How to Pair a Novel with a Map

My previous craft essay for this website, “When Stereotypes Collide,” recounted some of the disasters that befell me during my brief career as a cab driver in New York City. While writing it, though, I remembered once again how that difficult job bestowed a benefit that has served me well in all the years since: a decent sense of direction.

Perhaps I developed a small version of the abilities of London taxi cab drivers, who have to study for years and memorize each and every street in the city in order to qualify for a license. After completing this Herculean mental task, it turns out they’ve also grown a larger-than-average hippocampus: the portion of the brain that is, according to Scientific American, “crucial for long-term memory and spatial navigation.”

I do not easily get lost in a new city. I can quickly orient myself—in fact, I love the task of building in my mind a map filled with what were once unfamiliar streets.

Maybe this is why I love to read novels that name streets and places that actually exist. If you wish, you can follow along on a map and imagine yourself beside the characters. Yet there’s nothing generic about such a map/novel pairing (much like the pairing of a fine wine with a memorable cheese). Each one, I’ve found, can create its own story within the reader, and often surprisingly so. What follows are four of my favorite matchmakings.

I first discovered this pleasure back in 1999, while reading the novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, by José Saramago (winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature the year before). I had become obsessed with Portuguese culture and was working my way through Saramago’s oeuvre while also preparing for an approaching summer family vacation in Lisbon.

The novel begins with Ricardo Reis’ arrival in Lisbon, after living several years in Brazil. Reis doesn’t quite understand why he is here, except that the news of the death of a friend, the great poet Fernando Pessoa, has impelled him to return. What Reis also doesn’t know is that he is imaginary, a figment of the dead poet’s imagination. Pessoa’s poetic practice had been to create fictional poets who then wrote poems in their own particular style. Reis may consider himself a poet, but all his poems have been written by Pessoa.

Pessoa’s death has somehow released Reis, given him a kind of independent life, but because Reis doesn’t actually exist, he has no identity papers, and so suspicious agents of the despotic Salazar regime trail Reis throughout his wanderings along the streets of Lisbon. And wander he does, in search of what, he isn’t sure, until he encounters Pessoa’s ghost.

Pessoa delicately tries to warn his creation, Reis, that his condition won’t last forever and that, like Pessoa himself, Reis will slowly fade away. But Reis is unable or unwilling to understand this.

I read Saramago’s novel slowly, a foldout map by my side (1999 was of course years before the era of Google Maps and smart phones). I followed Reis’ movements through the streets of Lisbon, walking with him across the Bairro Alto, descending the Rua do Norte to the Rua de Camões and wherever else he rambled, as if I was one of those police agents shadowing his solitary travels. But I had a different motive—I wanted to learn how to find my way around a city I had long wished to visit. I read and reread passages from the novel and dogged Reis’ steps; instead of his being my suspect, he served as my teacher, my guide.

The first day my family and I spent in Lisbon turned out to be, by coincidence, the birthday of Fernando Pessoa—his 111th, had he still been alive. Pessoa is a hero of Portuguese culture, and so celebrations were held throughout the city. We trekked from one to another, and how odd—like Ricardo Reis, we too ranged through Lisbon in search of Pessoa! And to my surprise, I was able to navigate through the various downtown neighborhoods, along streets I’d previously only set foot on in my mind. At one point, I had the secretly satisfying experience of giving directions to a cab driver, who hesitated where to turn in a maze of side streets.


By the time I read Geoffrey Wolff’s whip-smart novel, Providence, in 2022, I already had a map of the city in my head. Six years earlier, my wife Alma and I had retired to Rhode Island, and I’d spent the time since then learning how to get around in my adopted city.

So I didn’t need to consult Google maps to find my way to all the locations mentioned in the novel. But Providence is set during the mid-1980s, a time when a certain Mob that otherwise will remain unnamed still ran much of the city’s business, and the mayor at the time was working on his first Federal indictment. So, reading this novel added detail to streets that I thought I knew—-unusual detail, provided by one of the novel’s main characters, Adam Dwyer, a lawyer known for successfully defending the often clearly guilty.

His clients included a burglar “running along Lloyd Avenue” carrying a stolen set of “barbells and three hundred pounds of weights,” and the thief who stole a golf cart from the Agawam Country Club and was “last seen driving south on Massasoit Avenue,” not to mention the “two brothers who removed a picnic table from a highway rest stop, and were caught for erratic driving on I-95 when the wasps attached to its trestle began to circulate angrily through the station wagon.” And don’t get me started on the city’s beautiful Benefit Street, which in the 1980s was subject to frequent break-ins by thieves much like the novel’s dangerously inventive criminals named Skippy and Baby.

Now, thanks to Geoffrey Wolff’s novel, I walk and drive through a palimpsest of Providence, a city where, in my mind, the unruly past and a more placid present rub elbows.

Oh, those stolen barbells.


The French writer Maylis de Kerangal’s novel, Eastbound, is set in Siberia, a location I’ve had zero intention of visiting. I’ve long imagined Siberia as an essentially empty place, its vast flat Steppes dotted with an equally extensive gulag filled with political prisoners. Yet while this is true, it’s not the complete picture.

De Kerangel’s short, intense novel takes place a little over ten years ago (and presciently so), in 2012, on a Trans-Siberian railway train heading east into deep Siberia, its third-class cars filled with new recruits in the Russian army. They’re being shipped from Moscow to a distant city to begin their training. One of these young draftees, Aliocha, is unwilling to serve and desperate to desert, but how to accomplish such a thing?

Then he meets on the train Hélène, an older French woman who is trying to escape as well—from her partner, a Russian dissident named Ivan who has recently left France with her and returned to his home country to snag a cushy apparatchik position in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. She can already see the beginnings of his change, can imagine the corrupt future, and wants no part of it. So she heads east, to Vladivostok, in the opposite direction Ivan might expect her to take. Aliocha and Hélène share no common language, but they do share a powerful desire to flee, and soon she is hiding him in her first-class cabin, protecting him as best she can from sudden searches as the train plows through the seemingly endless stretches of Siberia.

The train makes stops at one city after another, so of course I couldn’t resist following on Google Maps. The maps’ webpages for these cities included photos, and the size and modernity of each one surprised me. I’d never given much thought to Siberia or Siberians, but ordinary people do indeed live there, in perfectly presentable cities that look terrific, especially during the region’s 27 minute-long summer.

City of Krasnoyarsk, Siberia

City of Irkutsk, Siberia

On the other hand, these cities (and others in Russia’s enormous interior) are, in our present historical moment, where young men have been and are still being forcibly conscripted into the army to serve as near-suicidal cannon fodder in Russia’s brutal, unprovoked war with Ukraine. While I have nothing but contempt for Russia’s aggression, I’ve now gained sympathy for those who have been coerced into participating, by seeing where they once lived. And so, once again fiction, with the accompaniment of a map, surprises me with another view of the world I thought I knew.


Autumn Rounds, a novel by Jacques Poulin, takes place in another part of the world I’d never given much attention: the long and wide St. Lawrence River that stretches north of Quebec City.

Yet Autumn Rounds has become one of my favorite novels; I’ve read it several times, and am currently reading it aloud, chapter by chapter, in the evenings to my wife Alma. What is it about Poulin’s short novel that has turned me into such an admirer of its gentle pleasures?

The main character (only identified as “the Driver”) of Autumn Rounds drives a bookmobile along the St. Lawrence’s northern coastline to one small town after another, delivering free books (provided by Quebec’s Ministry of Culture) to a network of readers at each stop. As the novel begins, the Driver seems sure that this summer season of distributing books will be his last.

He is afraid of growing old alone. So he has accumulated the tools he’ll need for a peaceful suicide. But then he meets Marie, a woman his age who manages an amateur troupe of performers visiting from France. The Driver and Marie immediately feel a connection, but it’s a connection they both seem fearful of trusting.

The novel proceeds as the acrobats and musicians of the troupe, in a commandeered school bus, and the Driver, in his bookmobile, travel together. Sometimes Marie drives with the performers, other times she accompanies the Driver in the bookmobile, and slowly their relationship deepens.

While the troupers stop to perform in the remote and isolated towns along the coast, the Driver meets with the head of each town’s established reading network and attends to any stray person who happens by in need of a book. And here we come to one of the deepest pleasures of Autumn Rounds: the portrayals of ordinary people, living in such remote settings, who long for a book’s comfort. I can’t think of another novel that so gently and effectively illustrates the pleasure and necessity of reading.

By my second reading of Poulin’s novel, I began to grow curious, as is my inclination, to check out the book’s various locations. Thanks to Google maps, I can now appreciate the town of Sept-Iles’ lovely view of the seven islands just outside its bay.

