Challenging symbol-hunting in English class

owl in the Petrified Forest, Napa, CA. © 2007-2013 Elizabeth Browne All Rights Reserved

owl in the Petrified Forest, Napa, CA. © 2007-2013 Elizabeth Browne All Rights Reserved

In 1963 a 16-year-old named Bruce McAllister wrote to 150 famous authors to ask if symbolism — or apparent symbolism — in their work was intentional. He was apparently frustrated with the way his English teacher analyzed each novel they read for symbolism McAllister felt wasn’t there, or at least wasn’t a conscious choice on the part of the author.

First of all, what a brilliant reaction to an experience most of us probably had as high school English students. I certainly did, only I went home and complained about it and used it as a reason to procrastinate on my English homework. The over-analyzing of novels even made me sidestep English as a major in college. Going right to the source to challenge one’s English teacher! Bravo, Bruce McAllister, bravo. What’s even more lovely about this story is that McAllister went on to become an English professor and writer.

The survey responses revealed (surprise, surprise!) that most authors did not feel they consciously made use of symbolism in their novels. But the answers young McAllister received were also full of wisdom (Ray Bradbury: “self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act”) and watch-out-young-whippersnapper advice (MacKinlay Kantor: “Nonsense, young man, write your own research paper. Don’t expect others to do the work for you.”).

After reading McAllister’s questions and the authors’ responses, I felt strangely relieved —vindicated even, after all these years, that high school English class did contain some level of absurdity. Saul Bellow himself says in his response, “Symbol-hunting is absurd.” But aside from a weird feeling of personal satisfaction that my teenage cynicism had merit — these responses are wonderful and instructive. For example:

McAllister: “Do you consciously, intentionally plan and place symbolism in your writing?… If yes, please state your method for doing so. Do you feel you sub-consciously place symbolism in your writing?”

Jack Kerouac: “No.”

John Updike: “Yes—I have no method; there is no method in writing fiction; you don’t seem to understand.”

Ray Bradbury: “No, I never consciously place symbolism in my writing. That would be a self-conscious exercise and self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act. Better to let the subconscious do the work for you, and get out of the way. The best symbolism is always unsuspected and natural.”

McAllister: “Do readers ever infer that there is symbolism in your writing where you had not intended it to be? If so, what is your feeling about this type of inference? (Humorous? annoying? etc.?)”

Ralph Ellison: “Yes, readers often infer that there is symbolism in my work, which I do not intend. My reaction is sometimes annoyance. It is sometimes humorous. It is sometimes even pleasant, indicating that the reader’s mind has collaborated in a creative way with what I have written.”

Ray Bradbury: “If people find beasties and bedbugs in my ink-splotches I cannot prevent it can I? … Still, I wish people … did not try so hard to find the man under the old-maid’s bed. More often than not, as we know, he simply isn’t there.”

McAllister: “Do you have anything to remark concerning the subject under study, or anything you believe to be pertinent to such a study?”

Richard Hughes: “Have you considered the extent to which subconscious symbol-making is part of the process of reading, quite distinct from its part in writing?”

Ray Bradbury: “There are other things of greater value in any novel or story…humanity, character analysis, truth on other levels…Good symbolism should be as natural as breathing…and as unobtrusive.”

Copies of many of the original surveys and responses are in the Paris Review, here. A summarized version of the responses appears here.

Ninja paleontologists and other stories.

bay viewHello friends,

It’s been a while. A long while. I last posted here in, ahem, March. You might be wondering, “gosh, what the heck could she be doing that keeps her away from her charming and witty blog for so long?” Well.

• I had a baby. Another boy. If you’re keeping track, that’s two little people. One is about to turn five and wants to be a ninja. Or a paleontologist. Or maybe a ninja paleontologist. The other is seven months and wants desperately for his teeth to come in. (For the record, I would just like to get a good night’s sleep. Although I guess being a ninja paleontologist wouldn’t be too bad either.)

• We thought it would be a good idea to buy a house, do some renovations while I was in the hospital recovering from a c-section, and then move into said house three weeks after the baby’s arrival. Oh, and sell our old house. After doing some renovations to make it more salable. Amazingly, that all happened. I don’t remember much of it between the pain killers, the lack of sleep, the new mom hormones and the general chaos, but it all happened. I think.

• The summer passed by in a blur of trying to figure out a) how to manage a 4.5 year old and a newborn at the same time, b) where the heck everything we own is, and, c) how to get more sleep. In between there was a lot of baby cuteness, some nice weather, many, many one-handed games of Uno, Sorry and Trouble while feeding an infant, and way too much time online at 2 in the morning. We managed to herd everyone onto planes to enjoy some summer and family on the East Coast and in Colorado, too.

