Showing posts tagged reading

Junot Díaz on his “slowness as a writer”

As for my slowness as a writer—that’s been a struggle, no question. We live in a culture that values and rewards machine-speed productivity. Even the arts are expected to conform to the Taylor model of productivity. Used to be in the old days, only the pulp writers wrote like machines. Now everybody is expected to be literary John Henrys. So in that context someone like me is an anomaly. For many years I felt pressure and even felt bad that I wrote so slow. But what can you do? As an artist you’re on a journey of discovery and sometimes that journey takes a long time, doesn’t subscribe to [a] train schedule, to the punch-clock. And I need to read a lot to make my pages happen. A book a page seems to be standard rate of exchange. I read a book, I get one page. But it’s clear to me that us slow-poke writers are a dying breed. It’s amazing how thoroughly my young writing students have internalized the new machine rhythm, the rush many of my young writers are in to publish. The majority don’t want to sit on a book for four, five years. The majority don’t want to listen to the silence inside and outside for their artistic imprimatur. The majority want to publish fast, publish now. The professional aspect of the practice is stressed over the artistic dimension. I was recently teaching in a school famed for its writing program and a lot of my students—not all of them—got more excited talking about advances and agents than they did the books they’ve read recently. In this atmosphere, I’m a total outlier. That really struck me—how many of my students wanted to be writers but how few of them practiced the kind of reading that would help sustain all the writers we’re producing. But there were a few who did read and who believed in it, and those were a great joy, believe me.

— from The Sunday Rumpus Interview by Gina Frangello

Couldn’t have passed for Normal

Oscar had always been a young nerd—the kind of kid who read Tom Swift, who loved comic books and watched Ultraman—but by high school his commitment to the Genres had become absolute. Back when the rest of us were learning to play wallball and pitch quarters and drive our older brothers’ cars and sneak dead soldiers from under our parents’ eyes, he was gorging himself on a steady stream of Lovecraft, Wells, Burroughs, Howard, Alexander, Herbert, Asimov, Bova, and Heinlein, and even the Old Ones who were already beginning to fade—E. E. Doc Smith, Stapledon, and the guy who wrote all the Doc Savage books—moving hungrily from book to book, author to author, age to age. (It was his good fortune that the libraries of Paterson were so underfunded that they still kept a lot of the previous generation’s nerdery in circulation.) You couldn’t have torn him away from any movie or TV show or cartoon where there were monsters or spaceships or mutants or doomsday devices or destinies or magic or evil villains. In these pursuits alone Oscar showed the genius his grandmother insisted was part of the family patrimony. Could write in Elvish, could speak Chakobsa, could differentiate between a Slan, a Dorsai, and a Lensman in acute detail, knew more about the Marvel Universe than Stan Lee, and was a role-playing game fanatic. (If only he’d been good at videogames it would have been a slam dunk but despite owning an Atari and an Intellivision he didn’t have the reflexes for it.) Perhaps if like me he’d been able to hide his otakuness maybe shit would have been easier for him, but he couldn’t. Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber or a Lensman her lens. Couldn’t have passed for Normal if he’d wanted to.

Junot Díaz, from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead Books, 2008)

(Image by dabacahin.)

His Destiny

You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mamma mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest.

Pa’ ’fuera! his mother roared. And out he would go, like a boy condemned, to spend a few hours being tormented by the other boys—Please, I want to stay, he would beg his mother, but she shoved him out—You ain’t a woman to be staying in the house—one hour, two, until finally he could slip back inside unnoticed, hiding himself in the upstairs closet, where he’d read by the slat of light that razored in from the cracked door. Eventually, his mother rooting him out again: What in carajo is the matter with you?

(And already on scraps of paper, in his composition books, on the backs of his hands, he was beginning to scribble, nothing serious for now, just rough facsimiles of his favorite stories, no sign yet that these half-assed pastiches were to be his Destiny.)

— from Footnote 6 in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

(Photograph by Gordon Parks. Thank you, Urban Art Gallery and The Gordon Parks Foundation.)

Here, try this
He watched Virus for the thousandth time and for the thousandth time teared up when the Japanese scientist finally reached Tierra del Fuego and the love of his life. He read The Lord of the Rings for what I’m estimating the millionth time, one of his greatest loves and greatest comforts since he’d first discovered it, back when he was nine and lost and lonely and his favorite librarian had said, Here, try this, and with one suggestion changed his life. Got through almost the whole trilogy, but then the line “and out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls” and he had to stop, his head and heart hurting too much.
— from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
(Image: The Lord of the Rings: Shields of Middle-Earth poster from Weta. Thank you, Pipedreamergrey and Geek Art Gallery.)

Here, try this

He watched Virus for the thousandth time and for the thousandth time teared up when the Japanese scientist finally reached Tierra del Fuego and the love of his life. He read The Lord of the Rings for what I’m estimating the millionth time, one of his greatest loves and greatest comforts since he’d first discovered it, back when he was nine and lost and lonely and his favorite librarian had said, Here, try this, and with one suggestion changed his life. Got through almost the whole trilogy, but then the line “and out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls” and he had to stop, his head and heart hurting too much.