I was also able to discover that the novel’s unnamed restaurant on rue Puyjalon in the town of Baie-Comeau, where the Driver meets with his writer friend Jack, actually does have a name: “La P’tite Grenouille.” And thanks to the photo feature of Google Maps, I know what the small hidden stage in the back of this restaurant looks like.

But perhaps the most stunning moment of my map-mongering reading practice occurred when the Driver arrives at the town of Port-au-Persil and parks at the wharf overlooking the wide river:

It was only a bit of dock that projected modestly into the middle of a small bay, but the place was so restful that the Driver was always eager to go there. On his arrival he saw a painter who had set up his easel on the left, so he parked on the other side, as far from the artist as possible. He opened the two back doors to wait for the head of the network or any other reader.

When the fog was dispersing, he spied to the right of the wharf a sailboat and a few craft bobbing on the green water, and to the left, a landscape of pink rocks with a white frame house and a little chapel in the background: it was the landscape reproduced on the artist’s canvas.

With my iPad at the ready, I looked up Port-au-Persil. Beside the map was the usual collection of photos on a sidebar, but I never made it past the first photo, because there it was, the white clapboard house, and the small chapel beside it! And seen from the same angle described by the Driver!

At that moment, I felt I saw this scene directly through both the Driver’s eyes and the author Poulin’s eyes. If only I could turn my head and see the old man and his easel.

I also felt I’d somehow entered the novel in a new way and become part of an uncanny perceptual chain: the old artist painting his landscape, the Driver observing both the artwork and the setting, the author Poulin writing his description, a tourist’s website photo further commemorating the moment, and finally, my taking in each link of the chain, book in my hands.

And here perhaps is why I love playing matchmaker with book and map: it offers a hint of the layered multiverse that surrounds us: while living people walk through the familiar physical world, and imagined characters may roam through imaginary locations, there are also fictional characters who travel beside us in cities, towns and streets that are real; they become our own invisible companions, and we become theirs.


Do you have your own favorite pairing of book and map, whether fiction or nonfiction? If so, please feel free to scroll down to the very bottom of this webpage and leave a recommendation. I’d love to hone my map skills with a new book!


Would you like to learn more about Fernando Pessoa? My craft essay, “Countless Lives Inhabit Us” might interest you.

Like to read more about the connections between maps and literature? Here are two more craft essays you can check out: “Mapping the Invisible,” and “A Map of What?”

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March 6th, 2023 by admin

When Stereotypes Collide

Back in the summer of 1972, between my junior and senior year in college, I worked as a cab driver in New York City and tried on, however imperfectly, the role of hired guide through an extensive urban grid. I wasn’t prepared for the cab industry’s corruption, or the exhausting eight-hour stretches of traffic traffic traffic, or those occasions when a knife, or a gun, was pointed at me while driving through the city’s sometimes confusing vastness.

I especially remember the time I picked up a middle-aged couple at LaGuardia Airport, tourists from Houston who fit the stereotype of Texans so well I wondered if they were actors. The husband actually wore what looked like a ten-gallon hat, which he had to take off in order to enter the cab.

He rested the thing on his lap, while his wife slouched on the seat to prevent her very blonde beehive hairdo from scraping against the ceiling.

The man cast a suspicious look at me, and why not—in need of a shave and long overdue for a haircut, I probably came close to his stereotype of an unkempt New York hippy.

(My not-at-all off-putting taxi cab license photo from 1972)

Silently labeling the husband “Tex,” I asked him where they were going and eased forward from the taxi lane, trying to hide my glum spirits. It was the end of my first week driving a taxi, a disastrous time. Each cab I’d been given had broken down: the first night, a tire blew out; the second, the engine overheated and steam rose from under the hood in the middle of an intersection; the third, the horn wouldn’t stop blaring; and just the night before, my taxi had stopped and started unpredictably—a mysterious mechanical hiccup that chased every passenger away after a few blocks.

Fool that I was, I still hadn’t learned I had to pay off the people who serviced the cabs, if I wanted to be assigned a cab that would make it through the night. So all that evening I’d been anticipating the latest disaster that might strike. And sure enough, halfway back to Manhattan from the airport, a rainstorm hit hard on the expressway and when I turned on the wipers, only one blade moved. Of course it was the blade on the passenger side, so I had to crane my neck to the right in order to see the road at all. Even with the one wiper at full speed, I could barely make out the cars in front of me.

“Aw, fuck,” I moaned, then heard a sharp gasp from the back seat.

“Young man,” Tex began, in about as close to a shout as a whisper could get, “I won’t have you speaking like that in front of my wife.”

“Sorry, I’m really sorry, it’s just that the damn—”

I winced, apologized again and shut up, knowing that any tip was long gone, and did my best to get us into Manhattan without swerving into a traffic island or a truck. Then my real problems began. Tex had given me the address of the fancy hotel where they’d be staying—a number and the name of an avenue, but not the cross street. I still hadn’t perfected my knowledge of New York’s street grid, and though my official taxi street guide sat open on the front seat beside me, with all the distractions of the rain and that broken wiper I couldn’t manage to find what I was looking for.

Soon I circled the midtown block where the hotel should have been, lost. I knew Tex was fitting me into the category of predatory New York cabdriver trying to hike up the cost of the ride, but I couldn’t bring myself to admit my ignorance. And damn him anyway, for thinking I was a cheat.

When I finally located the hotel, Tex prepared to show his wife just what he was made of. He tore the suitcases I’d pulled out of the trunk from my hands and said, “Forget about getting paid for your little scam.”

With his wife in tow he walked off under the hotel canopy, that huge hat back on, his smug cowboy swagger at full strength. I might have let this pass—after all, it was my own fault that I still hadn’t memorized the pattern of New York cross streets—but I’d reached my snapping point.

“Stop, thief!” I shouted, and then, with real melodramatic pleasure, I appealed to the people passing by on the sidewalk, “That man’s trying to cheat me out of the fare!”

The crowd I’d hoped for quickly gathered, and Tex hesitated, his self-righteousness punctured, if only a bit—him, a thief? But the approaching doorman was my best ally—Tex didn’t want to start out badly at this nice hotel, so he pulled out his wallet.

“Here’s your money,” he roared with equal melodrama, throwing a handful of bills and coins that bounced harmlessly off my chest. We were so well matched that I almost laughed, but then he said, “I’m writing down your cab license. Once we’re settled here, I’m going to report you to your superiors.”

Minutes later, counting the money I’d picked off the street, I discovered he’d thrown a substantial tip at me along with the rest of the fare. A mistake? Or maybe an insult, I thought, his way of saying that the money didn’t matter to him. Still, it certainly wouldn’t offset my being fired.

I lost over an hour of work parked on a side street, stewing over that encounter while waiting out the rain. Later that night, when I returned the cab, I handed over my keys to the guy on the graveyard shift, Mitch, and waited to be told not to bother coming back. He set the keys on one of the hooks, and then turned with mild surprise to see me still standing by the glass window. “Yeah?”

He didn’t know. But why wait for the inevitable? “Um, I had this problem with a fare tonight, and he said he was going to report me—”

Mitch looked me over for a second with pity. “He reported you?” He paused, and then said, grinning, “Aaaah, fuck ‘em.”


Now, when I think back to that miserable rainy night, I realize that Tex and I were doomed to misunderstand each other, stereotypes on a collision course. We both wore, at the time of our encounter, cultural uniforms that we foolishly accepted as the other’s true self. I have to admit, I felt that two cartoon characters sat in the backseat of my cab. A ten gallon hat, really? A 1950s-throwback beehive hairdo? (Remember, this incident took place in 1972, seven years before the two lead singers of the B-52s made beehive hairdos ironically cool.)

And how did Tex and his wife regard me? Before traveling to LaGuardia airport, they had probably heard numerous tales of dishonest New York cab drivers (even I was familiar with such stories) and they braced themselves accordingly for anything suspicious. Immediately after deplaning, they must have realized they were out of place and felt that their Southern fashion style exposed them to muggers, pickpockets, and any other example of the Northerner criminal class, including dishonest cabbies. As they sat in the backseat of the cab, my scruffy looks and potty mouth must have confirmed their worst fears, and made it easy for them to ignore my dilemma of trying to navigate in heavy rain with only one working windshield wiper.

Sometimes, perhaps often, a uniform is indeed part of the self. But it’s not the only part. We wear what we wish to be, and perhaps too often we embrace beliefs that we think we are expected to accept. But our secret selves are not so conformist, and how we appear to others is not who we know ourselves to be. Our memories, our life’s experiences are invisible to those who pass us on the street.

One of the reasons I so admire the Italian writer Elsa Morante (author of History: A Novel, which I believe is one of the great books of the 20th century) is her ability to see the invisible realities of her characters.

