Category Archives: Things You Should Be Reading

Post #123: Well Said, Eudora Welty

Some lovely passages from Eudora Welty’s memoir to brighten and enlighten your day…

“The events in our lives happen in a sequence of time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order, a timetable not necessarily–perhaps not possibly–chronological. The time as we know it subjectively is often the chronology that stories and novels follow: it is the continuous thread of revelation.”

“Writing fiction has developed in me an abiding respect for the unknown in a human lifetime and a sense of where to look for the threads, how to follow, how to connect, find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists. The strands are all there: to the memory nothing is ever really lost.”

“Characters take on life sometimes by luck, but I suspect it is when you can write most entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page.”

“That summer, lying in the long grass with my head propped against the back of a saddle, with the zenith above me and the drop of distance below, I listened to the mountain silence until I could hear as far into it as the faintest clink of a cowbell. In the mountains, what might be out of sight had never really gone away. Like the mountain, the distant bell would always be there. It would keep reminding.”

 

Post #122: Andrea Barrett

A recent book that blew my mind was Andrea Barrett’s collection of stories called Servants of the Map. It was one of those books that, while reading, I could feel burrowing into my writer’s subconscious, re-arranging the wiring for what’s possible and what I want to be able to do in fiction. Here’s some thoughts on Point of View in a story from that collection, ‘The Forest.”

“The Forest” contains an astonishing twenty-four changes in point of view in only twenty-five pages of text. It’s a remarkably fluid and almost basketball like passing of perspectives back and forth between its two main characters, Bianca and Krzysztof. In the story’s early going, the changes in perspective—initially indicated by white space—seem geared to help us witness a party (and its guests), at which our two main characters find themselves, from different perspectives. That it does. Yet, by the story’s end, when Bianca and Krzysztof sneak away from the party and begin sharing details of their pasts, Barrett’s intention for such fluid, frequent (though risky) changes in POV grows more deeply linked to experiencing not just the story’s action from different perspectives, but its profound themes as well.

We open in the POV of aging and well-regarded scientist Krzysztof Wojciechowicz, who has just arrived at an esteemed colleague’s party at which many celebrated scientists are present. Krzysztof feels out of place. So too does Bianca, the young woman who helped chauffer Krzysztof to the party and is bitterly transitioning away from the world of science and academia. In the opening sections, the point of view shifts back and forth between them, trading off every couple pages.

On the micro level, when Krzysztof and Bianca meet, we’re in Krzysztof’s POV where we learn he “could not help noticing that she had lovely breasts.” A few pages later, now in Bianca’s POV and learning how she fits—or decidedly doesn’t fit—into this party dynamic, she stops to consider the strange elder scientist, noting “had it not been for the lizardike graze of his eyes across her chest, she might have felt sorry for him.” It’s a subtle moment—in fact, it could easily be played for comedy in another story—but Barrett seizes on it as a way to develop character and make the most of these new eyes through which we’re seeing the action. What do we learn? Krzysztof, though elderly, still can’t help a peek at a young woman’s chest. He wonders: “How was it he still felt these impulses?” This question raises the stakes of his indiscretion, and the fact of his looking matters even more when we learn that Bianca has not only noticed, but been miffed by the unwanted glance. Without the shifting POV, this moment can’t happen.

Similarly, in the first Krzysztof section, Bianca comes off as brash, agitated, and dismissive of Krzysztof. In the very next section, in Bianca’s POV, she sneaks to an upstairs bedroom and smokes a joint. Directly after this, back in Krzysztof’s POV, he awakes from an accidental nap to find Bianca “cross-legged on the grass, watching over him.” Something’s changed in her; he can feel it. “She seemed happy now; what had he missed?” Krzysztof doesn’t know she’s high, but he doesn’t need to. Here Barrett uses the shifting POV not just for character development and tension, but for dramatic irony as well, and to establish a gradually building closeness between them.

The macro benefits unfold more gradually as Krzysztof and Bianca’s perception of one another becomes more sympathetic and round. More human. For instance, Krzysztof recognizes that Bianca has spirit and he seems intrigued by Bianca’s complex relationship with her sister, Rose. Bianca’s sense of Krzysztof changes even more dramatically when he invites her to share some rare vodka he’s brought from overseas, and, buoyed by his kindness, and several shots of bison vodka, she finds that “…this man, whom at first she’d felt saddled with and longed to escape, was some sort of magician.” Barrett consistently justifies the change in perspective by showing us such powerful and revealing character insights.

Mid-way through the story, as Krzysztof and Bianca grow friendlier, and as their conversation shifts from the party to their pasts, especially their mothers, Barrett stops tipping her hand with white space and begins changing POV both more fluidly and more often. For instance, at one point we are in Krzysztof’s POV and he’s telling Bianca a long story about his mother, who helped keep the bison population alive in Europe, yet in the middle of his story, “Bianca interrupted him—he seemed old again, he was wandering. And crossing and uncrossing his legs like a little boy who had to pee.” When Bianca interrupts, the perspective shifts, yet the action continues without interruption. It’s this seamless story movement that keeps the increasingly shifting POV from growing cumbersome.

