Sleepwalkers Strolling Through Fire

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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May 29th, 2013 by admin

That Opening Paragraph

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

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


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

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

photo of grid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rubber band

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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May 13th, 2013 by admin

To Remain a Witness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

Paul Auster and Michael Heller quotes are from On Testimony.

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March 10th, 2013 by admin

The Secret History of Objects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Draw my hand?”

“Michael. You know . . . “

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Other craft posts of interest: “The Threads That Tie Us to Objects,” and “Oh You Doll.”

The Art of the Knock, How to Read an Unwritten Language and Interior Design are now available in the Dzanc Books contemporary fiction e-book reprint series.

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December 22nd, 2012 by admin

Writing that Travels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Him and others like him.”

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

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

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

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


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

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


Portrait of Pessoa by Manuela Nogueira.

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July 26th, 2012 by admin

Farewell Bernardo Sassetti

In the late fall of 2006, during the year I lived in Lisbon with my family, we took a short trip up to the town of Coimbra. While there, I came upon a small but overstuffed record store, the kind I remember from my childhood, and I immediately made a beeline to the Portuguese music section—I was always looking for new music of this country I loved. One of my best discoveries was Do Outro Lado, a CD of symphonic jazz by the saxophonist Carlos Martins. This is lush and soulful music that I still play obsessively. One of the guiding forces behind the music was Bernardo Sassetti, the Portuguese pianist, arranger, and composer, and I began to seek out his own music.

Sassetti had many CDs to his credit, solo and with a trio, musical scores for films, and among my favorites, his collaboration with fellow jazz pianist Mário Laginha, four hands of extraordinary jazz improvisation.

Every song is a highlight, though perhaps my favorite is Sassetti and Laginha’s version of the classic “Take the A Train.” It’s a slow, dreamy vamp, sexy and reflective at the same time, and filled, it seems to me, with the nostalgia the Portuguese call saudade.

Last week a dear friend from Lisbon, Fernanda Pratas, wrote to tell me that Bernardo Sassetti had died on May 10th, at the age of 41. Besides being an accomplished musician and composer, Sassetti was also a photographer of some note, and he died from a fall while shooting pictures on the edge of a cliff at Guincho, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. He left behind a wife, the actress Beatriz Batarda, and two young daughters.

In 1980 I was living in a remote village in Ivory Coast when news came over our battery-run radio that John Lennon had been shot and killed. None of the villagers had heard of him, or the Beatles, and I remember how my wife Alma and I had felt so alone, with no one able to share or understand our sadness at this great musician’s tragic passing. I feel something of this despair today, since Bernardo Sassetti is virtually unknown in the U.S., though he is famous in Portugal and throughout Europe. What a loss Sassetti’s death is, though no one I know here realizes that. So I thought, as an homage, I would present some of his music.

Here Sassetti performs the theme he composed for the movie Alice. You can hear some of the delicacy and harmonic boldness of his playing, a direct line from Bill Evans, but touched with something else, I think, the saudade I mentioned earlier, a complicated emotion of loss and love and longing that has no English equivalent.

In this next video, Sassetti joins with the revered fado singer Carlos do Carmo, for the song “Cantigas de Maio,” composed by the great José Afonso. Here Sassetti’s piano seems to echo the twelve-string Portuguese guitar, the traditional accompaniment for fado singers. Portuguese jazz has its roots in fado (considered the blues of Portugal), and these two remarkable musicians give this influence a deeply felt modern update.

I hesitate to recommend this final video, it has evoked tears in me more than once. It’s a television interview with Mário Laginha the day after Sassetti’s death, and Laginha’s deep sadness is barely contained. I wondered why he would agree to speak publicly so soon after his dear friend and collaborator’s death, until Laginha sits at the piano and plays a song, one from the four handed improvisations CD I mentioned above. The song is “Despedida,”—Farewell—and Laginha plays his part, while Sassetti’s, of course, remains silent.

