All of it is really just absurd and seems improbable

“While working on my first novel, I developed Central Serous Retinopathy, or stress-related vision loss in my left eye. Doctors said it was imperative that I relax, but I wasn’t about to give up my passion. Then it hit me: the absurd reality that writing a book robbed me of my sight. The human brain is powerful enough to send a man to the moon, yet, writing nearly blinded me. In that moment of clarity, I realized that reflecting on the sheer absurdity of existence was key. Now, whenever I find myself overwhelmed, I sit back, pet my dog, and count the innumerable bizarre occurrences that had to happen just so in order for me to be sitting in front of my typewriter at that moment: the highly volatile mixture of elements that exploded into our universe; the curious Tiktaalik fish that thought, What’s on that dry stuff?; and the fact that my mother and father, millions of years and coincidences later, graciously decided to make another human. All of it is really just absurd and seems improbable. Once I’ve reflected on that for a while, writing hardly seems impossible and I enter a state of repose, grateful to get back to work.”

— Michael A. Ferro, author of TITLE 13 in Writers Recommend (Poets & Writers, July 12, 2018)


Image Credit

Truth


Kevin Huizenga (via Austin Kleon)

Take a look at those sentences, thundering across the page

Novelists rarely retire in the formal sense, and tend not to stage news conferences when they do. Philip Roth…who died in Manhattan on Tuesday at age 85, took a different approach six years ago when he let it be known through the press that he had quit writing fiction — after more than 50 years of near-constant scribbling.

He had nothing more to say, he contended, and was happy to put the struggle of writing behind him. He envied the “gush of prose” he attributed to two of his rivals, John Updike and Saul Bellow, but lamented his own writing process as a grueling “fight for my fluency” that dragged on sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, until the novel reached the finish line.

It seems doubtful that writing came easily for Mr. Updike or Mr. Bellow, and it could well be that the smoldering and hard-edge style he sought was simply more difficult to come by. Those Rothian sentences can be felt slamming across the page like tennis aces or marching forward in a phalanx, giving the reader no refuge from the argument the author is making…

Take a look at those sentences, thundering across the page, one after another, like an advancing line of earth movers.

~ Brent Staples, from “Philip Roth’s Earth-Moving Prose” (NY Times, May 23, 2018)


Photo of Philip Roth via Telegraph

It’s been a long day

It’s not that I come back to writing after something revelatory or after a profound moment of change, but rather, it’s something small, inconsequential even. I eat berries, I drink stovetop espresso, I run until my knee gives out, I stand in the middle of my room for long periods of time, I water my plants and talk to them….I’m surprised when I eventually do come back to write. I read Alejandra Pizarnik’s line from her poem “Del Silencio” (“Fragments for Subduing the Silence”): Sin embargo, quedé cautiva de la antigua ternura. Each time I read it, I realize that’s all I can do: be tender and patient with myself, and captive in something older than me.

~ Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, from “Writers Recommend” (Poets & Writers, April 12, 2018)


Notes:

In it is summer, and midday, and immortality

“He was an art student, and he spent the day at the lake drawing a study of sky and clouds. Nothing else. The grown-ups had little to say after looking at his creation. But I liked the clouds, they were of the cumulus variety, my favorite, eternal wanderers, clean celestial mountains. They’d hung above Lake Hepojarvi for a while that day, and then left. The cardboard painting was placed on top of the sideboard; it soon fell into the crack between the sideboard and the wall. But then—a few years later—I found it; bending some wire into a poker, I pulled it out, along with a thick layer of dust, dead flies of years past, and a green leg from a plastic toy hippo. I took the cardboard picture and thus appropriated a singular day of eternity. In it is summer, and midday, and immortality. Certainly immortality.”

~ Tatyana Tolstaya, from “The Invisible Maiden” in “Aetherial Worlds: Stories” (Knopf, March 20, 2018)

 


Photo by William Eggleston via Time Lightbox

20/20

tatyana-tolstaya

My grandfather Aleksey Tolstoy, a famous Russian writer…committed himself wholly to literature… I didn’t start out a writer, and had no plans of becoming one. Although I happily swam in imaginary expanses, I had no words to describe them. Then one fine day, when I was thirty-two years old, I decided to correct my myopia by undergoing surgery in the famous eye clinic… This was in 1983, before they used lasers for the procedure, as they do now, but instead made corneal incisions by hand, with a regular razor blade. The incisions took three long months to heal. All this time, while the eyes recuperated, you could see things only poorly, approximately, through tears that constantly streamed like rain on the windowpane…You had to sit in complete darkness… any light caused insufferable eye pain…The agony was so great that no analgesics, no sleeping pills brought any relief…At dusk my eyes were ablaze, and the temporary respite of night was interrupted by accidental glances at the stars, their light burning like fiery needles. Finally it was all I could do to sit at home wearing dark sunglasses, the black drapes closed, living by touch. Not a single word—neither handwritten nor typed—did my eyes take in during that prison sentence; only music, invisible in its essence, saved me from this existential desert. All that was left of the world was music and pain.

Gradually, something unfamiliar began to happen to my mind. The blindness was still near-total. I didn’t yet dare take off my sunglasses to peer outside, but in my mind’s eye I began to see bright visions from my past. They were not simply visions as before, similar to dreams—no, these were words, phrases, pages of text, plotlines; it was as if someone awoke in my head, a second me, one who had been slumbering until now. Visual experiences now came with a narrative; in fact, they were inseparable from it. If the wording wasn’t exact, then the imagery it conjured seemed obscured by dust or fog, and only the right words cleared it away…

My external eyes were still awaiting the sunrise, while my internal ones were looking around, seeking out details. Here is one. Here is another. Here is a whole bunch. As soon as I was able to emerge from my room into the dim light of the table lamp, I typed up my first-ever short story in great haste. I knew just how to do it—what to write, what not to write—and I understood that what remains unwritten possesses a special kind of power, a certain gravity by absence, similar to a magnetic force that can both attract and repel, a force we can’t see but that is nonetheless there.

