Write Like a Toltec

This past holiday season, the sight of an occasional Santa seated in a mall or ringing a bell at a street corner has brought me back to the memory of one of my oddest jobs—as the house Santa at Saks Fifth Avenue in White Plains, New York, way back in 1974. I was only 23 at the time, not exactly the go-to age for a Santa, but that white beard hid all the wrinkles I didn’t have.


The first day on the job I was flown, in full holiday regalia, in a helicopter to the department store, where hundreds of children and their parents waited on the rooftop parking lot for my arrival.

Staring down at the crowd massed below, I waved my hand at them through the curved window, almost idly, and in response hundreds of hands rose and waved back. This was my first hint of the power I’d been given.

It was an impersonation of power, to be sure, but still a form of power, and I was a little nervous about how to handle it. Luckily I had time to consider the issue while I sat on my throne (yep, I had one, flanked by a giant stuffed toy elephant and a giraffe), since I gazed out at mainly empty spaces of that elegant store. It was a time of economic recession, and Saks had no real toy department.

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Except for those busy times when throngs of children were shipped in from local schools, I often sat alone, and I took to reading from a book I thought might help me better inhabit my role as a magical holiday figure: Technicians of the Sacred. It was an anthology of spiritual poetry from indigenous peoples from around the world, and one poem in particular has stayed with me these many years, a work on the craft of making art, written by an unnamed Aztec poet:

The artist: disciple, abundant, multiple, restless.
The true artist: capable, practicing, skillful;
Maintains dialogue with his heart, meets things with his mind.
The true artist: draws out all from his heart,
Works with delight, makes things with calm, with sagacity,
Works like a true Toltec, composes his objects, works dexterously, invents;
Arranges materials, adorns them, makes them adjust.

The carrion artist: works at random, sneers at the people,
Makes things opaque, brushes across the surface of things,
Works without care, defrauds people, is a thief.

I’ve taught this poem in various fiction writing workshops, and my students tend to find that last stanza a little judgy, but I have to say it sounds a lot like my secret critical interior voice when the writing isn’t going well.

That first stanza, though, that’s the real keeper. It describes so well the buzz of inspiration, combined with the sweat of revision and reconsideration—the sturm and drang of creation.


And that first word is perhaps the most important one: disciple. But a disciple of what? The world, I’d say, or better yet the worlds—both inner and outer. To be a writer, an artist, one should avoid the pretense of authority and instead be an apprentice, always willing to learn, to reevaluate, to be surprised, and delighted, and humbled. Perhaps humbled most of all, by the task of applying one’s limited skills to the vast and patient Everything Else.

But what’s this about working “like a true Toltec”?

I’d always wondered about that reference, until one day I realized that, duh, the internet existed, and with a few swift clicks discovered that the Aztecs had a kind of mythology about the Toltecs, an earlier (going back to around 800-1200 AD) Meso-American culture. A little like the Romans’ regard for the artistic achievements of the Greeks. So much so that the word “Toltec” came to be synonymous with “artisan.” An example or two of Toltec art will easily explain why.

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Here’s some poor soul being devoured by a coyote, catching his last glimpse of the sweet world before the final gulp. The animal’s “fur” is made of mother-of-pearl, and those teeth are real bone. Beautiful and terrifying art.

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Even more telling, to my eyes, is the face of this clay vessel. Someone with a lot of power, I’m guessing, and not a lot of respect for who or what he’s regarding. Or maybe those eyes express a life-weariness, an expression of I’ve-Seen-It-All-So-What-Have-You-Got? Or maybe he’s about to pronounce a verdict that will not be especially welcomed. Or he’s just received one. This is a face that contains a life history I’d like to imagine. Thank goodness that ancient Toltec artist worked like a Toltec.

Right now, I’m in the throes of a novel, a season of inspiration (but how long will it last?), skating on possibilities and unforeseen connections that fly up before me, and facing the multiple paths that open new territories while closing off others. Choices, choices, each filled with opportunities and pitfalls. It’s an exhilarating time, and humbling, too, because all I have to do is draw out all from my heart, and then adorn it, make it adjust.


For a complete account of my adventures as a Santa, you can take a peek at “The Man Behind the Beard,” an essay which originally appeared in the Washington Post Magazine, here.

December 27th, 2013 by admin | 2 Comments »

My Mambo King

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Of all the photos taken of him, the image above captures best, I think, the man who was my friend for thirty-eight years. Oscar Hijuelos and I met in graduate school at City College in 1975, two young writers in Frederick Tuten’s fiction workshop. Oscar was shy, even deferential to the other writers in the workshop, but when he first read his work to us in class, his head bowed over the pages on the desk, his voice low, everyone recognized his enormous talent.

We became friends, visiting each other often in his apartment on the Upper West Side or the house I was renting with old college friends north of the city. We read each other’s manuscripts (and continued to do so over the years), discovered that we were born within two days (and only a few miles) of each other, and we talked about our life-or-death love of literature, drank and joked and ate at any Cuban-Chinese restaurant we came upon in New York. To say Oscar had a good sense of humor is not quite right—he had a great sense of amusement, about everything in the world (and he also had a great curious appetite for everything in the world), and when I hear Oscar’s voice in my mind (and I listen to him a lot these days), I can hear his restrained chuckle, or the casual bemusement in the very tone of his speaking. That slight, gentle smile in the photo says it all.

When my wife Alma and I spent the summer of 1987 in New York City with our then months-old son Nathaniel, we rented an apartment a few blocks from Oscar’s place. He was just back from living abroad (he’d won a Rome Prize for his first novel, Our House in the Last World). Our first night in town, we walked over to Oscar’s, to introduce him to our first child. We were shocked at his hollowed-out apartment—he’d inadvertently gotten into a little trouble with the IRS over taxes while he was in Rome, and now he was selling his furniture piece by piece to raise money. As we spoke, my son began wailing in my arms, and Oscar reached over to a nearly empty shelf, picked up a kalimba, and began improvising a serenade.

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Almost immediately Nathaniel calmed down, and without hesitation Oscar made us a present of the instrument—one of his last possessions. That generosity was typical of Oscar. You can see that kindness in the photo, as well as some of the sadness that was never far away, through all the decades that I knew him, through success as well as failure.

The evening of Oscar’s wake, Alma and I took the train in from Princeton, where we’ve been living this fall, and then the subway to the Upper West Side, landing just a few blocks from the visitation. We’d arrived early, and because I wasn’t quite ready to put the stamp of finality on my friend’s sudden death, Alma and I walked about the neighborhood, which was filled with memories of when Oscar and I had first forged our friendship. At the wake we paid our respects to Oscar’s beloved wife Lori, who in her grief was overwhelmed by the large crowd of friends and family there to offer support. Oscar’s casket rested in a corner, and for a few minutes I foolishly spoke to it as if my friend could hear me from inside.