Click to view video:
Mário Laginha pays homage to Bernardo Sassetti

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May 26th, 2012 by admin

Possible Adventures

About two years ago I began to get in the habit every Monday of asking my undergraduate creative writing students if anyone had an adventure over the weekend, or done anything that might be considered unusual. I sometimes accompanied this with a little light teasing: “You guys are young, the perfect time to go out and have an adventure,” and so on. Often my students simply stared at me as if I were crazy.

I hoped my question might lead to students easing out of their comfort zone and perhaps finding new subject matter to write about. As every writer who has taught an undergraduate fiction workshop knows, there’s a certain inevitable amount of stories that will come your way about dying grandparents, or stories about breakups or hooking up in bars, an unwanted pregnancy or bad roommates. The students are searching for subject matter, and these are the old standbys. Or they try out genre fiction, modeling their narratives on fictional worlds they know intimately from television or the movies.

I’m not the sort of teacher who restricts what students can write for my class. I’ve come to believe that young writers need to write what matters to them, that working through their individual passions can lead them to a deeper understanding of why they want to write in the first place. I’ve also found that if I impose one “No” on subject matter in class, students tend to hear that No reverberate, and hear other No’s elsewhere and so cut off possible paths, possible risk taking in their writing. So, if I was good about not imposing a No, how could I, perhaps, also offer a Yes?

Sometimes a student would come to my office a little flustered, confessing that he or she had no clue what to write about, and I’d always say (guided by Flannery O’Conner’s wry observation that anyone who has survived his or her childhood has enough material for a lifetime), “Tell me about your family. What does your dad, your mom do, tell me about your aunts and uncles, your grandparents.” After a little skeptical silence, I’d start to hear some family tidbits, and when I’d hear something like, “And then my dad has an older sister, but we never talk to that side of the family,” I’d pounce: “Oh, why not?” And soon enough, the student realized he had three or four dramatic vignettes he could try to transform into fiction.

These were individual victories, but they didn’t affect the larger class. So last fall, I began sending out emails to students each Thursday alerting them to interesting nearby events taking place outside the usual bubble of the university that might offer them new topics from which they might create fictions: a stamp collectors show, a Civil War reenactment, a Japanese tea ceremony, an “owl prowl,” or a barrel horse racing competition.

Very few students took the bait. So this spring semester I decided to make going on an adventure (and writing up a two page report) a requirement for my two classes, a beginning and an advanced fiction workshop. At first, the idea of venturing outside the university comfort zone met some resistance, a sort of sullen and unspoken Why are you making us do this? And a certain fear, I think, a reluctance to venture into the unknown.

I kept sending out emails each Thursday with announcements I’d gleaned from the local newspaper. Weeks passed, and then one student, who grew up in suburban Chicago, went to a local agricultural fair, donned a shoulder length glove, and extended her arm into the surgically-sculpted open window of a cow’s stomach. Another attended a roller derby game, and wrote this:

“I wish I could feel the freedom these women possess, and have the ability to use my body in a way that may not be seen as ladylike, damning the consequences. A few bruises here and there would be worth it to feel truly alive, working together with a team, completely unknown and free from worry of what I look like. No one dare tell a roller derby girl she’s fat: that body is meant for use. Society has no hold on them; they are above the petty, competing glances at the thighs of another woman.”

At the beginning of class I’d read out loud some students’ short adventure essays, and this seemed to serve as inspiration. By the end of the semester, my students were enthusiastic adventure seekers, and many went out on two or more (extra credit!), to a small town’s barn auction, or a pet cemetery, a free Afro-Cuban jazz concert, or an Edible Book arts festival. One student, Trent Lorenz, went with his mother (Mom’s Weekend) to a vintage button show, and she is now directing him to some family history:

“My mom is making me look through my late great aunt’s old buttons. She kept a lot of them because it was in her Polish blood to waste not. I’m hoping there are some hidden gems in there, considering she was born in 1912. As of right now, I’m thinking of doing something with this adventure. Maybe something along the line of Robert Olen Butler’s “Wish You Were Here” postcard book, because I was told that buttons tell the story of our past one little piece at a time, and that their pictures depict historic events that should be appreciated as art but are often overlooked. I think I’ll need to collect more buttons for these stories, but I also think I have a good start.”

