Revisiting is what I do. I am a pathological revisitor, I think—my ex-wife ventured to suggest a time or two when, late returning from some errand, I’d admit to having taken an excursion into one of my old neighborhoods. I’m always driving back through my old neighborhoods, the places I have lived within the city from the time I was four until my early teens. The five great ages of my youth, as I conceive them—each as sweeping and portentous, as distinctly toned and lit as Thomas Cole’s five stages of Empire in that famous series of paintings. When I drive through—pretty slowly with the radio off and the windows open—I’ll get into this tour guide state of mind. I’ll fall into this line of patter, actually talking to myself as if into a little microphone. I don’t intend to speak out loud. But here I go. Read More
What should I bring on my writing retreat?
I’m off to the woods to live deliberately! Or, just to live, as it were—all I can do is hope that my deliberateness (and discipline and patience) will kick in eventually, since my destination is an artist’s colony upstate, on the border of Massachusetts, in a forest-locked village called Austerlitz.
In an effusive piece for The Morning News, Alexander Chee once described the writerly boons of retreating to a solitary enclave like Austerlitz, where time and space seem to bend in one’s favor—more pages written, delightful colleagues, and bucolic settings. “Imagine, if you will, the Umbrian countryside in May,” he wrote of a particularly idyllic residency. “Hills and fields, forests, etc. You feel like you’ve wandered into a Merchant Ivory adaptation.” But I flinch each time I consider disrupting what is a perfectly fine routine in Brooklyn: I like my run-down apartment! I like the shitty folding chair I sit in every day to write! I like having to remember to spray down my roach-infested sink with borax while the minutes tick down to a deadline!
My irrational nervousness has to do, in part, with how wild it seems that everything will be taken care of for me: groceries replenished in the communal kitchen, dinners cooked by a chef named Donna. There are free linens and a cleaning person. Even distractions are warded away—a five-page Microsoft Word document explaining colony rules enforces headphones and bans visitors from overstaying their welcome or even using the kitchen or dining rooms. “Studios are private and require a personal invitation,” warns the guide, protecting residents even from each other. Read More
- In a new essay about censorship and her childhood muteness, Hilary Mantel reminds writers of the seriousness that comes with saying anything whatsoever: “If you don’t mean your words to breed consequences, don’t write at all; the only tip you can give to a prospective writer is ‘Try to mean what you say’ … Erasure seems simple—blink and it’s gone, overwrite the line. But nothing ever really goes away. The Internet keeps regurgitating you. You can’t bury or burn your traces. They won’t be nibbled by rats, who used to love vellum, or munched by tropical ants, or consumed in the small fires that afflicted archives every few years, leaving scorched and partial truths for historians to frown over.”
- On a similar note, Francine Prose responds with aplomb to what I can only describe as Shrivergate (or Literary Sombrerogate?): “It’s not the responsibility of art to make us better people, but some works of art can (if only temporarily) increase our compassion, sympathy, and tolerance … Even if we acknowledge (as Shriver does not) that we live in a society in serious need of repair, it’s still possible to ask whether the protest against cultural appropriation constitutes the most useful and effective form of political activism, whether it addresses our most critical and pressing problems. We could insure that not a single rock star or runway model ever again wears corn rows or dreadlocks—and not remotely change the fact that a black person with the same hairstyle might have trouble finding a job … We could prohibit writers from inventing characters whose backgrounds differ from their own without preventing even one young black man from being shot by the police.”
Recently, thanks to heavy wait times at the twenty-four-hour Genius Bar on Fifth Avenue, I found myself killing an evening at the Plaza with nothing to read but the galleys of a book of art criticism, How to See, by the painter David Salle. It turned out to be perfect company—witty, chatty, intimate, sharp. And slightly exotic (at least for this reader): you rarely see novelists write so knowingly, on a serious first-name basis, about each other’s work. Soon I was dog-earing and drawing lines in the margins next to favorite passages, as for example:
On recent paintings by Alex Katz:
Some of the color has the elegance and unexpectedness of Italian fashion design: teal blue with brown, black with blue and cream. You want to look at, wear, and eat them all at the same time.
The myth is tenacious: an unknown writer on the verge of international fame, not suspecting that the scattered pages on his or her desk will become that miracle, a first published novel and a passport to glory. From March to May 1940, Albert Camus was that man, finishing a draft of the book he was calling The Stranger. The city, eerily calm, overtaken with a sense of dread, was weeks from the German invasion. Paris has changed enormously since 1940, but you can still walk in Camus’s footsteps through places that a few literary specialists have put on the map and come close to a moment of artistic creation.
Camus finished a first draft of his novel alone in a hotel room in Montmartre. The former Hôtel du Poirier on the rue Ravignan sits atop one of Paris’s “buttes” or hills, whose cleaner air might have benefitted the young writer, who struggled with chronic tuberculosis. The site is still about as picturesque a place as Paris has to offer: up a terraced set of steps, on one side of a cobblestone square with its own fountain, the little hotel stood directly across from the Bateau-Lavoir, a beehive of artist studios, spread out like a ship. On this vessel of high modernism, Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907. The glory days of the Bateau-Lavoir ended after World War I, but in March 1940, when Camus lived in its shadow, the place still exuded its bohemian aura. Crowned by the mammoth Sacré-Cœur cathedral, Montmartre was an acquired taste, with its own diehard citizens—pimps and scoundrels, anarchists and poets. Far from the business districts, Montmartre was still, in 1940, practically a separate village, a neighborhood where an artist or writer could get by on almost nothing. Read More
- Ottessa Moshfegh wrote her novel Eileen with a plan: to get fucking rich. As a fiction writer, she thought, there’s only one way to do that—give the people the formulaic drivel that they want. In a profile for the Guardian, Moshfegh explains that “she didn’t want to ‘keep her head down’ and ‘wait thirty years to be discovered … so I thought I’m going to do something bold. Because there are all these morons making millions of dollars, so why not me? I’m smart and talented and motivated and disciplined and … talented: did I say that already?,’ she laughs. ‘I said: fuck it. Which was also: fuck them. I was pretty hostile. I thought: I’ll show you how easy this is … So … it started out as a fuck-you joke, also I’m broke, also I want to be famous. It was that kind of a gesture.’ ”
- But let’s not get carried away. Writing doesn’t really make anyone rich. Ask Merritt Tierce, whose debut, Love Me Back, came out two years ago to “wide acclaim”—she was interviewed here on the Daily, even. Now she’s broke, because that’s how this industry works: “I haven’t been able to write since the moment I started thinking I could or should be making money as a writer. I haven’t produced a Second Book … For over a year after Love Me Back came out I woke up every day with this loop in my head: I should write. But I need money. If I write something I can sell it and I’ll have money. But I need money now. If I had money now, I could calm down and write something. I don’t have money now, so I’m probably not going to be able to calm down and write something. To have money now, I need a job. I should get a job … Because no matter how you do it, no one is paying you to write. They may pay you for something you wrote, or promise to pay you for something you have promised to write. They may pay your room and board for a month or two at a residency. They may pay you to teach, or to edit something someone else has written. They may pay you to come to a university and talk to people about writing. None of this is the same as being paid to write. I would like to be paid to write.”