Later, Alma and I walked to the nearby Cuban-Chinese restaurant La Caridad 78 (“Comidas China y Criolla”), where Oscar and I had often taken a meal.

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The same spare décor, the heaping plates of food, and speakers in the walls played salsa music, the same joyful music Oscar had written about in his Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. It wasn’t the best meal I’ve had, but it tasted of history, and loss, and love, too: fried rice and beans, hunks of tender chicken, Chinese vegetables. By the end of our meal, I noticed a young couple at a nearby table, enjoying a side order of plantains.

I nodded toward the table and said to Alma, “I forgot to order plantains. The meal doesn’t seem right without some.”

“It’s not too late to order,” she replied, but our meal was almost done, the moment for that really had passed.


Yet after I paid the bill and we gathered our coats, I found myself approaching the couple, and I explained that I’d just left the wake of a dear friend, and he and I had often eaten at this restaurant, and I’d forgotten to order a plate of what we’d always ordered, plantains, and would it be all right if I could have just one piece?

They happily agreed, offered me the entire plate, but no, a single slice would do. Then Alma and I thanked them and left, walking down the street to the subway station, while I nibbled slowly at my slice of plantain, each bite another little goodbye.


For another remembrance of Oscar Hijuelos, which includes Oscar’s take on what constitutes a writer’s afterlife, you can visit this entry of the Ninth Letter blog.


The beautiful photo of Oscar Hijuelos was taken by Dario Acosta.

November 24th, 2013 by admin | 8 Comments »

How Can You Tell the Writer from the Dance?

The first contemporary dance performance I ever attended sent a shock through me, one whose effect I still feel today.

My previous experience with dance had been watching ballerinas go through ritualized poses during a high school performance of The Nutcracker. I had no eyes at the time to appreciate the athleticism of their leaps and spins—too mild-mannered, too “girly” for an adolescent boy.

My second year in college, I found myself willing to do anything to impress a cultured young woman who had spent most of her life in France and Germany, where her father had been posted as a diplomat. This was a doomed endeavor from the start, but when she mentioned that the Maurice Béjart dance company was performing in New York City (a short hop from our Sarah Lawrence College campus) I didn’t hesitate at the opportunity to accompany her. They were performing their interpretation of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, that masterful squawk of modernism (and one of my favorite pieces of classical music). I knew that The Rite of Spring had originally been composed for a ballet, and that the premiere performance had sparked an uproar back in 1913. The object of my affection gave a little smile at my minor display of cultural knowledge and said that the new Béjart choreography had created its own controversy.

We sat in the stratospheric reaches of the balcony, which turned out to be quite a blessing, since the full force of the patterns shaped by the dancers was clearest from a distance. Béjart’s choreography marshaled over forty dancers on the stage, often in great blocks of swirling sexy movement. No tutus here, no polite duets! The power of all those dancers creating a kind of mural that twisted and turned in time was beyond anything I could have anticipated.

My relationship with that elegant young woman lasted only a few months, but my interest in modern dance continued, and a desire to somehow write fiction about it grew. I’d come up with some big ideas over the summer: I would write a novella about a small dance company that performed to Bartok’s Fourth String Quartet (another favorite of mine). I’d write about the individual musicians playing the quartet, the dancers, the rehearsals and the ultimate performance. So I signed up for dance and choreography classes (and had the good fortune to work with Don Redlich and the legendary Bessie Schonberg), music history and notation, and a creative writing conference course devoted to this project with my mentor, short story writer Grace Paley.

To my mind, Bartok’s quartet offered special possibilities for this writing project. The music was so varied and unusual, so haunting, that I couldn’t wait to create scenes with the dancers’ interpretations, especially in the fourth movement, where the quartet members set aside their bows and pluck at the strings instead, creating music that sounds something like a side-step spider hoedown:

By the end of the year, what I came up with was absolutely terrible, a disaster. My ambitions had clearly outpaced my twenty-year-old self’s limited talents as a writer, and I am grateful that no copies of this experiment still exist.

And yet . . . when I think back to that project, I don’t think of failure, but of a different kind of success. Taking contemporary dance classes transformed my writing, and in ways that I couldn’t possibly have predicted once I’d started.

First, dancing simply released some rhythmic energy in my body that came to influence the rhythms of my sentences. I had been a careful writer, serious about finding just the right word, though often to the detriment of the larger needs of a sentence. I continued worrying about that ideal word, but this concern now came later. Instead, I first let my language, well, dance, allowing the infinite varieties of sentence structure to take me places I’d never visited before, much in the same way dance allowed my body to move in ways it had never moved before.

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As one of the few men in the dance program, I was quite popular with the female student choreographers, who were always looking for a man to perform in one of their dance pieces. Being choreographed, being moved about in three-dimensional space on a stage, seeing that creative process develop and change, and my role as a dancer therefore changing too, gave me a sense of how to better create dramatic scenes in my own fiction. Having been moved about in space, adapting to the rhythms of timing and interacting with the other dancers, now I found I could more easily move about my sometimes reluctant fictional characters.

Finally, part of my dance study included learning how to apply the dance notation system called Labanotation. Developed by Rudolf Laban in an effort to record and preserve on paper the movements of choreography, it’s akin to musical notation, and can be adapted to even complex pieces (click to enlarge).

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Holding still on the page the fluid soul of dance helps one to see the underlining structure, what I guess you could call the long game that binds the accumulating incidents together. My attempts at learning how to apply Labanotation helped me think more deeply about artistic structure in general, and story structure in specific (developing rudimentary skills in reading musical notation helped here too).

It took a while for the changes in my writing to unfold, and even longer for me to fully grasp where those changes had come from (always a slow learner, me). But those lessons learned taught me something else. I was blessed as a student to work with a great array of writing mentors—Grace Paley, Frederic Tuten, Donald Barthelme—but also to explore the possibilities of another art form, an arena outside a writing workshop. I was able to see that language is not only words, and that dance is not merely contained in the body.

October 16th, 2013 by admin | 3 Comments »

Disasters Both Outside and Within

I’ve recently read Kenneth Goldsmith’s Seven American Deaths and Disasters (after watching the author spar with Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report), a book I found profoundly moving–a reaction I hadn’t expected, but probably could have predicted.

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The book is a series of transcribed radio broadcasts (with a few exceptions), as the events are unfolding, of crucial blows to the American psyche: the assassination of President Kennedy, then his brother Robert, John Lennon’s murder, the Challenger disaster, the Columbine massacre, the World Trade Center attacks and the death of Michael Jackson. Virtually anyone reading this book will have experienced living through at least some of these events, if not all (I was in seventh grade when Kennedy was killed).

