The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘writing’


September 21, 2015 | by

Photo: Darwin Bell


Life is an onion—you peel it year by year and sometimes cry. ―Carl Sandburg

Here’s a practical writing tip: if you’re stuck, write “Once upon a time.” Go on, try it—I think you’ll find that even the action is soothing. It’s not just that now you have something on the page, although you do. The words themselves are calming. 

Where did I encounter this piece of advice? I don’t want to rob anyone of credit, but misattribution would be bad, too. I think it was in the cookbook The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper, but I can’t swear to it. Anyway, in this book, one of the authors relates a time-honored tip passed down from her grandmother: if you don’t know what to make for dinner, just cut up an onion and put it on to cook. The action, the aroma, the fact that an onion is the basis for so many dishes—these factors will conspire to prompt a plan. And if nothing else, you’ll enjoy the savory smell of industry. Read More »

The Art of Weathered Lithuanian Garage Doors, and Other News

September 16, 2015 | by

Photo: Agne Gintalaite, via Slate

  • Hey, kid—wanna get into print? Take some advice from a guy who’s been around the block: during the submissions process, it’s always better to lie and/or cheat. (The jury’s still out on stealing.) “I was a junior editor at an established magazine, and I decided to use this to my advantage. I typed up a cover letter on my employer’s very fine letterhead, slipped it and the story into an envelope embossed with our well-known logo … A few months later, an editor emailed me at work—stick it, SASE!—to say he would like to buy the story … What I’m counseling is cheating: You don’t have to be an asshole. The submission process is a rigged casino game, though, and all is fair in love and literary magazines.”
  • The trope of the writer as a habitué of cafés—always bowing his head over a cappuccino or espresso, always pausing to scrawl something brilliant and hard-won in a coffee-stained Moleskine notebook—is irritating, both to the idea of writers and the idea of cafés. The history of the coffeehouse is a strange thing: it was long regarded not as a site for productivity but for procrastination, especially among men. “Coffee itself was often thought to be disgusting—a few of the names used by detractors were ‘syrup of soot,’ ‘a foreign fart,’ ‘a sister of the common sewer,’ ‘resembling the river Styx,’ ‘Pluto’s diet-drink,’ ‘horsepond liquor’ … While the early coffeehouses sometimes hosted what were called ‘improving activities,’ including scientific lectures—the scientist Robert Hooke, a member of the Royal Society, was a prominent coffeehouse lecturer, and in one particularly bizarre case, a porpoise was brought to a coffeehouse and dissected in front of an audience, in the name of natural philosophy—the culture of ‘improvement’ did little to assuage the sense that these places were black holes for the productive days of men in their best working years.”
  • Imagine befriending various writers. Did you know? Most of them will be awful companions, including Joyce, Dickens, Hardy, and even Lawrence: “Later, when he takes the dog out he invites you to join him. He is looking for a man to form a blutsbrüdershaft, he says, a friendship so strong that you can both say exactly what you think of each other without putting the relationship at risk. As he says this, he places a hand on your wrist. He’s so seductive that you feel afraid.”
  • In which Mary Karr sets the record straight on a thing or two, as is her wont: “David Foster Wallace wanted celebrity as much or more than any writer I’ve ever known … I had to talk David out of doing a Gap commercial at one point because I said, ‘Would Cormac McCarthy do it? Would Toni Morrison do it?’”
  • Today in aged Lithuanian garage doors: “Lithuanian photographer Agne Gintalaite has documented a series of some 200 Lithuanian garage doors painted and weathered by the elements and time on the outskirts of Vilnius that look like Mark Rothko paintings left out in the rain, each its own stunning work of abstract art.”

Cherish the Poop You Are Full of, and Other News

September 11, 2015 | by

Anonymous, Cabinets d'aisances des fosses inodores (detail), ca. 1830.

