Saturday, April 24, 2010


Last week (?) I posted a quote from Marisa Silver.

As a guest blogger at The Elegant Variation, she recently posted an article called "Advice for the lovelorn... I mean writers."

Here's something that hit home:

"Your work will often look horrible and embarrassing.It will be unoriginal. It will fill you with shame. You will lie down on your bed and think that no one has ever written more awful, ungainly sentences than you. Get up off the bed. Don't panic. Like any kid - your work has to go through its awkward, pimply faced adolescence before it emerges as something another person might want to look at, hold in her hands, take into her heart."

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Reading Recs

  • Carol Keeley's essay "The Culture of Fire." Carol is a friend and wonderful writer/person. She also has a story ("Cremains") in the current issue of Ploughshares. The issue was guest edited by Elizabeth Strout, and features some big names: Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Bausch, Mary Gordon and Amy Hempel. Congratulations, Carol!
  • Steve Almond's essay about Chuck Prophet. This is an excerpt from Almond's recently released book Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life. It's good to see Mr. Prophet get some love. I saw him perform many, many times when I lived in San Francisco. Besides his indisputable musical skills, he's also a master of handling hecklers.

Monday, April 19, 2010

My Son, the President

Driving with my four-year-old son Ethan yesterday, a story came on NPR about the funeral for the Polish president who died in a plane clash last week...

E: He died?

Me: Yes. He was the president of a country called Poland, which is pretty far away. He died last week and today they're having a funeral for him. Then they're going to have an election to choose another president. Do you know what an election is?

E: No.

Me: Well, let's see. An election is when people, uh, vote for other people to decide who's going to be, um, the leader of a country -- or a smaller place, like a city or a state. The people who win the election, they then get to make decisions and decide things. Like President Obama. There was an election a while back, and more people said they wanted President Obama to be the president, so he won the election, and he became the president. Now he's the leader of our country.

E: I am.

Me: You're the president of the United States?

E: Yes.

Me: That's a pretty important job. Do you think you can handle it?

E: Yes.

Me: Well, let me know if you need any help with that.

E: I don't need any help, Daddy.

Me: Okay.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Dictionaries, DFW, Daddy Brain

Ever wondered which words David Foster Wallace circled in his dictionary? Wonder no more.

I now realize that I suffer from abulia (loss or impairment of the ability to make decisions or act independently). I used to call it daddy brain.

For the record: DFW used the American Heritage Dictionary.

More about the David Foster Wallace Archive at the Harry Ransom Center here.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Yearning

Quote from poet Louise Gl├╝ck:

The fundamental experience of the writer "is helplessness... Most writers spend much of their time in various kinds of torment: wanting to write, being unable to write, wanting to write differently, not being able to write differently. It is a life dignified... by yearning, not made serene by sensations of achievement."

Saturday, April 10, 2010

You Are Enlarged

Marisa Silver on the short story:

"The short story, to me, carries the essence of what is magical about writing: that a full human being can be conjured in a sentence, that an emotional state can be suggested with two or three behavioral gestures, that something ineffable but essential about life can be conveyed in a mere twenty. Sometimes you stand in front of a painting at a museum and the image just hits you. It transports you. With one gaze, an entire narrative opens up and you are enlarged. That's what a great short story can do."

Read the full interview here.

Great First Lines: Donald Ray Pollock

"My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old."

That's from Donald Ray Pollock's "Real Life," the opening story from his collection Knockemstiff.

I've been thinking about first lines a lot lately, mostly because my reading time is so limited these days, and because if a story/novel/essay doesn't grab me with its first line, I may not make it any farther.

It's sort of a sad commentary, I guess. Yes, my attention span is dwindling, my readerly patience has likewise diminished, my brain doesn't work as well as it used to (three kids, lack of sleep, blah blah blah).

I haven't read Pollock's book yet (I just got it), but the first sentence drew me in, made me want to read more. I read the line and it immediately got me wondering: What kind of a father shows his seven year old how to hurt someone? What will happen from here? There's also a kind of matter-of-factness to the tone that really works.

First lines are so important. You used to hear that the first page of a story was crucial. But that first line -- it's the initial communication between reader and writer, and it can be so powerful when done well.

I'm planning to periodically post other story first lines that grab me. We'll see how it goes.

You can read another Pollock story (with another great opening line: "I was hiding out in Frankie Johnson’s car, a canary-yellow '69 Super Bee that could shit and get.") here.