This heretofore invisible, hidden world was now within my reach. I could enter it at any point, but it had particular doors—with keys of sound, with lock picks of intonation. The doors could be opened with love. Or with tears.

One day, all of a sudden, my sliced-up eyes could see again; my vision returned completely and immediately, 20/20, as promised. And this was bliss! Meanwhile, I found that the second world, having first appeared to me in darkness, was here to stay; it turned out to be a multifaceted underside of so-called reality, a dungeon full of treasure, an aetherial world through the looking glass, a mysterious box with passcodes to all enigmas, an address book with the exact coordinates of those who never existed.

I don’t know its geography, its mountains, or its seas; it’s so vast, it must be limitless. Or perhaps it’s not simply one world—perhaps there are many. They are unpredictable; they can show themselves to you, or not. Some days they may not let you inside: Sorry, the doors are locked, we’re on holiday. But to the patient and the devoted, they will in the end always yield. The doors will open, and you won’t know what you will come across until you enter.

~ Tatyana Tolstaya, excerpts from “20/20” in “Aetherial Worlds: Stories” (Knopf, March 20, 2018)


Photo of Tatyana Tolstaya at LitHub April 6, 2018

Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

I fret about any piece of writing I get into, because nothing you do in the past is going to do the next thing, even when you’re in your 80s.

I would never sit down and think I was about to turn out something good.

Quite the opposite.

~ John McPhee, “What I Think: John McPhee” (Princeton University, September 17, 2017)

John McPhee, 86,  received the Pulitzer Prize for his book “Annals of the Former World” in 1999. In the same year, McPhee received the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching from Princeton. He was rejected by The New Yorker for 15 years and eventually became a staff writer for The New Yorker for over 50 years, where much of the content of his 32 books originally appeared.


Notes:

  • Source: Lori Ferguson – Princeton Grad. Word magician. Writer extraordinaire. Thank you for sharing this inspiration interview.
  • Portrait of John McPhee from Longreads

Truth

Crispin Sartwell’s half tongue-in-check defense of texting and Twitter (Sept. 22) as a “golden age of the written word” ignores all evidence of the opposite (“Texting and Twitter Make This a Golden Age for the Written Word,” op-ed, Sept. 23). Those of us who ban laptops in the classroom he labels “schoolmarms,” and he cites the old charge of they-hated-comic-books-too for the millionth time, and to equally empty effect.

He skips the fact that the SAT added a writing component in 2006, and scores have dropped every year save two when they were flat. A recent Hart Research Associates poll of employers found barely one quarter (27%) think that recent college grads are well-prepared in writing. The ACT’s college readiness scores in English have actually dropped six percentage points in the last five years.

All of this has happened while youths have texted away the hours. Mr. Sartwell calls it writing, but he doesn’t realize that tweeting and texting don’t make them better writers. They make them better tweeters and texters. To say, “Perk up, young people, and keep on texting,” as he concludes, isn’t whimsical or cute or provocative. It’s irresponsible.

~ Mark Bauerlein,  Texting Isn’t the Same as Writing, or Even Thinking  (In a Letter to the Editor, wsj.com Sept 27, 2017)


Photo: “Texting” by Noa agravante

 

That – and no more, and it is everything to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything

In one of the rare interviews he did, the fiction writer and poet Denis Johnson — who died on Wednesday at 67 — was asked about his craft, and he quoted these lines from Joseph Conrad: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything.”

In his own novels and poems, Mr. Johnson fulfilled that task with extraordinary savagery and precision. He used his startling gift for language to create word pictures as detailed and visionary, and as varied, as paintings by Edward Hopper and Hieronymus Bosch, capturing the lives of outsiders — the lost, the dispossessed, the damned — with empathy and unsparing candor. Whether set in the bars and motels of small-town America, or the streets of wartime Saigon, his stories depict people living on the edge, addicted to drugs or adrenaline or fantasy, reeling from the idiocies and exigencies of modern life, and longing for salvation…

Mr. Johnson’s America, past or present, is uncannily resonant today. It’s a troubled land, staggering from wretched excess and aching losses, a country where dreams have often slipped into out-and-out delusions, and people hunger for deliverance, if only in the person of a half-baked messiah. Reason is in short supply here, and grifters and con men peddling conspiracy thinking and fake news abound; families are often fragmented or nonexistent; and primal, Darwinian urges have replaced the rule of law. And yet, and yet, amid the bewilderment and despair, there are lightning flashes of wonder and hope — glimpses of the possibility of redemption…

“What I write about,” Mr. Johnson once said, “is really the dilemma of living in a fallen world, and asking: ‘Why is it like this if there’s supposed to be a God?’”

~ Michiko Kakutani, excerpts from Denis Johnson’s Poetic Visions of a Fallen World


Find Denis Johnson’s Books on his Page at Amazon here.

Sunday Morning

Q: Several poems in this collection speak to a desire for silence—an even bigger appetite for it than the speaker originally had thought was needed. How much silence do you usually need to write, and how do you get it?

JH: I need more and more silence, it feels. Poems don’t leap into my mind when I’m distracted, turned outward, with other people, listening to music. It’s more for me as with going into a forest: if you sit quietly for a long time, the life around you emerges. As the world grows ever more clamorous, my hunger for silence steepens. I unplug the landline.

~ Jane Hirshfield, from Of Amplitude There Is No Scraping Bottom: An Interview with Jane Hirshfield (Tin House, March 15, 2016)


Notes:

 

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