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So I just read what seemed to me a very sensible blog post by Michael Chabon on the Huck Finn controversy.  The only thing I would add that I wish he'd made more explicit is that there's not any inconsistency between railing against changing the text of a classic to take out offensive words and taking out those offensive words when you read the book to your children.

My kids are a little younger than Chabon's, and I admire his guts in tackling Huck Finn with them far sooner than I'd plan to do it with mine.  On the one hand, I think it's an outrage if that Auburn version of Huck Finn is published as anything other than an adaptation of Huck Finn.  On the other hand, if I found myself reading it to my young kids, I'd be yanking the offensive word out at every occurrence.  I've done it plenty with other books.  The original 1920s Nancy Drews are a blast—lots more action, lots more edge—but when I read one of them to my kids, I had to dodge and weave around all sorts of outdated stereotyping and some stuff that seems downright nasty to us today.  In The Cricket in Times Square, the way the language of the loveable Chinese shopkeeper is rendered is enough to make any modern reader cringe (lots of "so solly" stuff).

Both of these lesser works of literature are thoroughly charming in almost all their other aspects.  But in those parts, they simply are what they are.  And any effort to amend, recast, or whatever makes them into something they are not.  So why am I changing them for my kids?  Because I'm their parent—one of two people who know them best of all, know what they can get their heads around and what should wait awhile.  If they want to take the book off the shelf and ask me why I read something different from what's on the page, we can have that conversation.  (I did get busted once with Nancy Drew when my daughter read ahead.) But that's between my children and me.  At least the book as written is sitting there on the shelf being, for better or worse, what it's always been.


 
 
How about a hand up for everyone out there who has a stack of mostly unread New Yorkers on your night table (or, as in my case, cascading to the floor and underneath the bed).  I really should just get rid of them, but I keep thinking I'll get to them.  Really, the only time I go back looking for a New Yorker article is when it's getting talked about and I want in on the conversation.  There's a certain pride, however, in having actually read one of those articles people talk about when it came out.  And such was the case with Oliver Sacks' "Face Blind," (August 30) in which Sacks relates the particulars of prosopagnosia, a strange condition from which he suffers that leaves it victims unable to remember faces, even the faces of those they know well.

A few weeks before I read Sack's article, I finished a story I'd been working on since late spring called "New Wife."  Thanks to the good folks at St. Martins, New Wife is now out of quotation marks and into italics, available as an e-book.  But back before this stroke of good luck, I sent it to a writer friend who gave me a couple of good ideas to make it a better story, but liked it overall.  A few days later his wife contacted me via Facebook, saying that her husband had told her the premise of my story and she wondered if I'd read the Oliver Sacks piece that came out in the New Yorker just a couple of days before.  Of course, I had!  Well, sort of…

Okay, full disclosure, I didn't read the whole thing at first.  Most of those New Yorkers around my night table are opened to an article that was interrupted by sleep, children, life, etc.  Most of those articles I never return to.  (Don't judge me, or I'll quiz you on the last four paragraphs of Malcolm Gladwell's anti-social-networking piece and see just how well you do.)

Past the point in the article where I'd been interrupted, Sacks describes a similarly unusual condition called Capgras Syndrome.  Capgras leaves the sufferer convinced that those close to him have been replaced with imposters.  And it's a situation that has a lot in common with the protagonist of New Wife.

It's a mixed blessing, this sort of information.  On the one hand, it seemed to confirm the aptness of the metaphor I'd chosen for this character at this point in his life.  On the other hand, I suddenly knew there was a real condition out there that had its own characteristics and its own trajectory.  Was I getting it right?  I suspected the resolution to my character's situation, while it made artistic sense to me, wouldn't jibe with the trajectory of a real-world neurological disorder.  Did I need to research it now?

It only took a quick search under Capgras in Google to let me know the condition was not nearly as obscure as I'd at first imagined.  The Wikipedia entry is here.  You just have to go to the bottom of this entry to get to the part that depressed me.  Not only is Capgras well known, it's been used in Richard Powers' The Echo Maker, a Neil Gaiman story, as the motive for murder in an episode of CSI: NY, and (most distressingly for me) in a Shirley Jackson short story called "The Beautiful Stranger," in which a woman believes her husband has been replaced by someone else and ends up not recognizing her own home.  That sounds waaaay to close to what's going on in my story. 

By this point, my lovely little story of which I was proud and which has by this time been accepted for publication was looking pretty obvious and derivative.  I was reminded of that feeling just after fiction workshop in grad school when the story you felt so great about when you wrote it feels—even if it went over well—strangely diminished. 

If you "Search in this book" here under "Beautiful Stranger," you can read Shirley Jackson's story, as I did.  First impression: Shirley Jackson had way more tricks in her writers' bag than I do.  Second impression: It's pretty cool the way the woman believes the false husband knows she has discovered his ruse—maybe I should have done that in mine.  Third impression: Wait, something's different from my story here.  (Fourth impression, seek out more Shirley Jackson.)  In my story the man is startled to see someone he doesn't recognize in the place of his wife, whereas in Jackson's story, she recognizes her husband, then is struck a while later by the conviction that he is not the genuine article.  It might seem a slight difference, but I think it's an important one.  And let's face it, at this point I was looking for anything to hang on to.

