Category Archives: Literary Quotes

Flecks of Gold Panned Out of a Great, Muddy River

This is Ann Patchett in the afterward to Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face.

In the right hands, a memoir is the flecks of gold panned out of a great, muddy river. A memoir is those flecks melted down into a shapable liquid that can then be molded and hammered into a single bright band to be worn on a finger, something you could point to and say, “This? Oh, this is my life.” Everyone has a muddy river, but very few have the vision, patience, and talent to turn it into something so beautiful. This is why the writer matters, so that we can not only learn from her experience but find a way to shape our own. I’m not talking about shaping every life into a work of art. I’m talking about making our life into something we can understand, a portable object that has the weight and power of an entire terrain.

Something Naturally and Abruptly Crawls In

Or: Why Daydreaming is Good for Your Writing Life.

This interesting article from the Wall Street Journal should make anyone (like me, for example) who seems to spend hours in unfocused thought feel a little better. A couple of quotes:

…our brain may be most actively engaged when our mind is wandering and we’ve actually lost track of our thoughts, a new brain-scanning study suggests.

And:

By most measures, we spend about a third of our time daydreaming, yet our brain is unusually active during these seemingly idle moments. Left to its own devices, our brain activates several areas associated with complex problem solving, which researchers had previously assumed were dormant during daydreams. Moreover, it appears to be the only time these areas work in unison.

A third? If all is going well, I’ll spend longer daydreaming than that, mate. There’s nothing like a good daydreaming session to make me feel productive. The brain mechanisms that this article talks about might also be the reason that I get great writing ideas when I run. As I’m plodding round the park, sometimes, admittedly, I’m listening to 1980s rave tunes and reliving my clubbing days. But other times, my mind enters a fugue state and, well, I just realize something. That scene I have been stuck on, about my grandmother? It’s really about my father. Aha. Of course.

Haruki Murakami, a novelist I admire, is also a runner, and his book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, contains his own treatise on why running is good for the writer’s life. In this quote from an interview on the Runner’s World website, he seems to describe the same experience that I have had, and that the researchers in the Wall Street Journal article are talking about. Murakami says:

I try not to think about anything special while running. As a matter of fact, I usually run with my mind empty. However, when I run empty-minded, something naturally and abruptly crawls in sometimes. That might become an idea that can help me with my writing.

Our next challenge is to pay attention to that thing that has crawled in. Write it down. Follow where it leads.

Are You a Fox or a Hedgehog?

There’s an interesting article over at the Guardian book pages from their literary critic, Robert McCrum, about the different types of writers that tend to get considered for literary awards. He draws from Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay, The Fox and The Hedgehog, as a way of classifying the types. (You can download the essay by clicking here), and read more about Berlin in this article in The Independent.

In fiction, Berlin’s famous distinction between hedgehogs and foxes, drawn from the pithy fragment attributed to the classical poet Archilochus (“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”) remains influential. Hedgehogs, in Berlin’s celebrated essay, see the world through the lens of one big, defining idea. They include Plato, Dante, Proust and Nietzsche. Foxes, who scour the landscape, drawing on a wide variety of experience and are indefatigably averse to a single explanatory idea, include Aristotle, Shakespeare, Goethe, James Joyce and, dare I say, Salman Rushdie.

McCrum doesn’t stop there, though. He also contrasts “history course novels” (such as those produced by Pat Barker and Ian McEwen) and the kind of “English course novels” that Martin Amis and Lorrie Moore write. Then, in nonfiction, there are the “mores” and the “differents.”

Mores are writers who, as the label implies, are immensely gifted and vastly superior to their fellows, but are conventional in their vision. Classic mores include Thomas The World Is Flat Friedman and Niall The Pity of War Ferguson. Your different, who might be a hedgehog or a fox, is a mould-smashing one-off, usually an original, and probably quite undisciplined, writer. Differents include Dostoevsky, Oliver Sacks, Naomi Klein, Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell and Atul Gawande. As readers, we may be better satisfied, in the short term, by the mores, but it’s the differents we remember, and who will probably have the lasting influence.

McCrum’s argument is that “foxes” and “mores” win more prizes than “hedgehogs” and “differents.” It would take more of an in depth survey than I am prepared to carry out to prove him right, but I can certainly get on board with the idea that we live in a fox’n’more orientated society, and it’s these writers who seem to earn the most money. We demand versatility from our writers, and breadth of knowledge. It ain’t easy being different!

Man Booker Prize: Not About Literary Value?

Like every other book blogger in the Western Hemisphere, I’m here today to chew over the Man Booker Prize shortlist, announced yesterday. Here it is:

Aravind Adiga — The White Tiger
Sebastian Barry — The Secret Scripture
Amitav Ghosh — Sea of Poppies
Linda Grant — The Clothes on Their Backs
Philip Hensher — The Northern Clemency
Steve Toltz —  A Fraction of the Whole

Two first time novelists, one woman, and no Rushdie.

The two first-timers, Aravind Adiga and Steve Toltz, are currently getting the best odds, though how the bookies calculate these things I have no idea. Here’s a link to The Guardian’scondensed read” version of the books. And here’s an absolutely fascinating article, also from The Guardian, in which Man Booker judges from previous years talk about their experiences. Warning, folks: It ain’t pretty.

