Two interns for the literary journal interviewed me about my theater background, my time living in Bangkok, and my obsession with point of view (among other things). You can read about it here.
A Great David Sedaris Interview
I realize that this website is one post short of being a David Sedaris fanblog, but I came across this article today from Vice: “David Sedaris Talks About Surviving the Suicide of a Sibling,” which was one of the best interviews I’ve read in a long time.
Not only do we get an authentic discussion of a really tough subject, but also a wonderful collection of Sedaris family photos. At the end I was thinking, “What an incredible family, and we’re so lucky to have it chronicled by such a fantastic writer.”
Steve Almond Takes Us to Town
Most of the time, writing requires a lot of chugging along, and a lot of resistance towards hating other people. Especially people who do well in the field. It’s because we have this illusion that when other people get things, those things must have fallen in their laps without any effort. Of course we know deep down this isn’t true (more likely, we resent the fact that we haven’t made the time to work as hard as other people), but this ridiculous idea translates into our own entitlement and prohibits us from enjoying other people’s work. Even when that work is really, really good.
In a recent article from Poets and Writers, Steve Almond tells the truth about how jaded we’ve become as writers.
…entitlement is the enemy of artistic progress, which requires patience and gratitude and, above all, humility. You don’t grow as a writer by writing off other people’s efforts. You grow as a writer by respecting the process.
The more we write, the more we understand how hard that process actually is. The more we write, the harder it is to write. It’s so easy to get discouraged, and discouragement makes it hard to appreciate what other people are writing.
(I’m speaking for myself, anyway.)
Let’s just acknowledge that we’re discouraged and try not to take it out on other people.
Grace and peace to you, other hardworking writers…
Oil for the Writing Lamp
I’ve been listening to and enjoying a lot of New Yorker fiction podcasts lately. If you aren’t familiar with them, they work like this: an author who was published in the New Yorker at some point reads and discusses another author’s story, which was also published in the New Yorker at some point. Editor Deborah Treisman conducts wonderful interviews at the end of the stories. Most run about 30 minutes, which makes them great for dog walks or housework, or short commutes. For me, these have been a post-MFA staple.
I’m sharing this one, where Jennifer Egan reads Mary Gaitskill’s story, “The Other Place,” because I can’t stop thinking about it. I’m a big fan of Egan, ever since she came to Tallahassee and I heard her discuss her writing process, which was to write out the entire novel by hand on legal pads and then craft it while she typed it up. I’ve tried this. It doesn’t work for me at all, but I love the idea. Listening to her, though, makes the writing life seem “possible,” and that is always refreshing.
The story she reads forces the reader into dark and ugly spaces (surprise! if you are familiar with Gaitskill at all…), but it does so with a wild amount of understanding and compassion. Let me use the word “masterful” when I describe this story. And Egan’s insights are smart.
Here are some other stories/discussions I love:
Boyle Reading Barthelme
Erdich reading Oates
Oates reading Ozick
Simpsons, Sedaris, and Story Structure
I am one of the thousands of people who enjoys David Sedaris’s essays. I have followed him since The Santaland Diaries, and think he is a great example of how to be deceptively simple. He makes writing, particularly funny writing, look so easy. Also, my students [usually] love it when I assign him.
I was excited to see that today, he (or his personal Facebook assistant) posted an interview from by Jenn McKee of Ann Arbor’s local online magazine, MLive. I’m familiar with MLive (and McKee) because I went to college in Ann Arbor and later performed in at least one play she reviewed. Anyway, all of this is to say that I was super excited to stumble upon this quote:
Q. While reading “Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls,” I was reminded of the way your essays often start in one experience or memory, but then they end up going someplace completely unexpected. Does that association between seemingly disparate experiences just happen when you sit down to write about a topic?