Morante lived in Rome during World War II. She joined the partisans who fought Italian Fascists and German Nazis. Her life was probably in danger every day. She must have seen horrors that I’m guessing few of us would like to think about too closely. If there’s a writer who could perhaps be excused for being too, let’s say, partisan in her writing about the second world war in History: a Novel, Morante would be a good candidate. But Morante is a much, much better writer than that; in fact it’s one key to her greatness. Here’s a short passage from her novel’s account of an Italian partisan attack on a German convoy:

Suddenly flames rose from the truck, illuminating the lifeless bodies of the Germans on the asphalt: though disfigured, they could be recognized as young boys, of the most recent draft. The truck’s carcass danced for a while on its side then stopped . . . some raving voices were still heard from inside, murmurs of Mutter Mutter among other incomprehensible words. At the same time the fire raged; and finally that mass of metal, in its death agony, jerked and fell silent.

How easy it would be for Morante to incite the blood lust of the reader, because Nazis are dying here, which should be a call for celebration, shouldn’t it? But Morante almost always describes, here and elsewhere in the novel, German soldiers as young men or boys, often disoriented in a foreign country and fearful, even when their brutality is depicted. And when German soldiers die, she insists that we hear them call out in their pain for their mothers. Never does Morante objectify the Germans, any German, in her novel. That doesn’t mean she can’t judge, and judge harshly, but when she does so she does with a clear eye. And yet how hard it must have been, to achieve that vision.

Here’s another example of Morante seeing through appearances. Giovannino is a young Italian soldier, part of an Italian battalion that joined the German army’s invasion of the Soviet Union, an invasion that is now retreating in defeat and marching through punishing winter weather. Exhausted, Giovannino has fallen in the snow, and, unable to rise, imagines himself home and in bed:

Giovannino doesn’t know what’s coming over him. Now he doesn’t feel like doing anything but sleep. The open sunny light lasts another instant and immediately afterwards . . . it has become dark. There is a cool, restful, little evening breeze, which comes and goes, with a fan’s light movement. And before sleeping, Giovannino would like to curl up, as he always has enjoyed doing; except that his body, because of all the cold, has become so stiff he can’t bend any more. But at the same time Giovannino realizes, as if it were a natural thing, that he also has a second body which, unlike the first, is supple, clean, and naked. And, content, he crouches into his favorite position for lying in bed: with his knees almost touching his brow, huddled until a comfortable hole is hollowed out in his mattress beneath him; and as he nestles there, the dry leaves inside the mattress make a rustle, as if the wind were blowing them, summer and winter. This is the position he has always assumed to sleep, as a baby, as a little boy, and as a grown man; however, every night, at the moment he curls up in this way, he feels he has become tiny again. And indeed, little, big, grown up, young, elderly, old, in the dark we are all the same.

Here Morante sees through multiple uniforms: not only a soldier’s uniform, but the uniform of one’s particular age at any given time. Who doesn’t have a memory of being condescended to as a child, when in your heart you knew you understood more than the adults were willing to allow you? Or what of those who have been treated as someone old, or elderly, when in our hearts we felt young?

Seeing people in a single dimension is easy, all we have to do is turn off (or never turn on) our curiosity and empathy. How much harder in our lives, to insist on more than surface. And it’s just as difficult to create characters in fiction that reveal their additional dimensions. But imaginary beings also thrive when the balm of curiosity and empathy is applied to their possibilities.

Yet stereotyping lives on and probably always will, as it allows us to drive through our busy lives on automatic pilot. We type-cast others without reflecting on the cost. We barely notice how a little stereotype-mongering can help fuel a funny story told over a dinner table among friends or family. “Tex” and his wife are probably long gone by now, but I imagine that, somewhere in Texas, I live on in sinister, one-dimensional glory, as part of a famous tale that has been repeated over many years at various family gatherings: “Hey, remember when Grandpa and Grandma went on that crazy trip to New York, and how Grandpa showed that sleazy cab driver just who was boss?”


If you’d like to read how I finally discovered the secret behind why all those cabs broke down that first week of my cab driving career (and read a terrific excerpt from James Baldwin’s novel, Another Country), follow this link to this craft post, “You Got To Take Care of Your People.”

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January 27th, 2023 by admin

Don’t Just Use Your Words, Part 2

In Part 1 of the craft essay “Don’t Just Use Your Words,” we first took a look at the stripped-back dialogue of Raymond Carver, where little or no thoughts are allowed to compete with the words the characters are speaking. From there, we moved on to a single sentence by Henry Green, a sentence that shows how a writer can effortlessly move from speech to thought to speech again, illustrating how easily one character can lie to another. From there, we impossibly eavesdropped on a short scene in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, where the main character, Nazneem, tries to imagine a successful way to confess to her best friend that she is enmeshed in a passionate extra-marital affair.

In those last two examples, a character’s thoughts shape a fictional dialogue at least as much, if not more, than the actual words spoken aloud.

Here, in Part 2, we will move even farther away from conversations ruled by the merely spoken, to explore the varied and unexpected ways that fictional characters can communicate (or not communicate) with each other. Techniques that are not so different from those employed by flesh-and-blood readers every single day, if we’re really honest with ourselves.

In this scene from the novel The Shape Shifter, by Tony Hillerman, the main character, Officer Joe Leaphorn of the Navaho tribal police, is speaking with Jason Delos, a rich belegaana (white) man he suspects is somehow involved with a crime of arson and insurance fraud and, possibly, murder. They begin their conversation with small talk around one of Delos’ favorite pastimes, hunting. Mentioning his intention to snag himself a “record-breaking” set of antlers, Delos says,

“Well, I can’t climb up the cliffs, and down into the canyons like I used to, but Roper has some blinds set up in the trees on a hillside up there. One of them lets you look right down on the Brazos. Elk come in, morning and evening, to get themselves a drink out of the stream. I’ve got that one reserved for next week.”

Leaphorn nodded, without comment. Ranchers who allowed deer, elk, and antelope herds to share grazing with their cattle were granted hunting permits as a recompense. They could either harvest their winter meat supply themselves or sell the permits to others. It was not a practice Leaphorn endorsed. Not much sportsmanship in it, he thought, but perfectly pragmatic and legal. Traditional Navahos hunted only for food, not for sport. He remembered his maternal uncle explaining to him that to make hunting deer a sport, you would have to give the deer rifles and teach them how to shoot back. His first deer hunt, and all that followed, had been preceded by the prescribed ceremony with his uncles and nephews, with the prayer calling to the deer to join in the venture, to assure the animal that cosmic eternal law would return him to his next existence in the infinite circle of life. A lot of time and work was involved in the Navaho way—the treatment of the deer hide, the pains taken to waste nothing, and, finally, the prayers that led to that first delicious meal of venison. Leaphorn had known many belegaana hunters who shared the “waste no venison” attitude, but none who bought into the ceremonial partnership between man and animal. And this was not the place nor the time to discuss it. Instead, he said he’d heard hunting was expected to be especially good in the Brazos country this season.

In this scene, Officer Leaphorn first responds to Delos with a nod, then continues the conversation in his mind, critiquing Delos’ form of hunting, before finally deciding to keep this to himself. The tension, the energy in this scene resides in Leaphorn’s withheld thoughts. And notice how, when Leaphorn does speak, Tony Hillerman doesn’t even grace that response with quotation marks.

How many times have we ourselves kept worlds within us, swallowed our truths or deeply held opinions for the sake of a smoothly proceeding conversation? And yet, what is not heard is indeed a part of any conversation, and is, dramatically, often the most essential part.

What I love about this next example, from the short story, “A Kitchen in the Corner of the House,” by the feminist Tamil writer Ambai, is how the author undermines from the beginning the reader’s sense that this conversation is even taking place, that perhaps this truth-telling is imagined and swallowed, not given voice.

Ambai’s short story has centered on the fraught relationship Minakshi has with Dubaribai, her mother-in-law, their battles in a male-dominated household often centering on various iron-clad rules of the kitchen. In the story’s final, and deeply moving scene, Minakshi attends to Dubaribai (“Jiji”) at what might very well be her deathbed, where a reconciliation might be possible.

Minakshi bent low to those withered earlobes wearing flower-shaped earstuds covered in pearls and brightly colored gemstones. They were alone, Jiji and she; alone as Maha Vishnu on his serpent bed floating upon the widespread sea. In that darkened room, there was a feeling like that of the cutting of an umbilical cord. We cannot be certain whether this conversation was actually started by her, or whether it happened on its own, or whether it only seemed to have occurred because she had imagined it so often. It is not even certain whether the conversation was between the two of them alone:

Jiji, no strength comes to you from that kitchen; nor from that necklace nor bangle nor headband nor forehead jewel.

Authority cannot come to you from these things.

That authority is Papaji’s.

From all that

be free

be free

be free.

But if I free myself . . . then . . . what is left?

You alone, having renounced your jewelry, your children and Papaji. Yourself, cut free. Just Dubaribai. Dubaribai alone. And from that, strength. Authority.

