Sunday, September 17, 2006

Not no one.

I'm thinking about something in a friend's email to me night before last. A while back I mentioned to him that I realized that, most likely, no one at all will read my novel. He responded as follows:
>which no one at all will read.
but now I know that that is okay.
that that is not important.
well. let me change that. as long as one person reads. and enjoys. then it's worth it.
one is enough.
that's my new rule.

That "one is enough" has been rolling around in my head ever since. I think it pretty well encapsulates the drive behind all efforts at putting words into public circulation. You're looking for the one person who will really *get* it. Contact. It's what we all need, especially bloggers, or we wouldn't be doing it, would we?

If I knew that there would be only one, though, would the impetus I feel to write longer fiction die out? Die is the right word, here, because the effort is against mortality. We write books, I think, to grab a little piece of immortality. Something of our selves will endure beyond us between the covers of a book, or a journal, or a packet of letters to a loved one (the epistolary form can be as little as ordinary letters between mother and son, sisters--the unique authorial voice as clear there as in the finest work of art).

Blogging is so different, though. It's all about connections right now. Twenty years from now is anyone you care about going to be able even to find all these digital words of ours? Aren't we spending time creating something even less enduring than our own fleshly selves?

Now back to that comment: *one is enough.*

Is it?

Great Ashes

This week I reviewed for my book club The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard, which won the National Book Award three years ago. Almost unanimously my book club detested the title for the way it misleads the reader. (They were even more scathing about the jacket copy. A lot of them obtain books from the library--remember libraries?--and those have the hardcover jacket on them, swathed in plastic.)

I had probably been similarly affected. The first time I read it, I found my enjoyment much compromised by the expectation I brought to the book that something like a great conflagration would actually happen. I kept worrying about it and withholding involvement with the characters for fear of referred pain. Silly me. (I know about metaphor, right?)

The second time, however, I no longer expected vivid descriptions of Hiroshima or the Blitz and so I allowed myself to fall in love with the book.

Almost everything in it, I warn you, happens in the background, at a remove, the way most (not all) of the great disasters of the world one lives in do. So the reader inhabits with the narrator and her protagonist, Aldred Leith, the charred aftermath of World War 2 with all the questions it raised about the future, some of which is now.

The driver of this exquisite, leisurely-paced book is a love story between a 17 year old girl and a war hero in his early 30's, both bookish, idealized, but memorable. The author was married for a long time to a man twenty-odd years older than she. As a result, it is difficult not to view some of this story of intense longing for one's soul mate to the fact that she had lost her husband not long before she would have begun writing the book. (I imagine that an author who lavishes such attention on her prose and lets twenty years elapse between award-winning novels might write slowly.)


It is simply a wonderful novel. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Day After

Oh, that sounds portentous. Don't mean it to be. But it is September 12, at long last. A friend's birthday is today. She's so glad it's not yesterday. She says if it were yesterday, she'd change it. Always wanted to be a Leo, she says, also younger, so she'd push it to August 11, next year. We each deal with misery in a different way.

The editor who's been looking at my novel sent back her comments this morning. She has an interesting workday, beginning (in Seattle) at dusk and going until dawn. So what's today for her? If it's still dark out, she counts 5 AM to be part of the night of the previous day. So I guess, for her, she sent me her comments on Sept. 11. Does that change the way I think about them? (Of course not.)

They were insightful, too. I haven't, it appears, written the Great World Novel, after all. She said it was beautifully written, that my writing reminds her of A.S. Byatt, which is "good company" to be in. (Indeed, it is.) So the problem isn't the writing; just most everything else...

Well, I exaggerate. She raised some issues a) that I believe a revision will resolve; and b) that need copious thinking about. These aren't really the same issues. Whether that's good or not, I don't yet know. What's equally interesting to me, however, is my reaction. On one hand, I'm dying to get started on that revision; on the other, I'm fighting depression over some of the elements she called into question. My plot, for instance--okay, part of it; also, my characters' failure actually to have lives, beyond their drive to work out the problems the peculiar plot has handed them. And then there's the fact that one of the characters is a writer. Apparently one can only have a character who's a writer if you've already published a book of fiction. She pointed out that this is the view of agents and editors.

Well, shoot, honey. I figure I know as much about it as anyone who has published one book (the amount necessary for the agents/editors to accept a writer/character). I've been writing for, well, twenty years; I've lived with a much published writer for 25 years; I've edited a number of published writers; and my son is a writer. That's pretty much full Berlitz immersion, if you ask me.

(Yes, I know that this sounds defensive, but it's not, really, since right now I plan to ignore that part of her criticism.) You have to know your work well enough to know what applies and what doesn't, it seems to me.

Sunday, September 10, 2006


Workshop is a verb. You knew that. As in people workshop a story or poem or chunk of a novel. Who does this? And why?

You've got the sensitive, thin skin of an artist and you think you need toughening. You have a manuscript that you secretly think is the best piece of fiction ever written and you're dying for someone else to read it and comment (oh, oh, sounds like a blog). So you sign up for a workshop. This will answer both requirements. Believe me. You'll discover that you've written something for which the highest and best use is lining the kitty box, and in the process of this discovery, you'll develop, well, not thick skin, exactly, but the kind of calluses that protect against blisters on the feet by supplanting their supperating agony with a material as impervious as leather.

So, knowing all this--and being certain I haven't written the best piece of fiction since, um, Cloud Atlas--why have I signed up for a six week workshop? You think I am going to provide an answer here? You think I have an answer?