So the book is a You Are There account of some of the main body blows of recent American history, but it also creates an alternate personal history of the reader, too, if he or she is old enough.

The first chapter, of the Kennedy assassination, begins with radio patter of an almost child-like American innocence, a care-free world managed by helpful advertised products: Armour Star turkeys (“government inspected and graded to give your family a very special treat this Thanksgiving”), Falstaff beer (“no deposit, no return cans in handy packs of six”), and the Robert Hall department store (“robes and pajama sets are priced from only $3.97″). In between, songs by the Chiffons (“I Have a Boyfriend”) and Tommy Rowe’s “Hey Everybody” keep the tone light.

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But slowly, breaking news about shots being fired at a Kennedy motorcade in Dallas eventually overwhelm the radio station’s normal proceedings, and this news grows ever alarming: Kennedy has been shot at, Kennedy has been hit, Kennedy’s wounds are minor, Kennedy’s wounds are grave, Kennedy is dead. Though of course I knew what was coming since I lived through this national trauma, I found myself wishing certain reports were indeed true, that Kennedy’s wounds were minor, manageable, and because of this need to deny what could not be denied (an impulse that surprised me as I read), the transcribed radio report created an almost unbearable tension.

Perhaps I felt this way because the Kennedy assassination revealed to me the wider world of adult tragedy, the shocks that often come without warning. And in some ways, the willful innocence of the country’s popular culture was lost that day as well.

When the on-the-scene radio report of Robert Kennedy Jr.’s assassination kicks in, there’s an odd emotional quality to the reporting, a sort of Can this really be happening again? tone that seems to imply that history’s lesson hasn’t completely been learned. Less than three years after the death of his older brother, this death almost hits harder, because it illustrates that the first assassination wasn’t an anomaly, but another step in a horrific future business-as-usual (Martin Luther King, Jr. had also been assassinated months earlier).

And the litany of disasters follows: John Lennon’s murder appears to cap off any last remaining promise of the Sixties, and the Challenger explosion crumples the country’s assumptions of technological superiority.

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The chapter on Columbine is perhaps the most powerful: a transcription of a teacher’s 911 call as the killing unfolds at the high school, and it captures a chilling, head-shaking sense of helplessness and disbelief at such carnage in such an unlikely (then) setting.

After the grim on-the-scene news reports of the World Trade Center attacks (attacks that also tore down America’s willful belief in our safety and invulnerability), we come to the rather jaded reports of Michael Jackson’s death. We have become so inured to tragedy that the commentators can argue about whether Jackson was really the King of Pop or not.

Goldsmith’s book of transcribed tragedies would be a difficult read if it weren’t also a compelling secret history of the country, and of the reader. As individuals, we have all had to absorb terrible news and events in our lives, and these radio reports of disasters “as they happened” captures the emotional shock and disbelief, the hopeless bargaining with reality to return to normality that we undergo when our personal or family lives go kablooie.

So, if all of this book is transcribed reporting, then how does Goldsmith get to be the “author”? I’m reminded of the work of Studs Terkel, whose transcribed interviews in such books as Working and Hard Times are masterpieces of revelation: voices we haven’t heard, only brought together through Terkel’s efforts, and shaped into an overarching narrative. Or Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony, a reclamation of late 19th century and early 20th century court documents that reveal stories of despair and violence lost to history (see my post on Reznikoff’s book “To Remain a Witness”).

Goldsmith, I think, has done a similar service, taking the disasters that now loom like horrible monuments in our history and bringing back to them the “shock of the new.” It’s not perfect: Goldsmith says he couldn’t, for example, find a contemporaneous report of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death that captured the developing despair of the news. But this still remains one of the best history books I’ve ever read, voices from the past, under great stress, that recapture the immediacy of the present, and that laid bare, by example, the raw emotion of some of my own life’s (much smaller) disasters.

August 10th, 2013 by admin | No Comments »

Disquiet in Lisbon

In two weeks I’ll be returning to Lisbon, for my second year participating in the Disquiet International literary conference. Besides giving a reading from my fiction and nonfiction, I’ll also be leading the conference’s Fernando Pessoa walk though the streets of the city’s Baixa neighborhood to follow the haunts of the great 20th century Portuguese poet. And I’ll be teaching a generative travel writing class, encouraging my students to explore the nooks and crannies of Lisbon (and there are a lot of them).

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There’s a stellar cast of writers in the program, including the Portuguese-American writers Katherine Vaz and Frank Gaspar, as well as writers Terri Witek, Tayari Jones, Adam Levin, Sam Lipsyte, Robert Olmstead, Denise Duhamel, screenwriter and actor John Frey, and some of the best Portuguese writers of the day: Jacinto Lucas Pires, Teolindo Gersão, Patricia Portela, José Luís Peixoto, and Gonçalo Tavares. And of course Richard Zenith, perhaps the premier translator of Portuguese literature into English. One of the main organizing spirits behind it all is the marvelous fiction writer Jeff Parker.

But most of all, there’s Lisbon: the palimpsest of history on every street, the summer scent of grilling sardines, the beauty of the language, and the music, the music. Fado is the style most known outside of the country, but Portuguese music offers much, much more than that. There’s jazz, rock, folk, you name it, and because the creative genius of Portugal is particularly attuned to music (and literature too, let’s not forget literature, and did I mention food?), it’s all of a very high quality. These cultural riches are probably not a small part of how the Portuguese are surviving these difficult days of austerity. That, and lots of demonstrations.

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One of my favorite Portuguese bands is Madredeus. After the loss of their singer, Teresa Salgueiro, the band experimented with their musical identity for a while, but now they’re back with a new instrumental line-up that includes two violins, a cello, and the classically trained voice of Beatriz Nunes. Here’s their quietly stunning version of one of the oldest songs in the Madredeus repertoire, “Adeus . . . e nem voltei.”

The violin is also an important instrument in the music of Cape Verde (an African nation of nine islands and a former Portuguese colony). The singer Lura, born in Lisbon of Cape Verdean parents, brilliantly recreates the music of those islands, her voice both powerful and tender. I love the violin in her version of the song “Flor di nha esperanca”–it gives a chamber music touch to the slinky dance hall proceedings.

Will I be lucky enough to catch Madredeus or Lura in concert this summer? I doubt it. But whichever live music I make my way to, I know it’ll be wonderful.

Like what you’ve heard? Then try these posts, which also include videos of Portuguese music:

A Naifa (includes my take on José Luís Peixoto’s excellent novel, The Implacable Order of Things)

Bernardo Sassetti

Or you could read “The Pleasures of Saudade,” my article on the thrilling range of contemporary Portuguese music, which includes numerous videos and MP3s, here at The Morning News.

