A Look Inside the Biz

Sometimes you come across miraculously insightful information where you least expect it. Like, in the pages of your Entertainment Weekly magazine.

I’ll explain.

Every writer I know—published or unpublished, experienced or less experienced—wants to know the magic formula to getting published. We’ve talked about this before. There is a formula. It’s very simple—just three things:

It has to be good. The story, the voice, the writing—they all have to be good.

So I say it’s simple, but I can tell you it’s that “good” that stumps folks. It’s difficult “to understand where you lie on the spectrum of quality,” as publishing industry expert Jane Friedman so delicately puts it.

And then along comes EW with an article that will give you a glimpse inside the ABA* publishing biz right now. “The Million-Dollar Book Club,” my print edition calls it. (The demands of SEO twists that interesting—and more honest—title into a less-true “Why publishers are betting big on debut novelists” for the online version.)

In this article are mentioned four novels that big New York publishing houses paid big bucks for:

Behold the Dreamers (Imbolo Mbue)
The Girls (Emma Cline)
The Nest (Cynthia d’Aprix Sweeney)
Sweetbitter (Stephanie Danler)

It also mentions why:

After reading just two pages of Emma Cline’s luminous novel The Girls—about the young women flocking around a Manson-like cult figure—Random House editor Kate Medina shut her door. “I said, ‘I’m not doing anything else. I’m not talking to anybody. I’m just reading this book,’” she recalls. And when she finished, Medina offered Cline a three-book, reported $2 million deal. (The book hits stores in June.)

The biggest reason publishers are willing to pony up so much money for first-timers is the most obvious one—and why Medina couldn’t leave her chair that day: gorgeous writing. “I’ve been reading manuscripts for 15 years, and nothing slapped me in the face like this,” says Claudia Herr, Danler’s editor at Knopf, of Sweetbitter. “The energy and preciseness of her prose … it just completely blew me away.” Danler’s huge two-book deal, Herr reveals, was about taking the novel off the table—so that other houses couldn’t bid on it—and, more important, “telling her that we were serious about her, that we didn’t just want her sexy foodie novel.”

Thus it occurs to me this is an up-to-the-minute referendum on what is “good” in the publishing industry. (I also find it interesting that all four titles are by women.)

As of this writing, only The Nest is currently released; it’s on the NYT fiction Best Seller List.** But the advance praise for the other titles (in the EW article and elsewhere) is hard to resist—you might consider reading one or more of them for a look inside the biz.

* American Booksellers Association.
** You know I resist best sellers, so I’m dragging my feet on this one.

 

Tweet: Story, voice, writing—they all have to be good. But it’s “good” that stumps folks.
Tweet: This is an up-to-the-minute referendum on what is “good” in the publishing industry.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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Short Saturday: Watch Those Quotes!

I recently pushed an author to do better with the epigraphs he was using at the beginning of his chapters. Some I couldn’t verify—although I have a sixth sense about veracity, I’ll give any quote the benefit of the doubt until I prove it false—but a few of them were, in fact, well-known fakes.

How does this—a fake quote—happen? A lot of times, it’s like a decades long game of Telephone perpetuated by the Internet. But in this article about a fake Harriet Tubman quote, we learn:

Harriet Tubman’s story has from the beginning been a malleable icon who has been made to say what various groups wanted her to say.

As Jean Humez shows in her book, Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories, this began with the very first abolitionists, who were responsible both for recording the illiterate Tubman’s own narratives and for crafting the first biographies. Those biographies are invaluable points of access into Tubman’s life and thought. But, Tubman scholars now agree, they also contained a variety of embellishments that served abolitionists’ purposes. Over time some of those embellishments (like the idea that Tubman took 19 trips back to the South and freed 300 people) became settled facts in collective memory, enshrined in children’s books and other scholarly texts as Tubman’s actual story receded from view.

Although I blame the Internet, it’s surprisingly easy to use it to test for truth, and I recommend these websites to you when you need to start checking quotes:

Bartleby Quotations
The Big Apple (An Etymological Dictionary)
Fake Buddha Quotes
Quote/Counterquote
Quote Investigator
Quotenik
Spurious Jefferson Quotations
Twain Quotes

If you know of other reliable websites that have been helpful in your research, please leave me a comment.

