Two Way Street

Last week I was reading through an early draft of the critical thesis of Mayumi Shimose-Poe, one of my students at the low-res MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and one of her sentences popped off the page:

“There is a tightrope between the poles of “insider” and “outsider,” and as a fiction writer one is writing as an outsider, trying to sound like an insider.”

Now that’s an elegant way of describing the fiction writer’s task, I thought, the empathetic imagining we need to employ in order to enter the inner world of someone quite different from us. I read the sentence a few more times, proud of my student, when the thought struck me–perhaps because I’m currently finishing a non-fiction book and a novel at the same time–that something like the opposite might be said about non-fiction writers. In non-fiction, particularly memoir, one is writing as an insider, while trying to gain the emotional perspective of an outsider.

It’s a two way street, isn’t it? (Cue the obligatory image!) The fiction writer

Picture 2

moves from outside to inside, while the non-fiction writer moves from inside to outside.

And this movement isn’t so very different from our own daily engagement with ourselves and others throughout the day. In order to understand a friend or family member during, say, a heated conversation, it helps to imagine what he or she is thinking. Sure, this is a fictional leap, since it’s impossible to know what another human being is thinking, but entering into the possible landscape of another’s thoughts, imagining that person’s perspective, is how we make our way through life.

On the other hand, if a person becomes tidally locked in his or her inner landscape, always buying one’s self-justifications and nurturing personal wounds, an effective corrective is simply to imagine oneself from the outside, to gain some necessary and potentially revelatory emotional distance.

As in our lives, so in our writing. We seek out what is unknown to us about our characters, try to imagine complexities we then mimic on the page. And when dredging up the stuff of one’s life in a memoir, it helps to hover outside oneself, like a ghost bent on the haunting possibility of insight.

So thank you, Mayumi, for that marvelous sentence!

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October 23rd, 2009 by admin

Train of Thought

I’ve been on the road this past week, the first stretch of a book tour, and while I traveled by subway in New York City up to one of my reading dates, I noticed that one of those narrow posters lining the wall above the windows, which usually advertise language courses or deals on checking accounts, offered something entirely different.

This poster, apparently part of a Metropolitan Transit Authority series titled Train of Thought, displayed the first sentence from Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a giant insect.” And right below this quote were little ads for the Jeopardy! game show and the music station WQXR.

I was halfway to the open door for my first stop when I noticed this poster, too late to snap a photo (though later I managed to find one on flickr, of course–where else?).

Picture 1

For some brave soul suffering a morning commute, her eyes just barely held open by the grace of a cup of coffee, a soul perhaps unfamiliar with Kafka’s masterpiece, what might this out of context sentence suggest?

Maybe some relief that Gregor woke into something far wilder than what she can remember of her own night’s distorted dreams? A sense of temporary escape from an apartment shared with the scuttling of cockroaches? Or dread at the approaching office where she herself feels something like an insect, as if Gregor’s transformation has somehow come true for her, too?

Off that subway train continued as I remained behind on the ramp, still seeing a poster on one curved wall that might serve as a hopeful ax for someone’s frozen sea.

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October 20th, 2009 by admin

We Are a Subset of the Physical Universe

Most people know that all of us (plus trees, lizards, beetles, jellyfish and so on) are made from the byproducts of nuclear fusion in the cores of stars. “We are stardust,” Joni Mitchell, sang, right?

Luke McKinney, writing for The Daily Galaxy about the likelihood of scientists soon locating a “second earth” out there, mentions almost as an aside that “The majority of the atoms in our bodies were created in the Big Bang 15 billion years ago. Most of the mass in our bodies is oxygen atoms that were created by generations of stars that preceded the formation of our Sun. We are a subset of the physical universe. And through astronomy this negligible subset is slowly acquiring -however limited- an awareness of the total universe that created it.”

Oooh, not only a subset, but a negligible subset of the universe! McKinney’s pithy putting humans in their place reminds me of why I have the Astronomy Picture of the Day website tagged as my search engine’s home page. The daily image for this website, one of the first things I see each morning, usually reminds me of what a “negligible subset” I truly am. This humbling is a healthy preamble to breakfast—after roaming the center stage of my dreams all night, it’s good to feel tiny.