Interested in Portuguese literature? Try this post on the work of Fernando Pessoa.

June 16th, 2013 by admin | No Comments »

Sleepwalkers Strolling Through Fire

I read this week in the Portuguese newspaper Público that the Mozambican writer Mia Couto has been awarded the 2013 Camões Prize, a major international award that honors writers from the Lusophone world—those eight countries where Portuguese is the official language.

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I’m delighted by this news, because ever since I first read Couto’s work back in 1990, the story collection Voices Made Night, he has been one of my favorite writers. I was immediately struck by the strength of his poetic prose, which reminded me in some ways of the prose of the poet Rilke, writing that somehow describes the world and alters it at the same time.


Couto, though, writes of his African country’s war of independence, civil war, and the tragic aftermaths of so much destruction on the lives of ordinary people. Here, from the story “The Day Mabata-bata Exploded,” is a description of a cow that, while being led by a young cowherd, steps on a landmine:

“Suddenly, the cow exploded. It burst without so much as a moo. In the surrounding grass a rain of chunks and slices fell, as if the fruit and leaves of the ox. Its flesh turned into red butterflies. Its bones were scattered coins. Its horns were caught in some branches, swinging to and fro, imitating life in the invisibility of the wind.”

This passage is typical of Couto’s strengths as a writer: terrible things remain terrible but are transformed into strange beauty by the power of language. Perhaps language is a survival skill in the face of so much violence and turmoil in his country’s recent history. In his first novel, Sleepwalking Land, Couto writes,

“They should invent a gentler, more affable gunpowder, capable of exploding men without killing them. An inverse powder, which would generate more life. And out of one exploded man, an infinity of men inside him would be born.”


Couto is a master at inverting reality, reversing the order of the world with a swift aphoristic grace that leaves us puzzling over our normal assumptions. “Life is a web weaving a spider,” he says in another story in Voices Made Night, while in this passage from the novel Under the Frangipani he takes his time setting up this conceit of inversion:

“The tide was out and had left stretches of sand and rock uncovered. The gulls could be heard, screeching in a melancholy way. Before long, one would be able to hear the plovers, those white-fronted little birds that summon in the tide. The tide rises and falls in obedience to those birds. Just a short while ago, it was the sandpipers that had ordered the waters to ebb. Curious how such a gigantic creature as the ocean is so attentive to the commands of such insignificant little birds.”

This same novel is notable for the way it reverses the normal detective procedural. A Mozambican police inspector investigating a murder has to work his way through the baffling stories of multiple suspects: rather than deny, they all confess to the murder.

The world, transformed by violence, is transformed into something else, more hopeful, perhaps—certainly more magical. Though so many of his compatriots have been stunned into a kind of sleepwalking in their lives, Couto declares that we are all kin, that each of us resembles a “sleepwalker strolling through fire.” But language, and stories, may save us.

Mia Couto’s most recent novel translated into English (by David Brookshaw, wonderfully as always), is The Tuner of Silences. It sits near the top of my Must Read pile.


May 29th, 2013 by admin | No Comments »

That Opening Paragraph

Ever wonder why you can find your way to a distant location in town, even if you only know a few, if any, of the names of the streets on the way? Erik Jonsson, in his book Inner Navigation: Why We Get Lost and How We Find Our Way, claims that we all create “cognitive maps.”

“Navigation is knowing where you are and how to get to where you want to go. In an unfamiliar area this means that you have to use a map and compass to find your way. But if you know the area you need no such help. You know where you are, and you know how to get to where you want to be next. It is all in your head: you have a ‘map in the head,’ a cognitive map to go by.”


Once we come to know a place, we develop an “inner compass,” that turns with us, so that no matter where we’re facing we don’t get disoriented and can find our way.

I remember how hard it was, at first, to memorize the grid of New York City when I worked nights as a cab driver in the summer of 1972. Street by street I learned to orient myself, memorize the names and numbers of streets and avenues, the direction of one-way streets, the entrances and exits through Central Park. Soon enough, though, when a rider slipped into the backseat and named an address, I could see in my mind’s eye alternate routes, could quickly pick the one I thought might get us there faster. Yet I couldn’t say exactly how I had come to know this. Practice, yes, but something else was at work.

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Jonsson claims that this is “another neural system that operates at a level below awareness, the one that keeps us in balance as we stand and move around. It is automatic: we rely on it unthinkingly, taking it for granted, but when something goes wrong with it, we get in big trouble.”

And it can indeed go wrong. When the Vermont College of Fine Arts administrative offices were moved to the top floor of College Hall, I first visited the new digs by walking up the stairs on the west side of the building.

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Once there, the floor’s space imprinted itself on me, without my knowing it. Entering by the west stairs, however, was an unfortunate mistake, since the more convenient entry is from the stairs on the east side, an entry that I’ve usually taken ever since.

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And when I climb the eastern stairs, once at the top I feel disoriented for a moment, everything seems in the wrong place, because my initial mapping of the floor came from a western approach. I have to turn the floor around in my head before continuing.

First impressions, spatially, indeed count. And this reminds me of that crucial moment in any short story or novel: the opening paragraph.

Those first words serve as a crucial orientation, of the physical and emotional landscape of what is to follow. A reader begins a story as if opening a door to a new room: is that initial view inviting, intriguing, does it promise a path to perhaps more interesting rooms, does it encourage a step forward?

Here is the opening paragraph to Debra Eisenberg’s story “Transactions in a Foreign Currency” (from her story collection of the same name), which deftly defines the physical terrain and intrigues with unanswered questions:

I had lit a fire in my fireplace, and I’d poured out two coffees and two brandies, and I was settled down on the sofa next to a man who had taken me out to dinner, when Ivan called after more than six months. I turned with the receiver to the wall as I absorbed the fact of Ivan’s voice, and when I glanced back at the man on the sofa, he seemed a scrap of paper, or the handle from a broken cup, or a single rubber band–a thing that has become dislodged from its rightful place and intrudes on one’s consciousness two or three times before one understands it is just a thing best thrown away.

rubber band

We see the fireplace and sofa, we can imagine the type of cozy living room that contains them, the brandies, even the poor hapless man who has been so trumped by the unexpected call from Ivan that his value has plummeted to a near worthless bit of nearly nothing. We see the narrator, her back to him, phone by her ear. And yet much remains unanswered: who is this Ivan, why has he been silent for six months? And is the narrator reliable, is Ivan worthy of her so easily recharged devotion, or is she clinging to the promise of a man who hasn’t treated her well in the past and won’t in the future?