A. I was listening to “This American Life” over the weekend, and on Ira’s show, they really cut to the chase. The first story was … someone saying, “This guy stabbed me when I was 18.” They get right into it. When I’m sitting down to write a story, it doesn’t occur to me to begin the story like that. For one thing – I like “The Simpsons.” Unlike most sitcoms, where you think, I bet this is the one where wife loses her wedding ring, or the husband loses his job. With “The Simpsons” – you watch the first 4-5 minutes, and you have no idea where the show is going. I like that.
I was excited because I am always using the Simpsons as a teaching example when I cover story structure. No seriously, every time I teach a class. But I never heard anyone else allude to its structure this way. Made my week.
Ben Marcus on Reading Like a Writer
Ben Marcus say some good, practical things here in this interview from Knopf’s “Writers on Writing” series.
I appreciate, especially, his reminder to write what we’d want to read. It sounds so obvious, but it’s easy to get bogged down with irrelevant /tension-killing information while we’re in the middle of a paragraph. It’s more than just thinking about communicating to an audience when we write; it’s about choosing phrases that captivate, challenge, and entertain appropriately according to the moment we’re writing.
Marcus also draws our attention to the fact that those of us who learned to write in college/university workshops are used to having audiences that must finish our work. I’m glad he mentioned this, because I am teaching a summer college workshop at the moment and I think it’s good to keep in mind what school-habits my curriculum formulates and propels. I’m teaching seniors, so they are about to go into the world and adjust to writing outside of the classroom.
Marcus reminded me to think about what happens when my audience becomes someone that doesn’t really like to read that much, but thought my book sounded interesting so they read the first paragraph in the bookstore? Or before that, I’m going to have to get that first paragraph (and entire book) past an agent and hopefully editor. The solution? I stated it yesterday but I’ll state it this way today: Learn to recognize what it is I’m reading, how it impacts me, what it can teach me about writing.
Books are the best teachers.
Miracles and Writing
I’m teaching Isaac Bashevis’s story, “The Little Shoemakers” in my literature class today. In preparation, I came across this interview from the Paris Review.
It is true that I believe in miracles, or, rather, grace from heaven. But I believe in miracles in every area of life except writing. Experience has shown me that there are no miracles in writing. The only thing that produces good writing is hard work. It’s impossible to write a good story by carrying a rabbit’s foot in your pocket.
Sondheim Wisdom for All of Us
I’m about halfway through this HBO documentary about Stephen Sondheim. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, he is the composer and lyricist for many of Broadway’s darkest, most thought provoking and beautiful musicals. For example, Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd (my two favorites).
I am pretty hard on musicals, to tell the truth. I judge them according to three things:
1) Story (I’m a fiction writer, so duh)
I think most musical lovers put music first, but to me it’s about how well the words convey the story. Many musicians and actors don’t necessarily love Sondheim because, while many of the songs are pretty, many others kind of aren’t. And they are tremendously hard to sing most of the time. Nonetheless, Stephen Sondheim is probably the reason I have this hierarchy of concerns, and watching this documentary confirmed this — he describes his process as starting with the script (or book) on the piano and letting the music come from the rhythm of the character’s lines. Come to think of it, I attribute much of my love for story and writing to Sondheim. The first I remember of paying attention to storytelling as part of an actor’s job was when I played Cinderella in Into the Woods. I was in high school — I guess 15?
I think any writer or artist has a lot to gain from watching this documentary, which is full of just great thoughts about the creative process. Here is a quote that I will carry with me today:
A song should be like a play. It should have a beginning, middle and end. It should have an idea—state the idea and then build the idea and finish. At the end you should be at a place different than where you began.
Sounds like a story, right?
That quote and this one came from an interview about Oscar Hammerstein, who mentored him. This quote is the reason I decided to blog today:
One of the things [Hammerstein] told me was never to imitate him. If you write what you feel, it will come out true. If you write what I feel, it will come out false.
Alice Munro on writing and things…
If you liked Munro before, you will really like her after visiting the Nobel Prize website and listening to this interview.
Kate Braverman Says…
Writing is a lot like hunting or ocean fishing. You go out when it’s cold and wet and dark, armed and alert, and most of the time, you get nothing.
Read the rest of the interview here.