Related posts:

No, You May Not Use Brainyquote as Your Source
The Internet Can Be Unreliable
Someone Is Wrong on the Internet!
Falser Words Were Never Spoken

Tweet: Watch those quotes! There’s a lot of fakes out there.
Tweet: I’ll give any quote the benefit of the doubt until I prove it false. :)

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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What’s In a Name?

One of the fundamental principles of structuralism is “the arbitrariness of the sign,” the idea that there is no necessary, existential connection between a word and its referent. Not “rightly is they called pigs,” as the man said, but by linguistic chance. Other words serve the same purpose in other languages. As Shakespeare observed, anticipating Ferdinand de Saussure by three centuries, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Proper names have an odd and interesting status in this respect. Our first names are usually given to us with semantic intent, having for our parents some pleasant or hopeful association which we may or may not live up to. Surnames however are generally perceived as arbitrary, whatever descriptive force they may once have had. We don’t expect our neighbour Mr Shepherd to look after sheep, or mentally associate him with that occupation. If he is a character in a novel, however, pastoral and perhaps biblical associations will inevitably come into play. One of the great mysteries of literary history is what exactly the supremely respectable Henry James meant by calling one of his characters Fanny Assingham.

In a novel names are never neutral. They always signify, if it is only ordinariness. Comic, satiric or didactic writers can afford to be exuberantly inventive, or obviously allegorical, in their naming (Thwackum, Pumblechook, Pilgrim). Realistic novelists favour mundane names with appropriate connotations (Emma Woodhouse, Adam Bede). The naming of characters is always an important part of creating them, involving many considerations and hesitations, which I can most conveniently illustrate from my own experience. …

This novel [Nice Work] concerns the relationship between the managing director of an engineering company and a young academic who is obliged to “shadow” him. … [I]n naming the characters I was looking for names that would seem “natural” enough to mask their symbolic appropriateness. I named the man Vic Wilcox to suggest, beneath the ordinariness and Englishness of the name, a rather aggressive, even coarse masculinity (by association with victor, will and cock), and I soon settled on Penrose for the surname of my heroine for its contrasting connotations of literature and beauty (pen and rose). I hesitated for some time, however, about the choice of her first name, vacillating between Rachel, Rebecca and Roberta, and I remember that this held up progress on Chapter Two considerably because I couldn’t imaginatively inhabit this character until her name was fixed. Eventually I discovered in a dictionary of names that Robin or Robyn is sometimes used as a familiar form of Roberta. An androgynous name seemed highly appropriate to my feminist and assertive heroine, and immediately suggested a new twist to the plot: Wilcox would be expecting a male Robin to turn up at his factory.

About halfway through writing the novel I realized that I had selected for Vic, perhaps by the same mental route as E. M. Forster, the surname of the chief male character in Howard’s End, Henry Wilcox—another man of business who becomes enamoured of an intellectual woman. Rather than change my hero’s name, I incorporated Howard’s End into the intertextual level of the novel, emphasizing the parallels between the two books—by, for instance, the legend on the tee-shirt of Robyn’s student, Marion, “only connect” (the epigraph to Forster’s novel). And why Marion? Perhaps because she is a “maid” whose innocence and virtue Robyn (cf. Robin Hood) is anxious to protect, perhaps because the young, as it were potential, George Eliot (who figures prominently in Robyn’s teaching) was called Marian Evans. I say “perhaps” because authors are not always conscious of their motivation in these matters.

David Lodge

Transcribed by me from pages 36–38 of my American first edition copy of The Art of Fiction, © 1993 Viking Penguin.

 

Tweet: Naming names: the art of choosing for your fictional characters.
Tweet: “In a novel names are never neutral. They always signify.”

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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Study This: The Summer Before the War

It’s nearly 500 pages long—and I flew through Helen Simonson’s second novel set in an English village. I never wanted to put it down. Also, it made me angry (on behalf of a character I loved), and it made me cry a couple times. This is a sign that I was fully invested—in the characters, the story, the milieu. I was right there.