Eisenberg gives us details that allow us to create a cognitive map of the living room, and the likely social class of the narrator those details hint at. Yet we’re no sooner settled in this room than Ivan calls, and we realize that we won’t be hanging around here for long, the wider world outside beckons, as well as stretches of the narrator’s as yet unrevealed past, and some explanation for Ivan’s sudden reappearance. In one short paragraph Eisenberg has guided us beautifully into her story, blending concrete detail with emotional mystery.

Here’s another opening paragraph, one that orients us in a different way. It’s from “The End of the World,” by the Italian writer Dino Buzzati, from his Restless Nights: Selected Stories:

One morning about ten o’clock an immense fist appeared in the sky above the city. Then it slowly unclenched and remained this way, immobile, like an enormous canopy of ruin. It looked like a rock, but it was not rock; it looked like flesh but it wasn’t; it even seemed made of cloud, but cloud it was not. It was God, and the end of the world. A murmuring, which here became a moan, there a shout, spread through the districts of the city, until it grew into a single voice, united and terrible, rising shrilly like a trumpet.


This rather frightening image catches a reader’s attention: if the end of the world does come, it might look something like this, and those voices in the city below convey humanity’s understandable terror. So, who wouldn’t read on to the second paragraph?

Buzzati doesn’t continue in this monumental vein, though. The setting established, he then floats down to the city’s street level, showing the reactions and fears of first crowds and then individual people, finally focusing, until the end of the story, on the plight of a single priest who must decide, in the short time remaining, whom to absolve among the supplicants crowding around him. Yet even though the perspective has long shifted from the hand of God to a single individual below, that threatening fist still hovers in the mind, its clenching like some terrible ticking clock. Buzzati can depart from that arresting initial image because it never really leaves the imagination of the reader.

Writers take great care with the opening paragraph, because the reader, however unconsciously, is looking for clues of what will follow. A false move—either an excess of detail, or not enough; contradictory metaphorical language; or a passive narrative voice—can jar a reader’s “inner compass,” and delay the entry into the fictional world. When writers begin the construction of those first crucial steps, we would do well to remember the words of the novelist Allan Gurganus, who says of the writing process, “You have to maintain your critical sensibility and not just assume, because it was an extraordinary dream for you, that it will be a dream for other people. Because people need maps to your dreams.”

May 13th, 2013 by admin | No Comments »

To Remain a Witness

I recently read, via a recommendation from the marvelous website The Dish, an essay by Amber Forcey titled “There Are No “Good Old Days.” Forcey laments the very notion that the past is preferable to our current sorry state of affairs in the present. She focuses her argument on the popular television series “Downtown Abbey.” Even when episodes refer to the horrors of the early 20th century, she says,

“the Titanic sinking, a World War, the Spanish flu – seem to serve mostly as fodder for the characters’ personal dramas, not as an honest depiction of the problems of this time. However, a careful reading of any history textbook – or solid work of 20th century British literature – will reveal that this was time and place of great upheaval, one plagued with war, disease, and its own versions of “crimes against humanity,” not to mention the debasing treatment of women and minorities throughout most of the western world. We dream nostalgically about this time as we watch; but, if we are truly aware of the evils and trouble of these decades, given the option, none of us would chose to revert back to such a time.”

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Forcey then does a nice turn by writing about the short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor. “The irony of the tale,” Forcey writes, “is that a good man is hard to find, not because of the times, but because there are no good men – then or now – except for One.” Though the murderous Misfit might disagree with that last point, since he faults Jesus for the irrevocable mistake of raising the dead: “He thrown everything off balance.” The only logical alternative to following a religious path, according to the Misfit, is simple, dedicated mayhem: “No pleasure but in meanness.”

The mention of O’Connor’s iconic short story reminded me of another–though much less well-known—classic of American literature written about the same time, the poet Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony.

Reznikoff was trained as a lawyer (though he only practiced briefly), and the source of the poems is actual trial testimony (from the years 1885-1915) that he’d discovered while working on court records. Unable to turn away from the stories of suffering he’d encountered, Reznikoff instead turned the essence of those testimonies into poems, short verse narratives that, example by example, increasingly haunt the reader. Testimony is a harrowing book that can’t be put down. Here’s a taste of its mayhem and tragedy and unexpected trouble:

It was nearly daylight when she gave birth to the child,
lying on the quilt
he had doubled up for her.
He put the child on his left arm
and took it out of the room,
and she could hear the splashing of water.
When he came back she asked him where the child was.
He replied: “Out there—in the water.”

He punched up the fire
and returned with an armload of wood
and the child,
and put the dead child into the fire.
She said, “O John, don’t!”
He did not reply
but turned to her and smiled.


The child was about eight years old.
For some misconduct or other,
his father stripped him naked, threw him on the floor,
and beat him with a piece of rubber pipe,
crying “Die, God damn you!”
He tried to dash the child against the brick surface of the chimney,
and flung the child again heavily on the floor
and stamped on him.


Arnold heard the blowing of the whistle:
the train was coming.
The only light was that of a small lamp
behind the shutters of the station,
and it gave at best
a weak light on the platform.
The night was dark and cloudy.
In trying to pass from the platform to the ground
where passengers boarded the train,
he could not see the steps that led from the platform:
and fell.


One of them saw the smoke rising
when they went for dinner;
the wind had been blowing
strongly from the west
but had increased greatly in force
when they reached the fire.

The fire had crossed the ditch:
there had been a dry spell
and there was no water in the ditch—
or neighborhood.
They had only shovels
to keep the fire from spreading;
and the soil was peat,
covered with moss and grass,
all dry and highly flammable.


He was committed to prison in default of bail
and sent down in the van
with two other prisoners,
one drunk and spewing. In the prison,
he received two narrow blankets and a tin dish;
no knife or fork. Slept on the floor.
The room was filthy.
The stool had no cover;
the men made water in it at night,
and it ran over.


He entered the store with barley sacks upon his feet
and a barley sack over his head—
holes cut in front through which to look—
and carried a shotgun,
both barrels loaded with birdshot.

But the barley sack upon one of his feet
caught on something at the end of the counter;
the mask became displaced so that he could not see,
and the gun was jerked from his hand.

Even a cursory reading of these spare, intense poems will cure any sentimentalist from nostalgia for an idealized past. Which is perhaps why this masterpiece—a masterpiece of poetry but also of nonfiction, since all these stories are “true,” the words lifted from court documents and arranged into “found” poems—is so little known, because its lessons are so unwanted. But masterpiece it is, and Paul Auster comes close to capturing its essential power:

“To find a comparable approach to the real, one would have to go back to the great prose writers of the turn of the century. As in Chekov or in early Joyce, the desire is to allow events to speak for themselves, to choose the exact detail that will say everything and thereby allow as much as possible to remain unsaid. This kind of restraint paradoxically requires an openness of spirit that is available to very few: an ability to accept the given, to remain a witness of human behavior and not succumb to the temptation of becoming a judge.”