And yet, the “head hopping” that Barrett engages in walks a fine line and might, in lesser hands, detract from the story. In The Power of Point of View, Alicia Rasley writes that “the indiscriminate shifting from one character’s POV to another’s” is “like being trapped in a car with a driver who keeps changing lanes every ten seconds.” Good advice for those of us still learning how to use and harness point of view. What keeps this feeling at bay in “The Forest” though is both Barrett’s control and purpose for the shifting POV, and also the fact that she only shifts between two characters. If she changed perspectives as frequently with, say, four or five characters, or across more settings, the effect might be whiplash and harder to sustain or justify.

In the end, the characters end up witnessing the same climactic moment—a cluster of deer who come each day to feed in a patch of nearby forest—but end up focused on different things. Her time with Krzysztof has sent Bianca thinking of her mother and of the complex relationship she has with her sister. Krzysztof, though clearly affected by remembrances of his mother and the early part of his life, still seems more physically in the present. On their way back to the party, Krzysztof invites small talk and Bianca asks him about the bison his mother helped protect. “How pleasing that after all she’d paid attention to his stories,” he thinks. Though affected by the deer and his thoughts, he’s still very aware of this lovely young girl he’s ended up sharing the afternoon with.

Their connection to their past, and to their mothers, informs why they end up connecting in the present. Barrett’s shifting POV makes the context of their relationship richer and more deeply felt. It also helps deepen one of the story’s central themes, the sense of longing for and deep consideration of a past that has influenced the present. The story takes a darkly comic turn when Krzysztof hurts himself on their brief sojourn and Bianca has to bring him back to the party with braces on his legs. Rather than face the music, though, Bianca peels out of the driveway with the esteemed guests looking on, incredulous and worried. And yet, this ends up being a profound shared moment. “Back, Krzysztof thought” as they’re driving away, “back across the ocean and Europe toward home; back to the groves of Bialowieza, where his mother might once have crossed paths with Bianca’s grandfather.” In this moment for him, their lives have become joined both in the present drama and in the lingering past, uniting them more deeply. And yet, Barrett gives us one final shift in POV to show the ways in which their shared experience has affected them differently. “He thought back but Bianca, her foot heavy on the accelerator, thought away. From Rose, their mother, their entire past.”

It’s rather amazing what Barrett achieves in “The Forest.” On first reading, I felt aware of frequent shifts in POV and was impressed at how seamless it felt. On closer examination, finding just how often she changes POV and what she’s able to achieve as a result—just the simple fact that she pulls it off—I feel excited to explore how shifts in POV can deepen and broaden my own stories.

 

Post #116: Billy Collins

billy_collins_1Billy Collins is probably the most famous living American poet whose name is not Maya Angelou. A pillar of American letters, he’s about as well regarded critically and popularly as it’s possible for a poet to be while still drawing breath, and living in a country that doesn’t much give a shit about poetry.

Because I live in a great city (Burlington, VT), I learned that Billy Collins was doing a free reading last week up on campus as UVM at the lovely, though horribly humid and hard-benched Ira Allen chapel, and my better half and I double dated (yeah, that’s right, double-dated to a poetry reading, sucka!) to watch Mr. Collins.

If you don’t know Billy Collins’s poems, you should. Even if you’re not a poetry fan. As someone once said, Collins writes poetry for people who don’t like poetry. That’s a bit trite, but kind of true. And his poems might just trick you into loving poetry. They possess the fairy dust of every day life at its funniest and most enlightening. His poems are easy to read and follow, yet never shallow or simple. They are always fresh, yet instantly recognizable.

In the hour he was on stage, Collins actually didn’t read all that much poetry. I’d sort of expected he’d read twenty or thirty poems and then slip away into the night. But he was also there to discuss poetry and in particular a book of poems he edited called Poetry 180, which he intended to be poems that could be read aloud to high school kids as little poetic nuggets. Poems that could be appreciated on the first pass. He talked a bit about his philosophy for writing poems, which is to craft poems that tend to start in the concrete and then venture gradually into the not so concrete, perhaps even abstraction or a dream state. He talked about poetry’s tendency to plunge a reader into a dark basement and make them search for a flashlight, and how his method is the opposite, to craft poems whose “game” is easy to spot. Poems that aren’t trying to hide from the reader, that desire to make their intent a bit more clear so as to increase enjoyment and accessibility. Yeah yeah, you’re thinking, rah rah rah. It’s poetry! Who cares?

But I was there; it was damn interesting. It was a packed house. People were riveted.

If nothing else, it’s always a thrill to see in the flesh an artist who you’ve long admired from afar. He was dapper, self-depricating, hilarious, and completely lovable. I kind of wish I could hang out with him, or that he was my uncle or something.

So you can better smell what I’m cookin, here’s a clip of Collins reading one of his most famous poems, and one he read for us the other night, “The Lanyard.” It’s the blend of funny and sweet and sad that so many of his poems possess. He was a bit more dynamic the other night than in this clip, but you’ll see what I mean.

