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.


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:

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.

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.

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?

The Best Female Travel Writer You’ve Never Heard Of

I just finished reading a memoir of sorts by the late New Yorker writer Emily Hahn (1905-1997), entitled No Hurry to Get Home. The book is actually a collection of Hahn’s New Yorker articles which she strung together upon encouragement from others who thought she should write a memoir. She herself was less intrigued by the idea (she didn’t like to revisit old ground, according to an introduction in the book by her biographer, Ken Cuthbertson.)

Hahn wrote 54 books and more than 200 articles for the New Yorker over her 68-year association with the magazine. According to Cuthbertson’s intro to No Hurry to Get Home, Hahn had been making a living as a writer from 1929 onward, and by 1970 she was producing at least one book a year. Her books ranged from novels to short stories to biographies, histories, humor and travel writing. Strange then, that few people know her name. Strange too, because she was a woman who pushed the boundaries of the female experience during her time, and attracted attention for it. She describes many of these incidents in No Hurry to Get Home, including the period in which she and her sister wore knickers to school at a time when such dress for women caused an uproar, and how she decided to major in Mining Engineering at the University of Wisconsin because some male students and professors told her it couldn’t be done – no woman had ever majored in Mining Engineering before, and the general consensus (by the male faculty members and students) was that women simply didn’t have the head for it. Whether Hahn was actually interested in Mining Engineering was beside the point; the prevailing attitudes presented a challenge, which she accepted.

Later, her unconventional life led her to live, work and travel in Africa, England and China. She kept pet gibbons. She became addicted to opium for one year, until a hypnotist cured her. She lived in Japanese-occupied China, where she began an affair with a (married) British spy, Charles Boxer, and gave birth to a daughter at the start of World War II. Boxer was interned as a prisoner of war in Hong Kong and Hahn kept both he and their daughter alive with food acquired on the black market.

All of these experiences are chronicled in No Hurry to Get Home, which reads like a childhood memoir-turned travel adventure story. Roger Angell has described Hahn’s tone as “the offhand first-person casual.” Her laid-back response to some of the situations she gets into, for example blundering onto private mining land in the Belgian Congo and being faced with some angry gun-toting Belgians who accuse her of spying, or dodging bombs in China while being seemingly unaware of the danger or urgency of the imminent Japanese takeover add suspense to already-exciting adventures. Her sense of humor, though dry and offhand, is always present.

Some might find Hahn’s writing’s old-fashioned in that these pieces lack some of the emotion and the share-every-detail mentality of modern memoirs. Hahn is not out to detail her emotional responses to her challenges, however, but the experiences themselves, and yet she conveys feeling all the same. She describes her failed attempt at suicide matter-of-factly, with that same casual tone, which perhaps makes the writing more impactful. Only in the last piece in the book does she hint at the lasting traumatic effects the war had on her and her new family, and even that she achieves without becoming maudlin or self-pitying.

It was refreshing to read this book, a memoir that covers sexism, depression, addiction, war and other challenges but never goes over the top to describe every single disturbing event. It made me want to read more by Hahn, and more memoir – a genre I have been turned off from of late, after being overwhelmed by too many books that were far too hard to get through due to their heavy-handedness.


Emily Hahn’s obituary in the New York Times

Ken Cuthbertson’s biography of Hahn

A incomplete listing of Emily Hahn’s many books


A writer’s daily habit

The November/December issue of Poets & Writers magazine contains a motivating piece by Bay Area novelist Ellen Sussman about her daily writing practices. (Alas, not available online.) I’m always intrigued by the different ways in which writers approach their work — some people write at night, some in the morning, some can’t eat while writing, some must snack all the way through a writing session. Ahem. Some write longhand, some type on a computer. (One of my favorite descriptions of writing process is that of Truman Capote, who wrote lying down, sipping coffee or sherry, depending on the time of day) I was at a Litquake panel on the art of the novel last month in which author Bharati Mukherjee said she writes a first draft of her novel on a laptop, closes the file and does not refer to or open it again while she writes a second draft. She does the same thing for a third draft, essentially writing the novel from scratch three times! She did not, she said, recommend that method.

Anyway, Ellen Sussman’s piece was straightforward and made me realize, in addition to giving me some new ideas about how to structure my writing days around a 3-year-old and household chores,  that I need some writerly confidence. First and foremost, Sussman recommended this:

Repeat after me: ‘I’m a writer. It’s my job. It’s what I do.’
If you embrace that statement, then you can begin to develop the practice of writing. You go to work everyday. You sit your butt in a chair … and you put in your hours just like everyone else who goes to work.

I know this, of course, but I haven’t been doing it, or acting like writing is my job, which I very much would like it to be. Even if you have a full-time job and a houseful of kids, Sussman writes, you have to commit, even if it’s only to one hour a day. “It’s your other job — your writing job — and you can’t neglect it. Do it. You’re a writer.”