And when I have renounced all that, then who am I?

Find out. Dip in and see.

Dip into what?

Into your own inner well.

But there is nothing to hold on to . . . I’m frigh . . .

Dip in deeper, deeper. Find out the relationship between Dubaribai and the world.

Had there not been those three hundred chapatis to cook every day, nor those fourteen children who once kicked in your womb

If your thoughts had not been confined to mutton pulao, masala, puri-alu, dhania powder, salt, sugar, milk, oil, ghee

If you had not had these constant cares: once every four days the wick to the stove has to be pulled up; whenever kerosene is available it has to be bought and stored; in the rainy season the rice has to be watched and the dal might be full of insects; pickles must be made in the mango season; when the fruit is ripe it will be time for sherbet, juice, and jam; old clothes can be bartered for new pots and pans; once a fortnight the drainage areas in the kitchen must be spread with lime; if one’s periods come it will be a worry; if they don’t come it will be a worry.

If all this clutter had not filed up the drawers of your mind.

Perhaps you too might have seen the apple fall; the steam gathering at the kettle’s spout; might have discovered new continents; written a poem while sitting uipon Mount Kailasam. Might have painted upon the walls of caves. Might have flown. Might have made a world without wars, prisons, gallows, chemical warfare.

Where did you go away, Jiji?

How could you think that

your strength came

from food that was given in the appropriate measure

and jewelry that weighs down ears and neck and forehead?

Sink deeper still

when you touch bottom you will reach the universal waters. You will connect yourself with the world that surrounds you.

Your womb and your breasts will fall away from you. The smell of cooking will vanish away. The sparkle of jewelry will disappear. And there will be you. Not trapped nor diminished by gender, but freed.

So touch the waters, Jiji

And rise



Jiji turned, searched for, and held fast to Minakshi’s hand.


And now we move from these first two examples, of a conversation where hidden thoughts overwhelmed, statistically, the words actually spoken, and a deathbed conversation that may have been imagined but never spoken, to a conversation that never could have occurred, between two people distant in time, place and circumstance, a conversation that, though it never occurred, probably should have,

The narrator of the novel Glyph, by Percival Everett, is a baby. But the book isn’t filled with goo-goo’s and gaa-gaa’s, because this narrator is a baby genius, a truly pint-sized wunderkind, able to out-equation the best adult mathematician. But math isn’t his only strength. He also likes to imagine conversations between people who have never spoken with each other, but probably should have. My favorite is the baby narrator’s canny imagined conversation between the French literary critic Roland Barthes, and the writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston:

Barthes: Do you remember when those felt-tipped pens first showed up on the shelves? I couldn’t wait to get home and try it out. They were made by the Japanese as well and if they’ll use them to write…

Hurston: I was dead by then. But also, who cares?

Barthes: But don’t you see? I’m talking about the action of writing. The gesture itself defines so much of the meaning, don’t you think? I mean, even where I sit while I’m engaged in writing shapes my import.

Hurston: What have you been smoking?

Barthes: I have even observed what I call a “Bic style” of writing. You’ve seen it, those people who just churn out words endlessly.

Hurston (nodding): I do believe I have seen it.

Barthes: I finally discarded the felt tip because the tip flattened out so soon. I’m back now to, and I think I’ll stay with, truly fine fountain pens. They’re essential for the kind of smooth writing I require. What do you use?

Hurston: A sharpened bone and blood.

Who hasn’t imagined a conversation between two people besides ourselves (our parents, perhaps, or two estranged friends), and assigned them the words that they could and should speak to each other but probably never would? Even impossible exchanges can be spoken, if only in our minds.

Perhaps writers are sometimes unconsciously influenced by the out-loudness of characters in plays, television programs and movies. Thought is rarely “heard” in these narrative genres, but that is a reflection of the limitations of visual narrative. In books, we can indeed hear the thoughts of the fictional people who move on the page. How those deep wells of words interact with the words that are allowed to escape willing or reluctant lips is a nearly limitless territory, worthy of a lifetime of exploration.

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December 27th, 2022 by admin

Don’t Just Use Your Words, Part 1

Dialogue should be simple to write, shouldn’t it? After all, one character speaks, then another responds, and so on, just like in “real” life. We know how to do that, because we speak with other people every day.

But it’s not so simple, and neither are the conversations we have in “real” life.

Before examining any literary examples, let’s think a bit about how everyday people (that’s us) actually speak to each other. First, we cough up a lot of ummms, don’t we? Those wordless hesitations are never far away when we try to spit out what we mean to say (or to avoid saying). Sometimes, even often, we don’t speak grammatically. Also, we may go so far as to speak over each other, or interrupt. Occasionally we don’t even complete our sentences. These commonplace conversational features rarely make it to the literary page, where characters, if they aren’t always eloquent, are at least able to express themselves with a certain calculated clarity.

What do I mean by a “calculated” clarity? Well, in any given conversation, when someone is speaking to you, what are you doing in your patient silence?

Are you indeed listening closely, or are you only half listening, already plotting what you’re going to say in response? And when you finally get your conversational turn at bat, what do you think your partner is doing—hanging breathlessly on your every word, or are they too silently composing their own impending response?

And do you always say out loud the words you have been silently composing, or was that planning a form of revising—should I say this, you think, or that? If I say this, will my friend be insulted? If I say that, will my friend be flattered, or think I’m a nicer person? In a sense, as we’re “listening” to someone else, we’re practicing the art of fiction, revising, honing and shaping what we will say next. And your partner is doing the same thing. The “out loud” part of any conversation, on both sides, has first been thoroughly workshopped.

I would go so far as to say that in any conversation, the unspoken words far outnumber the words that eventually make the cut. Spoken words are the tip of the conversational iceberg as we present our fictional social selves.

Yet even if we remain silent, that doesn’t mean we have no words to speak. As Nobel-prize winning novelist José Saramago has observed:

“The eloquent silence, long favored by a particularly lazy kind of literature, does not exist, eloquent silences are just words that have got stuck in the throat, choked words that have been unable to escape the embrace of the glottis.”

We all can indeed be silently eloquent in such moments, as we suppress words that must be and must never be spoken.

If it comes as a surprise that any conversation—including its occasional pauses—contains mostly unspoken words, it’s because humans are too often fooled by the exterior world. We think, if we can hear or see something, then that is what mainly exists. But most of the world runs on invisible fuel, the fuel of our vast interior worlds that in turn shape the world we think we know.

That’s why, if we are sitting, say, in a booth in a diner, and we “accidentally” overhear a conversation (otherwise known as eavesdropping) in another booth, part of the thrill of that surreptitious experience is that we are not hearing the whole story. Because our ears have jumped in on the fly, we can be sure that the words we’re listening to cannot be the whole story, they’re just a hint of the couple’s long-term context. What we are listening to is rich with mystery, and those words we shouldn’t be listening to become a challenge to our curiosity. We try to fill in the blanks.

But we don’t merely listen and revise our words inside, we also observe our conversational partner. Sometimes, the words our friend may speak are at odds with their body language or their tone of voice. The director Alfred Hitchcock has offered some insight on the visual aspects of any conversation:

“One of your characters will be preoccupied with something during a dialogue scene. Their eyes can then be distracted while the other person doesn’t notice. This is a good way to pull the audience into a character’s secretive world. People don’t always express their inner thoughts to one another. A conversation may be quite trivial, but often the eyes will reveal what a person thinks or needs. The focus of a scene should never be on what the characters are actually saying. Have something else going on. Resort to dialogue only when its impossible to do otherwise. In other words, we don’t have pages to fill . . . we have a rectangular screen in a movie house.”

Film is, of course, a visual narrative form, dependent on the employment of visual cues. But writers do have pages to fill, and we can employ any number of tactics in the writing of dialogue. There is no ideal form of presenting dialogue in fiction, no best way to capture a character’s outer voice on the page that will, in turn, hint at that character’s inner life. The various approaches in literature are nearly limitless, from the minimalist “Only the words spoken out loud” to the maximalist “words spoken while jockeying with the silent words of thought.” Available in-between are depictions of physical gestures and facial features that either underline what one says or contradict it. And any combination of the above. And let’s not forget about the conversations people create alone, in their own minds, or the conversation we remember from the past, or the conversations we quietly anticipate speaking in the future.

Before looking at some specific literary examples, let’s remember this: there is no such thing as a private dialogue between two people in fiction. Because there’s always someone else in the room. Two other people, actually: the author, and the reader.

The reader is always put in the position of eavesdropping (there’s that word again) on whoever is speaking in a fiction, while the author decides just how much the reader is allowed to overhear. Just the words? OK. Or perhaps also the thoughts of one of the characters? Fine. Or the words and the thoughts of both characters? Done. Each level of added access deepens the fictional world’s possibilities. There are no rules here—any author is in charge of how much the nosy reader can overhear, and how much access will be available to the silent words of any dialogue. The writer decides the boundaries, and the reader can then explore within those boundaries.

