I’m back into the new story, which just got kicked sideways this morning. Didn’t intend it, but there it is. And this new direction will make it appealing to some readers more than others, as every writing decision always does.
Anyway, I was taking a break while considering how to ride this new course, and through the random miracle of hyperlinks, I happened across this little nugget, a tweet from the novelist Brandon Taylor:
Pls do not tag me in scathing, incomprehensible misreads of my work, lol. People are entitled their experiences with the text but don’t involve me in it, pls!
(This is one of the reasons I’m never on Twitter, by the way. It’s the cattiest, bitchiest platform out there, rhetorically based as it is on nothing but one-liners. It’s nothing but #snark.)
Anyway, it’s an interesting idea. Once the book leaves your hands, it’s not yours any more ever. It belongs, differently, to every reader, who will make their own project of it. Every reader will not merely have a different judgment from one star to five, but will place it into their own category system, will take different life lessons from it, will think it’s “about” different things or “means” different things. It will remind them of different other books. The book becomes a metaphor through which other people think. It’s now theirs, individually, to do with as they wish.
I got a wonderful letter from a friend about my recent novel Trailing Spouse. He wrote, “I read it with great interest, finished it blown away. I think it’s brilliant. I was impressed by your table tennis book; I’m even more impressed with this one. It begs to be published—as a YA, to my mind, but what do I know? I think I’ll lend it to my 17-year old granddaughter, see what she thinks.” I never once had it in my head that Trailing Spouse was YA, but all of my books are hopeful resolutions to difficult stories, and YA is a native market for that. (I watched a podcast last night of three literary novelists talking, and one said that he’d set himself the challenge of writing for once about happiness rather than trauma. The other two almost visibly shuddered. “Oh, I could NEVER do that…”) So my friend made my book a YA book, and I think that’s really nice, though I wouldn’t have done that myself.
When I taught at Duke, we used to speak occasionally of “productive misreadings,” when a student would take a text that seemed to be doing one kind of work and then follow it down an entirely different, but really interesting, path. But I think that ANY good reading of a book is a productive misreading. If the book is so didactic that it can only be interpreted in a single way, then it probably isn’t a very interesting book.
I think that all we can control as writers is how WE think about the work, which is just as much a personal and imperfect reading as anybody else’s. We have no authoritative interpretation, though we naturally have an authorial interpretation. We can only hope for productive misreadings, the fact of our story helping someone else do her own work.
My relationship with design education has been fraught. As both a student of studio architecture, and later a teacher of design theory and human interactions with places, I was dismayed at the degree to which the pleasures of habitation and public life were discounted, or more often, never raised at all. The buildings we studied and were asked to emulate were mostly isolated and irresponsible buildings—vacation homes, world’s fair pavilions, museums, monuments. Even churches and skyscrapers, which do have real work to do, were taught primarily as urban monuments, as moments of inspired jewelry in the city’s wardrobe. The academic study of architecture is all head and no heart. All ideas and no comfort.
The academic practice of fiction is similar. All head, all ideas, all carefully shaped novelty. Stories no longer need to end, they just stop at the moment that the narrator realizes the depth of the shit they’ve gotten themselves into. We talk only to ourselves and those who’ve been similarly trained in academic “close reading.” We admire rather than enjoy.
So I was exactly the right audience for Peter Schjeldahl‘s essay in this week’s New Yorker, “My Struggle with Cézanne.” Schjeldahl is nobody’s fool when it comes to contemporary art; he’s been a professional art critic since the 1960s, along with his other career as a poet. But in this essay, he uses the work of Paul Cézanne as an entry into why so much contemporary art leaves him cold. “You don’t look at a Cézanne, some ravishing late works excepted. You study it, registering how it’s done.” That’s the academic impulse, of course, to understand rather than to enjoy. In a writing program, we can never merely read a story; we have to “interrogate” it, to use the writing-program cliche for reading. As Billy Collins says, we have to tie a poem to a chair and beat it with a hose to find out what it really means.
For Schjeldahl, Cézanne is not the problem but the symptom.
So what’s my problem? Partly it’s an impatience with Cézanne’s demands for strenuous looking. I tire of being made to feel smart rather than pleased. (Here I quite favor the optical nourishments of van Gogh, Gauguin, and Seurat.) But my discontent is inseparable from Cézanne’s significance as a revolutionary. How good an idea was modernism, all in all? It disintegrated, circa 1960, amid a plurality of new modes while remaining, yes, an art of the museum. It came to emblematize up-to-date sophisticated taste, spawning varieties of abstraction that circle back to Cézanne’s innovative interrelations of figure and ground. It also fuelled a yen in some to change the world for the more intelligent, if not always for the better. The world took only specialized notice. Modernism’s initially enfevered optimism could not survive the slaughterhouse of the First World War and the political apocalypse of the Russian Revolution, which ate away at myths of progress that had seemed to valorize aesthetic change. Dedicated newness in art devolved from a propelling cause into a rote effect.
