On today's menu:
1. This piece by Hilary Mantel at The Guardian about how she spends her writing day went viral when it was published last month, but for those of you who missed it the first time around, here’s how it begins:
Some writers claim to extrude a book at an even rate like toothpaste from a tube, or to build a story like a wall, so many feet per day. They sit at their desk and knock off their word quota, then frisk into their leisured evening, preening themselves.Can I get an “Amen!”?
This is so alien to me that it might be another trade entirely. Writing lectures or reviews–any kind of non-fiction–seems to me a job like any job: allocate your time, marshall your resources, just get on with it. But fiction makes me the servant of a process that has no clear beginning and end or method of measuring achievement. I don’t write in sequence. I may have a dozen versions of a single scene. I might spend a week threading an image through a story, but moving the narrative not an inch. A book grows according to a subtle and deep-laid plan. At the end, I see what the plan was.
2. From the Department of Having a Great Time, Wish You Were Here comes two writing opportunities in Jackson Hole, Wyoming (the granite-peaked paradise where I grew up).
The first, a Nonfiction Book Writing Retreat, is led by Laura Bush and features two days of intensive writing (including a session called “Getting Down and Drafty”) in the historic Moulton Ranch cabins which lie in the shadow of the Grand Tetons. Space is limited, so you need to sign up now. (Full disclosure: Laura is a friend and former classmate of mine, but I wouldn’t be telling you about this retreat if I didn’t think she had the energy and smarts to get you kickstarted on a draft of your book).
The second event coming up next month is the renowned Jackson Hole Writers Conference, led by Tim Sandlin. As a past attendee, I can vouch for the value of this three-day conference: it’s inspiring, entertaining, and full of creative energy. In fact, I loved my time there so much, I even wrote two essays (actually one essay broken in half) for a new anthology about the conference called Writing It Right. This year’s conference features authors Gretel Ehrlich, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Brian Doyle and many others across a wide spectrum of genre. Go here to get registered.
3. Four words: George Saunders’ debut novel.
Okay, here are a few more words about the inspiration behind Lincoln in the Bardo from an interview with Saunders at Vulture: A really long time ago, in the Bill Clinton era, my wife and I and my wife’s cousin were driving by Oak Hill Cemetery in D.C., and she just said casually, “Did you know that when Lincoln was president, his son died and he was buried right out there?” And she pointed up to the exact crypt where Willie Lincoln was. Several of the newspaper accounts said that Lincoln had been back to visit the crypt. And wow, this image came to mind of the Lincoln Memorial plus the Pietà. It just stuck with me for many, many years. I knew I couldn’t possibly do it justice, but after a while I thought, if it’s this insistent, it would be kind of dishonorable to not try.
4. Over at Literary Hub, novelist Emily Gray Tedrowe (Blue Stars) has a beautiful essay called How Books Can Help Us Survive A War. Subtitled “A Sister Tries To Read Along With A Brother On The Front Lines,” it’s a good way to start your Memorial Day weekend, reflecting on the powerlessness military families feel when loved ones are deployed. Here’s how it starts:
In the photo, my Marine brother is unshaven, wearing cammies, leaning wearily against the rough outer wall of a building. Around the corner you can see foothills of the Korengal Valley mountains, a remote and dangerous area in Kunar Province, rife with Taliban when Malcolm deployed there. A month ago as I was unpacking boxes in our new apartment, I found this picture that he’d mailed me. What my daughters noticed—with fearful delight—when I called them over to see it: Uncle Malcolm is smoking! He is. With a cigarette clamped in the middle of his mouth, my former track star brother is, like his fellow squadmate resting on the bench alongside, clearly taking a smoke break. What I immediately noticed, and the reason this photo is so precious to me: Malcolm is reading. His gaze isn’t fixed on the terrifying mountain behind him, where he’d just spent a sleepless rain-filled night at the Ops post, hearing the enemy all around him, and where he would be heading back shortly. Nor is he talking or joking around with the other guys in battle gear nearby. He’s focused only on the book he holds on his lap, in a moment of private concentration that I would recognize anywhere.
What can reading do for us when we’re under the gun? When we are in the throes of an extreme experience, when we’re lost or grieving or sick? Or when we are deeply, deeply afraid, as I was during the seven months Malcolm spent in Afghanistan. As a writer, teacher, and life-long reader, I have built my life around books, and so I reached instinctively for novels and stories myself when my younger brother was deployed to war. But for the first time, reading failed me. Fear for his safety had torn my attention into jagged pieces, and suddenly I couldn’t find the mental energy to connect one part of a page, or even a sentence, with whatever followed.
5. “Allow me to introduce Mr Plornishmaroontigoonter. Lord Podsnap, Count Smorltork, and Sir Clupkins Clogwog. Not to mention the dowager Lady Snuphanuph. As for Serjeant Buzfuz, Miss Snevellicci, Mrs. Wrymug, and the Porkenhams.” That’s how Chi Luu opens the essay Charles Dickens and the Linguistic Art of the Minor Character at JSTOR Daily. You don’t have to scratch deep below the surface of my own novel Fobbit to see how Chuck Dick influenced the christening of that book’s characters: Eustace Harkleroad, Chance Gooding Jr., Abe Shrinkle, et al. But my character names pale in comparison to those of the Great Baptizer. As Luu points out: “Even for minor characters who are but briefly mentioned, in the Dickensian world, knowing just their names is sometimes enough to know the most important features about them. What might you think of a Mr. Murdstone or a Mr. Pecksniff if you knew nothing else about them? Dickens was adept at linguistically manipulating a name in different memorable ways to persuade readers in one direction or another.”
6. As we close out Short Story Month, Kelly Luce has a few things to say about reading compact fiction over at Electric Literature. The list, 12 Things I Noticed While Reading Every Short Story Published in 2014-15 (or, Extremely Long Titles That Are Complete Sentences Are Still Very Much a Thing), includes such gems like this: “There was a disconcerting number of stories by white male writers set at family lake houses, in which someone, usually a young girl, drowns. The surviving characters spend the remaining 2-3 pages feeling sad and fighting, usually with Dad.”
7. At his blog, bookseller and author Gary D. Robson (Who Pooped in Central Park?) describes the joy of turning your friends into characters in a book: “Watching Dominique’s face when she saw herself in this book was a wonderful thing.”