It’s been called in the press “a cure for your Downton Abbey withdrawal,” but I don’t watch television, so that can’t account for my reaction. Here’s the blurb:

East Sussex, 1914. It is the end of England’s brief Edwardian summer, and everyone agrees that the weather has never been so beautiful. Hugh Grange, down from his medical studies, is visiting his Aunt Agatha, who lives with her husband in the small, idyllic coastal town of Rye. Agatha’s husband works in the Foreign Office, and she is certain he will ensure that the recent saber rattling over the Balkans won’t come to anything. And Agatha has more immediate concerns; she has just risked her carefully built reputation by pushing for the appointment of a woman to replace the Latin master.

When Beatrice Nash arrives with one trunk and several large crates of books, it is clear she is significantly more freethinking—and attractive—than anyone believes a Latin teacher should be. For her part, mourning the death of her beloved father, who has left her penniless, Beatrice simply wants to be left alone to pursue her teaching and writing.

But … the perfect summer is about to end. For despite Agatha’s reassurances, the unimaginable is coming. Soon the limits of progress, and the old ways, will be tested as this small Sussex town and its inhabitants go to war.

It was simply good writing, good storytelling. So I knew there’d be plenty for other writers to observe and learn from. Such as:

Historical fiction
The novel felt very well researched; it’s rich (rich!) in period detail, yet nothing feels forced in. There are observations about small-town life and the English class structure. It was a society that wasn’t particularly fair for women or homosexuals, and nothing about the time is sugarcoated.

Characterization
I felt I knew and understood each of the characters, even the unlikable ones. Characters were allowed to develop and grow; their personalities were built layer by layer.

POV
There are three main POV characters, but several other important and peripheral characters whose thoughts we know, so I’d call the point of view omniscient, I think. The handoff from one character to another is very graceful.

Structure and plot
Simonson leaves a scene at exactly the right time, and doesn’t waste time telling us things we don’t need to know. She carefully establishes everything, and then in the final chapters turns it all upside down and lays it bare. Shocking but satisfying.

As a side note, a good friend whose reading acumen I respect did not love The Summer Before the War the way I did. The very things I was charmed by were the things she disliked: “[I] loved many of the characters and the ending satisfied,” she said, “but it took me too long to get emotionally involved.” (Indeed, the Winnipeg Free Press notes the book “meanders …, painting lovely scenic and aural pictures and introducing scores of carefully drawn characters before it even begins to settle down.” See what I mean?)

So should I use this book in my Study This series? Yes. Aside from the things I’ve mentioned, consider theme and style.

Stylistically, The Summer Before the War is a comedy of manners—“an entertainment form which satirizes the manners and affectations of a social class or of multiple classes,” according to Wikipedia. You know this type of story: you’ve seen it in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Jane Austen’s novels, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, the Wooster and Jeeves novels of P. G. Wodehouse, as well as the novels of Georgette Heyer, Nancy Mitford, and Barbara Pym. (I’d even be willing to make a case for Alexander McCall Smith.) My point, though, is this type of story never goes out of style; it can be recast and reset over and over. (Think of the television show Frasier, and you’ll see what I mean.)

Only it’s not a comedy, of course. There are serious themes here: the social class system, women’s rights, criminalization of homosexuality, and the passing of Edwardian England into the modern era. Not to mention that war in the title: “the war to end war.” Consider the examination of these serious themes in the microcosm of an English village, and you’ll understand the level of craft at work in The Summer Before the War.

It made me want to turn back to the first page and start reading again—and that is a worthy goal for an author. Study this!

UPDATE: My friend referenced above—author Michelle Ule—has written her review of this book over at Novel Pastimes. Check it out!

Tweet: Five #writetips to learn from Simonson’s The Summer Before the War.
Tweet: This type of story never goes out of style; it can be recast and reset over and over.
Tweet: It made me want to start at the beginning again—a worthy goal for an author. Study this!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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Short Saturday: If You Only Read One Thing …

A comma splice is only a little error, easily fixed. If you gave me a manuscript full of run-on sentences caused by them, it would be an easy edit.

