Thursday, August 1, 2013

Goodbye to a Voice

John Graves became an icon for Texas writers on account of one book, Goodbye to a River, which addressed what is eternal about Texas, and ever threatened. Our current dialogues, economic and political, fasten upon the superficial, and perhaps that is no surprise for a species that dwells in the tiny strip of earth and atmosphere that is habitable. We dwell there, still, despite our yearning to punch holes both ways, up and down, and we would do well to remember it.

Graves knew that from the beginning. It’s one reason his book has endured, still in print as a hardback from Knopf (Random House) after more than fifty years.
I celebrate this reality, but the aspect of Graves’s work that has stayed with me is his voice, his presence on the page. I read a blogger today who called that sonorous, supple voice “antiquated.” That River book, he said, might not be published today.

What a reductive comment--reductive, not of the book, but of the human spirit that animates publishing. Of our spirit as readers.
Great writing unrolls across the page according to a rhythm that resounds in a place far older and deeper than the thin layer of dopamine receptors activated by one’s most recent Twitter fix. Great writing allows time for the meaning of the words to strike the heart. It allows time for thought that’s contemplative, not reactive--the type of thought that forms character.

John’s writing does this. It also confirms that you are the kind of person capable of both thought and character. If writing can have gravitas, John’s does, as he did in person along with a leonine grace. My husband says that everyone wanted to be John’s friend, and moreover, known to be his friend. Being his friend felt like an accolade, a confirmation of some profound quality in one’s own self. 
That opportunity is now gone, but his voice rolls on. His voice is the river.

Monday, June 17, 2013


The great Paris Review interview series instructs writers by example to keep a journal. Dutifully, I attempt to comply. Again and again, I strive for the daily entry, the recapitulation, the musing, all of it. Every time, the dailyness defeats me.

I do write every day, but I have never managed to put it in journal form for an extended period. No doubt this contributes to the sporadic frequency of posts to this blog. (And we all know what that means: few followers.)

Yet I have kept trying out of the belief that keeping a journal is central to the writing process.

During the writing of ABSENT, I began to find myself wondering what might have happened to Camille’s twin, swallowed up by the Holocaust, at that point. I have read numerous books on the concentration camps of Germany and Eastern Europe. I knew I couldn’t live inside one of these places for the three or four years it takes to write a novel. I would drown.

The story, however, kept pulling me toward itself. Scraps of narrative, dialogue, interior monologue kept arriving and I wrote them down. I picked one of these little black, book-size notebooks, the kind with a rubber band that can be used to hold your place. I carried it everywhere, scribbling bits into it when they came to me. No dates, no dailyness. If I thought of something and the notebook was temporarily unavailable, I wrote on whatever scrap of paper was handy--receipts, envelopes--and copied them into the notebook later. The process was completely random except for the fact that I used the pages in order. Voila: a journal.

It taught me that keeping a written repository of one’s thoughts is even more intensely personal than I’d suspected. The form, that is, as well as the content. As we know, blogs and social media tend to blur the boundary between personal and public. We’re encouraged to share the minutiae of our day, but regardless of how many people actually read what you write, all these posts must be written for the illimitable audience of strangers.

Thus, a blog is truly not a journal--not kept as a record of one’s undigested interior reflections. A blog is a piece of work for publication. A journal is source material.

I know that there are wonderful visual and tactile artworks created from journaling, too. In Santa Fe, an artist named Gail Rieke keeps journals of her travels, comprising numerous and varied objects and scraps. Her form of the journal varies with the experience, but eventually many of the objects she collects in this fashion find their way into compelling collages.  

When she teaches a journaling class, she shows her students how to let loose their preconceptions of what a journal can be. In the loosening of expectation, creativity has room to breathe. A lesson, there, for writers, too.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

More waiting

While the MS of ABSENT makes the rounds in New York, I decided to begin working on short stories. My dear workshop friends were tolerant of my rusty steps in this direction, but gradually I have found that the countryside here in Washington County, halfway between Houston and Austin, is hospitable to fiction taking form.

One of the first long ones I finished, I sent out to Glimmer Train for its baptismal rejection. Duly received. So I set it aside and began on a few more. I have around ten in various degrees of completion.

A few months later I revisited the one GT had rejected and gave it a severe pruning. Then one night, about this time, I sent it out to Southwest Review, who were sponsoring a contest for emerging writers. (Some of us spend longer in the birth canal than others...) The award is the David Nathan Meyerson prize and I won it. My story, SILENCES, is to be published in the fall issue of that respected journal. I was so astonished when I received an early alert via email that I actually screamed. My husband thought I'd had some kind of attack. And perhaps it was, an attack of happiness.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Getting the blog read

I've begun to take one of the courses offered by MediaBistro--this one on how to get your blog read. Pretty cool, if I say so myself.

Apparently there is a technique to writing for the web and it appears to involve writing down. Down where? No place you can touch. (We're not into geology or altitude, here.) But we do operate within the framework of levels. In this case, it's levels of discourse and literacy.

If you've ever read the writings of our founding fathers, or more recently of George Eliot, you will see that daily commentary on the web is way different. Way.

Moreover, if you don't write into that difference, no one will be able to find your blog. I love the comment our teacher made: "Pure nirvana is when a writer can successfully combine creativity with web writing." Because that's the thing: we're not talking about beautiful or shapely sentences. We're talking about "search engine optimization." SEO. A three letter non-word.

We are, you see, wanderers on a new planet where writers no longer write for readers or editors. We now write for Google.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Toe in the Water

Fact is, my manuscript has found an agent in New York! (I am allowing myself one chaste exclamation point.) Yesterday, it happened.

