Sunday, July 20, 2014

45 years ago today

© Rudolph J Klein
July 20, 1969. Nixon is new to the White House. Ted Kennedy has just driven off a bridge. John and Yoko have shocked the world (at least my small, suburban part of it) by going to bed publicly and staying there for two weeks.

Here we are on a picnic with neighbors at Valley Forge Park. My mother's in the plaid Bermuda shorts. She'd ironed the heavy cotton floral tablecloth put down on the table. That's me on the left, trying to sneak away with an extra Ho-Ho. I'm wearing my favorite flower-power pin.

That night, I wear it to a CYO dance held in the gym of our parish hall, in a dress my mother made, trying to look like I know how to twist. At some point in the evening, the record abruptly stops spinning, lights go on and we are called to come to the school kitchenette where one of the chaperones has set up a portable television. It is a 5 inch screen, black and white of course, with an antenna you have to keep moving to keep picture. The picture is grainy and the sound is crackly and the most audible narration comes from a pocket transistor radio tuned to the same station. A man, at that moment, is walking on the moon. We live in a new world order in which what was impossible for our parents to imagine, happens to us as a matter of course: presidents get shot, women burn their bras, wars are waged in a jungle by children. Now, this: a man from earth stepping onto the moon. 

Grown-ups hunker close to the miniature screen, squinting their disbelieving eyes while we kids shift back and forth in our weejuns, waiting for the music to start up again.

Friday, March 7, 2014

writing blind

When I was little, a game I liked to play with myself was "Blind." I'd wander into our back yard, close my eyes and start walking. I was astounded at how much more alert my other senses would become. I could feel the maple tree shadowing my skin as I came within range of approaching it. I could hear the empty swing swaying on rusty chains. My heart would pound in my throat as I forced myself to move forward, walking with my eyes closed, resisting the urge to put my hands out in front of me because I thought the gesture would summon my mother who might glance out the kitchen window and wonder what was the matter with me.

Writing a novel is something like that, at least for me. You move slowly forward, unseeing, not able to make out what lies ahead, trusting you'll get someplace without killing yourself.

Friday, February 28, 2014

in case you missed the gordon lish reading last night

No matter what you think of his work, his persona, his gusto in making or breaking literary comers when he was in a position to make or break them, no matter what you think of the writer, you have to admire the man Gordon Lish. He just turned eighty, but there he was last night at McNally Jackson Bookstore, holding forth at a reading for his new book Goings with more enthusiasm and earnest intent to entertain those of us who had come out to see him, than I've witnessed at readings by those younger and haler, which is to say readings by anyone else.

photo cred:
There were many more of us than there were chairs, despite the discouraging coldsnap and so many AWP-ing out of town, and speaking of chairs, he refused to use one. He stood for the duration: "I'd like to be able to stand and caper for your entertainment, let's see for how long I am able to do so." He held forth for an hour, not reading, except once briefly, from the foreword of a book that wasn't the book he was ostensibly there to promote, but one published several years ago, which involved the reluctant accomplice of a bookstore employee to find the book and remove its shrinkwrapping.

 What Lish did for the hour, what so impressed me, is that he just stood there and talked. Without notes, without text, without screens of any sort. He talked not about his own work, but about the work of other writers there. He talked about Will Eno's "The Bully Composition". And Rick Whitaker's "An Honest Ghost." He talked about his childhood and about what it felt like to be the oldest person in the room. He talked about Barry Hannah, said he once brought a luger into a classroom, as visual aid for a discussion on violence. And I thought how his conversance with conversation—albeit one-sided—is an art being lost to those of us for whom communication takes place in places such as this, which isn't any place, really, where talk is done through one's fingers and can be edited or deleted instead of being left to ring, unsanitized, unretractable, in the listener's ears, for better or worse, for years to come and that soon it won't make sense to call languages "tongues."

What Lish is famous for, in his teaching, is for harping on the importance of sentences. "The sentence isn't about the world, it is the world entire," I recorded once in a notebook. I was struck last night by the originality of his spoken sentences. (I almost typed "his own sentences" but refrained because "own" was one of the things Li
sh went on about last night, complaining of its overuse as unnecessary modifier in today's common speech.) In prior audiences with Lish, I failed to write much down and was later sorry because his speech is impossible to reproduce without notes. His speech isn't common speech, it's unique to him, resulting from profound and unparalleled (in my experience) care for and about the English language. Here are a few of last night's sentences, which are very different sentences than ones I might have used:

What Lish Said: Jane Krupp is a lovely person and has an apartment that bespeaks that vivacity. She designs apartments for people who are rarely among us, but we know their names. Many of these people are involved with song.

What I'd Have Said: My friend Jane has a great apartment. Makes sense, she's an architect. She works for celebs in the music industry.

What Lish Said: I take pride in knowing not much about nature.

What I'd Have Said: I'm a city kid. Nature freaks me out.

What Lish Said: I stopped drinking in 1984 in reply to an entreaty from my youngest child who requested, as a gift for his eleventh birthday, "I want you to stop drinking and smoking."

What I'd Have Said: I've got my kid to thank for sobering me up and making me quit smoking.

What Lish Said: Assassins are everywhere. Being one, I should know.

I'd never have said anything like that. Assassination, I think, is a male, not female, approach to subversion. But that's another post.

Monday, February 10, 2014

secret source for building fictional characters

Upon hearing of Secret, a new app that lets you post anonymously, removing the last bits of restraint preventing people from sharing whatever is left they're reluctant to share…seemed to me of dubious value. But then, I signed up. And discovered Secret's true (yet unmarketed) worth: as fodder for writers building fictional characters. "Brought a can of cat food to a dinner party instead of pate and no one noticed." And presto! A fully realized character leaps to your screen, one who'll move freely, creating scenes, engaging in dialogue. Cut. Paste.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

finally! an algorithm for writing that bestseller

Modern science claims it's come up with a way to analyze a book and predict (with 84 percent accuracy!) whether or not it will be a commercial success. Less successful work tends to include more verbs and adverbs and relies on words that describe actions and emotions such as "want" or "promise", while more successful books use more verbs that describe thought processes: "recognize" or "remember." More on the secret sauce recipe here. Pardon while I hurry back to my novel-in-progress to find and replace all the "wants" and "promises".

Saturday, December 14, 2013

what's making me feel really old today

It's not just that Patty Duke is celebrating her 67th birthday (how is this possible?) it's that she's doing PSAs for Medicare. Crazy!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

@MargaretAtwood's ode in 140 to @StephenKing

If there was any doubt that Margaret Atwood writes her own twitter, it was dispelled by her performance tonite in which she improv'd a fractured Xmas carol to newcomer Stephen King. This isn't the first time she's been brilliant in short. A few years ago, Wired asked her to come up with a six word story and she cribbed a checklit novel instead: "Longed for him. Got him. Shit."