But—the “world’s top* grammarian,” this short article from Business Insider tells us, “fears that this punctuation error is becoming standard English.” This makes me sad, because—as simple as they are to edit out—the presence of comma splices indicate an inattention to detail that serious writers should have long left behind.

Does this sentence read OK to you?

It’s the way I’m wired, I’m not about to change.

If you said no, you’re right. It’s a kind of run-on sentence or “run-together sentence.” It’s an example of a comma splice.

Read this article—it’s simple and straightforward, and should put you on the right path. For something with a little more personality, read Ben Yagoda’s “Splice Girl” here.

* Bryan A. Garner is the author of Garner’s Modern American Usage (Oxford University Press).

 

Tweet: A comma splice is only a little error, easily fixed.
Tweet: Comma splices indicate an inattention to writing detail.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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Fiction Arousal

I have started reading, and liking, fiction. This was not the case a year and a half … ago. Aside from a handful of short story collections (Carver, Canin, Moore) and an isolated novel here and there, my post-college reading-for-pleasure era has been marked by a shocking absence of fiction. I have been trying to understand how this change came about, how or why the gateway suddenly opened for a nonfiction junkie such as myself.

False starts and stops, that all if ever was for me with fiction, like when you’re in the midst of an intense story on the phone but the other person keeps going sorry, can you hang on a sec, that’s my call waiting, just a sec. Not very conducive to beginning, middle, climax, and end storytelling. That’s how it was with trying to read a novel. My brain would, mid-paragraph, click over to retrieve some other unrelated thought. I couldn’t keep it flowing long enough for the all-out-of-the-gate-at-once characters to break from the pack and reveal themselves as individuals whose names conjured up specific traits. Nor could I hang on long enough for the text to begin to read as a story and not just line upon line of random, comma-infested sentences.

My attachment to facts and truth more or less began when I learned to read. From the get-go I was crazy for biographies; there was a series for young readers about legendary women (presidents’ wives, Amelia Earhart, etc.) that I couldn’t get enough of. I recall, a bit later, being thrown by the idea that something in print might actually not be fact. If the words were printed, they carried so much power. The authority had spoken, and it took me awhile to get hip to the don’t-believe-everything-you-read adage. My favorite bedtime story for my entire third year of life wasn’t a made-up story at all, but rather a series of bullet points outlining the characteristics of our new suburban house and how, unlike in the city, we would have a backyard, and what specifically we were going to be eating there (steak, corn, and soda pop). I would ask my dad to tell me again and again.

After completing an early working draft of this book, I wanted to put it all to the test, to verify, to erase any possibility of troubling cloudy grayness. Who could do this? Matching memories with family or friends wasn’t absolute enough: think Rashomon. And God had never spoken to me in any clear way, not to mention the difficulty of getting Him a manuscript. There was only one solution I could think of: a polygraph examination. So one afternoon, with wires sticking out of my head and chest, I responded to an administrator’s questions. Is what you’ve written in this book the truth as you know it? And (because I was curious): Did you write this book to the best of your ability? I was happy when her analysis arrived a couple weeks later saying I’d passed, but by then, strangely, and out of nowhere, I had read a novel from start to finish, loved it, and (I see now in retrospect) had officially been admitted into the kingdom of fiction. …

From there, things started unraveling. I became okay with urban myths. I am now able to appreciate them for the stupid little stories that they are, and not agonize over whether or not the little girl who had spiders crawl out of her cheek is an actual real girl or a totally made-up not-real girl. Also: I can improvise in the kitchen. Prior to my fiction arousal, I’d have to follow a recipe to the T. The recipe was the truth. You didn’t start throwing in cayenne pepper just because you felt like it, or use one tablespoon of sesame oil instead of two. That was fiction. Now if I feel like following the recipe exactly, fine. But I can also deviate and concoct without feeling like I’m doing something wrong.

But still, what then should I attribute this shift to? Was it that I had to fill myself up with a certain amount of facts—nearly forty years’ worth—before I was technically ready to appreciate what one could do with facts, how they might be folded in, altered, stretched, and pureed? Was it that, unbeknownst to me at the time, while replacing a roll of paper towels, I was struck with a lightning bolt of literary maturation on, say, the morning of December 21?