I admit I'd been hovering by the phone all day the day I expected his call, as I blogged about previously. So yesterday, in a more resilient frame of mind, I went into my office, and there was a message from him on the office voicemail. (Note to self: check the frigging voicemail more regularly.) He had called, just as he said he would--but he had called on the number I put on the submission, rather than the two I put in the email saying I'd be available. Perfectly reasonable, of course.

So I called him back. The young man who answered his phone seemed unsurprised. He even pronounced my name correctly. (Always a positive sign, I find.) He put Philip on the line and bingo. The most charming conversation, on his end.

He's an established, successful agent who said some amazingly kind things about the writing, aggregations of nouns and adjectives that I will cherish forever, no matter what happens.

Fiction is indeed hard to sell these days, but he'll have a shot. And I only have to address one little area, a small item that previous readers have raised questions about, in fact. Addressing that will be my task for today. It has to do with a psychic who wandered into the Santa Fe section of the book, pretty much as a plot device. Psychics can be uncannily accurate once in a while, he mentioned (a story resides within that simple concept, I suspect), but it's more difficult to make it work in fiction.

OK. I accept that.

When I began this blog's recent thread, I thought I would be chronicling a long and sorrowful process of sending out queries and receiving rejections. In contrast, this acceptance feels like a coup de fou--the kind of lightning bolt of good fortune (in the French case, love at first sight) that one dreams about. I feel better, knowing I still have work to do. Also knowing that I have two other ideas for books worth pursuing. And a manuscript from the past that may actually have a life, now that I understand something about the structure of a novel.

A thirty plus year apprenticeship--but it's still an apprenticeship, because gaining representation from an agent doesn't mean publication is guaranteed. It never did, and especially not now, but it gives one a fighting chance.

The last time an agent accepted a manuscript of mine, we received 23 elegantly phrased and complimentary rejections. That was twenty-seven years ago, give or take. Tough business, writing. Takes perseverance, I'm told.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Labrahund or Dachsador

Yesterday I received an email from the agent who had agreed to read my manuscript. He said it was "fascinating and beautifully written..." Let's pause a moment to savor those words. They taste delicious, I have to admit.

After that, however, he mentioned that he hasn't had a great deal of success selling fiction recently, but that he'd like to talk to me anyway, tomorrow. He wondered when I might be available to talk.

All day and all night, I wanted to say. And did, actually, at least the first part (except for a lunch connected to my job).

So you know what's happened, right? He hasn't called. It's 5:22PM in New York and he hasn't called. I feel like a girl with a crush, jumping every time the phone rings. Trust me, it has been a long time since I felt like that.

So back to the delicious words and their delicately phrased "but":

Fiction has been trending--as the phrase goes--downhill ever since 9/11. I think it's true for all fiction, but I know it's true for literary fiction. I can understand why, too. The 21st century slapped our faces hard that day, and most of us have been fleeing ever since. The financial meltdown of 2008 only pushed the accelerator.

No doubt, this accounts for the fictional popularity of broomsticks, vampires and a thousand non-fiction examinations of the Middle East and Islam.

Realistic fiction dealing with women's lives has a market--five million Americans belong to reading groups, I'm told--but many of the books have tunneled a new genre: past chick lit to Mom Lit. Check out Katherine Center for a particularly well written variety of the latter--and she works, too: she blogs, videoblogs, Facebooks, all the new ways writers need to labor on behalf of their careers. Plus, as goes with the territory, she has young children. I am agog with admiration.

(My poor manuscript might be called ambivalent mom lit or scared mom lit...)

What's that got to do with the dog reference in my title above? Well, I was thinking of a dog I saw once, that I now know was a Bassador, not the ones mentioned above. That is it had a black Lab head and body and Basset hound legs--an animal that was neither one thing nor the other, but a very nice creature all the same. Rather like the email from that terribly kind literary agent, I thought.

Monday, April 5, 2010


While I wait to hear something about my manuscript, I've been at loose ends as far as writing goes. I've started a story, but it languishes, needing research. Instead I've been reading. On my bookshelf, I found Andrea Barrett's story collection, Servants of the Map, and enjoyed it very much. I like the way she interweaves related characters over a long span of time, although I wish I'd kept a note on which ones belonged to which story. By the end, I discovered that the characters were surprisingly interchangeable, except for the one named Nora. I don't usually consider that a plus, but it was shortlisted for the Pulitzer in 2003, so my cavil is a minority vote, I think. The tone is wonderfully sustained throughout, a thoughtful acceptance of life, tinged with sadness.

Next I started Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence, to which I found myself curiously immune. There are some fine elements, but the author wears a perpetual smirk that irritates me so much, I don't appreciate all the pyrotechnics going on. (Sigh.)

Earlier today, I finished Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro and am still trying to shake off the mood created by the eponymous last story. Really fine, I thought.

I've picked up Let the Great World Spin for bedtime reading and have completed the first two stories. Will take it nice and slow. Reading prose written by Irish writers always seduces my ear with the music, and does not help me write. Imitate, maybe, even though I don't want to. But not use my own voice, such as it may be.

I can hope that I will hear something positive about my venture into these waters. I realize that they are choppy for anything realistic and it's interesting to speculate about why. I would suggest that it isn't because there are no fine realistic writers working. Instead, it's we, the reader, who are responsible. We do not find that the real world possesses sufficient mystery or hope. We have discovered ourselves devoid of wonder in the face of all we have learned about ourselves, our country, the earth. We want an escape from these realizations, even if that requires flying brooms and apocalyptic vampires, or invented enchantresses of Florence (at the very least a great title).