• Did I mention I haven’t slept in, like, a year?

Things have stabilized, though. Really. I am getting slightly more sleep. I have some childcare. I started running again. Before I got pregnant last summer I had been training for a 10k and was up to a comfortable 5 miles. And now I’m trying to get back to that by Christmas and making good progress. Running clears the head. Running is good.

And writing! Writing is good, too. I had ambitions of cranking out some long tome now that I have the freedom to write regularly again, but at the moment I’ve gotten caught up in finishing a short story that I began over a year ago. It’s gone from a couple hundred words to a nearly finished draft so I’m pretty happy about that.

Getting back into a writing routine is tough business.

on getting a story published

unstuck2My short story “Family Mart” was published in Unstuck Vol. 2 back in December. And though I announced it on Facebook and Twitter, I just realized I never wrote about it here. Ack, social media. Anyway, this was exciting, exciting news for me. Encouraging progress just when it felt like my writing had stalled. Unstuck took a big chance on me – they liked “Family Mart” but wanted changes. I had been receiving a lot of “almost” responses to the story for over a year. That is, personal responses from lit mag editors who said they liked it, but… sorry, no. Some of the almost-but-nos may have had to do with the content – “Family Mart” is fantastical (a woman wakes up with a hoof instead of a hand) and a lot of magazines focused on literary fiction just aren’t quite willing to go there. The story ended up being named a finalist in a couple of contests, but never published. I knew it needed something but I didn’t know what. The editors at Unstuck had a lot of excellent suggestions and were patient as I worked through several revamps of the piece and I am so grateful for that. I hope “Family Mart” is the better for it.

I should back up and say that I began writing “Family Mart” in 2007. Yep, that’s right, from start to publication took five years. I suppose that is one of the biggest reasons I was so thrilled to see it in print. Finally! It’s a now-6,000 word finished, published story that over the past 5 years went through so many rewrites I lost count (50?) and had to create a separate folder on my computer to house them all so I could manage to find the most current one. I felt strongly about this story in a way that I don’t often feel about other pieces – that is, I wasn’t willing to let it go or to gather dust on my hard drive, forgotten, and thus the five years of rewriting, re-plotting, re-thinking, and submitting. I’m glad I stuck with it. I hope my next published story doesn’t take nearly so long.

Unstuck publishes literary fiction with elements of the fantastic, the futuristic, or the surreal, which is, of course, exactly what I was looking for. Its second issue includes work by Steve Almond, Kate Bernheimer, Jedediah Berry, Gabriel Blackwell, Edward Carey, Jonathan Lethem & John Hilgart and Paul Lisicky. I’m honored to be in such company and so impressed with the issue itself — more than 500 (print!) pages of some wonderful, inventive stories. Order yourself a copy! Or download the Kindle version.

The five best books I read in 2012

My reading has been all over the map this year, from gossipy cooking memoirs to hefty literary novels to travel writing and to, well, fluffy, escapist beach reads. But looking back over the 50 or so books I finished, five stand out. Four of them are novels. Two are written by women. Two are slim and novella-esque. Four are recent releases, with 2011-2012 pub dates, but one is 40 years old. After writing up these reviews I realized 4 of the 5 feature the Western U.S. I’ve been drawn to books about the West since realizing my stay in California was more permanent than temporary – I suppose it’s my way of trying to understand what remains, still, a foreign place. Anyway, here they are:

bernadette  1. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? A witty novel by TV script writer Maria Semple (Arrested Development, Mad About You, SNL, etc.) that combines emails, psychiatric documents, police reports and letters. I enjoyed the playful knocks against Seattle and its “Subaru parents.” It’s original, funny and refreshingly different.  Looking forward to seeing more from this writer.

2. The Sense of an Ending My bookclub chose this 2011 Booker Prize barneswinner back in the spring and I admit I was reluctant and expecting stuffiness and/or tedium from British author Julian Barnes. Well. I read this slim novel in one sitting and was blown away. It’s masterful. The writing, the storytelling, the subtle plot twists … it’s so carefully woven, you’ll want to read it more than once to absorb it all of its intricacies.