Amy Krouse Rosenthal, “Update”

Transcribed by me from pages 200–202 of my first edition copy of Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life [Volume One], © 2005 Crown Publishers (Random House), New York.

 

Tweet: Fiction love: “I was struck with a lightning bolt of literary maturation.”
Tweet: Fiction: how facts (truth) might be folded in, altered, stretched, and pureed …

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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Where Do You Get Your Story Ideas (Part 10)

Almost three years ago, we were discussing a national poll that asked, “When thinking creatively, do you think in pictures, words, or sounds?” Fifty percent of the respondents said they think in pictures.

My answer at the time (need you ask?) was I “think [creatively] in words; I always have a running commentary in my head, my own inner monologue.” I believe many of my writer friends—whether they are writing fiction, memoir, poetry, or anything else—would answer the same. Many of them also journal, which is the definition of thinking in words.

And yet … although I express my creativity in words, I very often find my inspiration from pictures. Scenes, if you will.

So it was with a series of photos a friend of mine posted on Facebook—and which I quickly begged the use of, so evocative were they. (Evocative: “tending to evoke an emotional response : charged with emotion as well as meaning,” according to Merriam-Webster.)

My friend was hiking in the Granite Dells area of north central Arizona when she came across a mysterious little scene. She’s been there many times … but never happened upon this. Until now.

Can you see it yet?

Can you see it yet?

What is that? she wondered, and kept walking toward it.

Now can you see it?

Now can you see it?

She kept walking, focused on … something … she saw in the distance.

And there it was.

And there it was.

Later she would write: “Stumbled across this swing tucked high up in the boulders on yesterday’s stroll. It’s seen better days. The romantic in me is imaging all kinds of sweet stories as to why and how it got there.”

Me too.

My friend went on to note the swing is well hidden, and the location is difficult to reach; it’s not for amateur hikers. So how did it get here? Did the original owner carry it in piece by piece? Did he or she enlist friends to bring it in all at once?

What is the story? (Because surely there is one.) My friend imagined the swing as a wedding gift … or a promise kept … perhaps even a project shared with a child. What do you think?

There is one more photo—the view. That would be important to the story, too, don’t you think?

It’s a spectacular view.

It’s a spectacular view.

Can you imagine a story for this old wooden swing? Can you imagine just a scene? Send me your scene or short fiction up to 2,000 words, and … what would you like? A private edit or publication and discussion here at the blog? Let me know.

There are other articles in this series: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9.

Many thanks to Tammy Lambert, who did all the hard work. :)

 

Tweet: I express my creativity in words, but I very often find my inspiration from pictures.
Tweet: A series of evocative photos—what’s the story?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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The Unpredictable World of Twenty-First–Century Publishing

This is the unpredictable world of twenty-first–century publishing—a paradoxical place in which more and more Americans each year possess a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in creative writing, yet the percentage of American non–book readers has tripled since 1978. According to the CLMP website there are approximately six hundred regularly publishing literary magazines in the United States (not counting online journals!), and a general estimate is that the number of U.S. literary magazines has tripled just in the last thirty years—yet since the turn of the millennium most newspapers across the country have gutted or shuttered entirely their “books” sections. For decades, the largest, most influential publishing houses have consolidated under massive corporate umbrellas, yet thanks to the advent of desktop publishing programs new independent journals and book presses pop up at such a rate it’s nearly impossible to keep up with them.

Meanwhile, the Internet has revolutionized how literature is discovered, marketed, and read; print-on-demand technology has substantially reduced the costs of short-run printing; online publishing has made significant gains in readership; VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts has in a short time drawn national attention to questions of gender parity in literary publications; and each year the AWP conference attracts more than twelve thousand writers and seven hundred presses, magazines, and literary organizations from across the country. All this while every year another article comes out declaring the death of American poetry, fiction, literature, and publishing. How do editors and publishers keep up with—and adapt to—this shifting and contradictory world? What, if anything, remains constant? …