Sussman goes on to describe her writing days (5-6 days a week, every week). She sets working hours (9am-noon) and a word count minimum (1,000). If she doesn’t hit her minimum, she goes back to her desk after lunch. She meditates for 5-10 minutes before she begins and blocks the Internet with Mac Freedom for the 3 hours she’s supposed to be writing.

She divides her time into units of one hour each. For the first 45 minutes of each hour:

You do nothing but write. You don’t stop writing. Then, no matter where you are at the 45-minute mark, you get up from your desk. You take a 15-minute break and you do something that lets you think about the work but doesn’t allow you to actually do the work.

Sussman says she waters her garden or puts in a load of laundry, for example. She doesn’t check email or make calls or do other writing-related work. After the 15 minutes are up, when she’s back at her desk for the next unit of time, she sees that her unconscious mind has been working over her material and she’s full of new ideas. The 15-minute breaks allow for physical rest from the computer, too, and a way to get through your writing when you have a tough day (only 30 more minutes and I get a break!)

Because of this schedule, Sussman writes in her article, “If I have to rewrite a hundred pages of the novel, I know that I can do it in a month. I don’t despair as I would if I wrote a couple of pages one day and a couple of pages a week later.” So efficient! She says her writing practice allows her to take risks, since if it doesn’t work out, “I sit my butt down the very next day and start over.”

Do you have a writing schedule? What do you do to keep the rest of your life at bay while you getting your writing done?

Friday things

It’s been a while since I have posted any writing links. I could go on about why this is, but no doubt I would lose what 2-3 faithful readers I have with that boring tirade. So I’ll just get down to business. Since it’s the weekend, or almost, anyway, and theoretically that means you (reader?)  will have a bit more free time on your hands, I thought I’d pass along some excellent long-ish reads I’ve come across lately:

First up: This highly enjoyable, somewhat meandering (but worth the ride) essay in the Guardian from Elif Batuman, author of The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, about how life changed after she published a bestselling book:

At some point we headed back into the rain. Although I had quit smoking six months ago, I paused to bum an American Spirit from a conveniently situated critic. “I thought you quit,” my agent said. We began to walk to the Middle Eastern restaurant where Farrar, Straus was holding a dinner for its three finalists: me, Jonathan Franzen and Damion Searles. (Searles translated Comedy in a Minor Key by the 101-year-old Dutch novelist Hans Keilson, who was not in attendance.) In front of the restaurant, A held the broken umbrella while we took turns finishing the damp, slow-burning cigarette.

“I wish we had some weed,” he remarked, initiating a discussion of who at the dinner would be likely to have weed. Our money was on Franzen.

Second: “Why We Travel,” an essay by Paul Theroux in the New York Times. I often become irritated, nay, pissed off even, when reading Paul Theroux. But unlike Phillip Roth, who also pisses me off, I keep reading him. Why? His writing. Sigh. The writing is so good that I forgive him the pretentious things he sometimes writes. What a vocabulary! (I suppose I could say the same thing about Roth, but his content pisses me off so much I can’t stomach his work at all. Also, I suppose that his writing does not move me in the same way that Theroux’s does. Just a personal preference.) Also, Theroux’s travel philosophies mirror my own, though it’s been a long time since I’ve really been able to travel the way Theroux describes in this piece. For that, having a two-year-old along for the ride is not recommended. Anyway, with that dubious introduction, I offer this essay. If you haven’t read much Theroux, I recommend The Old Patagonian Express. I found it more accessible than The Great Railway Bazaar, which is probably more well-known.

Third: This charming bit of memoir on being an only child, from Geoff Dyer in the Threepenny Review. I will admit to some bias here. After all, I am an only child, and I related to some of Dyer’s descriptions of his childhood. Still, it’s a nice bit of writing.

It wasn’t until 1987 that I really understood how liberating the task of writing fiction could be. I was twenty-nine and writing a book based very closely on the life my friends and I were leading in Brixton, South London. At that time I was going through a phase of wishing very badly that I had a sister. I’d had these longings before, but never as intensely. It came to me in a flash—and it should be obvious by now that this is not the first time that I have belatedly realized something that everyone else has either known for ages or taken for granted—that if I wanted a sister I could just invent one!

I have never wanted to invent a sister, but it surprises me that more only children are not writers. The solitude is comforting, not alarming, as it is to some who grew up used to bustling households and constant companionship.

Happy Friday.

How I spent my winter vacation: A post-AWP* post

I went to Washington, and it was good. It was overwhelming, too, despite the fact that I’d been warned that the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference can feel that way, and that I thought I’d prepared for dealing with it. Still, so many writers, so many sessions, so many booths at the bookfair, so many hobnobbers glancing this way and that in the lobby of the hotel, looking for anyone who might be someone, while they clutched their glasses of scotch.