Let’s start with a particularly stripped back approach, from the story “Why Don’t You Dance?” by Raymond Carver. In the aftermath of an apparently failed marriage, a despairing man has emptied his house of its furniture and set up the various pieces in the front yard and driveway, in much the same arrangements they were in when still inside.

A young couple drives by, and, because they are in the middle of furnishing “a little apartment,” they stop at what they think is a yard sale. The young man first examines the TV, the young woman tries out the bed.

He sat down on the sofa to watch. He lit a cigarette, looked around, flipped the match into the grass.
The girl sat on the bed. She pushed off her shoes and lay back. She thought she could see a star.
“Come here, Jack. Try this bed. Bring one of those pillows,” she said.
“How is it?” he said.
“Try it,” she said.
He looked around. The house was dark.
“I feel funny,” he said. “Better see if anybody’s home.”
She bounced on the bed.
“Try it first,” she said.
He lay down on the bed and put the pillow under his head.
“How does it feel?” she said.
“It feels firm,” he said.
She turned on her side and put her hand to his face.
“Kiss me,” she said.
“Let’s get up,” he said.
“Kiss me,” she said.
She closed her eyes. She held him.
He said, “I’ll see if anybody’s home.”

We can learn a lot about these two characters by the words they say—or rather, by the disparity of the words they say to each other. The “girl” (otherwise unnamed) bouncing on the bed, offers a kind of seduction to the more cautious Jack, who hesitantly accedes to her overtures. She ignores his discomfort until he breaks away. Though there’s little access to their thoughts, already we can see the differences between them, Jack’s reluctance contrasted with the young woman’s more daring impulses, and we can guess who cares more for the other and who cares less, and we can predict, perhaps, the course of their own future failed relationship. The pleasure of this stripped-back approach is akin to—there’s that word again—eavesdropping. If we pay attention and read between the lines, we will be rewarded.

I have to say, I prefer the approach of the English writer Henry Green. In a scene from his novel Caught, the characters Richard and Hilly are sitting together in a London pub during a lull in the World War II bombing attacks. There’s a decent chance they might end up sleeping with each other. Richard asks Hilly a not-so-innocent question, and Green, in a single, elegant sentence, seamlessly blends the truth of Hilly’s thoughts with the falsity of her response:

“Was I?” she said, remembering perfectly, “I forget.”

The moment goes by so quickly you almost don’t notice it (and is there a single person on the face of this earth who hasn’t misrepresented themselves in a similar fashion?).

Here, the reader’s eavesdropping is more intimate. With quicksilver rapidity, we can hear Hilly’s contradictory thought as well as her words, while Richard cannot. In other parts of this dialogue, we hear Richard’s words and also his thoughts, to which Hilly has no access. The pleasure here is that we know more about the two characters than they can possibly know of each other (because of course they can’t read each other’s thoughts), and this is an irresistible insider’s experience that we can never replicate in our everyday lives.

It’s easy to take this literary insider experience a step further, because in our everyday lives we often create imaginary conversations with non-present others, dialogues that we try on in anticipation of—or in substitution for—actual eventual conversations.

A good example can be found in Monica Ali’s novel Brick Lane. The main character, Nazneem, is having an affair that, so far, she has manged to keep secret. Yet increasingly she wants to reveal this dangerous secret to her most trusted friend, Razia. So Nazneem imagines a few approaches to this possible confession, and she envisions Razia responding not with words but with telling physical gestures.

A few times [Nazneem] had imagined conversations with Razia. She played them out, reading both parts, trying a new phrase here and there. He will never give me up. Razia tucking her feet under her bottom and leaning over to squeeze all the juice out of the story. It consumes us. It’s not something we can control. Razia shaking her shoulders; the intensity, even at this remove—enough to make her shiver. The most astonishing thing of all . . . She never knew what she would say then, but the phrase kept coming to her. With narrowed eyes and her sideways look, Razia attempted to tease it from her. The most astonishing thing of all . . .

Perhaps, with practice, Nazneem will shape this imaginary conversation so well that she might finally attempt to initiate it. Or perhaps not. How many imaginary conversations with family members or friends, on whatever subject, have we ourselves practiced, only to leave them (reluctantly or with relief) on the conversational cutting room floor, never to be spoken?

As I’ve mentioned earlier, there are seemingly endless variations on how dialogue can be written, and in Part 2 of this craft essay, we’ll take a look at examples that range even further beyond the basic structure of two characters simply facing each other and speaking only aloud.

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December 13th, 2022 by admin

The Gifts of Grace Paley

Today, August 22nd, is the anniversary of the death of my beloved writing mentor, Grace Paley. The arrival of this sad date always reminds me of when I—quite unexpectedly—cooked a meal for Grace, just weeks before her death.

It was early July of 2007. At the time, I was living in Portugal, but I’d flown to the US—my first time back home in nearly a year—in order to attend the summer writing residency at Vermont College and teach a graduate workshop (The following five paragraphs are excerpted from the chapter “Sip by Sip,” in my book, The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon, University of Chicago Press, 2009).

While [at the residency] an old friend, the poet Jean Valentine, told me she’d heard that Grace had taken a bad turn in a fight against cancer. Grace lived only thirty miles away, so Jean and I drove a rental car through Vermont’s lush green summer landscape to visit her, and after the last stretch of a narrow road cutting through a field or two and then a stand of thick overhanging trees, we came to her front yard, where she sat beside a table, waiting for us.

She looked like an older version of the Grace I’d always known, a topknot of now white hair crowning her head. After careful hugs of greeting, Jean and I joined Grace, her husband Bob and their stunning daily view: great lazy rolls of cloud that crossed a blue sky and cast shadows on the hills below. Though she could forget something just five minutes in passing, Grace still had her clear-eyed humor, sharp and gentle at the same time. She landed some tough ones on Bob, but he joked off the rough edges and she seemed to expect this, because it was all an improvised show of a crusty, loving couple.

We skimmed along on friendly chitchat, nothing approaching what I was too embarrassed to say, that Grace, by the example of her patient teaching, the clarity and heart of her writing, even a single sentence from one of her stories—“Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life”—had given me a way to live my own life, given me a path I’d tried, however imperfectly, to follow.

Grace invited us to stay for dinner, and Jean and I exchanged alarmed glances—we hadn’t come to impose. But Bob led me to the family garden, where we gathered greens for whatever would become dinner. He and I carried it all to the kitchen while Jean kept company with Grace. Bob found a box of pasta, I chopped vegetables, then poked around in the refrigerator for ingredients that might work together with spaghetti sauce. Not much there, and a good proportion of that was too old to use—this was the kitchen of a family under siege. When Grace called Bob to the front yard, he turned to me and I said, “Don’t worry, I’ll take over.” Suddenly there I stood, alone in the kitchen, with two pans simmering. Somehow, step by tiny step I had been given this opportunity to offer my mentor a meal. The spaghetti sauce now seemed unworthy, so I searched the cabinets and scoured through the refrigerator once again, hoping for any spice or condiment that might help match the depth of my gratitude.

I steamed the greens and then shaped them into a kind of loaf, grilled some garlic bread, simmered the sauce until it poured thick over the steaming spaghetti, and I called everyone in to the table I’d just set. Bob scarfed down his portion with exaggerated praise—glad, I guessed, to eat a meal he hadn’t prepared himself, though more likely he was trying to encourage Grace, her appetite hijacked by cancer. When Jean joined in with compliments intended as gentle nudging, Grace managed a bite or two, and I wondered if she could taste what my meal was trying to say.


The photo that appears at the top of this post is from Grace’s last days, sitting on a chair in her study, beside her a fantastically cluttered pile of books. But the photo below is the way I remember her best, when I worked under Grace as an undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence College, from 1970 to 1973.

Grace was a careful reader of her students’ work, but her most valuable comments came from her attention to what I guess I’d call the “soul” of any given short story. Of course she was interested in the words—she herself was a great stylist of the English language—but she was also attentive to what fueled those words. She encouraged us—quietly, not didactically—to discover the psychological, artistic and social energy behind a story, what she called “the story behind the story.” Guided by Grace, nurturing an awareness of the invisible muscle behind my writing has been a lifelong gift.

Grace, in spite of the depth and power of her writing, was also as plain spoken and humble as could be, the exact opposite of the literary chest thumping of Norman Mailer and his ilk. Her demeanor served as a powerful example to my young and callow and ambitious self. At the time, Grace was not yet famous—her second book of short stories, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, still balanced on the cusp of publication. I remember when I and a couple of other lucky students were sitting in her office (probably there for no good reason other than to bask in her presence) and she read us one of her masterpieces, “A Conversation with My Father.” She was revising the story in anticipation of publication, still unsure if it was really ready to go, and she asked us what we thought. As I remember, we had little to offer other than stunned and admiring silence, and I suppose that was as effective as any comment.

