Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith is one of the few writers whose writing about writing I find as interesting as her fiction. And in one of the more personal essays in this book, she reveals that her father was the model for Archie, the central figure of her first novel, White Teeth. Smith famously published White Teeth when she was 24 and has since tried to distance herself from it--calling it something like a ginger-haired child tap-dancing manically. But I'm a big fan--then again I wouldn't mind seeing a ginger-haired child tap-dancing manically either. Now I wonder if she has distanced herself from the novel because it is partly borrowed from her father. It had never occurred to me that White Teeth was at all autobiographical, perhaps because it's so over-the-top; and honestly, I find it a relief to discover it has such true-to-life seeds. That makes the achievement seem less daunting--that this brilliant insanity was not entirely invented out of nothing.

Also included in this collection is an essay I like quite a lot, "That Crafty Feeling," about how when you're writing a novel suddenly everything that you come across seems to fit into your novel. Words pop into your life, theories, people...and they all seem to slide right into the novel. I don't so much believe in this as deliberately practice it. I don't believe the arrival of these notions is fate, but that they are tools I can use. I like the fun and challenge and randomness of seeing if I can fit the things that fall into my life into the thing I'm working on at the moment (because this is often a number of things perhaps it's not such a tough challenge). There's something about allowing the layered and coincidental nature of life into fiction that I think makes it feel more real--more layered itself. It also (I hope) breaks up my tendency to make everything in my fiction fit too neatly (or as Russell Banks once told me, the tendency to keep my hands too tight on the steering wheel) (Toni Morrison once almost hit me with her car in the university parking lot when I was an undergrad, so maybe Banks wasn't speaking metaphorically. Come to think of it in the same conversation he told me how as a teenager he once ran away from home in a stolen car. I'm not sure exactly what he was advising there.) (But I loved him.) (Still do.). Then again, maybe this practice is just more evidence of my need to organize everything; this time by fitting it into fiction. Either way, it makes writing a bit more of a game, and that appeals.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alissa Nutting

This collection of short stories won the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction, and I love the fearlessness of the author. The world herein is our world but wackier, as if the weirdest of our natives were the only ones to survive the nuclear blast and repopulated the earth. As a result, Nutting gets away with some of the wildest figurative language I've seen. Last semester I talked with my grad class about similes and metaphors and the conclusion I came to (whether or not I really convinced them) is figurative language is much more about setting tone than anything else. It may seem at first glance like it's meant to convey scents and touches and tastes, but really that's rarely the case. Literal language is pretty good at describing literal things. Figurative language is much more about describing feelings--how we feel when we see a sunset, not what we actually see. And so Nutting's figurative language is often about creating the mood..which is often uncomfortable and even a little scary. Case in point was the line Twitter wouldn't let me write all of: "I was like a turd inside of someone who'd accidentally swallowed an engagement ring: I was nothing, yet I carried something uniquely special." If that image doesn't make you deeply uncomfortable with the narrator's state of mind, well, you're not me.

My Los Angeles in Black & (Almost) White by Andrew Furman

Full Disclosure: You know that sitcom joke about having a work spouse? Well, Andy is my work big brother.

I confess when my friends write nonfiction it's hard not to be charmed by these visions of their childhood-selves (here it's young Andy and his homing pigeons!). But that aside... Andy's memoir is about playing high school basketball during the years of forced integration in Los Angeles, and what I found especially interesting was the way it blends memoir, history, and reflection. In his introduction, Andy acknowledges the hybrid nature of the book, specifically, chapters that detail the law cases relevant to desegregating the LA schools versus chapters that detail Andy's life as a child and teen. But I would add a third strand of hybridity--the reflective nature of the adult narrator who is trying to figure out how his life then fits into his life now, and how his belief in social justice is (and sometimes isn't) reflected in his life now. That third strand, for me, is probably what holds the hybridity together. It would be fine for the book to jump between an academic voice and a personal voice, readers can make those shifts when the content connects them, but it definitely mattered to me that there was an adult narrator who could reflect on both sections. The book then became not just a depiction of the narrator's past experiences but a quest to determine the significance of those experiences...and therefore it felt both more personal and more intellectually important. Andy has, more than once, said to me, how lucky we are to hold jobs that pay us enough to live on so that we don't have to worry about the marketability of our writing. We don't have to chase popular success, but can stick to our guns and write what we believe. And I have to agree--this book is made more original because Andy didn't have to answer to a trade publisher's fear of alienating their audience with academic talk...and as a result, this is a memoir that moves beyond navel-gazing and actually achieves social relevance.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Living Like a Writer

This fall I had intended to require my graduate students in the fiction workshop keep an artist's journal of some kind (physical, virtual, in words, in pictures...) but I never got around to it. Mostly because I wanted to try keeping one myself before requiring it of them and I never got around to that. I mean, I have notebooks for jotting things down willy-nilly, but I've never kept anything I'd call an artist's journal. But I'll be teaching a graduate workshop this summer, and I've decided to partially focus that class on inspiration's role in the writing process (I usually have an unannounced focus for my grad courses so that I don't just repeat the same old formulas every semester...I don't think the students ever notice, but so what? ... this past semester it was "avoiding the workshop story" in case you were wondering...). Now, anyone who's been in my physical presence within the past few days, knows I am about 48 hours worth of grading away from a semester-long sabbatical, so I figure I'll keep my artist's journal during my sabbatical as a prelude to the students' assignment. Which is all a way of saying, I'm refocusing, or perhaps unfocusing the blog, to include more than just my reading, and to be a part of, maybe all of, my artist's journal experiment.