bird figurine on the day before her wedding with an instruction to tell the story of those who came before. This is what they remembered and passed on, the enduring legend of the wedding hen:

We are the brave people of the volcano who survived under its terror for decades. Intrepid explorers climbed the mountain to stare evil in the eye and to find signs of hope, and when they reached the top they found rocks of many colors, formed like hens, a sign that the sun would shine again. Then came the cold, but with it the intricate latticed patterns of ice that reminded the people of the fragility and beauty of life. Our story transcends time and place and extends to all people. These hens symbolize the warmth of the sun in their colorful plumage and the frailty and beauty of life in their lace tails. Count the number of pins in your hen. That is the number of children you will be blessed with, times two. Now you must also go and share our story.

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."

The Defining Nexus

From The Middle of Things: Advice for Young Writers by Andrew Solomon:

Despite every advancement, language remains the defining nexus of our humanity; it is where our knowledge and hope lie. It is the precondition of human tenderness, mightier than the sword but also infinitely more subtle and ultimately more urgent. Remember that writing things down makes them real; that it is nearly impossible to hate anyone whose story you know; and, most of all, that even in our post-postmodern era, writing has a moral purpose. With twenty-six shapes arranged in varying patterns, we can tell every story known to mankind, and make up all the new ones—indeed, we can do so in most of the world’s known tongues. If you can give language to experiences previously starved for it, you can make the world a better place.

A Connoisseur of Civilizations

William Dalrymple on Robert Byron (and some suggested reads on Afghanistan):

Byron was a brave traveller, an art historian of erudition, and a connoisseur of civilisations. Above all, he was a writer of prose whose chiselled beauty has cast its spell on English travel writing ever since. Byron had a remarkable ability to evoke place, to bring to life a whole world in a single unexpected image, to pull a perfect sentence out of the air with the ease of a child netting a butterfly.

High praise from Dalrymple who is also a magnificent writer. In case you missed it, I wrote a review of his book From the Holy Mountain here.