Grace Paley influenced not only my writing but my teaching. She had been one of the co-founders of Teachers and Writers Collaborative (something I didn’t know until recently!), a literary outreach organization for elementary and secondary school students, where I attempted my first teaching while a creative writing graduate student at City College in New York.

But Grace taught me another valuable lesson about teaching, one perhaps that she wouldn’t have realized at the time. She once predicted something about my writing and my future writing life, a simple comment that I have never forgotten and that I won’t share here. But her words, maybe spoken casually, kept me going during those always inevitable times when I struggled with my writing, when I felt lost and alone in what I was trying to express. Grace’s words became so important to me that I came to realize the power a mentor’s words can have on a student. As a teacher for over forty years, I have tried to ensure that my words would heal and not haunt a student whenever they might enter times of trouble in their writing life.

So thank you, Grace, wherever you might be, for all your gifts—gifts far greater than any ad hoc spaghetti dinner could ever have repaid.


More about Grace Paley:

“The Hidden Second Story”

“What a Writer Knows and Doesn’t Know”

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August 22nd, 2022 by admin

How to Piece Together a Book

There’s a moment in Autumn Rounds, a novel by the French-Canadian author Jacques Poulin, where the main character poses a question to his friend Jack, who is a writer,

“So you’ve started a story?”

“I haven’t started writing it, but it’s in my head. It’s just a little thing off in a corner somewhere, but it will grow, slowly. I have to give it time . . .”

Jack’s description of his writing process immediately rang true to me. My books, my stories, and my essays have all begun in an unpredictable fashion: a spark of surprise where before, there was simply nothing.

Most books aren’t written by beginning with page 1 and proceeding step-by-step to the inevitable last page. While books are read sequentially, the writing of them is far different. Often, a new work of fiction begins with a title (which may not end up being the book’s ultimate title), or a budding insight about a still-unknown character, or a conversation between two as-yet-unnamed characters that might eventually end up in an early, middle, or late chapter. I once began writing a short story, “The Deserted House” (from my story collection, The Art of the Knock), with a scene that I was sure was the beginning; it turned out to be the ending.

I have often described to my students this process of building a book as akin to the rising of islands out of the water, with each island of the emerging archipelago growing bigger until they begin to connect and create a larger landmass.

Another metaphor that can be used is putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Who hasn’t developed their own strategies to finally fit the last piece in place? Start by finding all the pieces that look like mountains. Or look! These pieces could only be part of a Monarch butterfly. Sometimes, first collecting pieces into groups that share a color is a good strategy. And what about the edge pieces? Get the frame completed, and then work inward. So many possibilities.

And so we come to the Land of the Fuddles.

The Fuddles are people who are made of many small pieces, and they like to fall apart so other people can put them back together.

The Fuddles appear in the novel The Emerald City of Oz, which is the sixth book in the fourteen volume Oz series written by L. Frank Baum.

Most people don’t know that Baum wrote fourteen volumes of his Oz saga. They’re most familiar with the first book, thanks to the classic film version. A pity, since most of the other books, for sheer inventiveness and brio, live up to the standards of the original novel. They include many new characters, such as the Shaggy Man, the Sawhorse, Patchwork Girl, the Highly-Magnified Woggle-Bug, Queen Ozma, Jack Pumpkinhead, and many others. I know these characters well, because when my daughter Hannah was six years old I read her all fourteen books for our bedtime story ritual; it took about a year to go through them all, and our attention never flagged.

One of my favorite scenes in the entire series is when Dorothy and her entourage (which includes two additional new characters, Kangaroo and Omby Amby), took a journey through the many regions of Oz and came upon the town of Fuddlecumjig in the Land of the Fuddles. Dorothy asked,

“Are the Fuddles nice people?”

“Oh, very nice,” answered the kangaroo; “that is, when they’re properly put together. But they get dreadfully scattered and mixed up, at times, and then you can’t do anything with them.”

“What do you mean by their getting scattered?” inquired Dorothy.

“Why, they’re made in a good many small pieces,” explained the kangaroo; “and whenever any stranger comes near them they have a habit of falling apart and scattering themselves around. That’s when they get so dreadfully mixed, and it’s a hard puzzle to put them together again.”

“Who usually puts them together?” asked Omby Amby.

“Any one who is able to match the pieces.”

As Kangaroo later observed, “It’s just a habit they have, to scatter themselves, and if they didn’t do it they wouldn’t be Fuddles.” Supposedly, the Fuddles consider this great fun.

When Dorothy and her companions approached the town, “instantly a wild clatter was heard from the houses and yards. Dorothy thought it sounded like a sudden hailstorm.” This turned out to be the sound of the Fuddles undoing themselves. Dorothy and her friends entered the first home, and they found

the floor strewn with pieces of the people who lived there. They looked much like fragments of wood neatly painted, and were of all sorts of curious and fantastic shapes, no two pieces being in any way alike.

They picked up some of these pieces and looked at them carefully. On one which Dorothy held was an eye, which looked at her pleasantly but with an interested expression, as if it wondered what she was going to do with it. Quite near by she discovered and picked up a nose, and by matching the two pieces together found that they were part of a face.

“If I could find the mouth,” she said, “this Fuddle might be able to talk, and tell us what to do next.”

“Then let us find it,” replied the Wizard, and so all got down on their hands and knees and began examining the scattered pieces.

“I’ve found it!” cried the Shaggy Man, and ran to Dorothy with an odd-shaped piece that had a mouth on it. But when they tried to fit it to the eye and nose they found the parts wouldn’t match together.

“That mouth belongs to some other person,” said Dorothy. “You see we need a curve here and a point there, to make it fit the face.”

“Well, it must be here some place,” declared the Wizard; “so if we search long enough we shall find it.”

Dorothy fitted an ear on next, and the ear had a little patch of red hair above it . . . She had also found the other eye and the ear by the time Omby Amby in a far corner discovered the mouth. When the face was thus completed, all the parts joined together with a nicety that was astonishing.

“Why, it’s like a picture puzzle!” exclaimed the little girl. “Let’s find the rest of him, and get him all together.”

“What’s the rest of him like?” asked the Wizard.

“Look for a white shirt and a white apron,” said the head which had been put together, speaking in a rather faint voice. “I’m the cook.”

The cook told Dorothy and her friends how to complete him, and, finally constructed, he then began to prepare a meal for his guests while the rest of his Fuddle companions were pieced together.

I believe that many, if not most, writers employ a similar procedure. We add our books together piece by scattered piece. We trust that they are secretly connected, that somehow they will eventually join the narrative’s arc together. Intuition is largely our guide here, as well as a certain dogged persistence. And then comes the time when a critical mass of addition is achieved (a point that is always different for every book), and, as in the Land of the Fuddles, a “mouth” is found: an insight that speaks with an echoing authority, which helps the writer better understand what they have been attempting.

This is the moment that a writer searches for, often unconsciously: a “mouth” of insight that will speak for more than itself. This is the point when a book switches from hopeful guesswork to far more intentional construction. Mysteries may certainly still abound, but a point of no return has been reached, and the writer increasingly believes that their book will eventually be born, its last piece finally fit into the waiting pattern.

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July 18th, 2022 by admin

What Can Humans Know?

What are the perimeters of human knowledge? Perhaps not as broad and far-ranging as we like to think. Henry David Thoreau once famously wrote, “Who placed us with eyes between a microscopic and a telescopic world?” More recently, Jennifer Ackerman, author of Birds by the Shore, has offered an elegant paraphrase: “Humans, it is said, lie midway between the sun and the atom.”

When we look at the sky on a clear night, we can only see the 5,000 closest stars, and only one of the billions of galaxies that populate the rest of the universe. Our eyes are also unable to see what is smallest, not even what can be found on a grain of sand. Jennifer Ackerman writes, “A single grain of sand can support hundreds of colonies of bacteria, each composed of hundreds of individuals . . . all residing in the craters, scarps and troughs of the grain.”

Here I hold a small handful of sand from a beach around the corner of my home in Rhode Island. There must be tens of thousands of sand grains in my palm, and perhaps four hundred million or more bacteria living on them, none of which I can see.

Humbling, to imagine one’s biologically induced limitations, especially since we humans often unconsciously consider ourselves to be masters of the (or at least our) universe.

But our limitations are not only a matter of scale. Whales, for instance, can see us far more intricately than we can see them.