3. Wild: From Lost to Found on the wildPacific Crest Trail  This one is on everyone’s end-of-year ‘best of’ lists, and with good reason. Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of hiking solo on the Pacific Crest Trail while reeling from grief and life missteps manages to be readable, honest and a well-balanced emotional ride. The intimate voice made me feel I’d been told a long, riveting story by a close friend and after I finished I kept retelling bits of the book to everyone I knew. Like all of Strayed’s writing, it sticks with you.

traindreams4. Train Dreams Jesus’ Son and Tree of Smoke author Denis Johnson has written a lovely meditation on the nature of the West and its development. Johnson’s beautiful writing is crafted with a subtle hand. Train Dreams was nominated for the Pulitzer in 2012.

stegner5. Angle of Repose “It should not be denied… that being footloose has always exhilarated us. It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations, with absolute freedom, and the road has always led West.” Wallace Stegner’s masterful novel of the American West is not new (it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972) but for some reason, despite numerous recommendations from friends and family, I kept putting off reading it. What a mistake! I now count it among my favorite novels and hope to read it again this year. It’s cinematic and evocative, written as a story within a story. When I read this I was reminded how modern lit has changed and changed our reading habits – there’s no sell-it-quick first chapter to reel you in. Stegner starts slow and expects the reader to follow. But writing like this deserves the slow build and careful pacing it’s given.

The power of editorial suggestion

I have a publication coming up. I’m thrilled about this – thrilled that my short story finally found a home after some 3 years of sending out various versions of it, of getting some finalist mentions, very nice, personal rejections and a lot of flat-out no-ways. And I’m thrilled that the editors of the magazine it will appear in took a chance on me. Because they did: They accepted the piece under the condition that we work together to revise it.

I suspect this is unusual. I wrestled with whether to accept these conditions. On the one hand, my writerly ego wanted desperately to believe that my story was great the way I had decided it should be and other than minor copy-editing, it should be published as is. As a former editor I of course know better than that and told my writerly ego to shut up. I was worried about my own ability to revise a story that I had already revised some 50 times — in the end, a valid worry. (No, sadly, the 50 times are not an exaggeration.) But I decided to go with it. I agreed: You suggest edits, I revise. I revise to your standards, you publish.

A year later the story has been revised several times, drastically, and it will appear in print very soon. The process was an interesting one for me. I have been edited before, mostly as a journalist, but quite possibly I have not been edited before on a piece of writing I felt so strongly about. This story was a pet project of mine for reasons I cannot explain. Changing it so much raised big questions; questions that I have not often seen discussed: How much revision is enough? How much is too much? Who decides? Does editor always know best? Is there a point at which one should stop and listen to that writerly ego? And from a fairly unpublished writer’s standpoint, there’s the power issue: At what point does the need to get published trump ownership of your writing? That is, is editorial compromise for the sake of the work, or for the goal of publication? I’m not sure the two can be separated.

I don’t know that I have answers to a lot of these questions. I was lucky to have some very attentive editors who made a lot of fantastic suggestions. I was lucky to be given the chance to rewrite my story. The story went in a new direction that I might not have chosen without the editorial prodding. It’s going to be published. For now, that’s enough.

Robert Caro’s “painstaking process”

I’m tinkering with a nonfiction book idea. By that I mean, I have a book in mind that I’d like to write, and in fact have written bits and pieces of it and collected some research for it, but I have yet to find the right voice, tone and format to tell the story I’d like to tell. I have a long history of getting overwhelmed when attempting longer work, partly because of the sheer volume of information that one needs to research, sift through, organize, and access while writing. Then there’s the organization of the writing itself; will an outline help, or maybe chapter summaries, or should I just wing it? And then there are the technological and logistical choices: Can I store all of my research within Scrivner, and also write a draft in the same program? Will I like that method? Maybe I should use Word, and keep my background info in PDF files. Maybe I will go old school and print all my research out and organize it into a giant binder that I will lug everywhere I go to reference as I am writing…?

So it was with the utmost respect that I read about Robert Caro’s writing routine in the New York Times last weekend, because Caro seems to have a methodical, precise, and disciplined approach to producing books. Caro is a biographer, and his fourth volume in a series about Lyndon Johnson has just been released. Yep, you read that right: four volumes — 36 years and 3,888 pages. This most recent book is 712 pages. You can imagine how much information Caro has acquired in his research of LBJ to produce four lengthy volumes on the subject. You might not imagine that Caro does not use a computer. That’s right, the man has produced thousands of pages of meticulously researched nonfiction without a computer.

The NYT, along with a Q&A on how Robert Caro spends his days, posted a slideshow titled “Robert Caro’s Painstaking Process.” Caro’s process includes walking to an office he maintains (not in his home). He wears a suit to “work”:

Whenever I go to work I wear a jacket and a tie, because I’m inherently quite lazy, and my books take so long to do, and my publishers don’t bug me, so it’s so easy to fool yourself into thinking you’re working harder than you really are. So I do everything possible to make myself remember this is a job I’m going to, and I have to produce every day.