  • New York in the late seventies was not exactly a utopia: crime was soaring, graffiti was ubiquitous, mace was a must-have accessory. But a certain set of novels and films has made the era something to yearn for: “This was the last moment when a novelist or poet might withdraw a book that had already been accepted for publication and continue to fiddle with it for the next two or three years. This was the last time when a New York poet was reluctant to introduce to his arty friends someone who was a Hollywood film director, for fear the movies would be considered too low-status … these works express a craving for the city that, while at its worst, was also more democratic … where not even money could insulate you. They are a reaction to what feels like a safer, more burnished and efficient (but cornerless and predictable) city.”
  • Today in writing advice that isn’t total shit, even if it’s about shit: “I preach the radio. I do not preach thinking you must know what you are about. Faulkner had good drugs and a big radio. I recall having heard my own little radio at times. It is rare, yes, and it is, now, rarer. But you are young and have your juice, you’re still full of poop, which is the necessary requisite to tuning the radio. Got to be some poop out there, on the airwaves, or in there, in you, for you to tune it in. Cherish the poop you are full of, and work on excreting it with sound fundamentals.” That’s Padgett Powell, being correct.
  • On procrastination and art: might there be something heroic, or at least admirably resistant, in the idea of putting off one’s writing? “Bartleby is my hero, endlessly preferring not to, but though I find him sympathetic, he—along with all the ‘writers of the no’, writers who turned their backs on writing, Rimbaud and Walser among them—is not in the same game as me. Or if we are in the same game, I’m not playing it right. I don’t turn my back on writing. I don’t say no. I say yes and fail to follow through. I sit suspended between preferring not to and not preferring to enough—I’m hung on a peg.”
  • Kenzaburo Oe’s A Personal Matter is “a compressed, unflinching portrait of the turmoil that envelops Bird, an alcoholic, after his son’s birth.” The novel has a new champion: none but Jonathan Franzen, who adores its disturbing elements, its comic elements, its vomit elements: “I don’t know of a more compelling description of throwing up than the ones that occur in this book. He’s sweating, he looks at himself in the mirror, and there’s bad sex. It’s partly that—the really, really tight focus on Bird’s body. There’s nothing like a microscopic view of your body to evoke shame.”
  • While we’re on shame—it’s time for men to cry again. They have much to cry about, being men, and yet they shed no tears … why, when male weeping has been treated as normal in almost every part of the world for most of recorded history? In fact, it was exalted for a while: “ancient Greeks saw it as a model for how heroic men should behave … 20,000 knights swooning from grief were considered noble, not ridiculous … there’s no mention of the men in these stories trying to restrain or hide their tears … They cry in a crowded hall with their heads held high. Nor do their companions make fun of this public blubbing; it’s universally regarded as an admirable expression of feeling.”

Postcards from the Postapocalypse, and Other News

September 2, 2015 | by

Ryan Spencer, Such Mean Estate #12, unique panchromatic instant print, 2.9" x 3.7". Image via Guernica