I went to what seemed like a bizillion panels at AWP, and that was even after I made a list of all of the sessions I wanted to make it to, and then crossed out about half of them. I ate a lot of burritos at the Chipotle outlet conveniently located just outside the Marriott that hosted the conference. I heard Jhumpa Lahiri read a lovely personal essay that described how she became a writer.  I listened to Joyce Carol Oates read from her new memoir about her husband’s untimely death and, despite the subject matter, manage to tell funny stories about her cat. I giggled uncomfortably when Junot Diaz told us how white we were (“there’s Boston white, and then there’s AWP white”) and I laughed at his profanity-laden responses to audience questions, was impressed by the completeness of what he described as work in progress. Was just impressed, really.

I ate poorly and erratically (did I mention the late-night burritos?), drank beers, and slept not nearly enough. The school from which I earned my MFA hosted a reception one night, and I was surprised to see my thesis advisor there, along with another professor whose memoir workshop I enjoyed. It was great to talk with them again – it has been, amazingly, five years. I talked with a few classmates who are having some success with their writing, and met a few writers whose work I’ll be keeping an eye out for. I heard advice from panelists whose books I’ve added to my to-read list. It was all very motivating and yes, I think I’ll say it again, overwhelming.

Perhaps the best thing about attending the conference was not the conference itself, but rather the uninterrupted time away from home and family to think about writing. Specifically, my writing. The cross-country flights alone were amazingly productive without a two-year-old in tow (surprise, surprise).  On the way home from D.C., I spent about three hours plotting out what I now see is more of a novel, not linked stories**  — and then promptly banged out half of a completely unrelated short story which has been lurking in the back of my mind for years.

And so, what’s changed since I went to AWP? Not much, probably, but I have a sense of purpose and motivation that I had been out of touch with before the trip. I have a pile of lit mags on my nightstand that I picked up at the bookfair. I don’t want to see a burrito for a while. I have a few new friends on Twitter and a reading list a mile long. Time to get back to it.


*I’ve noticed an increase of “post- ” phrases of late. Is it just me? It seems that anything can be era-defining these days. There’s post-James Frey, of course, and I read the phrase “post-Eat, Pray, Love” in a panel description at AWP. Hell, I’m going to go ahead and jump on the post-post bandwagon.
**More on this later. I attended a fabulous session on linked stories that helped me see things more clearly. The subject of my next post.

six degrees of separation

Speaking of reading, I’ve been immersed in two books over the past couple of weeks that I wanted to mention here. Both have ties to my MFA alma mater Emerson College. I’ll admit, I might not have been aware of them had I not been keeping an eye out for mentions of Emerson, and that’s why I wanted to bring them up here — they are worth noting.

The first, Day for Night, is by Frederick Reiken. I had Reiken for a lit class on short stories and it was one of the best classes I took in my MFA days, largely because he geared the class toward writers, and thus when we read a short story we spent a lot of time considering how it was written and consequently the class was as much a craft class as a lit class. Reiken has some terrific and very understandable theories about craft (you may have seen some of his essays in The Writers Chronicle). Anyway, Reiken’s command of craft is evident in his latest novel. It’s a kind of wild ride, this novel, with a “six degrees of separation” kind of premise that brings the reader from Florida to Utah to San Francisco to Israel and traverses time and, maybe, reality. There’s a bit of the fantastical here, and yet there’s also some historical reality — The Holocaust — that keeps Day for Night grounded. At first I wanted to classify this one as a collection of linked stories, but about a third of the way through the book it became clear that this is very much a novel, albeit with many different narrators. They are all telling the same story, in a way, though with varying degrees of knowledge of the big picture. Each offers a piece of the puzzle and Reiken is able to bring what seems like many disparate stories together in a way that I found pretty satisfying.

The second book is a collection of short stories by a recent Emerson grad … wow, wow, Laura van den Berg‘s first book, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us is fantastic. I’m a little late to the party –this collection has been lauded all over the place since it came out in late 2009. The book was a 2009 holiday selection for the Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” Program, shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor Award, and long-listed for The Story Prize. There’s a quiet sorrow in all of these stories, which have in common themes of loss and loneliness, despite their disparate geographic settings. (Van den Berg deftly writes about the Congo, Boston, Madagascar, and New York City, among other locales.) There’s a strangeness here to that contributes to the desolation (a Bigfoot impersonator, a store that sells Balinese masks, a search for the Loch Ness monster, a little brother who has found a tunnel to the other side of the world…) but doesn’t ever feel forced or, well, strange. Such is van den Berg’s talent.

I am eagerly awaiting her next book.

