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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

My Mother-in-Law Is My Best Reader

August 19, 2015 | by

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

picassothelesson

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 »

I Think I Would Rather Be a Painter

August 10, 2015 | by

At the Guggenheim, writers and artists cross-pollinate.

Carol Bove, Vague Pure Affection, 2012, wood and steel shelves, paper, brass, concrete, and acrylic, 85" x 35 1/2" x 16". © Carol Bove, photo courtesy Maccarone Inc., New York

Writers have always been in love with the visual arts. Just think of Frank O’Hara’s sly poem “Why I Am Not a Painter,” which is actually all about the creative entanglement of the two forms—tinged with yearning and a wry bit of envy:

I am not a painter, I am a poet.

Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

And it isn’t just poets. Hemingway, that great champion of muscular prose, credited Cézanne as one of his masters—a guy who painted pictures of rooftops. More recently, Don DeLillo has haunted the outer edges of the art world in novels such as The Body Artist, Falling Man, and 2010’s Point Omega, which begins and ends with a description of Douglas Gordon’s video installation 24 Hour Psycho. Read More »

Without Need of Makeup, and Other News

August 4, 2015 | by

SissierettaJones

An 1889 poster for Sissieretta Jones, who sang opera but gave recitals, because she was never hired by opera houses.

  • Some writers take years to finish their novels. These people are fools: writing a novel takes only seventy-five minutes, if you crowdsource it effectively. This Saturday, the sci-fi author Chris Farnell will prove it at a “Geekfest” panel in Heathrow: “the fifty or so attendees of the panel will spend about forty-five minutes collaboratively hammering out a plot, characters and structure. Then, for the next half an hour, each of them will be given one chapter to write, and the results will be collected together, lightly edited, and published as a free ebook.” The book stands little chance of being good—but the same could be said of those that take years to limp their ways to the finish line.
  • Opera has a long and vexed tradition of blackface—and the Met, this season, has finally put an end to their use of “dark makeup,” prompting a reconsideration of the role of African Americans in the opera. “Too many Black artists have devoted their lives to opera, working inside and outside the establishment, sharing their insights, pleasure, and critiques, to allow their art to be sidestepped in this way. Besides more opportunities for Black singers on stage, says Dr. Gregory Hopkins, artistic director of Harlem Opera Theater, there needs to be recognition of works in which Black artists can ‘tell our own stories, without need of makeup, where we’re not being dressed up to look like someone else.’ ”
  • Why is everyone still obsessed with the Bloomsbury Group, a century later? Because it was elitist: “Paradoxically, the idea of the Bloomsbury Group as socially, intellectually and artistically exclusive is bound up with its wider appeal. Close the door and people come knocking … Establishing an explicitly exclusive and anti-populist club is, of course, a long-established route to long-term popularity.”
  • Charles Simic interviews his brother about New York’s jazz scene in the sixties: “[Jackie McLean] told me about his first time playing at Birdland. It was 1952 or something, with Miles Davis. The very first solo he took that night, he was so nervous he stopped, turned around and went back through the curtain at the back of the stage and into the dressing room behind it and threw up. Oscar Goodstein, the Birdland manager, ran in and yelled at him, ‘Get back on stage!’ Jackie goes back out, finishes his solo and gets a big round of applause from the audience. Miles turns to him and says, ‘Man, I’ve never seen that one before!’ ”
  • Today in walking metaphors: hitchBOT, a Canadian robot attempting to hitchhike to San Francisco, was found brutally dismembered in Philadelphia. “We know that many of hitchBOT’s fans will be disappointed, but we want them to be assured that this great experiment is not over,” its creators said in a statement. “For now, we will focus on the question: ‘What can be learned from this?’ and explore future adventures for robots and humans.”

Crunching Christie, and Other News

August 3, 2015 | by

MPW-55661

The poster for Murder Most Foul.