Caro has written all the drafts of his books longhand, on legal pads. “He doesn’t start typing — on an old Smith Corona Electra 210, not a computer — until he has finished four or five handwritten drafts. And then he rewrites the typescript.”

Caro maintains a “master outline” on a large bulletin board which, from the photos, it appears he marks up with a pen, or perhaps crosses sections out once he’s completed them. He monitors revisions with a proof of the table of contents that he turns into a checklist and posts on the same pinboard. All of his notes/research are in filing cabinets.

I’m impressed by this process in part because of its old-fashioned, computerless nature, but also because of its a) success and b) meticulousness (at least from outward appearances). In our future-is-now technologically advanced times, I suppose it’s easy to view handwritten drafts as romantic in some way, but I have had a fascination with Caro’s type of process for a while now. The fascination stems from the fact that as a person who grew up pre-Internet, this used to be my process. I wrote all of my college papers this way, by hand first, followed by a second or third draft that came about as I was typing my handwritten version into a computer. I sometimes miss that process for the absoluteness of the concentration it generated. There was a lot less mental background noise, and a lot more focus.

It’s hard not to contemplate, as I struggle with whether to use Scrivener or Word, and as I battle my own will to try to refrain from using the Internet in the midst of a writing session, or as I try to figure out (for the 50th time) how any writing program’s outline function works, how much time I spend working on technology rather than working on writing. There is a separation that’s happened, a lot more background noise, that forces more distance between my thoughts and what I write. In any case, Caro’s process is one to think of when you find yourself spending a morning organizing electronic files, or importing documents into Scrivener (or whatever writing program you use) or having to turn on Mac Freedom. Not because anyone’s process is any better than anyone else’s, but because sometimes technology has a way of making certain things seem important, when all that really matters is the writing that gets done every day.

Linktastic Tuesday: writing advice, ms length, and books for the beach

I wrote this post this morning … and then WordPress ate it. I responded by eating 2 pieces of cake slathered in rich chocolate frosting. Take that, lost hour of my life! Not so lost anymore! Ahem. Anyway, the cake was delicious and made me feel better. I did want to share a few links on this lovely, pollen-coated Tuesday*, so now, here they are, version two:

1.
Richard Gilbert has a great review/interview post with author Althea Black on his blog, Narrative. Black is the author of the short story collection I Knew You’d Be Lovely, and her advice on the writing process was frank and to-the-point, which is the kind of writing advice I most love to hear. Black describes how she put herself through a DIY MFA, reading and learning from writing books, and working hard at what she does (writing I Knew You’d Be Lovely was a 15-year process!) My favorite advice (because it’s true, and because it’s the hardest to do):

Through many hours of revising, I learned that if there’s a section of your story that depresses you to look at, you should cut it. If there’s a word that feels fancy or a character’s action that feels forced, cut. If there’s a paragraph where you can feel how hard you’re trying, cut. Cut anything that feels writerly or show-offy or self-conscious. Cut anything that doesn’t keep the ball moving. That really great metaphor that does nothing to advance your story? Cut.

I love Black’s focus on economy of language — “never say with twenty words what you can say with two.” I will admit I was not familiar with Black or her stories but I am now going to rush out and find a copy of this collection.

2.
Did you know The Great Gatsby is a novella? Me neither. It comes in just short of 50,000 words, which is the possibly arbitrary (and definitely debatable) number separating novel from novella.** Did you know you can find out the word counts of your favorite books on Amazon? Me neither. (Here’s how. You can only do it on “search inside this book” titles.)

I learned all this in “The Secret Lives of Novellas,” a short essay by Daniel Torday on the Glimmer Train site. Torday discusses his earlier obsession with word counts and what they represent, and how he realized that his WIP was long enough when it felt right to him, not because of a number. The WIP was published this spring, as a novella.

3.
Looking for something to read on your summer vacation? Or, like me, just always looking for something to read? Two good lists of new titles for summer:
-Flavorwire: 10 New Must-reads for May
-Bookpage: 20 summer standouts

*I’m having a hell of an allergy attack today and am a sniveling, sneezing mess. Seriously, driving is not a safe activity for me. Too much sneezing.
** In his essay, Torday mentions that E.M. Forster defined the novel as “any fictitious prose work over 50,000 words.” In my MFA program, I was taught that the publishing industry considers 75,000 words a novel, though clearly that’s just a guideline. Nathan Bransford suggests 70,000-80,000 for a debut novel, and no more than 150,000. So, novellas: 35K-70K?