“I tire of being made to feel smart rather than pleased.” This is my own response to so much contemporary art. To quote a t-shirt available in the gift shop of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, “Contemporary art does not love you.” To which I say, well then, screw it. Go bother somebody else.
The bartender and writer Jim Meehan once weighed in on the difference between bartender and mixologist. “A mixologist serves drinks. A bartender serves customers.” And this is the principle that I try to hold in my work of all sorts. People don’t come to my house to have a drink; they come to my house to have an evening of conversation, and a nicely made drink is something yummy and fun to talk about for a few seconds. The drink is at the center of our attention for all of fifteen seconds. People don’t read stories to be instructed in literary structures; they read to leave their own lives for a bit and be welcomed into the lives of others. And people don’t go to architecture, at least not many of us. We go to work, or we go to a store, or we go to church for those purposes, and if we’re lucky, the building makes the experience of our work or shopping or worship a tiny bit more graceful.
I am dedicated to the principle of offering pleasure to my readers. And the more difficult the subject matter, the more comforting I try to make the form and the diction of the stories. Our work can be willful, an imposition of our ideas. Or our work can be a gift, a generous offering that takes into account what pleases its recipients.
The second week of the new story bowled me over, I had four days where I could barely keep up. But now I need to take a short break from it, to take on professional and civic and friendship responsibilities. So let’s see where week two got us, aside from another eight thousand words (!!).
Cale’s relationship with his sister has a hard side and a softer side, one that she doesn’t let on about very often. It surprises Cale whenever it appears.
We stood side by side, unable to look at each other, both facing the grave square-on. We didn’t want to stay, didn’t know how to leave, knew that if we turned our backs and got into the car, we’d be ending that story forever. No redemption in the last act, just “The End” scrolled across the broken family in the shattered landscape.
Ray fixed it, same way she fixed everything, by reminding us of chores. “Better get back to the house, got ladies to hug and potato salad to speak highly of.” She laughed a little, and I could hear the tears within it. “Cale, I completely fuckin’ hate potato salad.” She reached up and squeezed my hand, then pulled out from under my shoulder. “Come on,” she said.
But then, after they discover what’s in their father’s will, the peace is broken again, even as she’s trying to hold her love for him.
We were all silent for a few seconds, like that moment after an earthquake, before you take stock of the damage, while you’re wondering whether this particular tremor is done. Then Ray, with her eyes closed, said, “Cale, I’m gonna need you to leave.”
“Come on, Ray…”
“Caleb, I need you away from this table in the next ten seconds, and out the driveway and gone from my house in the next ten minutes. Can you do that for me?”
As Cale drives back to Minneapolis and his summer work and his summer girlfriend, he sits in a truck stop and reads the letter that his father has left him. The letter that will lie at the heart of the story.
And then, finally, at the Formica table under the fluorescent lights and the suspended ceiling panels and the distant country music radio, I wiped the Rollerbites grease off my fingers, and I opened Dad’s letter. The envelope that simply said Caleb Barrows, in blue pen. Inside, one piece of three-ring paper, probably borrowed from Walker. The same blue ink.
Sammi, his summer girlfriend, has also arrived more fully, as a wise and merciful advisor.
I got home and just dumped it all out on Sammi, didn’t even unpack my bag. It was a total blender shake: the casket and the will and the letter and the macaroni salad, the church ladies and the parts guys, Ruth and Jerry, Walker’s hat. The pesticides and my mother. And my sister. Sammi fished out a pipe and some weed, put a chill mix on Spotify, and just let us both sit with it all. Sometimes there’s wisdom in not deciding anything. I remembered reading Siddhartha when I was in high school, there was one point where he didn’t have any food and so he decided to fast. I’d thought that was dumb then—of course he was fasting, he couldn’t eat. It took me a second reading to understand what he was doing: taking a necessity and making it into a sacrament.
Sammi offered me that sacrament. I couldn’t decide anything, and she let me know that I didn’t need to decide. And that it was a blessing to not decide. To just be in it. To just be sad and confused and hurt, not to fix it.
You look back every so often and you see that some work got done.
I launched this website in February 2019. In the intervening two and a half years, I’ve written a couple of books’ worth of words here as well. And today marks the three hundredth installment of these comments. If you’ve liked them, please consider following in the link at the bottom of the page. Thanks for coming along on the ride.
