Thursday, December 19, 2013

Best nonfiction to read before the year is out

In the spirit of holiday roundup - a dubious spirit, but let's go with it - here are three nonfiction books that made "the best of 2013" lists of numerous critics and book reviewers. I haven't yet read these books by Dani Shapiro, Aleksander Hemon, and the biographer Hermione Lee, who has just published a biography of the miraculous Penelope Fitzgerald, but I've read their previous work and admire each of them for different reasons. Fitzgerald, for instance, in addition to writing brilliantly, published her first book at the age of 60. My "holiday goal" (besides finishing up the shopping for everyone on my gift list, a project with a long way to go) is to read these three books by December 31. Cue drum roll. Can it be done? Will I be able to squeeze in reading along with family visits, hours-long dinners, parties, the aforementioned shopping (hello, Amazon) and unfinished prep for my January courses? Check back in the new year and I'll tell you. What books are on your holiday list?

The following two capsule reviews are by the excellent Jason Diamond at Flavorwire:

Still Writing, Dani Shapiro (Atlantic Monthly Press)Writing is a tough game. Those of us who rely on it for our livelihood deal with a ratio of sweet to sour that changes on an hourly basis (not frequently for the better), and sometimes we just want to walk away. Few authors have more wisdom to impart about this profession than Dani Shapiro, who’s spent over 20 years as a writer and teacher. Full of little meditations on the craft, this book takes on the highs and lows of the writing life — and deserves a spot on any writer’s desk.

The Book of My Lives, Aleksandar Hemon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)Alongside his novels, Aleksandar Hemon had been amassing a nice collection of essays about his homeland of Bosnia, as well as his adjustment to life in America, all published in various places. The results, time and time again, have been outstanding. In collecting his life story in one volume — from childhood hatred of a new sibling and learning that the term “Turk” could be derogatory to chess and a fantastic piece on playing soccer with other immigrants in Chicago — Hemon shows us that nothing is perfect, and nothing is easy, but the world is still full of hidden greatness.

Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, Hermione Lee (Random House)
Penelope Fitzgerald was a great English writer, who would never have described herself in such grand terms. Her novels were short, spare masterpieces, oblique and subtle. She won the Booker Prize for her novel Offshore, and her last work The Blue Flower, was acclaimed as work of genius. Fitzgerald's life is as various and cryptic as her fiction. It spans most of the twentieth century, and moves from a demanding intellectual family to hardship and poverty, from a life of teaching and obscurity to a blaze of renown. First published at sixty, she became famous at eighty. This is a story of lateness, patience, and persistence: a private form of heroism.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Fear of "nice"

I've been following with interest a debate among writers and critics about the responsibility of book reviewers to be kind.  The argument started years ago, when literary wunderkind Dave Eggers, in an interview with the Harvard Advocate, urged students to re-think the impulse to reject a book (or essay, or story) too easily: “Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic, and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them.”  Other writers took up the cause, and soon the "anti-snark" movement was born ("snark" meaning, more or less, the cynical habit of sarcasm and easy insults, which the novelist Heidi Julavits called a "reflexive disorder").  Then, of course, an "anti-anti-snark" chorus began shouting back, arguing for the right, and the responsibility, to tell the truth, regardless of whether the truth is flattering or cruel.

The debate flared up again recently when Buzz Feed's new book editor, Isaac Fitzgerald, announced his intention in an interview to post only positive reviews of new books.  In response, screens across America lit up with outrage and ridicule, culminating in "On Smarm"  a powerful and widely read essay by Tom Scocca of Gawker.  Malcolm Gladwell riposted with "Being Nice Isn't Really So Awful," and yesterday, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd - she of the sharp tongue and the scathing put-down - weighed in with "Bigger than Bambi."

Dowd, of course, is disgusted by "nice," especially as she appears to understand it: mounds of sugary syrup, false flattery, avoidance of difficult truths, all-out wimpiness.  If that's what nice is, I feel the same way.  Who wants to be doused in syrup? Who wants to be lied to?  (Well, I might, when I ask if you like my new haircut.  But how about I spare you that question?) I also agree that it's ridiculous to ban opinions unless they are informed by identical experience.  I haven't written a history of the Crusades, but I can say what I think about someone who has.  But here's the thing: Eggers didn't suggest having no opinion.  He didn't say we should abolish thinking clearly or speaking truthfully.  He used the word "dismiss," and that, it seems, is the distinction Dowd misses.  To flat-out dismiss something, no matter how wittily you do so, is the opposite of giving it thoughtful critical consideration; it's just easy meanness.  And to nonsensically flatter is the opposite of kindness; it's cowardice.  