As Philip Hoare writes in The Sea Inside, whales “live in an element in which noise travels five times faster than in air. Their brains are wired for sound; their auditory cortex is larger than our visual cortex. Such a capacity is essential for animals that hunt in lightless depths. Theirs is a very different experience of the world from ours, because their world is so different. For toothed whales blessed with pin-sharp sonar accuracy, everything is transparent; nothing is concealed. They live in another dimension, able to see into and through the solid, to discern structures inside. A whale or dolphin can see the interior of my body as accurately as I can see the exterior of hers; I must resemble one of the educational models we had in school, clear plastic figurines of a man and a woman with their organs indecently displayed. The world is naked to a cetacean.”

Unlike us, whales (and dolphins too) can see through irrelevant clothes and the thin membrane of our skin. What is ordinary daily experience for them would be a superpower for us. Speaking of dolphins, they can send out two thousand clicks of sonar in a single second, enabling them to, as Philip Hoare reports, “discern something the thickness of a fingernail from thirty feet away.” Yet dolphins are capable of far more than such a comprehensive look-see. Hoare elaborates: dolphins “are able to use their sonar to detect one another’s emotional states by the way their temperature falls or rises, like a human lie-detector test. As a result they cannot dissemble about the way they feel, as we do. They know if another dolphin is angry or excited.”

This last startling tidbit I find especially humbling.

Throughout my teaching career, I pointed out to aspiring fiction writers that humans are biologically wired for isolation, because we cannot know what even our most intimate companion is thinking. Because of this, the “facts” of someone else’s inner life–all the years of that person’s memories and secret thoughts and desires–are great guesses on our part, hunches that the little we are able to see reflects the much more that we can’t. What passes for understanding of another is closer to the invention of a fictional character than we’d like to admit. That profound isolation from others’ thoughts is why art in all its forms was invented—particularly fiction, where a writer takes on the task of imagining others. I have to admit, I always assumed that any human’s exile from others’ thoughts applied to all living creatures. And yet, I learn—so late in life—that dolphins (and, I imagine, whales too) can “see” others’ emotions and cannot hide their own.

Our awareness of the world’s mysterious life in all its facets is a narrow path. Of all our five senses, sight is supposed to be our strongest suit, and yet we are no match for birds, who, Philip Hoare writes, “are thought to possess photopigments in their eyes known as cryptochromes that detect the magnetic field chemically, seeing it as a pattern of colors or lights which enables them to navigate.”

So much for our vaunted powers of sight! As for other senses, such as taste, touch and smell, the (not so) lowly lobster puts us to shame. The bodies of lobsters, Jennifer Ackerman tells us, “are covered with odor-sensitive receptors that detect minute concentrations of pheromones, chemicals they use for nearly every activity from tracking prey to announcing sexual prowess. Thin hairs on the antennules have more than four hundred different kinds of receptor cell, each tuned to a specific chemical compound. Just as birds can distinguish myriad notes packed into a brief musical interval, lobsters can read a spectrum of chemicals in a teaspoon of seawater.”

A spectrum of chemicals we remain unaware of, however often we splash about in a pond, a lake, a bay. Wet, to us, is wet. How limited we are, what ordinary creatures with only modest physical talents. And yet, we possess imaginations that lift us above our limitations. We live in a world of books, music, art, dance, sculpture and architecture; what we create in myriad forms, the world we live in, is an elaborate carapace of inventiveness that we exude in much the same way a snail exudes its elaborate spiraled shell—as something we must do, an essential urge that is simply and always will be a part of us. And yet, how important it is to remember, in comparison with our fellow creatures in the world, how little we truly see, how little we ultimately know.

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December 4th, 2021 by admin

We Are All Children in the Art of Reading

I recently finished reading Prayer for the Living, a short story collection by the great Nigerian writer Ben Okri (author of the Booker Prize-winning novel, The Famished Road). My favorite story in this collection is “Don Ki-Otah and the Ambiguity of Reading.” In this story, the iconic character Don Quixote has somehow been transformed by Okri into a modern African seer who, among his other adventures, has battled Boko Haram terrorists.

The story takes place in a printer’s shop in Lagos, Nigeria, where the well-read Don Ki-Otah expounds on the books he’s read over a long life, and his varied tactics of reading:

“In the course of a fifty-year reading career . . . I have experimented with 322 modes of reading. I have read speedily like a bright young fool, crabbily like a teacher, querulously like a scholar, wistfully like a traveler, and punctiliously like a lawyer. I have read selectively like a politician, comparatively like a critic, contemptuously like a tyrant, glancingly like a journalist, competitively like an author, laboriously like an aristocrat. I have read critically like an archeologist, microscopically like a scientist, reverently like the blind, indirectly like a poet. Like a peasant I have read carefully, like a composer attentively, like a schoolboy hurriedly, like a shaman magically. I have read in every single possible way there is of reading. You can’t remember the number and variety of books I have read without a compendium of ways of reading.”

In this extraordinary passage, we see the act of reading as fluid, not set in stone. Yes, we read from left to right (though up and down, and right to left are the preferred modes of other cultures), and we turn one page to get to the next, but aside from those stage directions there’s a lot of variation in how to read.

There are also, in that paragraph quoted above, a lot of adverbs. Nineteen, to be exact.

Doesn’t Okri know William Zinsser, author of the influential On Writing Well, has declared that “most adverbs are unnecessary”? Or that William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, authors of Elements of Style, have written, “Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.” Or that Callum Sharp, at “The Writing Cooperative” website, goes so far as to say that adverbs are the “death of good fiction writing,” giving examples such as “She quickly ran up the hill”?

At their frequent worst, adverbs state the obvious, especially in dialogue tags (“How dare you!” he said angrily), or prevent a writer from finding a better verb. Sharp’s example could be improved in this way: “She dashed up the hill.”

However, “How dare you!” he said coyly, is an entirely different sentence. Now anger has been transformed into flirtation.

Adverbs express their secret muscles when they contradict (coyly) what the reader expects, or sharpens a reader’s understanding. To get back to Ben Okri, to read “selectively” as a politician tells us much about that politician, and about politicians in general: always reading for partisan advantage. Peasants read “carefully” because they are not used to reading, and so need to slow down, or they read carefully because, from experience, they expect to be cheated and are looking for the trap. And so on. The nineteen adverbs in Okri’s paragraph delight instead of annoy, because they open up our understanding of the varied intentionalities of reading. He wields each one like a knife.

It’s always helpful to remind ourselves that a literary rule serves as a guide, not as a law.

Let’s take that thought and extend it to the stagecraft of reading. Why always travel from the first page to the grand finale?

The best books, I would suggest, are not overly concerned with what happens next, but instead lean curious about why it happens—the drama behind the mystery of someone’s behavior. That’s the reason one can read Anna Karenina or Pride and Prejudice more than once and with subsequent added pleasure, because the “what happens next” action of a book’s exterior world is illuminated by the “why” of the characters’ interior states.

Okri’s Don Ki-Otah takes this more than a few steps further, when he says,

“I have read books backward and inside out. I began reading Ovid in the middle and then to the end and then from the beginning. I once read every other sentence of a book I knew well and then went back and read the sentences I missed out. We are all children in the art of reading. We assume there is only one way to read a book. But a book read in a new way becomes a new book.”

As readers, like Don Ki-Otah we can manipulate the texts of our favorite books if we wish, but there are some books that kindly do this for us, that undermine the A+B+C-ness of linear narrative development.

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas at first seems like a collection of five stories that each ends in the middle of its narrative, sometimes in mid-sentence, yet always moving forward in historical time until the sixth, placed in the middle of the book, which is a complete narrative. Then, the next chapter is the second half of the fifth story, followed by the second half of the fourth story, and so forth, the connections becoming clearer and clearer, until the book—now obviously a novel of cleverly designed chapters, not a collection of stories—completes itself with the second half of the very first chapter back at the novel’s chronological beginning, last seen some 400 pages ago.

Initially, Cloud Atlas asks a reader to take the novel’s structure on faith, asks for patience with the shifts of time, place, and even literary style, as it slowly forms an elegant, unified arch-like design:


Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse plays with time as well, though through deft chronological leaps. The first of the three sections of the novel occurs on a single day of the Ramsay family’s summer gathering; the second (and shortest) section takes place over the passage of ten years in the Ramsay’s now deserted vacation house; and the third takes place at the end of those ten years: finally the promised outing to a nearby lighthouse, though the family is now diminished.

Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World similarly plays with readers’ expectations of how a novel might proceed. Murakami’s novel alternates between chapters titled “Hard Boiled Wonderland,” and those titled “The End of the World.” At first a reader would be justified in thinking that this book is simply two different novels placed side by side, the point being some as yet undetermined contrast. Its design would look like this:

A-B-A-B-A-B-A-B-A, etc . . .

However, it’s not the contrasts but the slowly revealed similarities, the uncanny touch points that reveal the narrative is, in fact, a divided narrative that continually seeks to become whole.

Julio Cortazar’s novel Hopscotch cuts right to the chase: it offers two Tables of Contents, first one that follows standard forward motion, Chapters 1 through 56, while a second invites “expendable” chapters to be interpolated into the text, adding extra force to the main character’s ambitions of creating a dissociative personality.