Already we know that people don’t read in the same way. Writer Nicholas Carr, we may remember, made a big splash, first with a cover article in the Atlantic and then in his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. In the article, which had the catchy title “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” he began on a note of personal worry. He had noticed in recent years an increasing difficulty in sitting down and reading a book in the old way. He found himself having a hard time focusing on any single text; he felt impatient, skittish, frustrated. He theorized that the difficulty might have to do with the fact that he spent the better part of every day working on a computer, doing all of the usual multitasking behaviors so familiar to all of us. Looking further, he began to test his hypothesis using all kinds of studies coming out in the burgeoning field of neuroscience. What he found and documented in his book was the striking corroboration of his intuitions. Our astonishingly “plastic” neural system adapts with great rapidity to its behavioral environment. Fire: wire. Which is to say: we are changing in tandem with the media that are bringing about the changes.

—Travis Kurowski, Wayne Miller, Kevin Prufer, and Sven Birkerts

Transcribed from pages ix, x, and 8 of my first edition copy of Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century, © 2016, Milkweed Editions.

 

Tweet: The unpredictable world of twenty-first–century publishing.
Tweet: “We are changing in tandem with the media that are bringing about the changes.”

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in The Book Biz | Tagged as: , , ,

Writing: Turning Pain Into Honey

Once, in a New Yorker article, [John Updike had] quoted the German philosopher Theodor Adorno: “In the history of art, late works are the catastrophes.” But the poems he was writing were good. He knew the poems were good.

Before he got sick, Updike had been afraid that he was losing the dizzying talent of his younger prose. A few years before, he’d written to Ian McEwan that while the younger writer had become a star, he had become just an elderly duffer writing irrelevant and boring stories about suburban sex. His tone was light, but he did worry that his style was faltering, that he had lost or was losing his verve, a quickness and lightness of touch. And yet in his new poems, the wily inventiveness, the powers of observation, the sheer gift with words that both his warmest admirers and sharpest critics found astonishing, are all there on display. …

He said, in his thirties, “Being able to write becomes a kind of shield, a way of hiding, a way of too instantly transforming pain into honey.” There is implicit in this description a suspicion of this detached, writerly way of coping, of the sweetness of words, but there is also the sheer miraculous fact: turning pain into honey. …

Updike once wrote quite frankly, in a magazine for retired people, about his fears of losing his extraordinary style. He refers to his “nimbler, younger self” as a rival writer. He celebrates the lost time when he was young, when his material was “fresh and seems urgently worth communicating to readers.” He adds, “No amount of learned skills can substitute for the feeling of having a lot to say, of bringing news.”

And yet, after the shock of his diagnosis, he stumbled again on a startling, fresh subject. The poems he wrote in those weeks, many from the hospital, are not exactly poems as much as dispatches; they snap into focus the blurry experience of the advanced-cancer patient. They carry the urgency of his early work, the sharpness and swiftness he was afraid he had lost: the power of having something pressing he needed to say. …

He did not have time for what Wordsworth called “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Instead, in those arduous last poems, he scrawls through rage, bitterness, bile, jealousy of the living; he works through nostalgia, fond slippage into the past, bewilderment. He writes through magical salvation, resurrection. He imagines himself reading his own death: “Endpoint, I thought, would end a chapter in / a book beyond imagining, that got reset / in crisp exotic type a future I / —a miracle!—could read.” He is writing his way out of death; he is dreaming his way past or through it. …

On New Year’s Eve he wrote to his editor, Judith Jones: “Dear Judith: Maybe the last thing you need from me is another book. But I knew I had enough poems, and the Endpoint theme came crashing home, and so have pushed myself to take this as far as I can.”

Katie Roiphe

Transcribed by me from pages 119, 123–5, 149 of my first edition hardback copy of The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End, © 2016, Dial Press.

 

Tweet: Turning personal pain into beautiful writing.
Tweet: “He is writing his way out of death …”

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in Authors & Other Writers | Tagged as: ,

Personal Archeology: I Remember It Well

Have you ever bought a used book and found something interesting inside? I don’t mean the inscription inside the front cover (another post for another time) … I mean the ephemera. (Merriam Webster: “Paper items [such as posters, broadsides, or tickets] that were originally meant to be discarded after use but have since become collectibles.”) Don’t get too excited—the most interesting thing I’ve ever discovered in a used book was a grocery list. Oh, and that business card from the Buffet Palace (“Oriental Buffet & Water Floating Sushi Bar”) in Austin, Texas.