Michael Heller chimes in: “It is as much craft as content which produces the effect. The reader is made to feel the flow of event go by, to participate only as a witness. There are no imperial gestures in the language, barely an attempt to explain, let alone interpret.”


Testimony was originally published as the 500-page Testimony: The United States, 1885-1915–Recitative. It is long out of print, as is the much shorter version, Testimony: The United States 1885-1890–Recitative, published by New Directions, which is the version I am familiar with. This strange amalgam of poetry and nonfiction, historical record and carefully controlled yawp of empathy for forgotten lives deserves a literary resurrection.

Paul Auster and Michael Heller quotes are from On Testimony.

March 10th, 2013 by admin | No Comments »

The Secret History of Objects

I have long felt there is no such thing as an inanimate object. In our homes, for instance, we surround ourselves with things, and those things are there for a reason: some quality about them has caused us to choose them. A piece of driftwood, placed on a shelf, may have been collected during a memorable day by the shore, and so now that simple twist of wood is animated—the mere sight of it can bring back a significant moment in time.

On the other hand, the shape of a vase and its color might please us in ways that can’t quite be articulated, and yet we choose that vase over others in a store and then feature it on a table in the living room. An artist, of course, shaped this, and something of his or her aesthetic vision has echoed inside us. By choosing that vase we have entered into a relationship with it and, by extension, the artist who sculpted it.

In The Meaning of Things, authors Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton speak of these relationships: “To understand what people are and what they might become, one must understand what goes on between people and things. What things are cherished, and why, should become part of our knowledge of human beings . . . Things also tell us who we are, not in words, but by embodying our intentions.”

From the beginning, my fiction has been entranced by and attracted to what things might tell us about ourselves. My 1979 short story, “Light Bulbs,” chronicled how an “empty nest” couple slowly developed relationships with the light bulbs in their home, as a substitute for their departed children:

“Father finds himself attracted to the sound of the bulbs as they go out—some with a kind of smoky burst, some with a faint, regretful pop. It’s as if they all had their own secret reasons for leaving. He also can’t avoid noticing the way the old bulbs fit into the palm of his hand like the warm head of an infant. Father keeps this to himself. He has begun to spend more of his time at night watching the lights and less with Mother at the bay window.”

You can read the entire story here (if you have a digital subscription to The New Yorker)

In 1997, while in preparation for a book tour for the paperback edition of my novel, How to Read an Unwritten Language, I was interviewed by Richard Shea for the Princeton Packet’s Time Off magazine, and our conversation eventually wandered over to the subject of objects in my fiction:

Graham: “I’ve always believed that objects are part of our personalities. And in a lot of my stories objects are used as an element of characterization; what we most love, what we surround ourselves with are really projections of internal states.”

Shea: “Which is ironic, seeing that we live in a country where, often, too much value is placed on material things. But you seem to be talking about the other side of the coin.”

Graham: “I think that placing too much value on objects as mere objects is a dead end, yes. But if we take a look sometimes at the fact that those objects actually echo our inner states . . . “materialism” is almost a false issue. I’m in my study right now, and I’m looking around the room, and everything I’m looking at is human-generated. What that means is everything around me was initially thought of by somebody else, and then made into an object, which means, in some sense, that what we’re looking at is the physical representation of neuro-synaptic connections. We’re, like, in a mind; we’re inside a collective human mind of creation and invention. And that’s what we live in as human beings.”

In this interview I was ripping off, and rather inarticulately, one of my fictional characters: Josephine, the narrator of the title story of my collection Interior Design. Josephine is on a mission, as an interior designer, to expiate the sins of her father, a house developer who filled his model homes with ¾ sized furniture in order to fool his customers into thinking the rooms of the home they considered buying were much larger than they actually were. By contrast, Josephine works with her clients’ dreams, in order to design a more personalized home:

“It was those private designs that led me to the secret history of objects: they’re all the products of desire. The first chair didn’t just appear like some mushroom rising out of the floor. Instead, long ago, someone, somewhere, thought, “I’m tired,” and only then was a chair built, its wooden existence fitting the need. In the same way, the thought, “I’m cold,” conceived walls and a roof. We actually turn ourselves inside out, and find comfort in what we’ve imagined. If the guitar, the violin, the piano are extensions of us, created to give voice to our longings, then furniture is no less musical.”

In my novel How to Read an Unwritten Language, the narrator, Michael Kirby, falls in love in college with Kate, a young woman who is an aspiring artist. Yet Kate can only—will only—draw objects, never people. They seem alive to her, and Michael comes to realize that her drawings are a coded form of her hidden inner life. Frustrated by Kate’s emotional restraint, Michael manages to find a space where he can reach her, by asking her to draw his hand as if it—as if he—were an object.

I loved to sit beside Kate and watch her draw. Her fingers barely held the pencil—a light touch for such clarity—and her careful movements became a form of floating, a sign language somehow caught on paper. One evening, as Kate was about to begin another illustration, I placed my hand next to her notepad.

“Draw my hand?”

“Michael. You know . . . “

“It’s not a person,” I said, “it’s a hand. Quite an interesting piece of machinery, actually. C’mon, give it a try.”

Kate closed her eyes, sighed, and then looked down at my patient hand. Slowly, she began sketching the whorls of my knuckles, as if they were separate little whirlpools pulling her in. Next she drew those long-ridged bones that fanned from my wrist, and slowly the individual parts took hold of each other and grew fingers, took on the contours and shadows of flesh.

Finally she set down her pencil. My hand lay twinned before us. I gave her no time to choose between them: I turned mine over, palm up. “Draw it again?” I asked.

She did, first extending the particular curves and intersections of the lines of my palm, though no palm yet existed on the page. She continued that seemingly chaotic crosshatching until they led to my fingerprints, where she stopped. After a long pause, she drew the outline of my hand, then gave dimension to all the rounded slopes that circled the center of my palm. Again she hesitated, staring at those five fingers and their empty faces. Meticulously she gave expression to the delicate, echoing curves of my prints, adding slight shadows that hinted of sadness and anger, subdued joy, the possibility of laughter.

When she was done I stared at my hand and its image: indeed, both seemed filled with conflicting emotions.

“Now touch it?” I whispered. Kate hesitated, then laughed quietly with a hint of resignation. She slid one long-nailed finger along the lines of my palm, just lightly touching my skin: now we were pencil and page. But before she could finish tracing me, my fingers reached up and held her hand. Neither of us moved. I pulled her gently toward me. Her eyes narrowed with pleasure, then closed as we settled and twisted on the carpet, and I let her imagine a private sketch of what we did together.