Another student attended the Hindu Holi festival of spring, where crowds throw colored powder at each other (the celebration on our campus included hundreds of pounds of color, a DJ, live music, water guns, and Indian food):

“They laughed with me, danced with me to the live band, chased me and let me chase them, all the while with paint flying about! For a brief moment of my eighteen-year-old life, I felt my youth coming back: the little child that is still not done playing tag and climbing trees. It feels so bittersweet to think of my inner-kid. I really, really miss the fun I got to have before things like responsibilities, opinions, judgments and hormones got in the way. Society put the lid on my inner child’s expressionism. It was so very nice to get to be a kid again. Quite frankly, it didn’t matter what thoughts or opinions you had of Holi so long as you were friendly and open to getting hugged by complete strangers trying to mask you in green. I absolutely loved every moment of it. It was worth earning the nickname “Colors” at work.”

Another student attended a game at the National Intercollegiate Wheelchair Basketball Tournament: “A surprising part of the game was the physicality of the play. The chair seemed to be in no way a hindrance for testosterone charged physicality between players. The fouls were flying and they looked painful too. Players would run their chairs into each other and at times even tip each other over because of the force of the hit. When this would happen the downed player always got up without the help of their teammates, opponents, or the ref. I thought this was the most incredible part of the game because of the amount of power it must take to flip one’s self (as well as a wheelchair) up off the ground using hands and arms.”

Finally, two students went together to a white Victorian House in town that dubs itself The School of Metaphysics, to attend a showing of a contemporary artist’s film about premonitions in dreams.

These two students turned out to be the entire audience, and while there they were served tea and cookies. One student summed up the adventure this way:

“Overall, there were two things that I really enjoyed about the experience. One was this new stimulus to consider dreams and just how they can be guided to make them productive. The other was much more unique and enjoyable. It was that feeling of peering into someone else’s life, namely Dr. Pam and her assistant. This was something they really believed in and devoted a good amount of time to. It is hard to explain, but I love that feeling of seeing a real life, not the kind you see in stories, not the kind you see in movies. The kind that on the surface would look absolutely unremarkable, but yet isn’t. It is genuine, unmarred by greed or a desire for anything but to help others by spreading what they see as a powerful tool to improve one’s life. This is such a break from the standard modern life that I have been a part of. There was a certain beauty to it, and I believe that this is what I appreciated most.”

Another benefit of these adventures was that my students arrived at a wider view of the surrounding community. Every week I posted four or five lively and unusual events taking place, the secret lesson being that the weird and wonderful can be found anywhere. A writer can take that lesson to the bank for the rest of his or her life.

Unfortunately, most of my students hesitated until the last month of the semester to experience an adventure, and so the benefit of new story ideas and possibilities wasn’t able to be attempted or realized in the class. For this coming fall semester I’m thinking of requiring students to have an adventure before mid-term, so that there will be more simmering time.

Often, writing instructors can grouse about the limited subject matter undergraduate students bring to the table in a writing workshop. But really, they’re just trying the best with what they think they have. At this late date in my teaching career, I think I may have managed to find a way to broaden my students’ outlook, to help them find mystery and surprise in unlikely corners and stories nearly everywhere.

Other posts of interest on the craft of writing:

The Way Narratives Go

What’s Structure Got to Do With It?

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May 14th, 2012 by admin

In Praise of Absence

I have long been an admirer of the landscape painters of the Chinese Sung Dynasty, who nearly a thousand years ago depicted the natural world as both dynamic and imbued with deep peace. The style of these contemplative, monumental canvases is perhaps best represented by Fan Kuan’s masterpiece, “Travellers Among Mountains and Streams.”

The stately rise of the mountain’s rounded forms dominates the silk canvas, but that thin white stream of a waterfall on the right soon focuses my attention as well, especially when I realize that the water’s descent is actually negative space, shaped by the dark ink on either side. Then, I’m pulled in by the sense of palpable distance the white swathes of mist create, an absence separating the foreground from the background. The scene seems so deeply inhabited by the artist’s gaze that I feel I’m somehow there too, in awe of this striking panorama. But where are those “travellers” mentioned in the title, anyway?