But the other day I opened a book—The Spire by William Golding—purchased in December 2000 in the gift shop of the Salisbury Cathedral in England, and out fell a postcard. I didn’t remember it until I turned it over: my British girlfriend had written a note and tucked it inside when she presented me with the book later in the day. Ah yes, I remember it well.

And it got me to thinking that my bookshelves are full of little bits and pieces of my personal history. I started pulling books off the shelf at random to have a look. Aside from the obvious (printed promotional bookmarks from the store where it was purchased or, alternately, receipts for purchase of the book), I mostly found old medical receipts, because when I go to the doctor’s office I always take a book. When I leave, the receipt gets stuck inside the cover—I like to keep loose items together—and sometimes never removed.

Here are some other things I found:

  • old used Day-Timer pages
  • a schedule of classes from my freshman year of college
  • a receipt from Carter’s Card Shop (I worked there in high school) dated 22 September 1971
  • a handwritten note dated 8/16/91 from a close friend of mine, thanking me for sharing the book (A Cure for Dreams by Kaye Gibbons) with her
  • in my high school–era copy of The Canterbury Tales, a classroom handout titled “Medieval Misogyny”
  • an unused gift enclosure (a little card) that is permanently stuck to its envelope
  • a stalk of orange flowers I picked in Ireland, carefully pressed
  • several book reviews, ripped from Newsweek or Time or Entertainment Weekly, tucked inside the books to which they referred
  • a list of words and page numbers on which they’re found (I got a blog post out of this one)
  • the pink copy of the Boy’s Application for Tennessee Driver License dated 12-10-99

This last one most truly epitomizes the joy of this sort of personal archeology. It was his sixteenth birthday; I left work early to get home in time to get him to the TDOT office before it closed. He passed. And then he drove us home, where he was surprised to find our living room full of his friends, waiting to celebrate with him. Finding that pink sheet of paper sixteen years later gave me quite a smile.

The things we choose to save—even unintentionally—become artifacts, clues to a life lived—lived well? happily? unhappily? When I talked about this phenomenon on Facebook, my friend Michelle Ule told me about research she was doing on Oswald Chambers at Wheaton College: “When I went through [his] Bible and other books, I found book marks and so on. It was thrilling to think that, like me, they included special mementos in their books.” In fact, many of my book-loving friends had stories about finding things tucked in books. Ephemera by definition, maybe, but not by what the heart feels.

This is such a universal urge—life represented by stuff, ephemera—that even novels have been written about it. The art novel Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry (by artist Leanne Shapton) was a fascinating look at that idea, tracing the trajectory of a relationship from first meeting to breakup by looking at their possessions, acquired separately and together. (Here’s an article about it.) In So Many Ways to Begin, author Jon McGregor’s protagonist, a curator in a small museum, tells the story as a series of entries inspired by a memento or relic from his life. Artist (and storyteller) Nick Bantock’s The Museum at Purgatory, which purports to be exactly what it sounds like, is a fantastical work. And then there’s Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist (and Nobel Prize winner) who created an entire museum that represents his novel The Museum of Innocence.

Again, connecting physical objects to a book. In Burning the Page: The eBook Revolution and the Future of Reading, Jason Merkowski muses that “ebooks are useless” for keeping our personal archeology together. We “lose the feeling of unexpected discovery. Why, for example, was a certain love letter placed inside a specific book?” My feelings exactly.

We sentimental humans manage to amass a lot of stuff. I have scrapbooks, photo albums, high school yearbooks (my own, my mothers, the Boy’s), and, of course, all those books, books, books. Books that no one really cares about but me. What will happen to them when I’m gone? And those scrapbooks? Sometimes I wonder if I should take them all apart and scatter them among the pages of my books. And so live on. :)

Tweet: Personal archeology: ephemera by definition, maybe, but not by what the heart feels.
Tweet: Have you ever bought a used book and found something interesting inside?
Tweet: Ah, yes, I remember it—that moment, that day, that person—well.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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