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 That River book, he said, might not be published today.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.