— from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

(Image: The Lord of the Rings: Shields of Middle-Earth poster from Weta. Thank you, Pipedreamergrey and Geek Art Gallery.)

The density of a dwarf-motherfucking-star

Love. Oscar knew he should have checked out right then. He liked to kid himself that it was only cold anthropological interest that kept him around to see how it would all end, but the truth was he couldn’t extricate himself. He was totally and irrevocably in love with Ana. What he used to feel for those girls he’d never really known was nothing compared to the amor he was carrying in his heart for Ana. It had the density of a dwarf-motherfucking-star and at times he was a hundred percent sure it would drive him mad. The only thing that came close was how he felt about his books; only the combined love he had for everything he’d read and everything he hoped to write came even close.

— from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

(Illustration: Red dwarf star erupting by David Aguilar, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “And when the star ages and settles down, its planet would enjoy billions of years of quiet, steady radiance.”  Thank you, Mr. Aguilar and Smithsonian.)


Privacy
“If you were to shake me awake in the middle of the night and say, ‘Quick, without thinking: What is the most important thing in the world?’ I would say, ‘Privacy.’ I know that’s not right; you don’t have to tell me. I know that the true answer is probably love, or understanding, or feeling needed—even for me. But I am telling you what comes to mind first, and that’s privacy. Sitting alone in a room reading a book, with no one to interrupt me. That is all I ever consciously wanted out of life.”
— from Celestial Navigation by Anne Tyler
(Photograph: Lady in a Rooming House Parlor, Albion, N.Y., 1963, by Diane Arbus. Thank you, New York Times.)

Privacy

“If you were to shake me awake in the middle of the night and say, ‘Quick, without thinking: What is the most important thing in the world?’ I would say, ‘Privacy.’ I know that’s not right; you don’t have to tell me. I know that the true answer is probably love, or understanding, or feeling needed—even for me. But I am telling you what comes to mind first, and that’s privacy. Sitting alone in a room reading a book, with no one to interrupt me. That is all I ever consciously wanted out of life.”

— from Celestial Navigation by Anne Tyler

(Photograph: Lady in a Rooming House Parlor, Albion, N.Y., 1963, by Diane Arbus. Thank you, New York Times.)

“Mostly I read and walked for miles at night along the beach, writing bad blank verse and searching for someone wonderful who would step out of the darkness and change my life. It never crossed my mind that that person could be me.”

Anna Quindlen, from “At the Beach,” in Living Out Loud

Rebecca Solnit: “A sentence is a road and reading is traveling”

This is what is behind the special relationship between tale and travel, and, perhaps, the reason why narrative writing is so closely bound up with walking. To write is to carve a new path in the terrain of the imagination, or to point out new features in a familiar route. To read is to travel through that terrain with the author as guide—a guide one may not always agree with or trust, but who can at least be counted upon to take one somewhere. I have often wished that my sentences could be written out as a single line running into the distance so that it would be clear that a sentence is likewise a road and reading is traveling…. Perhaps those Chinese scrolls one unrolls as one reads preserve something of this sense. The songlines of Australia’s aboriginal peoples are the most famous examples conflating landscape and narrative. The songlines are tools of navigation across the deep desert, while the landscape is a mnemonic device for remembering the stories: in other words, the story is a map, the landscape a narrative.

— from Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit

“In her childhood she learned to leave behind pain by reading books. Sometimes they took the books away—too many words, too much pleasure. She turned to poetry. Words to learn by heart—to say over and over again in the dark.”

bell hooks, Wounds of Passion: A Writing Life

Reciting softly to herself

“Not everyone goes to poetry readings to find love. She did. Growing up, poetry had been the sanctuary, that space in words where longing could be spoken. Nobody in her world understood. Poems came in another language. Nobody could find or hurt you there. She spent many a night sitting in a freezing kitchen before a plate of cold food held together by congealed fat reciting softly to herself sweet words—Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, William Wordworth. Poems were the way to leave pain behind—to forget. They were a kind of suicide, a death. Her real self could drown in them. They were water to her thirst, cooling the burning sensation, soothing the red welts on her skin left by lashes from fresh young branches still green. Poetry made childhood bearable.”

bell hooks, Wounds of Passion: A Writing Life

(Painting by Derrick Woodford. Thank you, Mr. Woodford and antiquehelper.)

“The living room is dark and low-ceilinged, with bookshelves all along the wall opposite the windows. These books have not made George noble or better or more truly wise. It is just that he likes listening to their voices, the one or the other, according to his mood.”

Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man

Munro on my mind

On a train to Toronto, a young passenger named Rose allows a stranger’s hand to stimulate her. The man has politely asked permission to sit beside her. He says he is a United Church minister. After small talk, she turns back to the window; he reads a newspaper. Then she feels something moving up her leg: “The hand began, over the next several miles, the most delicate, the most timid, pressures and investigations.” At first, her mind resists: “She could still believe that she would stop this in a minute. Nothing was going to happen, nothing more. Her legs were never going to open.” Ah—“But they were. They were.”