Post #111: J to the D

JD Salinger Portrait SessionPardon me while I majorly geek out for a second.

But, holy crap, am I excited.

It seemed like a foregone conclusion that eventually we’d get word of what the hell J.D. Salinger had been writing and putting in a safe all those years. I mean, of course there were going to be posthumous books. That’s books, plural, friends. We all knew it. It was just a matter of when. Numerous sources, including Salinger himself, attested to the fact that he’d been writing on a daily basis since the 60’s but had just lost interest in publishing and was now writing only for himself. Kind of a reverse Emily Dickinson. And since he seemed not to have been using his writing as kindling, the fair conclusion is that he wanted his writing not only found, but published, as he must have known it would be. But since Salinger died in January, 2010, it’s been awfully quiet about the matter and I was starting to get a little worried.

Until now.

Word is that several new Salinger books could be coming, starting in 2015

91NYZ4jdiFL._SL1500_David Shields and Shane Salerno, authors of the forthcoming Salinger biography called, creatively, Salinger, make the claim. They say that one of the books could feature Holden Caulfield and another further stories about the Glass family, which Salinger often wrote about. Another could probe deeper into Salinger’s experiences in World War II, also a common topic in his published writing.

This is the part where I start foaming at the mouth and screaming “YES!” loud enough to scare the neighbors.

Sure, in an ideal world, it would be awfully cool to see some work that ventured into new terrain or introduced different characters.  Find out what Salinger thought of the world as it changed around him. But we’ve been waiting a long ass time for this moment, and I, for one, will take whatever I can get.

Post #101: This is Hardly Worthy of a Post, But…

onion newsI couldn’t resist sharing this recent article from The Onion about the secret to being a writer. “Written” by Joyce Carol Oates, it’s entitled, “If You Wish to be a Writer, Have Sex With Someone Who Works in Publishing.”

The Onion is a national treasure that packs just about more laughs per square inch than any other source I know. Here’s a few more personal favorites:

1. Shaq Misses Entire Second Half With Pulled Pork Sandwich

2. Search for Self Called Off After 38 Years

3. CIA Realizes it’s been Using Black Highlighters All These Years

4. NASCAR Cancels Remainder of Season Following David Foster Wallace’s Death

Have any favorites? Share!

Post #100: Steinbeck Saw All

east-of-edenI’m reading Steinbeck’s East of Eden for the first time. It’s really great, by the way. And though he’s not normally a writer, like, say, Ray Bradbury, that makes you think he had the power to predict the future, or whose writing was even meant to evoke or imagine the future, a passage I read earlier felt so modern, so of our time, that I went back and read it several times, then decided I had to share it with you.

Keep in mind this a guy writing in the mid 20th century about events that take place in the early 20th century.

The scene in question transpires at a train station, mid day, where Adam Trask, along with his son Cal and his house man Lee, await the return of Cal’s twin brother Aron home from college.

“Train schedules are a matter of pride and of apprehension to nearly everyone. When, far up the track, the block signal snapped from red to green and the long, stabbing probe of the headlight sheered the bend and blared on the station, men looked at their watches and said, ‘on time.’

“There was pride in it, and relief too. The split second has been growing more and more important to us. And as human activities become more and more intermeshed and integrated, the split tenth of a second will emerge, and then a new name must be made for the split one hundredth, until one day, although I don’t believe it, we’ll say, ‘oh, the hell with it. What’s wrong with an hour?’ But isn’t it silly, this preoccupation with small time units. One thing late or early can disrupt everything around it, and the disturbance runs outward in bands like the waves from a dropped stone in a quiet pool.”

In addition to being a writer of uncommon grace and insight into the human experience, it seems that Steinbeck also knew that someday we’d be annoyed at our smartphones for taking three seconds instead of two seconds to load information we used to wait half a day for without blinking an eye.

By the way, if you haven’t read East of Eden, do so. Like me you’ll wonder what the hell took you so long.

PS…I have to add a totally random aside. Today I was getting my oil changed and a woman in the waiting room who was big time squirrely because her car was taking so long saw me reading this book and told me that she’d written a memoir about her time living in Indonesia and one of the rejected titles was Least of Eden. Ha. Another was The Bali Jar. Double ha.

Post #99: Being Dad

sociallogo-kidsvtsquareI have an essay in the new issue of Kid’s Vermont, a monthly foray into the world of what to do with your kid if you’re a Vermont parent. For their Dad Issue, they asked me to contribute to their “Use Your Words” feature, a monthly personal essay, on a topic related to parenting. I ended up writing an essay about my dad, who was, is, and always will be the most important man in my life. I know that’s not an original thing to say–Dads loom large, after all–but writing this piece was a reminder of just how grand and essential a figure my dad has been for me. Check out the essay here.

I would be remiss not to express gratitude to the editors at Kids Vermont, Carolyn Fox and Cathy Resmer, for helping see this piece through. There was quite a lot of back and forth on this one, and I’m grateful for their help and guidance.