And how glorious is the much larger Everything Else, as can be seen in this photo of a supernova blazing away on the outskirts of a distant spiral galaxy.


How distant is distant? I’ll let Qfwfq, that engaging entity from Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, take a shot at it:

“One night I was, as usual, observing the sky with my telescope. I noticed that a sign was hanging from a galaxy a hundred-million light years away. On it was written: I SAW YOU. I made a quick calculation: the galaxy’s light had taken a hundred-million years to reach me, and since they saw up there what was taking place here a hundred-million years later, the moment when they had seen me must date back two hundred-million years.”

Here on earth, distance is more manageable, but not without its problems. G.B. Edwards, the author of The Book of Ebenezer Le Page—one of the best novels I’ve ever read—often worried about the “helicopter thinking” he saw in contemporary literature, that impulse to judge everything “from a superior height.” Get down on level ground with your characters, oh ye writers, and leave the superior heights to stars and nebulae and galaxies!

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October 6th, 2009 by admin

Let Your Fingers Do the Talking?

Thank you for reading this first blog posting, and while I couldn’t be more grateful for your visit, or for the technology that helped guide you here, maybe you should consider setting aside that keyboard of yours from time to time.

As Midge Raymond notes on her helpful literary blog The Writer’s Block,

I’d been cranking away at the keyboard on the same project for what felt like a very long time. And while this is a great way to get a draft down, it’s not always the most inspiring way to work – for me, anyway.

So I decided a change of scenery would do me good. I grabbed a notebook and a pen, and I vowed to stay off the computer for my next few writing sessions. I wrote in a café; I wrote at my kitchen table; I wrote on my sofa (cat in lap, notebook balanced on cat). And it did wonders.

For one, I couldn’t procrastinate by hopping online to do useless research or to see what my friends were up to on Facebook. More important, the process of handwriting slowed me down, and I did a lot of much-needed thinking about character and story. And best of all, I never got stuck, never had a moment of just staring at the screen, hands poised over the keyboard, wondering what comes next. Perhaps it was the process of slowing down, or being in more relaxed settings, which takes off the pressure that sometimes causes writer’s block.

You can read the whole post here.

What Midge Raymond says about the differences between keyboard writing and handwriting reminds me of what the great Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector once said in one of her Selected Crônicas:

“Why do I now write with my fingertips, when I used to write from the heart?”

Here’s an early photo of Lispector, working at a desk, pen in hand, nary a keyboard to be found.


If this is the way Lispector consistently wrote her books, then it might indeed be a method worth adopting, all you keyboard addicts out there. Especially when she came up with prose like this, from her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart:

“She waited near the bookcase, where she had gone to look for . . . what? She frowned, not really interested. What? She tried to derive some amusement from the impression that in the middle of her forehead there was now a gaping hole where they had extracted the notion of whatever she had gone to look for.”

Or this, from her last novel, The Hour of the Star:

“A scrawny fellow appeared on the street-corner, wearing a threadbare jacket and playing the fiddle. I should explain that, when I was a child and living in Recife, I once saw this man as dusk was falling. The shrill, prolonged sound of his playing underlined in gold the mystery of that darkened street. On the ground, beside this pitiful fellow, there was a tin can which received the rattling coins of grateful bystanders as he played the dirge of their lives. It is only now that I have come to understand. Only now has the secret meaning dawned on me: the fiddler’s music is an omen. I know that when I die, I shall hear him playing and that I shall crave for music, music, music.”

If you don’t know Clarice Lispector’s writing and these excerpts intrigue you, you should search out her work. And you might want to read Benjamin Moser’s new and impressive biography of Lispector, Why This World. Lorrie Moore has an excellent review of Moser’s book at the New York Review of Books, “The Brazilian Sphinx.”

And I’ve written my own review at The New Leader, “The Fuel of Art and Life.”

So, why not get yerself a moleskin notebook (or something less ostentatiously trendy), a pen of any persuasion, and urge new words to appear? And during those necessary breaks, you could do worse than read some Lispector.

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October 1st, 2009 by admin