No, I’m not quoting E. L. James. And this is not Fifty Shades of Miley Cyrus. This exquisitely unsettling moment comes from the short story “Wild Swans” by Alice Munro. I stumbled upon this wild ride this afternoon while rereading parts of Selected Stories, a 686-page compilation that gathers 28 of the author’s finest. I knew Ms. Munro could do heartbreaking subtlety. But I had no idea she could write about orgasm with vivid (and naughty) imagery that puts D. H. Lawrence to shame. In her twinkly eyes and grandmotherly smile, there’s passion to behold. And transgressions to “waken a sly luxuriance.” As Rose muses at the end of “Wild Swans” (and you’re gonna love this, Miley): “To dare it; to get away with it, to enter on preposterous adventures in your own, but newly named, skin.”

I first blogged about Alice Munro on November 14, 2012, with a brief note: “I should read more of her.” On February 7, 2013, I was strolling in the vortex of nowhere when I found a used copy of Selected Stories and vacillated whether or not to buy it. Don’t I already have tons of books I haven’t finished or started? Shouldn’t I let this one go, let it find its way into the hands of those disciplined or committed enough to read what they hoard? Well, duh! This is Alice Freakin’ Munro. Dude, it’s a no-brainer. This is where, for once, that cliché makes perfect sense: Follow your heart. Grab the book. Buy it. Read it. Breathe it.

Weather update: still dreary out here. Cloudy with a chance of nonsense. These October rains won’t seem to let up. Now there’s this drizzle that can’t make up its mind. Shall I escalate into a downpour? Or shall I stay tentative, linger till the sun reemerges from its own vortex? Who cares? How can I stay grumpy when Alice Munro has won the Nobel Prize in Literature? Jhumpa Lahiri, Lorrie Moore, Michael Ondaatje, and so many others are paying tribute to “a master of the contemporary short story.” Suddenly, life is good again; the world makes sense. Drizzle all you want; I’ve got Munro on my mind.

In her introduction to Selected Stories, Ms. Munro says she used to get so frustrated while drafting her endings that “often I would decide to give up on [the story].” Ironically, when she’s about to abandon the story, that’s when it begins to take shape or find its way to a satisfying conclusion:

I can’t ever be sure this [turnaround] will happen, and there are bad times, though I should be used to them. I’m no good at letting go, I am thrifty and tenacious now, no spendthrift and addict of fresh starts as in my youth. I go around glum and preoccupied, trying to think of ways to fix the problem. Usually the right way pops up in the middle of this.

A big relief, then. Renewed energy. Resurrection.

Thank you, Ms. Munro. I, too, had been skeptical about those turnarounds, fresh starts, and preposterous adventures. I felt I was getting too old for those things. My eyes were not going to open again to such possibilities. Ah—but they were. They were.

Stray sentences

“… I was not despondent. I had made a desperate change in my life, and in spite of the regrets I suffered every day, I was proud of that. I felt as if I had finally come out into the world in a new, true skin. Sitting at the desk, I made a cup of coffee or of thin red soup last an hour, clasping my hands around the cup while there was still any warmth to be got from it. I read, but without purpose or involvement. I read stray sentences from the books that I had always meant to read. Often these sentences seemed so satisfying to me, or so elusive and lovely, that I could not help abandoning all the surrounding words and giving myself up to a peculiar state. I was alert and dreamy, closed off from all particular people but conscious all the time of the city itself—which seemed a strange place.”

Alice Munro, from “The Albanian Virgin,” in Selected Stories (Penguin Books, 1998)

(Photograph by dabacahin.)

Laura Miller on Alice Munro: “The breath of life”

… The short story form (in prospect, at least) has never appealed to me, and after a dire childhood encounter with “Little Women” — foisted on me by female relatives — I developed a lifelong resistance to fiction in which, as my teenage self once put it, “people just sit around thinking about how they feel about their relatives.”

But, if we’re lucky, we grow up and learn to reconsider our prejudices. One day, a little over a decade ago, I picked up a copy of “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,” figuring I ought to at least try to expand my readerly horizons. I read it. I got it. And here is the review if you’d like a deeper explanation of what I had to say about it back then.

While I might still prefer fat novels set on a broader stage and teeming with ideas and adventures, in Munro’s stories I found the breath of life, but more than that: the feeling of having lived through her characters rather than just being entertained or enlightened by them. Her work transmitted to me the resonance of age — what’s commonly referred to as its wisdom — without requiring that I actually be old to apprehend it. The writers capable of doing this are vanishingly rare; one of them is Chekhov, and the rest you can probably count on one hand.

[ … ]

… I will tell you this, as a fellow skeptic: If, when you read about Munro, your first thought is “Yeah, right: That’s definitely not for me,” please do think again. If you are only ever going to give this genre of fiction one try, she’s the author to pick: I recommend both “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” and “Friend of My Youth” (which I have since read — Thanks, Mary, and sorry I was such an ass about it). If those books do not move you, then you can return to your well-worn readerly groove in perfect confidence that your tastes are really as limited as you assumed. And the loss will be nobody’s but your own.

— from “How Alice Munro Won Me Over” (Salon)