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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Alan Watts, This Is It

August 24, 2016 | by

Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago.

Alan Watts.

Alan Watts.

In my high school creative-writing class, one day a week was set aside for reading, our choice of material. The hippieish teacher guided those choices, but almost anything worked. It was here, because of her, that I first encountered Alan Watts, specifically his essay collection This Is It. All I remember about the book itself is my teacher dreamily commenting on the title. I picked up a copy because it was short, and because the subtitle—and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience—spoke to me. The idea seemed “cool”—Watts was a forerunner of the counterculture movement—but I must have been too busy with the eternity of high school to focus my attention.

I was in college when I was in a car accident that tore a nerve in my shoulder. A botched surgery to repair it severed an artery and released a blood clot that, a week later, caused a massive stroke that left me locked inside my body. I couldn’t move or speak, and the doctors said I would be paralyzed from the eyes down for the rest of my life. Read More »

Liquor License

August 18, 2016 | by

Why are there so many bars in my novel?

A postcard for the Silver Dollar Bar, Jackson, Wyoming.

Novels are long, and you have to fill them with stuff, and that stuff tends to accumulate in patterns, laying bare your preoccupations. If you’re hung up on something, there’s a good chance it will appear, somehow, in the production of three to four hundred pages of fiction. For instance, Wallace had tennis; Joyce had meat. (“Steak, kidney, liver, mashed at meat fit for princes.”) Rereading my debut novel, The Grand Tour, I’ve discovered I have an obsession, too: I like bars.

Even for a novel about an alcoholic writer and bartender, my book has a lot of bars. Sixteen, in fact: sixteen instances in which characters appear at sixteen different bars. Seemingly at every chance, Richard, The Grand Tour’s protagonist, walks into bars, sits down, and drinks. I knew the book featured a lot of bars, but sixteen is more than I’d imagined, and it raises some troubling questions. Whence these many saloons? Whither these sundry watering holes? And what’s wrong with diners, or teahouses, or hookah lounges? Read More »

Akhil Sharma on An Obedient Father

August 15, 2016 | by

Inspired by our famous Writers at Work interviews, “My First Time” is a series of short videos about how writers got their start. Created by the filmmakers Tom Bean, Casey Brooks, and Luke Poling, each video is a portrait of the artist as a beginner—and a look at the creative process, in all its joy, abjection, delusion, and euphoria.

Today, Akhil Sharma discusses his first novel, An Obedient Father, which he started when he was a student at Stanford: “I got [to school] about a month before classes started, and I didn’t know how to write or how to begin writing a book. And I thought, I’ll begin writing five pages a day and in two months I’ll be done with a novel. I didn’t know how to come up with plot, I didn’t know how to do anything ... Still I don’t know how you get through all those years of being lost.” Read More »

Revere the Fig, Pity the Fig Wasp, and Other News

August 12, 2016 | by

From a package of California Fig Syrup Company’s “Syrup of Figs” laxative.

  • Friends, the great march of progress continues apace. The word bawbag—“a Scots word meaning scrotum, in Scots vernacular a term of endearment but in English could be taken as an insult”—has been added to the Macmillan Open Dictionary. Now the official record will never forget the rich, protean history of this fine word: ‘Bawbag made the headlines five years ago when hurricane force winds hit Scotland in a storm dubbed Hurricane Bawbag by Twitter users—a name which quickly went viral. It was also one of the many insults leveled at the US Republican party’s presidential candidate when he arrived in Scotland earlier this summer—the Daily Record reporting that anti-Trump protestors held up signs reading ‘Trump is a bawbag.’ The Ukip leader Nigel Farage was met with cries of ‘Nigel, you’re a bawbag, Nigel you’re a bawbag, na, na, na, hey!’ in Edinburgh three years ago.”
  • I eat figs as I eat most things—hell-bent on my own delectation, and totally ignorant of the food’s history or provenance. Ben Crair has taught me the ancient ways of the fig, though, in all their beauty and tragedy: “Because a fig is actually a ball of flowers, it requires pollination, but because the flowers are sealed, not just any bug can crawl inside. That task belongs to a minuscule insect known as the fig wasp, whose life cycle is intertwined with the fig’s. Mother wasps lay their eggs in an unripe fig. After their offspring hatch and mature, the males mate and then chew a tunnel to the surface, dying when their task is complete. The females follow and take flight, riding the winds until they smell another fig tree … When the insects discover the right specimen, they go inside and deposit the pollen from their birthplace. Then the females lay new eggs, and the cycle begins again. For the wasp mother, however, devotion to the fig plant soon turns tragic. A fig’s entranceway is booby-trapped to destroy her wings, so that she can never visit another plant. When you eat a dried fig, you’re probably chewing fig-wasp mummies, too.”
  • In the media, to call a piece of writing “academic” is to condemn it in the worst terms. David Wolf and Jo Livingstone discuss the eroding reputation of professorial prose: “People talk about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ writing as if it’s obvious what they are … In a journalistic context, extremely formal and exhaustive academic writing can come across as so pretentious and ridiculous when, in fact, there’s a lovely humbleness to it. The academic is saying, ‘Look! I’ve acknowledged all these people that have thought really hard about this’ … But, I think, one way in which academics writing for journalistic audiences can go wrong is not appreciating that the world which you are writing for is completely different … It’s not the job of the readers of the Guardian, say, to read you. They’re either going to read you because they’re interested, or they think it’s really important, or they’ll do it for pleasure or entertainment, but they’re not doing it out of any sense of duty.”
  • The National Library of France has digitized the 1588 manuscript of Montaigne’s seminal Essays. It is, yes, in French. But if you can jump over that hurdle, you’ll see that Montaigne’s handwritten annotations (allongeails) are intact here. (Previously, the manuscript lived for many centuries in a convent in Bordeaux.)