I argue for a "niceness" (don't hate me, Maureen!) based on honest engagement, on keeping the best interest of both the writer and her potential readers in mind.  I think we should give every new work we're asked to read serious and deep consideration. Respect the author's efforts. Try to see what her intentions were, not what you think she should have done.  Don't put her down if the work isn't up to your standards.  Make every effort to understand what informed her choices.  And when you tell your truth, remember that it is just that, yours, not a universal truth.  By all means, tell difficult truths, especially if that is your job and people depend on you to do so.  If something is sloppy, say so.  If it's nonsense, call it out. But do it with regard for the humanity of the writer. Do it with your heart as well as your critical mind.  That's not pouring syrup, it's practicing intelligent compassion. And there's nothing smarmy about that.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Self-doubt: a writer's gift or curse?

Read Marc O'Connell's heartbreaking - and hilarious - NY Times Sunday magazine essay on writing and his adventures with the demon/angel of self-doubt.  He lasers in on the paradox every writer faces at some point: the gift that makes us better, that keeps us from imagining every word we blurt onto the page is brilliant at first go, is the same thing that can stop the flow entirely.

Do you ever have this experience?  The critical eye that catches a sloppy turn of phrase or cliche is the same eye that judges our raw creative impulses before they have a chance to manifest at all.  When I'm first beginning to draft a new piece, I find that I just have to slap dark glasses on the all-seeing eye, tell it to look the other way while I'm stumbling through the first sentences.  It takes time to draw out an unformed idea, time and shaky courage and the freedom to be bad.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, in an interview, once said that in the early phase of the creative process she says "yes" to everything.  Everything, no matter how outlandish.  Turn this character into a crow?  Sure.   Set the next scene 200 years into the future? Why not?  She turns nothing away, she explained, even though 90 percent of it doesn't make it into the final draft.  The ten percent that does is gold.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Reward Yourself

At a recent Writers' Day at Bay Path, one of the speakers - visiting writer and Curry College English professor Alan Hunter - talked about ways to cultivate and access the creative unconscious.  By "creative unconscious," he meant the part of the mind that gives us dreams, images, impulses, and ideas that cannot be accessed by intellectual command.  Writers use a lot of different terms to describe it, but they all mean the same thing: that mysterious part of the mind we reach for when sitting down before a blank screen.  Alice Munro, the great Canadian short-story writer, called it "wooing the distant parts of myself," as good a description as I've heard. 

So how do you do it?  How do you "woo" those distant parts when there is so much right in front of you that competes for your attention?  It can feel like trying to make out a low murmur from another room while Scottish bagpipers are marching by, someone's ten-year-old is having a drum lesson behind you, and the Vienna Boys Choir is giving its annual Christmas concert in your kitchen.  The noise of our lives can make hearing that still, small voice harder than finding a lost ring in a river.   After a while, it's easier to just go make a cheese sandwich and check Facebook. 

But if you do that, promising yourself you'll start writing later, right after you finish this one little thing, that screen (or piece of paper, or bark, whatever you use) will stay blank the rest of the day.  

Alan had a nice idea for circumventing the endless temptation to do anything other than write, and it couldn't be simpler, which is probably why it works.  Reward yourself at the end of your writing session.  That's it.  Do something nice for yourself - eat one small piece of very good chocolate, take a walk, make a cup of tea, listen to a few minutes of your favorite music (for me, a toss-up between Erik Satie or Stevie Wonder).  But here's the key: you have to give yourself this reward immediately after writing.  Not at the end of the day, not on the weekend. You can't say to yourself, "If you write for ten minutes every morning, I'll take you to the movies on Saturday."  It won't work.  The creative unconscious in writers, in anybody, responds like a small child to gratification.  Meaning: right now.  

It doesn't matter if you write for five hours or five minutes.  If you write at all, give yourself that small reward.  And do it every time.  You're building an association between your writing practice and the experience of pleasure.  For those among us who inherited a Puritan work ethic (some other time, I'll talk about my father, whose solution to everything was a good swift kick in the pants), the pleasure part is key.  Don't kick yourself to write.  Don't admonish yourself. Practice what Thich Nhat Hanh calls "loving-kindness," and give yourself that little reward when you're finished writing - even if you only manage to fill a page.  A page a day is 352 pages by the end of the year.