If you squint your eyes, you’ll make out a teeny line of dark shapes in the bottom right corner. Here’s a close-up (Click to enlarge. Really, click):

Even in this detail the travellers are overwhelmed by nearby trees on the minor promontory and those secondary cascades of the waterfall. From this perspective, it’s hard to tell where the pack animals end and the human beings begin. We are so small we’re nearly absent, this Sung Dynasty master shows us, and nature is so large.

Another Sung painter who has intrigued me is Ma Yuan, sometimes referred to as “one corner Ma,” because of a number of his paintings in which all the detail is kept to one corner or section, letting it be defined by the negative space of the rest of the canvas. In one of his classic works, “Walking on a Mountain Path in Spring,” a scholar contemplates the vast sky before him–marked only by a single bird–inviting us, perhaps, to also contemplate what can and cannot be seen.

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 2-19-15    8.55.45 PM

Ma Yuan was an absolute master in shaping absence, defining what can be seen out of what cannot, as this detail from one of his paintings illustrates: a ridge or two, a few trees, a smattering of birds, and a vast space is elegantly and efficiently brought to life.

The extreme example above reminds me of the power of the space bar in writing—that empty space, sometimes punctuated by an asterisk or some other doodad, that separates sections of a short story, novel or essay. This empty space can connote the passage of time, or a change of narrative point of view, or a switch of locale, or sometimes a combination of all three. We can be reading, say, a narrative from a mother’s perspective taking place in the winter in New England, and then, with nothing more than the emptiness of a space bar, easily shift to the daughter’s point of view five years later, on a Florida beach. Take that, Ma Yuan!

But there are more ways to establish meaning, enhance a narrative’s drama, or deepen a character through absence. Often when we create, much is left behind in the revision and editing process, and yet what we have learned from what we have chosen not to display can assert itself, however subtly. Here’s a fine example described by the director Joel Cohen, from an interview in the book Moviemaker’s Master Class, by Laurent Tirard:

“The only time we do actual improvisation is during rehearsals, to bring certain things out, but that usually doesn’t affect the scene itself. What we’ll usually do is ask the actors to invent the parts of the scene that aren’t written, the five minutes that take place before and after the scene. We find that it helps them get into the scene better. Jeff Bridges and John Goodman liked to do that a lot on “The Big Lebowski.” And sometimes it was very funny. Actually, sometimes it was even better than what we wrote!”

Every scene we see in a movie, or read in a novel or memoir is surrounded by unexpressed scenes that take place prior to or just after the unfolding moment of drama before us and is shaped in some way by their offstage gravitational pull. Thinking about what leads up to the scene we are about to write can be especially helpful, as we can better imagine its dramatic trajectory.

The use of absence works for the development of characters as well. When Albert Brooks prepared for his role in the movie “Drive,” he wrote down an elaborate backstory for his creepy character. “I find it’s helpful just to know about things in your mind,” he said in an interview in The New York Times. “You can put it away. Because that’s what real people do. Real people walk into a room knowing where they’ve been the day before and what’s happening to them. It makes the present easier, if you know the past.” Behind the powerful intimidating gaze below is a world of the character’s past that Brooks has created inside himself, a past that viewers can’t see, though its effect can certainly be felt.

Even dialogue, that noisiest aspect of narrative, can benefit from absence. John Fowles, in his essay “Notes on Writing a Novel,” described a moment when he couldn’t imagine what a character might next say in a scene in his then novel-in-progress, The French Lieutenant’s Woman. “I was struck this morning to find a good answer from Sarah at the climax of the scene. Characters sometimes reject all the possibilities one offers. They say in effect: I would never say or do a thing like that. But they don’t say what they would say; and one has to proceed negatively, by a very tedious coaxing kind of trial and error. After an hour over this one wretched sentence, I realized that she had in effect been telling me what to do: silence from her was better than any line she might have said.”