Plus (there's always a plus, I find) you get to read the work in process of other people, strangers, you hope. I hope, at any rate, and therein lies a short tale.

At the first meeting of this workshop last Wednesday, we all introduced ourselves. A pleasant group of five women and two men, one of whom is the leader, the prof, a published award-winning author. We hear each other's names, mostly first names, but surnames in a couple of cases. I expect unfamiliarity and that is what I get. Watch out for those expectations.

I don't do well in groups. I took a year or so of group therapy during a crisis in my earlier life to learn to do better, but still, acute self-consciousness grips me. People react in two ways to this affliction, I've noticed. One is the person who will shrink back into her seat and try to become invisible. I've done that, but in general now, after much experience, I tend toward the opposite pole: I act out. I talk, that is. Although I've known for years this is grossly stupid, it still happens.

So I have absolutely no idea what I said at the little meet-and-greet after introductions to each other and the workshop rules is over. I know I spoke to various people. I know what I said was lame (unfortunately, this is a given). I felt that I had misspoken, somehow (also often a given). To complicate matters further, my brain often takes a break in the proximity of food. There are cookies within arms length, C-o-o-k-i-e-s. Huh? You asked me something? My name? Date of birth? Sorry. (Munch.)

Ah, well.

When I got home, I was recounting the evening to my husband when, in putting together and speaking out loud the first and last names of the woman I'd been sitting beside I realized that it was the wife of a very prominent public official, coincidentally one I voted for and support and actually admire. She was the one I felt I had most misspoken to, as well. And this week, we are to critique her MS, a book for young adults (a genre with which I have less than zero familiarity, since it didn't exist when I was one).

So why am I taking this workshop?

Thursday, September 7, 2006


That title sounds like something from a Scandinavian language, but it's what I've been doing today. I just started reading Radioactive Girl and I like the few of her links that I've had time to check out. I liked this depressed guy, Karl whose blog is called Secondhand Tryptophan. Actually I'm kind of excited. I think I've been looking at blogging much too narrowly, just linking to publisher pages on books. I've been doing that publisher page thing, BTW, because I want to patronize my local independent bookstore, but I have a small financial stake in said store so I think it's not pure to link there on every book on the blog, and so on, and so on.

Plus, the store's new website with online ordering isn't up yet, for a com/tragedy of basic ineptitude. OK, here's a scenario, I'm not saying for sure this is what happened, but think how you'd feel if it happened to you: new owners of store, new manager, inherited staff geek, a really nice guy. Main but not only job is to design and activate a new webpage with online ordering through Booksense. Say this is in June. Then say in late August he leaves for foreign parts, as expected, but he leaves no information on how to access the design work he did on the site, AND the site is still inactive. Would not massive gnashing of teeth ensue?

This is why reading other people's blogs is so salutary. The above is a tiny toenail problem, not even of hangnail dimensions. Thanks to all for the perspective. Be well.

Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Carver Redux

As I was, yes, alphabetizing my fiction books on Sunday, I came across Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. That title has always sent a little shiver of appreciation through me for early Carver's highly distilled conveyance of emotion. But alas (see Carving Carver, below)I had a different reaction on Sunday. I thought: ah, yes, and then immediately I wondered whether Gordon Lish had come up with that title.

Well, damn. I guess I have the answer to my question, don't I? My feelings about Ray Carver's work have changed. I think I need to read Cathedral again.

Monday, September 4, 2006

Sorting Books

We spent much of yesterday sorting our books. Sorting is a partial euphemism, of course, because along with placement and grouping we had to make room. We're the kind of people who fill up their bookshelves, then start stacking books on top of the TV, the side tables, floor, chairs (temporarily, of course). One year we went off on a trip and when we came back one of our assistants had taken down all the shelved books, dusted them (thank you so much) and put them back in the order of size. My husband was aghast. Why would anyone do that? he asked more than once. I admit it did look strange: one shelf would run smallest to largest, left to right. A couple of shelves below that, the reverse.

So here on Labor Day weekend we decided to fix it, and while fixing, to find a home for all those other books lying in stacks around us. We made good progress, too, although the job's not yet done. We arranged fiction in alphabetical order--just the books that really mean something to us. We’d had some of the books double stacked, since we were in a rush to unpack other things when we moved in, so in arranging them, I discovered old friends: A.S. Byatt’s Possession; The Stories of John Cheever; Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War. I also discovered a copy of One Man’s Meat, by E.B. White, which I had ordered a couple of weeks ago from my local independent bookstore.

But that left non-fiction and I'm having the usual trouble I do with filing things that aren't electronic bits and bytes. There are too many options. You can't group by author successfully, because who remembers the name of the author of each biography? (Well, I don't.) Can’t group by title, either, because the title usually has nothing to do with the subject. (Exception: One Art, the Letters of Elizabeth Bishop). So that leaves either type (memoir, biography, belles-lettres) or you can group by subject. I have a lot of books on France, for instance, so they go together. I have a long shelf of poetry, which can be grouped within itself by alphabet. But then I have William Merwin's The Lost Upland--stories of southwest France. So should that go with Merwin’s poems, or in a travel group. Or just on the French shelf? (This is what I picked, but it still distracts me, to see his name so far away from the poetry shelf.) I’m still struggling with this, but all the books are off the floor and we have about four and a half feet of shelf space left to receive the ones stacked in chairs.

Happy Labor Day!

Saturday, September 2, 2006

This You Must Read

This link is to a review of several books. Even if you don't read one of them, read this review. Your grandchildren will thank you.