Now I go back to various articles and definitions of Capgras Syndrome (or the Capgras delusion, as it's sometimes called) and notice that this element of the object of the delusion being seen as an exact double is present in pretty much every one.  Aha!  Maybe my guy doesn't have Capgras Syndrome after all!  Maybe no one's written about his particular condition!  Maybe, as I thought originally, I made it up! 

But what if one of you tells me in the comments section that the syndrome in which someone familiar to you appears to be an entirely different person is called X Syndrome and that it has well-documented stages and prognoses that I got entirely wrong?

Art, like religion, has been battling with science for a long time.  Creation myths and literal readings of biblical stories have, in most quarters, surrendered to what we're pretty darn sure we know about how species evolve.  But instead of disappearing after their value in explaining the physical world was undermined, these inventions have persisted in folktales and mythologies in which we still find value. 

In the 19th century, authors felt decidedly more comfortable letting characters die of broken hearts, rave with prophetic clarity while in the grip of "brain fever," and all sorts of things we wouldn't try to get away with today.  And in Shakespeare there's all that talk about the spheres and the humours—all the stuff that he didn't get right be we don't think less of him for. But when Gregor Samsa awakes from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a large bug, we know we're well into the realm of the impossible and don't nitpick the specifics.  But where's the line?

Can we still make the case for the purely literary affliction?  The simple external manifestation of a psychological state.  We know, for the most part, that our real world doesn't work that way.  But neither does our real world isolate characters in sensibly constructed beginnings, middles, and ends.  I used to teach Cheever's "The Swimmer," and was often asked "Is Teddy insane?"  No, he's not.  (Though he's definitely very drunk.)  The world Teddy exists in resembles ours, but it's keyed to his misperceptions of his own importance and the way he's seen by others.  Even time and the seasons bend to match his evolving understanding of his sad situation. 

I believe implicitly in this approach to storytelling when it serves the story's purpose.  So why did I let myself get bugged by this Capgras thing?  Why was I so annoyed when I heard a real condition similar to the one in my story existed?  Why was I so suspiciously relieved when I found the sliver of difference between the real world condition and the one I'd made up?

My mother gave me Sacks' most recent book for Christmas—the one from which I understand the New Yorker essay to have been excerpted.  And now it sits atop my night table.  I sort of want to read it.  And I still sort of fear it.

 
 
That was the advice George Garrett used to give us in MFA school.  Today at Christina Baker Kline's blog, I write about how true that was when it came to New Wife.  Read it here.
 
 
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The fall 2010 issue of Brain, Child includes, "Don't Try This at Home," one of the stories from Bad DaddiesBrain, Child is a great magazine I'd only been vaguely aware of in past years.  The articles remind me of the conversations you have with your smarter parent friends.  It couldn't be further in tone from the treacly parenting magazines in the grocery store.  I'm thrilled to have my story between its covers.

"Don't Try This at Home," was the stay-at-home dad story I knew needed to be part of a collection about modern fathers.  Having written for The Washington Post  about being home with my kids, I approached a fictional treatment of the same subject with some wariness.  But the story I ended up with wasn't what I expected, and that's always a good sign. 

Read the opening here.  And then run out and buy the magazine (Some Barnes and Nobles carry it).

 
 
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Remember that person you knew in high school? The good-looking, smart and likable one? Years later you're amazed to find out he or she never partnered up with anyone.  The Facebook profile lists "relationships" as an interest among all the time-consuming hobbies and the endless lonely travel pictures and comments from married friends.  But that person seemed to have it all going for him?  What happened?

Now imagine that instead of a person, it's something you've written.  I have this short story that is the story (in my mind at least) all my other stories want to be.  I've sent it out for years, and each time it comes back: rejected to be sure, but always with a nicer note than the other rejected stories get.  My favorite was "Smart, warm, funny...not for us."

And as I dust this story off to send out yet again, I'm wondering if, as with some people, there's just something a little off-putting about it.  Maybe it's too eager to please, maybe it tries too hard.  Maybe its smile is a little forced.

"Thanks for a great read," went another rejection.  "Very funny piece."  This story is better than the ones that have found publication, in my mind.  What's the matter with you people?  They seem to wonder too.  The nice notes have a distinct whiff of the old "It's not you, it's me."  I'm starting to feel like one of those aging parents telling an adult child, "If they can't see what's beautiful about you, they don't deserve you!"

So soldier on, brave little story.  Someday love will find you!

 
 
Remember how aspiring writers used to deal with agents?  You'd mail them something, wait for a letter in response, maybe even talk to them on the phone (usually exactly once).  They were pretty distant characters to the writer sitting down to work with the morning cup of coffee in Anytown, USA. 