Finally, Georges Perec’s novel, Life: A User’s Manual, tells the stories of the people who live in a Paris apartment house, and its “Table of Contents” is actually the floor plan of that building. As you might imagine, the individual stories of the various apartments begin to intersect in unusual and surprising ways.

Sometimes I read three or more books at a time, alternating between them, and when I return to a book after reading a bit in a few others, I often find that my appreciation has been sharpened, that the world building of one book can cast shadow or light on the book I’ve returned to. Or sometimes I’ll pause in the reading of a novel, letting its current effect on me rest, and simply go about my other business for a day or two. Yet all the while I’ll think about that book I’ve temporarily left off, savoring its past chapters, absorbing them at my own pace, while its future pages await my inevitable return.

Because books, like literary rules, are guides but not laws about how to be read.

So I return to Ben Okri’s marvelous creation Don Ki-Otah, who says,

“Part of the trouble with our world is that the art of reading is almost dead. Reading is the secret of life. We read the world poorly, because we read poorly. Everything is reading. The world is the way you read it. As we read, so we are.”

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October 11th, 2021 by admin

Democracy? Sweet!

As migraines decrease, knotted muscles relax, restless nights shift into deep, relaxed sleep, and the voices of anxiety soften in our minds, the first month of the Biden administration cruises along—calm, adult, competent. Not that our country is fully out of danger. The pandemic still rages, though the delivery of vaccines is finally ramping up. The insurrectionists are only beginning to be rounded up, but prosecutions will inevitably follow. The disgraced former resident of the White House remains unrepentant, but a world of legal troubles awaits him, even if he escapes conviction for his second impeachment.

Much work of course remains undone, but social and racial inequity relief is being embedded into government programs, and the pandemic rescue bill is going big. So perhaps it’s time to stop holding our cautious breaths and celebrate a little.

A good way to begin would be to listen to Democracy! Suite, a new work composed by Wynton Marsalis for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Septet. Written to provide “the healing insights of Jazz,” the eight songs of this suite exude optimism and joy. In many ways it’s a celebration, a testimony to the human spirit that—despite unacceptable losses and a torn national fabric—has survived one of our country’s hardest of hard years. I listen to this album every day, and sometimes all day long. It makes me want to sing, to dance, to shed invisible demons.

There’s a performance video available for many of the songs in this suite, each one well worth watching. The band plays before an enormous window overlooking Columbus Circle, Central Park, and the broad busy street of Central Park South in New York City. They begin the suite in the light of day, and by the end of the song cycle they’re performing in a rich dark night adorned with the city’s glitter. Here is the band, led by trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis, playing “Be Present,” dedicated to the frontline workers in the pandemic.

The entire album is a magnificent gem, one of the best alternatives to Doom Scrolling that I can think of.

Another effective antidote to obsessive internet anxiety that I’ve recently discovered is Leonard and Hungry Paul, the debut novel of Rónán Hession, a musican and social worker based in Dublin. This novel achieves something I’ve never quite encountered before in fiction, a sense of calm without for one moment inciting boredom.

Perhaps this is because author Hession displays such a broad acceptance of all his main characters. But the novel mainly concentrates on the story of two seemingly ordinary people, two adult men who have not yet found a way to expand their lives. Leonard, who lives alone, is a ghost writer for children’s science books, and Hungry Paul is a part-time mail carrier who lives with his parents. They are best friends, and understanding of each other’s foibles. The novel begins with them spending an evening playing a board game:

As they both played board games regularly, and switched between them often, it was not unusual for games to start slowly whenever they changed to something new. It was perfectly normal to have a warm-up period, like the way a polyglot who has just arrived at the airport needs to hear the local language spoken around him before he can regain his own fluency in speaking it. Before long, the game settled into a steady rhythm of clacking dice and turn-taking, interspersed with uninhibited rallies of conversation between the two friends, both of whom were free thinkers with a broad range of interests.

Both characters, in their quiet ways, are careful observers of the world around them. Here, Leonard has come along on a shopping expedition to help Hungry Paul buy a suit (his first ever) for his sister’s impending wedding.

“What colour do you want?” asked Leonard.
“Not navy, as that’s too much like my post office uniform. Not black, because I’ll look like someone in a ska band. Not brown, because I’d look like a teacher. So, maybe gray, dark grey even?” Hungry Paul had given this some thought.
“What about the pinstripe one?” suggested Leonard.
“Nah, pinstripe is for a work suit, not a social occasion. Besides, that’s chalk stripe, which is different.”
“I’m impressed,” said Leonard, “I sort of expected you to be hopeless at this, to be honest. How do you know so much about all this?”
“I think my mother thought the same. There isn’t much to know. Men don’t have huge variety in suits and I like to pay attention to what goes on, so after a while you notice who wears what, even if you’re not interested in wearing a suit yourself. Let’s try that dark gray one.”

The novel is filled with quirky observations that reminded me of the celebrations of the often overlooked and ordinary in Nicholson Baker’s first two books, The Mezzanine and Room Temperature. Hession’s novel has a further strength: a sustained, canny sweetness, because while Hession has the best interests of his characters in mind, the twists of the plot feel more than earned. By the last page the book felt less like a novel (though it is a wonderful, distinctive novel) and more like a friendship I had made.

Perfect for a post-Trumpocalypse world. It’s time to shake off the inner restraints of the past four years, which I grant will likely be a long process, and embrace some optimism. The first steps could be to read Leonard and Hungry Paul while listening to Democracy! Suite.

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February 11th, 2021 by admin

“That’s Why I Love Mankind”

As the New York Times has reported about the insurrection of January 6, the far-right Proud Boys, before they joined the fray, “stopped to kneel in the street and prayed in the name of Jesus.” And then, “they invoked the divine protection for what was to come.”

Christian symbols could be seen everywhere in the seditious mob because “the most extreme corners of support for Mr. Trump have become inextricable from some parts of white evangelical power in America.”

Over the years, I’ve noted—initially with amusement, now with real alarm— that many of his supporters refer to him as their “God Emperor.”

And yet, “The people Trump despises most love him the most,” according to Howard Stern. Trump would not want them in his hotels or golf properties. “He’d be disgusted by them,” Stern said.

Stern’s words have been echoed by Olivia Troye, who was once a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. She has revealed that, during one meeting, Trump said the pandemic had at least one benefit: now he had an excuse to physically distance himself from his followers: “I don’t have to shake hands with these disgusting people.”

No surprise, then, that last week while Trump gleefully watched on television the destruction being wreaked in the Capitol Building, the only downside, in his opinion, was that so many of his followers looked “low class.”

All of which reminds me of one of Randy Newman’s most cynical, excoriating compositions, “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind).” It’s the final song (what could possibly follow it?) from his third album, 1972’s Sail Away.

Newman begins the song’s lament with his barrel-house piano slowed to a painful, piquant blues, as the Biblical figure of Seth asks God why humans must die, and receives this divine reply:

“Man means nothing, he means less to me
than the lowliest cactus flower
on the humblest yucca tree
he chases round this desert
cause he thinks that’s where I’ll be
that’s why I love mankind.

“I recoil in horror from the foulness of thee
from the squalor, and the filth, and the misery
How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer me
That’s why I love mankind.”

By the end of the song, as the world begins to spiral out of control from several crises, religious leaders band together on “satellite TV” to beg God for help. This section of the lyrics, written in the 1970s, seems uncannily prescient about today’s ills. They could easily refer to the unchecked Covid pandemic, the rising seas of global warming, the burning cities of protest and counter-protest in America this summer, and children being forcibly separated from their parents at the US-Mexican border, all glaring examples of Trump’s current incompetence, inaction, malevolence or failure:

The religious leaders plead:

“Lord the plague is on the world
Lord no man is free
The temples that we built to you
Are tumbling to the sea
Lord, if you won’t take care of us
Won’t you please, please let us be?”

And the Lord said

“I burn down your cities—how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say, How blessed are we
You must all be crazy to put your faith in me
That’s why I love mankind
You really need me
That’s why I love mankind”

Now when I listen to these last lines that Newman attributes to God, I see in my mind the image of Trump standing before the White House in that video he released in the middle of the attack on the Capitol, saying to those “low class” fervent supporters, “We love you, you’re very special.” How they must have basked in his false affection.

The blindness that God relentlessly, even gleefully celebrates in Newman’s song is clearly echoed today by Trump’s followers. No matter what Trump does, no matter what principles he shatters that they previously espoused, no matter what lies they willingly believe, no matter what contempt he shows for them, they blindly follow. Because, with all their grievances, real and imagined, with all their inner wounds, they really need him.

Even though their “God Emperor” won’t take care of us, and he won’t let us be.

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January 12th, 2021 by admin