  • So you’re writing a sex scene—congratulations! The journey ahead will be arduous, and likely totally unsexy, but there are some rules of thumb for these things. Your first major decision is what to call the penis. “Do go for the etymological dictionary for epithets that feel historical: like, membrum virile, arbor vitae (from the late eighteenth century, for a type of evergreen shrub), wrinkly (early fifteenth century) or bole (early fourteenth century, from Old Norse bolr meaning tree trunk).” From here, it’s all smooth sailing.
  • Today in creative responses to impending doom: Leslie Jamison has collaborated with the photographer Ryan Spencer on Such Mean Estate, which “interweaves photographs of episodes from apocalypse movies with what Jamison refers to as her catechism: an essay structured as a series of questions and answers pertaining to the images on the page.” “I was really drawn to the sense of aloneness that rose from so many of these images,” Jamison says, “I also like the way that apocalypse scenarios in film sometimes allow an outsider—a wacko scientist, ignored Cassandra prophet, loner—to play some crucial or necessary role, to become part of his community again.”
  • Wittgenstein’s language philosophy is surprisingly relevant to the way we interact online: “The shift to online communication, textual interactions separated from accompanying physical practices, has had a persistent and egregious warping effect on language, and one that most people don’t even understand. It has made linguistic practice more limited, more universal, and more ambiguous. More people interact with one another without even realizing they are following different rules for words’ usages. There is no time or space to clarify one’s self.”
  • Since humankind has essentially turned the planet into a mall, it’s time to refurbish our concept of nature—time to acknowledge, that is, that nature is a mall, and to maintain it as such. “No place is natural any longer, and so the entire environment has become in a certain sense a built environment … If the entire environment has become a built environment, would that not then mean that it was time to think about an environmentalism of the built environment? Indeed, one might even start to wonder whether the emphasis on the protection of nature—if nature is gone, or even if nature is simply going—might actually be an obstacle to clear environmental thinking: if most or all of the world that ‘environs’ us is not natural, shouldn’t it be the built environment, and not nature, that is the focus of our environmental concern?”
  • Jason Scott is “the guy who can save bits of history right before they disappear.” He digitizes things. Recently, for instance, he scanned about fifty thousand obsolete engineering manuals that were soon to be thrown away. “There’s value and meaning here,” he says. “Everything from the fonts and the layouts … How a company presents its brand, how it appraises things. And other times you pick one up and, wow, nobody writes with this brilliance and clarity about technical subjects. These manuals feel like they’re a project as important as the item they’re describing.”

My Mother-in-Law Is My Best Reader

August 19, 2015 | by

A mother-in-law joke twenty-eight years in the making.


Pablo Picasso, The Lesson (detail), 1934.

My first reader, best editor, and subtlest critic is my mother-in-law.

I’ve known H.—as I’ll call her to protect her privacy and preserve her from unsolicited requests for advice—for about twenty-eight years now. My girlfriend, now my wife, arranged for me to meet her parents for the first time at Veniero’s pastry shop, around the corner from my place in the East Village. When I went outside for a smoke, H. burst into tears. We have been best friends ever since. In those years, I’ve written six books, mostly novels, but I have been under her tutelage for only the last four, which is probably why the first two are not much good.

H. is one of a tiny core of first readers that includes my wife, J. (a professional editor), my sister, N., and my friend S. Before I give them a work in progress, I try to wait until I am satisfied I have done everything in my power to perfect it, but often they find such glaring structural or emotional flaws and gaps in it that a piece I’d believed to be cooked to a T reveals itself to be half-baked, at best. So implicitly do I trust my first readers, and so gratefully do I rely on them to be brutally and consistently honest, that I have abandoned entire drafts of a new novel on their recommendation. Almost invariably, I find that what they tell me about my own work is something I have known in my heart all along but have declined to admit to myself out of inertia, obtuseness, or fear. Only when I hear it from them does it become real to me, and actionable. I have permission to lie to myself—they do not. Read More »

Smoking with Lucia

August 18, 2015 | by

Remembering Lucia Berlin.

Lucia Berlin in Albuquerque, 1963. Photo: Buddy Berlin/Literary Estate of Lucia Berlin

Lucia Berlin was not PC. And she was not New Age. She never talked to me about “recovery” or “karma.” We never spoke of the Twelve Steps. It was understood: she was sober now. No need to talk about it. Especially when she could write about it. Her stories, populated with alcoholics and addicts, are rendered with an empathy, disgust, and ruthless wit that echo the devastating circumstances of her own life. She’d moved from isolation to affluence to detox and back again, and Boulder, Colorado—inundated with massage therapists, extreme athletes, and vegans—was an unlikely place for her to end up. Yet she spent much of the last decade of her life there. First in a clapboard Victorian beneath the red rocks of Dakota Ridge; later, when illness nearly bankrupted her, in a trailer park on the outskirts of the pristine town.

News of the trailer depressed me until I managed a visit, finding her at ease amid the shabby metal homes stacked on cinder blocks. It’s likely Lucia would have felt more comfortable watching a bull be gored in a Mexico City arena or huddling among winos on a corner in Oakland than she ever felt at her first place on posh Mapleton Hill. But that was where we spent nearly all of our time together. Usually at her kitchen table. Read More »