Writing links, the summer vacation edition

Since the end of July sort of eluded me and August looks to be similarly fast-paced, I thought I’d offer some mid-summer writing link goodness now. Consider this the summer edition of writing links. And consider me possibly away from the blog for a bit while I attempt to get at least a few days of sun before the summer is over. Getting sun, alas, involves leaving the city of San Francisco and its notoriously chilly, fog-filled days. Bon voyage! Enjoy –

The Best Magazine Articles Ever, including some real classics like “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” by Gay Talese, “Consider the Lobster,” by David Foster Wallace, Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” a few by Hunter S. Thompson, and so on. A great list and some fine narrative nonfiction reading.

“Torture your protagonist” is one of author Janet Fitch’s Ten Rules for Writers.

A Q & A with Gary Shteyngart: “I don’t know how to read anymore. I can only read 20 or 30 words at a time before taking out my iPhone and caressing it and snuggling with it.” Shteyngart has been all over the place recently, promoting his new book, Super Sad True Love Story, with a hilarious trailer, appearances, etc. I really enjoyed the interview with him on NPR’s Fresh Air. (I also just noticed that he’ll be reading in SF at the Bookshop in West Portal on Aug. 7, with a couple of other Bay Area appearances scheduled as well.)

A Fresh Breed of Literary Magazines, from the Independent. “It’s good to try to challenge the more established magazines. They don’t always deserve to be there.”
Oh, snap.

Book Preview 2010 from The Millions. So many yummy books, so little time. Also, so many still in hardback. Sigh.

A big deal: “Many writers may start to ask themselves whether they still need to sign up with traditional publishers at all.”

What if your story or essay or poem was accepted by one of the best lit mags out there … And then it wasn’t.

Hilarious. Sad. But, still, kind of hilarious. Excerpts from actual one-star reviews of books from Time’s list of the 100 best novels from 1923 to the present. (My favorite is taken from a review of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and could be me quoted verbatim circa 1987 when I had to read that novel in 10th grade: “While the story did have a great moral to go along with it, it was about dirt! Dirt and migrating. Dirt and migrating and more dirt.”)

Nice piece about author Barbara Kingsolver in the Irish Times.

And, finally, Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, one of my favorite novels, is being adapted into a movie, directed by Tran Anh Hung. Radiohead guitarist and keyboardist Jonny Greenwood is writing the score. The film will be released in Japan in December. Not sure about in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, day one

As I alluded to in my previous post, I’m away from home, attending the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference this week. The conference is in St. Helena, in the heart of California Wine Country. It is beautiful here, and more summerlike than San Francisco has been of late.*

I have not attended a writers’ conference before, and I find that having an MFA under my belt makes me more comfortable with navigating one than I might have been otherwise. The workshop, for example, is a familiar thing, even if the leader of the workshop is not, and my peers in the workshop are not. The awkward socializing that writers do is also familiar, although there is less competitiveness and pretentiousness here than I felt in my grad program. I think with a shorter period of time in which to work we in the workshop have no choice but to learn to bond with each other as quickly and as easily as possible.

I have met some interesting and inspiring people of all ages and backgrounds, and that alone is providing me with all sorts of motivation. Perhaps, and I’m just thinking out loud here, the greater diversity one might find in a writing conference like this vs. an MFA program is a good thing.

Last night I heard Michael Byers, who teaches at the University of Michigan, give a lively reading from his forthcoming novel, Percival’s Planet. The reading took place outside, just as the sun was going down. I could watch tangerine light slip down the side of the mountain on the other side of the valley as he spoke. Geese flew overhead. Byers said he felt like he was reading in the White House Rose Garden and did an imitation of Ronald Reagan. We all got cold as the sun disappeared, and Byers wrapped up his reading a little early as a result.

Today, after our workshop, lunch and a fiction craft lecture from Lan Samantha Chang, the novelist who directs the Iowa Writers Workshop. Somehow her lecture tied together Elizabeth Bowen, The Great Gatsby, The Reader, and a Dora the Explorer book. I will admit that some of the lecture was over my head. Or maybe, as Chang said at one point, “there’s such a thing as too much craft.”

Right now I’m relaxing in my hotel room, and from my window I can see Michael Byers strolling around the hotel pool in his dress shirt. Last night as I pulled into the hotel parking lot, my headlights illuminated Ron Carlson, briefcase in hand, ambling toward his room. If I were a ruthlessly ambitious person, I suppose I would get out there by the pool and talk to Michael Byers about getting published and so on. But I am not that sort of person, and I find, after hours of focus this morning in workshop and thinking about the craft of writing fiction and the structure of Fitzgerald’s novel, I feel like being alone for a while to write and process it all.

*Although, just as in my other recent travels, after I arrived here yesterday the temperature dropped about 20+ degrees. Yesterday, shorts and t-shirts. Today, jeans and a sweater. Seriously, it’s like I’m a walking cold front.