Continue reading

Luc Sante and Flaubert: Language, Meaning, and Process

There’s a great interview with Luc Sante up at Guernica magazine. The interviewer, Suzanne Menghraj, weaves in questions about music and rhythm and solicits this great quote from Sante:

Rhythm in writing is […] a completely intuitive matter. I don’t really understand the process. It’s related to the substance of Flaubert’s famous letter to George Sand: “When I come upon a bad assonance or a repetition in my sentences, I’m sure I’m floundering in the false. By searching I find the proper expression, which was always the only one, and which is also harmonious. The word is never lacking when one possesses the idea. Is there not, in this precise fitting of parts, something eternal, like a principal? If not, why should there be a relation between the right word and the musical word? Or why should the greatest compression of thought always result in a line of poetry?” This is crucial stuff for me. I write intuitively, not knowing where I’m going, not knowing what the next sentence will be until this one has guided me there, and knowing how the sentence goes begins with my hearing its rhythm in my head, and then filling in the specific words. If the sentence is cloddish and clunky, it’s simply wrong—and not just wrong-sounding but wrong in its meaning.

I can’t think of a better reason for paying close attention to the construction and flow of every single sentence. Ugly sentences, the ones that don’t scan, the ones that the reader stumbles over? No less than a failure of meaning.

The instinct might be to fix the sentence: rewrite it till it flows. I’d suggest stopping and thinking and getting clarity on what it is you are trying to say before you do that. As Flaubert says: The word is never lacking when one possesses the idea. Find the idea and the words should, in theory, take care of themselves.

Ah yes, you say, but what if you don’t know what you want to say? What if the idea is elusive, impossible to pin down? Isn’t that one of the reasons why we write in the first place? To discover what it is that we feel and think?

To which I say: that’s what first drafts are for! Write it out in order to know it, to understand it (whatever “it” is here: story, idea, feeling). Then write it again, with this new knowledge having been dredged up and placed, to some degree, at the front of the mind. These two documents might have very little in common. The first enables the second, and the second isn’t so much a rewrite as a re-imagining.

That’s my thoughts on process for today folks, inspired by Flaubert, care of Luc Sante, care of Guernica magazine.

Blurbmania

So first up, regular readers — yes, that means you mum — will have noticed that I haven’t been updating much recently. Been working my ass off, is why. Not my actual ass, mind, just my literary ass. My editing ass and my writing ass. My literary ass is in pretty good shape right now! Tight! I’m going to get back to nearly daily posts here soon, promise.

In the meantime, here’s three things that I have come across recently about blurbs. You know, those juicy little quotes from authors, promoting other authors. First up, Rebecca Johnson in Salon, sharing about her blurb-hunting woes. Choice quote: Johnson spots a potential target at a party and sidles up to her, intent on extracting a blurb.

“Hi,” I said a little too brightly. Was it my imagination, or was she already moving away from me? After a few forced pleasantries, I brought up the book and asked if she might be willing to read it. The expression on her face — part horror, part sneer — was exactly what I would have expected had I released a large fart and asked what she thought of it.

Then there’s Rachel Donadio in the New York Times, talking about a company that intends to sell blurbs. Oh, the horror! Donadio talks about “blurbing up” (Rick Moody on William Gaddis), “blurbing down” (famous writers endorsing students) and “blurbing the safely dead” (young neophytes attaching their names to prestigious classic authors).

Then there’s the great churning mass of lateral blurbing, where patterns are harder to discern and dangerous rivalries might lurk, with hard feelings existing among the blurbers themselves.

Finally, agent Nathan Bransford, whose blog I have come to truly appreciate, writes about blurbs in query letters. Bransford has a four tier system for assessing a blatent blurb. Read his post for more.

The general consensus seems to be that blurbs do not actually matter too much, unless they are particularly super-duper. One of my coaching clients, Anita Naughton, was blurbed by Tina Brown, Oliver Sacks and Sandra Bernhard. That’s pretty super-duper. Her book sold out three print runs. I’m not saying it was the blurbs that did it — the book happens to be funny, moving, and brilliantly written. It sold on its own worth. But if you have contacts like Anita did, and can work them, it can’t hurt.

More Juicy Links. And Mashed Potatoes.

David Carr Will Save Memoir! Or so says Leon Neyfakh at the New York Observer. Apparently Carr, author of a new book about his drug experiences, was so loathe to trust his drugged out memories that he reported on his own life, interviewed his friends and family, and even hired a private investigator. This makes him, in Neyfakh’s eyes, memoir’s “…white knight, galloping in to show how a personal story can be engrossing, shocking and true.”

This hilarious collection of Carr’s mashed potato analogies suggests otherwise, though.

Stuart Jeffries on the non-reading epidemic. Pithy.

There is a thing called reader’s block. It is not the same as writer’s block. In fact, reader’s block is a phenomenon partly explained as a reader’s all-too-understandable response to so many writers not having writer’s block.

My man Salman might just win the Booker prize again.

And, care of Booksquare, Jennifer Epstein, author of the Painter From Shanghai, on moving from writing books to blogging and blogs:

These short, sharp little sites and pieces can be vastly engaging and informative, and I’ve found several that I truly love. That said, they feel like the very antithesis of the way I write; tight deadlines, immediate readerships.

For New York type writing folk, Guernica magazine is looking for a managing editor and benefit director.