But oh, how the times have changed.  It's not even 9:30 in the morning and Betsy Lerner has already given me thoughts on finding the perfect title for my book, Nathan Bransford is ready to show me exactly how he appraises a query letter, and Rachel Gardner has thoughts on making writing your lifestyle, not just a sideline hobby.  Or you can get their thoughts in 140-character chunks on Twitter.

Seems to me this can only be a good thing.  A few months of glancing at agent blogs have told me more about what agents actually do than I learned in the previous 20 years of writing. 

A caveat, though, if you write and you're considering entering this literary corner of the Internet:  Agents' blog entries come in three flavors: 1) purely practical 2)artsy/inspirational and 3)tough love.  Now you might be the kind of writer who's looking for all three of these all the time--I am not.  Mornings, I like a comfy layer of #2 with a light sprinkling of #1.  I do best with #3 in the afternoons, at which time #2 is repellent to me.  And late in the evenings #3 becomes the cudgel with which I beat myself.  Now if you're talking Twitter, you never know which you're going to get when--and that can be a problem.  You don't necessarily want a hard reality check interspersed with Shit My Dad Says and your friends' news of cute things their kids do.

My advice?  Make all this agent wisdom a font to which you journey with your little writer bucket as you need it--don't turn on the tap in your office and let it pour forth all day.  No RSS feeds telling you about your favorite agent's latest post.  And those Twittering agents?  Unfollow them, then corral them all into a Twitter list that you can call up at will when you're ready.  When you're struggling with your manuscript and you break down to go check Twitter, you don't need to hear exactly how paltry your chances of selling that thing are anyway.  Oh yeah, and don't check Twitter and blogs when you should be writing...
 
 

There's a well known problem with making movies about a writers.  All sorts of interesting things may have happened in a writer's life, but the essential part of what makes him or her interesting--the writing--is an excruciating bore to watch.  You just can't make it visually engaging, no matter where you put the camera, no matter what meaningful utterances the writer lets slip.  You end up with something along the lines of the above video.  Worse still is the Inspiration Cheat: Artillery shells give soldier Cole Porter (as played by Cary Grant) the idea for the driving rhythm of "NIght and Day;" W.S. Gilbert staring profoundly at a samurai sword as he conceives of The Mikado in the otherwise wonderful Topsy Turvy.  I don't think the viewer has to be a writer to cringe at these moments with the certain knowledge that it just doesn't work that way.

But I'm increasingly realizing this problem isn't limited to writers in movies.  These days, it's traces are all over the pages of writers on Facebook, their Twitter streams, and, yes, especially their blogs.  Writers have more ways to keep their names in people's minds.  To "build the brand," if you will.(Please don't.)  It's easy to mistake what the immediacy of these tools offers for something that will further illuminate work we admire.  Instead, what you get is a hint of the author's taste in online articles, maybe her politics or his taste in music.  if you're lucky, you might discover that that writer you hold in such high esteem likes that silly cat video that's been going around your office as much as you do.  At worst, you suffer through excessive self-promotion and/or self-mythologizing.  The greatest compliment I can pay to nearly all the writers whose online presence I follow is that I enjoy their books a lot more than the digital breadcrumb trail left by their tweets, entries, and status updates.


Oh yeah, but don't let that stop you from reading this blog--it's friggin' fantastic.
 
 
I've not read James Ellroy, but this interview by my friend Jon Fasman has me primed. What an intriguing manner Ellroy has: the deliberate tone, the halting emphasis, the bow tie, for god's sake.  I know it's all about the writing, but I wish there were more authors who had Ellroy's sense of odd panache.  You used to see Truman Capote and Norman Mailer acting weird on talk shows.  I miss those days.
 
 
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Let's just agree that Wordle is a lot of fun.  This is the word cloud from my story collection.  When I pasted in the full manuscript, character names were among the biggest words.  That's probably not unusual, but I think my narrators and characters do use proper names a lot.  I then excluded character names. What else can I learn from this?  "Like," "looked," and "back" are in there a lot.  Do I use enough similes to have "like" loom so large? "Little," "just," "room"--can't draw any connections there.  Clearly "time" is much on my mind.  Maybe the biggest takeaway is that, to judge by my word cloud, I write with the vocabulary of a second-grader.

 
 
I suppose Trollope has become the patron saint of writerly productivity.  His daily schedule annoyed his contemporary critics, who thought the muse did not visit those who waited for her on a schedule.  (This opinion remains popular among undergraduates--at least the ones who took my workshops.)

But what's on my mind this morning is something I read a few years ago.  As we all know, Trollope wrote his allotted three hours EVERY day.  Was it from 5 in the morning until 8 or 6 to 9?  But apparently when he finished a novel manuscript at, say, 8:45, he would turn the page and write "Chapter One," and be off on his new novel for his remaining fifteen minutes of writing.

Now that my story collection is finished (it is finished, right?), I'm trying to get something else underway--something novel-like.  And all these Trollope questions come rushing back to me.  Did he outline anything?  Did he ever just stare at the wall and wonder how this or that strand of the plot could be made to work?  Maybe he did that at the post office  when he was supposed to be working.