We writers, perhaps because the empty page can frighten or intimidate us, can make the mistake of concentrating too much on filling up the blank space, relying too heavily on the varied palette of our words to create fictional worlds or the memoryscape of a memoir. But intentional absence is powerful, the unspoken often loud, and what we cannot see may insist on our curious attention.

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March 17th, 2012 by admin

A Good Title Is Hard to Find

When the Kardashian sisters announced on their website that they were writing a novel, publisher William Morrow described the book as the story of “three gorgeous celebrity sisters, their complicated relationships with Hollywood, each other and the glamorous lives they lead in front of the cameras and behind the scenes.” I know, not much of a stretch. However, the sisters were apparently having trouble coming up with a good title, and so they decided to sponsor a contest for their novel-in-progress. On their website Kimmy Kardashian explained: “We thought it would be super fun if we asked our fans to name the book! We couldn’t decide on a title, and we know how creative you guys are.”

This contest was certainly a publicity stunt to generate interest in a ghost-written celebrity book event (eventually called Dollhouse) that was designed to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Still, the Sisters K (now that might have been a good title) were on to something. Writing a book is hard, but sometimes coming up with the right title is harder.

Often, the words of the title are the last words a writer commits to in a short story, essay or a novel, and they can arrive only after some brain busting contemplation. Even the greatest writers have had to develop their titling instincts. Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace was originally All’s Well That Ends Well. And John Steinbeck’s original try for Of Mice and Men sounds as though he was ready to give it all up: Something That Happened. It’s hard to imagine anyone would be willing to crack the cover of a book with such a wan, decaffeinated title.

Other great books took quite a circuitous route before arriving at the moniker with which we’re all familiar. For example, The Great Gatsby had eight working titles, none of them very promising:

Incident at West Egg
Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires
Trimalchio in West Egg
On the Road to West Egg
Gold-hatted Gatsby
The High-bouncing Lover
Under the Red White and Blue

In retrospect, it’s easy to laugh at early title drafts because the final choice is so apt it’s hard to entertain any alternate. And yet, all authors have to finally arrive at that perfect title, and sometimes the ones we jettison along the way help get us there. Eric Puchner, writing in The Rumpus, says “when it comes to the writing process, sometimes a bad title can help you more than a good one . . . I’ve heard students tell me they come up with their titles first, before they have the slightest notion of a plot. I see nothing wrong with this, so long as they’re willing to give up their ‘creative title’ when it no longer serves the story.”

In other words, even an inadequate title can lead you into the mysterious territory of the as yet unwritten. Eventually, as an initial title’s power weakens, and grows dim, this is the sign to search for another, or to patiently wait for a new one to appear out of the ongoing writing. The title isn’t merely a billboard advertising your product, it is inextricably linked to the ongoing creation of your story or essay.

So why do titles seem to be the neglected stepchild of workshop discussions? Rarely is the efficacy of a title examined at length in writing workshops. In all my years of teaching, I can recall just a few really detailed discussions of the title of the work in question. Most often, the title isn’t mentioned at all. Yet titles often pull far more than their weight in a reader’s experience and understanding of a literary work, and in myriad ways they can give depth and, for prose writers, come the closest we ever get to writing poetry. An apt title can be an x-ray of your story’s hidden heart, expanding the possibilities of all that remains unsaid.

I think one reason why few people bring up this issue in workshop is that, since we’ve all been through the agonies of drawing out a title that refuses to be found, we understand how personal the process is. I wonder if other writers feel on some unconscious level that finding a title is a conversation best kept between a writer and her story or essay or novel. In some ways, it’s like the intimate process of naming a child. Naming a child might actually be easier, though every parent probably remembers poring for days, even weeks through one of those How To Name Your Child books. Though this may be one of the most important acts of titling you’ll ever do in your life, when all is said and done, as a last resort you can always name your unborn son after Uncle Bob. Try doing that with a novel: Bob. Not so catchy.

As with naming our children, we’re uncomfortable if a work of art goes too long without a title; something seems wrong, incomplete. I remember the horror I felt when friends of mine told me that, two weeks later, they still hadn’t named their infant daughter. To me, it seemed as if the child was still waiting to be born.