The Landlord from Ioway: James Alan McPherson, 1943–2016

August 10, 2016 | by

Photo by Tom Langdon.

Photo by Tom Langdon.

Although I didn’t yet know of his dying, I was thinking of James McPherson in the hours afterward, as I listened to President Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. I wanted very much for him to explain how these two lodestars of our current political life, Obama and Trump, could exist in the same galaxy. Years ago, at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I had witnessed Jim’s unerring ability to find the pulse of the weakest story. Similarly, during the reigns of Reagan and Bush the First, he had listened intently to the whispering of a far right wing not easily heard in the din of that era’s culture war. I knew I had neither Jim’s wisdom nor imagination, and the night of the convention I could only sense that he again, in a way that most of us could not, would understand the spiritual impoverishment that drove this most incredible of political narratives.

I had to content myself with remembering the rumble of his laughter, the way it could start from the tips of his splayed feet and rise up to his fraying straw cap. I thought, too, of the hesitations in the murmur of his hushed voice, the result perhaps of a stutter long mastered, or the refusal to speak anything other than the truth—his truth perhaps, but a truth that many of his students learned to rely on. Read More »

There’s Always Disco, and Other News

August 8, 2016 | by

From the cover to Patrick Cowley’s Muscle Up.

  • Hey, you! Egghead! Ponce! Academic intellectual hippie freak! Get a real job! You don’t know shit about real people! You wouldn’t know a working man if he put a gun in your mouth! “People who specialize in the life of ideas tend to be extremely atypical of their societies,” Michael Lind reminds us. “They—we—are freaks in a statistical sense. For generations, populists of various kinds have argued that intellectuals are unworldly individuals out of touch with the experiences and values of most of their fellow citizens. While anti-intellectual populists have often been wrong about the gold standard or the single tax or other issues, by and large they have been right about intellectuals.”
  • In which Amie Barrodale searches for the elusive sources of her fiction: “My work comes from my life. But after my first collection of stories, I made a vow to myself: no more of that. I began to think about writing a novel about a pedophile who undergoes some kind of elective treatment, some kind of brain surgery, some kind of stimulation of his illness that forces him to basically go through the hell of his own mind, his own sickness, to come out cured. I began to read about pedophiles. But on the side, as I worked, another story emerged, about a miscarriage, a miscarriage I had last year. What I mean is that for me, for better or for worse, my life presents itself as a story sometimes … One thing I would like to do, one day, is be able to describe what is happening in my mind. Sometimes I just make strange sounds in my head, I notice. One day I’d like to know what happens in there.”
  • Samuel Richardson’s eighteenth-century novels Pamela and Clarissa have plenty to say about victimhood and agency—even as they defy contemporary standards of morality. As Amy Gentry writes, Pamela is “a prolonged tale of sexual harassment in which, for several hundred pages, the hired servant Pamela fights off her employer Mr. B.’s unwanted advances … Together, Pamela and Clarissa represent Richardson’s fundamental misunderstanding of rape culture. He mistook women for human beings at a time when it was illegal for them to be. That’s an endearing mistake you won’t catch Austen making — not out loud, anyway — not so the men can hear. But Richardson’s mistake was a fertile one. Out of his strenuous attempts to give us a sense of Clarissa as a human being with agency who nevertheless had no control over her own violation came one of the greatest triumphs of literature in English — Clarissa’s very soul — the agency she exerts from inside the depths of powerlessness and madness simply by continuing to write.”
  • Mary Wellesley takes a trip to Alexander Pope’s grotto, recalling its extensive history: “Over time the grotto’s purpose changed. In 1739, Pope took the waters of Hotwells Spa in Bristol, and was transfixed by the geology of the Avon Gorge. After that, the grotto became a shrine to the majesty of geology. Pope was influenced by his friend William Borlase, an antiquarian, who espoused ‘physico-theological’ ideas about geology as evidence of the work of God. Pope decorated his grotto with crystals, shells, ores and spars, ordering shipments of material from distant parts of the country. After a spat with his friend Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, she described it as ‘a palace beneath the muddy road’, which was ‘Adorn’d within with Shells of small expense/Emblems of tinsel Rhyme and trifling sense.’ ”