So last Sunday, I told you that the new story had arrived, and was ready for boarding. Now it’s Saturday, five writing days later, and I’m 7800 words in. (That can happen, sometimes.) And I know some things.
I know who my character is: Cale, short for Caleb, the younger son who left the farm for urban and academic life. And I know the biggest character he’s going to have to push against: his older sister Ray, short for Coby Rae, who’s run the farm herself for 25 years. So when Dad got the farm, he kept painting Barrows & Sons on the trucks. And Coby Rae had been a ranch kid right from the start, had no patience with anything girly, insisted that everybody call her Ray anyway. She was a better son than I ever was, knew her way around a field and a fuel injector and a co-op board meeting since junior high.
I know what the landscape looks like. I know the gossip that goes on at the co-op as the farmers come in for lubricants or to schedule their deliveries of corn, most of it bound for ethanol refineries. I know how far everybody has to drive every day. You drive a lot in Nebraska, because everything you need is 15 miles away from where you’re at, no matter what you need or where you’re at.
I know how Cale and Ray’s brother, mother, and father died. The opening chapter is the preparation for the father’s funeral, in the church you see up at the top of today’s post. Having an image like that is important not for describing the color of the pews or the altar cloth, but to describe what it would feel like to be inside it. The sanctuary was lit only by daylight through the two big windows on each side of the plain plastered walls, the room feeling every second of its 130 years. It’s hard to remember how gloomy an indoor space can be in on a bright prairie day, the sun pours straight down like hail and leaves no light to scatter sideways.
I know what the farm looks like, because I’ve seen it in my own neighborhood. Deceased trucks and tractors and implements and cars, all left wherever they dropped. The trucks still had Barrows & Sons painted on their rusted doors, the trucks we used to haul corn and wood and gravel and sand and Christmas trees and dead stock and whatever damn thing somebody needed moved from A to B. The weeds had grown up to about mid-door height and then just surrendered, like everything else.
And most importantly, I know Cale’s biggest internal dilemma: he’s never really been convinced of who he is. And the fact is, the simple binary of I got out, she didn’t isn’t sufficient anyway. Because I didn’t just leave one culture, I joined another. A culture in which we talked endlessly and rarely accomplished anything, a culture in which feelings and manners and process outweighed getting shit done. A culture in which no finely-sliced difference couldn’t be sliced even a little further, Freud’s narcissism of small differences carried to the sixth decimal place. I left a world I didn’t want and never would, and walked into a world I didn’t understand and never would. I had dual alienship.
So a good week. I’ve got the people and the place and the voice. I’ve been surprised half a dozen times a day at what somebody said or noticed, always a good sign that the story’s real. And I’m ready for week 2.
As always, it begins with a person bearing a particular problem, and a context that makes that problem matter. But I’m also realizing this evening that it has a subsequent starting point, which is the opening sentence.
There’s a lot of blather in writing circles about the importance of the first sentence as the hook that makes a fickle and impatient reader hang on for a few seconds further. That’s just market research, it’s Twitter-think. There’s a reason that TikTok videos are ten or fifteen seconds and novels take ten hours, you can’t just cobble a tweet onto the front of a book and think you’ve got something. (Though the writers at Saturday Night Live often seem to think so, for instance, coming up with a great ten-second gag that they stretch out to fill six minutes.)
No, I think that the first sentence is important for the writer, not for the reader. The first sentence sets the terms of engagement, sets the trajectory through which the terrain will be approached. If you’re a micromanager like me (to use Zadie Smith’s term), you start with the first sentence and end up a few months later with the last sentence, and you’ve made every single decision along the way as a part of the run. It’s like race driving: you don’t get to stop halfway through the course and say, “I didn’t come into that curve the way I wanted to, let me back up thirty seconds and hit it again.” I know that there is a vast community of writers who would find that sentiment to be (at least) naive and (at worst) lazy, because they believe that every decision is fungible and swappable at every moment. But that’s not how I write. Like Zadie Smith and many others, I write like a reader reads: “And THEN what happened?”
So my first sentence (or maybe, to be fair, my first paragraph) does a pile of things. It names the temporal starting place for the story, not at the protagonist’s conception but at some meaningful moment along her or his life course. It establishes why that moment is, in fact, especially meaningful. It sets the narrative voice, lays out what kind of sentences matter and the kind of narrator by whom that kind of sentence would be said.