Similar to naming a child, with a title you’re naming a work of art that is at the same time a part of yourself, offering that hitherto unknown territory within you some definition, a sly definition that has built within it more than one interpretation, so that this title, this work of art, will find a place outside you.

The great Brazilian writer, Clarisse Lispector, had so much trouble coming up with the title of her last novel that she listed, on the frontispiece, the thirteen possibilities she had entertained while writing.

(Click to enlarge image)

Some of these are clearly working titles, ideas about the book she was writing, about a sickly and naïve working class shop girl in northern Brazil. In some, the author seems to be recording her despair about the writing process itself. And yet, in the end, she chose a title that captures the attention with its poetry, and yet explains nothing—for that, you have to read the book: The Hour of the Star. It’s typical of Lispector to share her frustration about the process of finding a title. In this novel in particular she comments on the proceedings, including a wonderful passage in which she tries for several pages to decide whether or not she should let one of the characters, who has been hit by a car, die or not. So in a sense, that title page is true to the book’s spirit, which is in many ways about authorial creation and indecision.

The website Better Book Titles offers the snarky literary equivalent of Monday morning quarterbacking. At this website, people can post alternate, more “accurate” titles for famous books.

Instead of The Picture of Dorian Grey, by Oscar Wilde, this novel is now Never Stab a Magic Painting

Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca becomes So I Married a Definite Wife-Murderer

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: This Fate Could Have Been Avoided If She had a Sassy Gay Friend

Melville’s Billy Budd: Jesus Would Not Last Long in the Navy

Ian McEwen’s Atonement: Kids Say the Darndest Things

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day: Butlers Can’t Share Their Feelings

Dicken’s A Christmas Carol: Rich People Deserve Second Chances

There’s a truth that can be learned from this very incomplete list. These alternate titles are actually terrible (which is why they’re so funny) because they sum up the contents too well. They give too much away, like those trailers for movies we immediately know we’ll never see.

The best title serves as an ambiguous invitation. It should offer something true about your book that at the same time can’t quite be said. What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, by Raymond Carver, is perhaps one of the more classic titles in recent American fiction. It has such an elegant structure, those two, nearly identical halves

What we talk about
When we talk about

culminating in the word love.

Nine words, and all but two (the repeated “about”) are monosyllables. The simplicity of the language echoes the short story collection’s aesthetic too, for this is of course a work of minimalist fiction. And yet that last word, love, complicates everything, maximalizes the title. “Love” is a big subject, and what we talk about, when we talk about it, is not clear from the title. You have to read the book to find out, and you can be sure that there won’t be only one “what,” connected to this bottomless subject. One way to get a better sense of the power of Carver’s title is to contemplate the variations you can find nearly anywhere.

“What We Talk about When We Talk about Flow” is the title for an excellent essay on the subject of prose rhythm by David Jauss, from his craft book Alone with All that Could Happen. But you can also find, with a quick Google search, What We Talk about When We Talk about

Raising taxes
The weather
Not having kids

These variations are all homages to the classic original, but they have little or none of the poetry (with the exception of the Jauss title); instead, they are informational, as they were intended to be. They narrow the focus of attention. Carver’s title in contrast opens it up, with an implied promise of multiple revelation. Carver, remember, was also a fine poet.

But titling fiction, nonfiction or poetry contains as infinitude of approaches, as well as dangers. An indifferent title can be your essay’s tombstone. An overly flashy title can be a garish neon sign that distracts from the goods in the window. And of course there is no single path to lead you to a final decision.

Sometimes, a title can also set up an anticipation that may or may not be met, which may ironically encourage the reader to see the complexities that can’t be contained by the title. A short story recently published by John Warner in the literary/arts magazine Ninth Letter has a mouthful of a title: “Return to Sensibility Problems After Penetrating Captive Bolt Stunning of Cattle in Commercial Beef Slaughter Plant #5867: Confidential Report.” The dry, reportorial nature of this title is undermined by the voice of the narrator, an inspector who slowly becomes undone by the realities and ambiguities of dealing out death in the slaughterhouse–by the end, it becomes increasingly unlikely that this very official-sounding report will ever be submitted.