  • Data analysts have descended on the corpus of Agatha Christie—to celebrate the 125th anniversary of her birth, they’ve crunched some numbers and honed a formula “that they claim will enable the reader to identify the killer before the likes of Hercule Poirot or Miss Jane Marple have managed the feat,” thus taking the fun out of what had been formerly known as “reading.” The formula examines factors like setting, gender of culprit, number of culprit mentions per chapter, and sentiment of culprit mentions; in some cases its findings are surprising. “They found that if the victim was strangled, the killer was more likely to be male … if the setting was a country house—not uncommon for a Christie novel—there was a 75% chance the killer would be female. Female culprits were usually discovered thanks to a domestic item, while males were normally found out through information or logic.”
  • At Stanford, meanwhile, new software called ePADD will change the way researchers process e-mail collections. Archivists who’d been “grappling with more than 150,000 e-mails in the archive of poet and author Robert Creeley” used ePADD to separate the wheat from the chaff: e-mails “accumulate like dust … A mountain of ‘See you at eight o’clock.’ Every now and then, there must be significant ones but the sheer volume is very great.”
  • An old lecture by Shirley Jackson looks at two of a writer’s most necessary tools—memory and delusion: “The very nicest thing about being a writer is that you can afford to indulge yourself endlessly with oddness, and nobody can really do anything about it, as long as you keep writing and kind of using it up, as it were. I am, this morning, endeavoring to persuade you to join me in my deluded world; it is a happy, irrational, rich world, full of fairies and ghosts and free electricity and dragons, and a world beyond all others fun to walk around in. All you have to do—and watch this carefully, please—is keep writing.”
  • This is your periodic reminder that it’s okay, or even laudable, to pursue “difficult” fiction: “Think back on our country’s rich literary traditions in fiction: from Hawthorne to Melville, through Poe to James, Stein, ­Ellison, and Faulkner, just to cite a few. Their books make use of circularity, fragmentation, and elision, and at their most extreme reject coherence in an effort to produce new meaning. Their wildness has played an important defining role in our culture’s literary identity … If we want to make sure this important tradition continues, we have to sustain the curiosity to care about work that, at first glance, might seem difficult … Let’s not give up on the intricacies of ambitious fiction. Let’s not stop reading the kind of books that keep teaching us to read.”
  • Marie Darrieussecq’s first book, Pig Tales, published in 1996, is “narrated by an unnamed young white woman who aspires to a higher class, but in turn, is becoming a pig. As her body undergoes this great metamorphosis, she attracts increasing acts of sexual violence … The narrator, who works at Perfumes Plus as a perfume seller and prostitute, doesn’t seem to know that she is abused, let alone deceived about her pay.” But in all its grotesquerie, the book’s formalism offers an effective way of depicting violence against women: “Darrieussecq, in Pig Tales, rigorously insists on visibility—form is light. Her formal rigor, her careful and caring arrangement, her tactic, bares her comment. I want all writers, if they want to take the female body out of their tool kit, and hurt it, to work hard. Mostly, so hard they don’t bother.”

A Very Interesting Excursion

June 29, 2015 | by

Looking for van Gogh in Belgium’s mining district.

the-sower-sower-with-setting-sun-1888

Vincent van Gogh’s The Sower, 1888, which was inspired by paintings by Jean-François Millet.

Earlier this month, Nellie wrote for the Daily about van Gogh’s time in the Borinage and its effect on his art. In this follow-up piece, she reflects on her own travels in the region.

On a sunny but cool afternoon in mid March, I stood on the muddy ground of a closed and abandoned mine in Belgium. Behind me, a handful of pigs screamed from inside a pen in one of the decrepit buildings. A large, lean, mean-looking dog, which in fact was not mean at all, stood nearby, tethered to a long rope.

It was my first time in this place, the former mining district of Belgium, called the Borinage, though I spent the nearly six years prior writing a novel that took place there. From 1878 to 1880, before he declared himself an artist, Vincent van Gogh lived in the Borinage, trying to be a preacher, and the story of what may have happened during that time is my novel’s subject. I didn’t go to Belgium while I was researching or writing the book—the mines are all closed these days and the area developed; I told myself there was no point in going if it didn’t look just like it had in the late nineteenth century. But Mons, the city that sits right at the tip of the Borinage region, is this year’s selection for the European Capital of Culture and, as a result, is home to all sorts of interesting exhibits and performances, including the first-ever exhibition of van Gogh’s work from and related to this period of his life: it opened, strangely, just a few weeks after my book had been published. It was a coincidence too odd to ignore, and I got on a plane to go see this place I had long imagined.

I have been struggling to articulate what this visit was like in any coherent way. I knew, all those years, that the place I was envisioning was real, but in my mind it was a place that no longer existed, a place to be conjured and imagined, not to stand on with two real feet. To be confronted with the reality of the place in physical space was quite a different thing. I expected that there would be nothing left. In a way I was right, and in a way very wrong. Read More »