With two nonfiction projects recently completed and published, I am returning to fiction, to two novels long in progress (though I’m also chipping away at a new nonfiction project–I tend to write several books at one time), and for me that also means a return to objects, and to the invisible threads that connect them to us, and us to them. They are the outposts of our imagination, physical clues to the shape of our interior lives, each one a hard fact echoing a fluid, fleeting feeling.

Another craft post of interest: “The Threads That Tie Us to Objects.”

In early 2014 Dzanc Books will reprint The Art of the Knock, How to Read an Unwritten Language and Interior Design in their contemporary fiction ebook series, rEprint.

December 22nd, 2012 by admin | No Comments »

Writing that Travels

“To see is to have seen,” said the great 20th century Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa. This seemingly simple sentence can be read more than one way. First, as a critique: we see mainly what we have already seen, that sight is a well-worn habit. Another interpretation suggests the opposite: that at its best sight is a form of understanding, arrived at only if we have truly seen through life’s visual static. Both interpretations, I think, are true, each the flip of the other.

Though for most of his adult life Pessoa lived solely in the city of Lisbon, rarely venturing outside its borders, he was a poet of inner travel. In his writing he invented a series of alter egos, personalities he called “heteronyms” (as opposed to mere pseudonyms), and he gave his three main creations names—Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Álvaro de Campos—along with past histories, astrological charts, physical features and their own signatures. Most of all, each heteronym was a different poet, and each wrote a different poetry from the others.

Pessoa created out of his own conflicting inner voices a literary salon, and the leader of them (and first to be created) was Alberto Caeiro, a poet of nature and clarity of vision. The identity and poetry of Caeiro came to Pessoa in a flash on day in March 1914, and over the next three days he wrote (transcribed?) Caeiro’s masterpiece, a book titled The Keeper of Sheep. This book had a particular vision that influenced—by their own admission—the work of the other heteronyms, and for me, that vision is perhaps best summed up in the 45th poem in that collection.

A row of tress in the distance, toward the slope . . .
But what is a row of trees? There are just trees.
“Row” and the plural “trees” are names, not things.

Unhappy human beings, who put everything in order,
Draw lines from thing to thing,
Place labels with names on absolutely real trees,
And plot parallels of latitude and longitude
On the innocent earth itself, which is so much greener
And full
Of flowers!

(translation by Richard Zenith, in Fernando Pessoa & Co.)

After reading this poem I find that it affects the way I look at a tree, or any natural phenomenon, and how each tree, or bush or flower is its one distinct self, which is obscured by mental and visual static when we add an abstraction to its description. Language can cast invisible expectations on what we think we simply see, as if seeing was simple! I thought I knew what a tree looked like.

Pessoa’s poem took me someplace I might never have otherwise arrived at. The best writing, whether non-fiction, fiction or poetry, is potentially a type of travel writing, and a reader experiences a complex imaginative work as a form of travel. Every work of literature should offer a journey, the challenge of an interior mapping that might lead a reader to him or herself. Writing that travels is the literature of any reader’s need for an inner journey.

Travel isn’t simply a geographical exercise. A journey into the land of adolescence, for example, is perhaps the loneliest type of travel there is, as we leave behind the carapace of our childhood and molt into the fraught emotional territory of adulthood. The entry into parenthood can be as shocking and bracing a form of travel as can be imagined. So too is the slow arch of committed negotiation that is the travel of marriage, or any long-term relationship, the intricate balance of one partner’s love with the other’s. The acceptance of one’s sexual orientation or identity is another form of travel, from one state of personal understanding to another.

My favorite city in the world is Lisbon, and it’s a marvelous town to wander, especially with its winding streets and distinctive neighborhoods, nestled among many hills. Throughout the city you will come upon what is known as a miradouro (“golden view”), a small park or plaza on an urban ridge overlooking the vast expanse of Lisbon, each one a new perspective on a city whose beauty keeps changing.

These vistas remind me of places I’ve been in my reading life that expanded my perspective, that helped me to see anew what I thought I had already seen or thought I understood. What follows here is a small collection of miradouros I’ve come upon in some of my favorite books.

In the novel Sacred Country by the British writer Rose Tremain, it’s 1952 and six year old Mary Ward is standing in the snowy yard outside her home with her family—mother, father, brother. They are participating in a nation-wide two-minute pause of silence, out of respect for the recently deceased King George VI. One immediately gets the sense that this is a family unaccustomed to silence; in fact, we get the sense that some of these characters are screaming inside. Mary, however, manages to find her place within this imposed silence, and it changes her life.

“She tried another prayer for the king, but the words blew away like paper. She wiped the sleet from her glasses with the back of her mittened hand. She stared at her family, took them in, one, two, three of them, quiet at last but not as still as they were meant to be, not like the plumed men guarding the king’s coffin, not like bulrushes in a lake. And then, hearing the familiar screech of her guinea fowl coming from near the farmhouse, she thought, I have some news for you, Marguerite, I have a secret to tell you, dear, and this is it: I am not Mary. That is a mistake. I am not a girl. I’m a boy.

“This is how and when it began, the long journey of Mary Ward.”

So too begins Tremain’s novel, in which Mary slowly forges herself into Martin, the person she knows herself to truly be. A sacred country, Tremain tells us, is where one’s singular soul lives, and at times it can be a harrowing journey to find it, and sometimes an equally difficult journey to accept it.

“Lost Letters,” the first chapter in Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, tells the story of Mirek, a dissident Czech essayist who became a well-known personality during his country’s Prague Spring. However, after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 Mirek is in danger of being arrested. He should be disposing of his writings and communications with other dissidents before the police finally take it upon themselves to search his apartment, but first he feels he must retrieve the passionate letters he wrote years ago to his first lover, Zdena.

The first section of “Lost Letters,” however, has nothing to do with Mirek and those letters; instead, it opens with an ironic historical footnote:

“In February 1948, Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace to address the hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens packed into Old Town Square. It was a crucial moment in Czech history—a fateful moment of the kind that occurs once or twice in a millennium.

“Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing next to him. There were snow flurries, it was cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. The solicitous Clementis took off his own fur cap and set it on Gottwald’s head.

“The Party propaganda section put out hundreds of thousands of copies of a photograph of that balcony with Gottwald, a fur cap on his head and comrades at his side, speaking to the nation. On that balcony the history of Communist Czechoslovakia was born. Every child knew the photograph from posters, schoolbooks, and museums.

“Four years later Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately airbrushed him out of history and, obviously, out of all the photographs as well. Ever since, Gottwald has stood on that balcony alone. Where Clementis once stood, there is only bare palace wall. All that remains of Clementis is the cap on Gottwald’s head.”