Gloria Sawai, in her collection The Song of Nettie Johnson, has another great stem-winder of a title, though its effects are quite different from the Warner story: “The Day I Sat with Jesus on the Sundeck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts.” This is a title that will capture your attention, and sets up a number of questions before you read the first sentence of the story. Is the narrator joking, or seriously delusional? Are we as readers meant to believe in this spiritual event? And if so, what the hell then happens after that wind arrives? Will Jesus behave like a gentleman?

Titles can be so elusive, so frustrating to pin down because they are a concentrated form of the originality and revelation we seek in our writing, the fragile creatures of our imagination that must be named, but not reduced. They must be named in a way that allows them to breathe, and to breathe in tandem with a reader. Sad to say, you’re not likely to be able to rely on your workshop mates for much help. Only you the author know just what secrets lie embedded in your text, just what distillation of words, in the guise of a title, might give those secrets voice, what might best represent the complicated freedom of your book’s irreducible self.

This post is an abridged version of a craft lecture (titled “To Kill a Great Gatsby in Cold Blood or, A Good Title Is Hard to Find”) that I first delivered at the Vermont College of Fine Arts on June 29, 2011. During the lecture, the audience and I collaborated on an entry for the Kardashian contest. We came up with Beyond Spanx, which, unfortunately, was not chosen.

For a personal account of an author struggling to find just the right title, see Erika Dreifus’ thoughtful essay “What’s in a Title?” at The Center for Fiction.

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January 29th, 2012 by admin

The Man Behind the Beard: Santa Confesses

The fall of 1974 wasn’t the best time for me, at least at first. The country was in deep recession, and in the past several months I’d been bouncing from one odd job to another: maintenance mechanic, newspaper truck driver, construction crew laborer, upholsterer’s apprentice, you name it. Then I took a job as a bartender in Tuckahoe, New York, in a mansion that had recently been converted into a dinner theater. The huge building had once been the home of Dutch Schultz, the 1930s gangster, and rumors flew among us about possible hidden passageways to ill-gotten loot. I should have been content with this gig, but in my second week I received word that I was a finalist for another job I’d applied for: a department store Santa. Why not? I thought, and went to the interview, where apparently some scrap of potential jolly peeked out of me, and I was offered one of the plum assignments: my own throne in the Saks Fifth Avenue department store in White Plains, New York. With only a little hesitation, I accepted. I was marking time anyway—in January I’d enter midyear into the graduate creative writing program at City College, where I’d eventually study with Frederick Tuten and Donald Barthelme—and I reasoned that I could always find work as a bartender. But how many opportunities would I have to play a Santa? Maybe I could get a story out of it.

Ten years later, in the fall of 1984 and on the eve of the release of my second book, The Art of the Knock: Stories, the editors at the Washington Post Sunday Magazine (who had recently published one of my short stories in their summer fiction issue) contacted me and asked if I had any holiday memories for an essay they might feature in the Christmas issue. Oh, I have a few, I’d replied.

Click cover to enlarge

The Man Behind the Beard: Confessions of a Department Store Santa

I sat nervously before a mirror in the employees’ dressing room of a large suburban department store: 23 years old and without a wrinkle, I was about to begin my first day as Santa Claus. It was the day after Thanksgiving, the beginning of the holiday shopping season. The week before I had been a mere bartender.

I started to dress by strapping a pillow around my waist with a length of rope which, when knotted, rubbed hard against my back. Then I pulled the baggy red pants up and around the pillow, and I tied the waist cord. Next came the jacket, also bulky. Finally, I fastened the wide black belt around my belly and put on the black boot fronts that fit over my shoes. Already I felt quite warm beneath the thick layers. I remembered when I had first dressed as Santa: in the employment agency I had stood sweating in the suit before the woman who interviewed me. She had cautiously asked me if I had ever flown in a helicopter before. “No,” I had said, somewhat surprised. “Well,” she had then asked, “would you mind flying in one?”


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December 10th, 2011 by admin