I’m increasingly wary of cultural appropriations, the idea that because I heard a cool word once, I understand all of its meanings and implications and can take it on as a normal part of my vocabulary. We do a lot of that. We talk about someone being Zen, someone being enlightened, someone being a saint or a mensch, a Brahmin or a good ol’ boy. We don’t really own those words, most of us, certainly not all of them. We borrow them as one borrows any precious object: with care, with respect. We borrow them as metaphors rather than as native expression. (Nora always laughs when I use some Yiddish expression like gathering one’s farmegens, but it’s an enormously helpful idea. The fact that Yiddish words don’t have fully agreed-upon English spellings is part of their history.)
As a teacher, I love metaphors, always searching for that secret code that will help you see what’s before you in a way that you can best absorb. So I’m going to give you a word today as a metaphor rather than as a literal expression: ensō, the circular form that is drawn in a single brush stroke as a result of meditative absorption. You prepare yourself—sometimes for minutes, sometimes for years—and then you act. The resulting form does not belong to its maker; it now exists independently in the world.
The opening sentence of a story is, for me, an ensō. It launches me down the mountainside.
Just for fun, here are my first sentences or paragraphs. Each of these is from a different book, in the chronology that I wrote them. Some are sentences and some are paragraphs simply because ensō don’t come in uniform size. Each was the seed that grew to be its book.
Dearest Mother, I do hope that this letter finds you in better health, and that your arthritis is relieved as the days become warmer. (The Abbot of Saginaw)
Clay was a good cook, limited in range but reliable within it, but had hardly cooked anything at all in the three years since he’d left Elaine. No one to say thank you, no one to appreciate his effort. (The Host: Triptych Book 1)
Clay had watched television cooking shows as a child while his mother was at the college and his father at the club. He loved to watch the chefs talk as they casually tossed in ingredients that magically appeared from bowls and ramekins arrayed across the counter. He felt like they were speaking directly to him as a friend. They had taught him not only how to cook, but how to be simultaneously genial and utterly controlled. (The List: Triptych Book 2)
Clay wiped his forearm across his brow to clear a light sheen of sweat, and divided the pot of steaming rice into three glass bowls. (The Test: Triptych Book 3)
In the early 2000s, I was teaching in the University Writing Program at Duke, one of my favorite jobs ever. But something caught my attention. I kept hearing my colleagues, all relatively recent Ph.D.s, referring casually to something that their mother or father had once done as a college faculty member or administrator. If it had been one or two people, I’d have left it alone; in any crowd, there’s probably two plumbers or two golfers or two college faculty members. But this was a constant background sound, like a refrigerator motor or tinnitus. (The PhDictionary)
Even though I knew it was coming, it was always a surprise. (The City Killers)
Colin had been in anonymous roadside shopping centers like this thousands of times, built two dozen of them himself. Even though he had a different purpose today, he still found himself reflexively itemizing construction flaws—poorly installed flashing, stained stucco from insufficient roof drains, cracked mortar that indicated foundation settling. (The Opposite of Control)
This is a book for those thousands… hundreds of thousands… millions among us who write in silence. For all of us who write carefully, patiently, thoughtfully, and whose work has not (yet?) found its audience. (Slush)
This is how you kill a profession. (The Adjunct Underclass)
The very most important things about you were decided by lottery. (Trailing Spouse)
Is it possible to hate a machine? Or do you hate what, or who, the machine represents? (Leopard)
I don’t hold these out to be exemplars of literary sophistication. What they are, each of them, is the expression of preparation that then, once manifested, allowed the rest of the book to spring from the reservoir.
So I know what this new story is. I know what it’s called, though that may change. What I don’t know, yet, is its first stroke. Once I have that, I’ll be lost to it for months.
Sometimes the scale of numbers blinds us to their meaning. It’s one thing to know that 600,000 Americans (or likely more) were killed by COVID in the past year, another thing entirely to know someone who suffered with it themselves, or who lost. It’s one thing to know that there’s nearly two trillion dollars in student loan debt in the US, another thing entirely to be working your way out from under $80,000 of it with fifteen years left to go.
We have data, and trends. Points, and patterns. But we don’t often think to put the two together. So here’s one example.
I published a book a couple of years ago, maybe you’ve heard. (I talk about it enough…) Yay me! I’m awesome. But just today, I received my catalog for the University of Chicago Press’ 2021 book sale, that flea-market even where they try to clear some warehouse space before next year’s boxes arrive. And sure enough, The Adjunct Underclass is in there, down from its original $24 cover price to only $11. Now’s your chance!
This, of course, is the fate we all approach, but we don’t always get such clear indicators.
The UCP sale catalog has 628 named books on the sale table. That’s one publisher. Times hundreds of publishers. Times decades of offerings. You wrote a book? Good for you, get in line, Mr. Special.
It’s the work. It’s always the work. It’s only the work. As Martha Graham once said, “What other people in the world think of you is none of your business.” You do it because the doing matters.