This opening section haunts the rest of the chapter, reminding us as we follow Mirek, a dissident opposed to a regime that is attempting to erase the memory of the freedoms of the Prague spring, that he himself is on a journey of erasure. Foolishly, he wants those letters back because he is ashamed Zdena was ugly, and that he was once in love with her, a fact of his life that undermines the playboy cavortings of a popular dissident he has until recently been enjoying. Mirek, we come to understand, is no different in this sense from the government he opposes. The impulses, evasions and oppressions of governments are little different, except in scale, of the same characteristics of individual citizens—a lesson that continues to inform my understanding of politics. But there’s also a much more personal lesson to be learned here, that as we, as individuals, move through time further from our former, younger selves, how tempting it can be to alter our memories so that they better fit with the assumptions of our present selves.

Another of my miradouros concerns itself with memory. Here is the opening of “Cousins,” from a memoir by Jo Ann Beard, The Boys of My Youth:

“Here is a scene. Two sisters are fishing together in a flat-bottomed boat on an olive green lake. They sit slumped like men, facing in opposite directions, drinking coffee out of a metal-sided thermos, smoking intently. Without their lipstick they look strangely weary, and passive. They both have a touch of morning sickness but neither is admitting it. Instead, they watch their bobbers and argue about worms versus minnows.

“My cousin and I are floating in separate, saline oceans. I’m the size of a cocktail shrimp and she’s the size of a man’s thumb. My mother is the one on the left, wearing baggy gabardine trousers and a man’s shirt. My cousin’s mother is wearing blue jeans, cuffed at the bottom, and a cotton blouse printed with wild cowboys roping steers. Their voices carry, as usual, but at this point we can’t hear them.”

All right, let’s first address the obvious. If this is a memoir, then how in the world can Beard offer these details, since at the time of the scene she was a fetus? A lot of opinions are out there about whether Beard’s book is a work of fiction or nonfiction, and it has been categorized as both over the years. Me, I have no problem with reading this scene as nonfiction. Beard is imagining a scene that very well could have happened—she knows her mother and aunt well enough to evoke what they like to wear, like to do, and even how they would both try to gloss over morning sickness. And in this scene she can see the beginnings of her complex relationship with her cousin.

This audacious opening to Beard’s essay declares, without having to say a word about it, that imagining is indeed part of our nonfictional lives. We imagine and fantasize all the time, every day, and why shouldn’t this is a part of the nonfiction we write? The miradouro of Beard’s two opening paragraphs widens the view of the genre, declaring that the fictions we create of our inner lives, and of our pasts, is nonfiction territory worth traveling.

The Galley Slave, a picaresque novel by the Slovenian writer Drago Jankar, offers another miradouro. It tells the story of the wanderings of Johan Ot through a Slovenian landscape set in the late middle-ages. Early in the novel, Ot arrives in a middle-sized town and settles down, though everyone suspects he must be on the lam from something. Every small peculiarity of his is noted with suspicion, and he eventually finds himself before a tribunal of the inquisition, facing outlandish charges that at first amuse him, until various methods of persuasion encourage him to change his tune. Having fully confessed, he’s condemned to death by burning at the stake, and as he is driven in a cart through the streets on his way to the awaiting pyramid of sticks and branches, a crowd gathers.

“A throng of respectable folk who were simply unable and, more to the point, unwilling to tame their rage and hatred was crowding around the cart. And why not? Why shouldn’t they spit and flail at this man who had, after all, been proven guilty? Silently and with downcast eyes he endured the people’s righteous anger. He was guilty of everything they had proven, and probably quite a bit more. Directly or indirectly, he had inflicted some evil on each of those good, hard-working people. He had caused the death of this one’s livestock and that one’s child. Another was sick because of him, and yet another was tormented by vile monsters in his sleep. He had afflicted this one’s eye, and that one’s bowels. Look at this old man, shaking and limping and spitting through what few rotten teeth he has left as he rushes toward the cart with the monster on it. Wasn’t he the one whose sexual powers Ot had blighted, causing him to sob into his pillow night after night? And look at that deformed girl sticking her head through the gap at one corner and snarling as she tried to bite him. Isn’t she the one whose hands he crippled, hadn’t he confused and twisted the thoughts in her head? And look at the fat fruit vendor, with spittle and foam on her mouth and a cane in her hand. Who was it defiled her daughter in the dark of night? Him.

“He had done these and other horrible things. He has caused people to wake up at night feeling a great weight on their chest and sweat on their foreheads and palms. He had clambered over their roofs, slammed their shutters in the dead of night, tiptoed around their beds, afflicted their bowls, rotted their teeth, taken away their appetites, caused them to rave with fever, and implanted boil-like formations in their bodies.

“Him and others like him.”

For me, this is perhaps the best passage of any kind, fiction or nonfiction, that I have read about the belief in witchcraft. I remember when I was young and would watch a movie set in the middle-ages, and when the inevitable scene of a blood-thirsty mob arrived I’d think, “Whew, I’m glad I didn’t have to live back then!” Yet the psychological dynamic known as witchcraft we now call by other names (office politics, for example), and this section of Jancar’s novel has cast part of my own life experience in a clearer light, dramatizing how we project our miseries onto others, and blame them, even though that blame doesn’t heal our misery.

Travel can be both an exhausting and exhilarating experience, one that can push us past borders of comfort we perhaps had never before recognized. The unsettling immediacy of travel heightens our awareness and encourages unexpected insight, and when one is able to lean into the strange pull of another country or culture, one’s inner landscape is correspondingly altered. The earliest moments of being somewhere else also begins the process of that distant place becoming incrementally familiar, ever more closer, so that what seems external travels to you, sets up shop in your internal life.

Our culture lies to us (it’s an unintentional lie) with its quiet insistence on the ultimate primacy of the physical world. “How was your trip?” a friend might ask, the question posed in the past tense because that is the way the assumptions of our language are structured: since you have returned, you are no longer there, any GPS system can prove that easily enough. But any trip’s fundamental revelations settle into your present moments, and that foreign country may indeed still be over there, but now it’s inside you, too.

Writing that travels can offer a similar experience. A phrase, a sentence, a brief evocative section or even an entire work can unsettle us and take residence within. This, I think, is the essential reading experience of writing that travels: we willingly place ourselves in unfamiliar territory, and brave its possible change.


This post has been adapted from a lecture I delivered on June 29, 2012 at the Vermont College of Fine Arts residency abroad in Skofja Loka, Slovenia.

For anyone interested in details of this residency, you can find a brief narrative (with photos) here.


Portrait of Pessoa by Manuela Nogueira.

July 26th, 2012 by admin | 1 Comment »