I’m nearly done editing the first draft of a novel, and it’s a very engrossing process. I think I agree with Verlyn Klinkenborg that the most important task of a writer is to work at the level of the sentence. You can worry about plot and character and POV as much as you want but it won’t matter if the sentences aren’t works of art – ideally, every single one of them. I credit poets in particular with an understanding of the import of sentences. They can distill a thought down to a few words, or evoke an entire landscape with a phrase. One of my writing teachers at The Writers Institute, Harper’s editor Chris Cox, quoted someone saying that a short story should read like a poem, and a novel should read like a short story. This may be true and applicable in terms of structure. But in terms of voice, the ways that one can write a novel are infinite. There is no determinate on what makes fiction a work of high art. Read more
“In an era when rents are spiking, book advances shrinking and magazines shuttering, New York may no longer be a necessary destination for the young writer, she acknowledged. It may not even be a feasible one.” – NYT
Growing up, my theater arts teacher was my mentor. She was a beautiful, hardworking woman, a single mother and creative genius, and role model to us all. Her theater was a haven for those of us who didn’t fit in: the freaks, the homos, the artsy types. We found ourselves in her rehearsal space, in the scripts we wrote.
Although our teacher knew that she did so much for us, gave us a place to come out of our shell and use our talents, she resented her position in life as a mere public high school teacher. She always wished she’d tried harder, been more. She definitely had the talent. So what was it that she’d done wrong?
I remember so clearly: the look in her eyes when she talked about living in New York City, taking workshops with Uta Hagen and trying to get professional acting gigs. And when she said that she’d always regretted leaving New York City too early. That if she’d just stayed longer . . . who knew what her life might have become?
I could leave. Read more
Mae retrieved the certificate from her bag, and Jon’s eyes lit up. “You brought it!” He clapped quickly, silently, and revealed a mouth of tiny teeth. “No one remembers the first time. You’re my new favorite.”
“That’s very understandable. To spend time with your parents, believe me, I think that is very, very cool. I just want to emphasize the community aspect of this job. We see this workplace as a community, and every person who works here is part of that community. To that end, I wonder if you’d be willing to stay a few extra minutes, to talk to Josiah and Denise. I think you remember them from your orientation? They’d love to just extend the conversation we’re having and go a bit deeper. Does that sound good?”
The dialogue–it’s too perfect! It’s what makes Dave Eggers’ new novel so powerful. It depicts a world perhaps just a few steps away from Schteyngart’s dystopian Super Sad True Love Story, one drowning in technological communication. I laughed constantly while reading this excerpt, and occasionally slapped my forehead, muttering to myself, “Too true.” I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book, soon. Plus, the cover art is really lovely.
Last night, I finally saw the movie of the summer, a black-and-white pic about an anti-heroic, sterotypically-unfeminine woman in her late twenties, living basically hand-to-mouth in New York City (but not abstaining from $14-packs of American Spirit) while pursuing her artistic dream, to be a professional modern dancer.
No, it’s not “GIRLS: The Movie,” although at first glance one is struck by the parallels between the world of Frances, the aforementioned protagonist, and Hannah Horvath of Lena Dunham’s “GIRLS”: both are frumpy but somehow quite homely, both are talented yet not sure how to achieve success, both are obsessively reliant on one or more female best friends for camraderie and security, and both seem relatively indifferent to normative ideas of middle-class American romance such as steady relationships or marriage and parenthood. Rather, these women more or less stumble through life, operating on a short-term basis instead of a five-year plan, and magically making a good impression on people despite their essential lack of social graces or nepotistic connections.
And yet, in “Frances Ha,” as opposed to in “GIRLS,” we have a character whose stoicism is remarkable: she is unemotional almost to the point where she seems stereotypically masculine rather than feminine; not once in the film does Frances weep, break down, or consult a therapist when the going gets really, really tough. Nor does she, as does Hannah Horvath, beg her parents for money–in fact, her pride prohibits her from admitting to them, or her best friend, when her career has hit the gutter and nothing seems to be going right in life, at all. And very unlike Hannah, Frances does not once grab the nearest decent-looking man and drag him into bed (perhaps because, at points in the film, she doesn’t actually have a place to live). In other words, Frances is slightly more grown-up, stronger, more adept than Hannah.
But these differences are rather slight; what is important is the similar territory they cover–young women from undistinguished backgrounds and of imperfect character, trying to make it as artists in the big city–and the novelty of this subject matter appearing in mainstream cultural production. And I would piggy-back on recent writing by Emily Nussbaum, the New Yorker‘s television critic, which points out the huge impact made by the HBO series “Sex and the City,” by saying that that show opened up space for this new, incredibly important genre of young women who unapologetically pursue their individual visions of a successful life, whatever that may be and by whatever means. Throughout “Sex and the City,” Carrie Bradshaw wrestles with changing career goals and romantic needs in a way that no previous female character had. In fact, the only work coming to mind that, prior to “SATC” addressed these issues is “Annie Hall,” in which Diane Keaton is a woman motivated by writing and effectively unconvinced of the need to devote herself to a male partner, to Woody Allen’s character’s dismay. (As a side note, my film-viewing partner and I last night both noticed Allen’s influence in Noah Baumbach’s directing style, with approval.) But “Annie Hall” depicts this kind of femininity ultimately from a male perspective, whereas now we have women writing (the actress who played Frances co-wrote the film), directing, and producing these shows and movies.
It’s infinitely invaluable to young women to have these cultural products, whether or not we find them to be “accurate” representations of our lives (notably, the criticisms abound that the women portrayed in these instances are white and middle-class or upper-middle-class, or living in “privileged poverty”). They are fodder for self-analysis and critical discussion, as I have written before about “GIRLS.” And they also prod us, as writer Kate Mooney has done excellently for Brokelyn, to examine the numerous success stories that come out of this post-third-wave-feminist ethos of pursuing art and career goals at any cost. In Frances, Hannah, and Carrie, we see the challenges and mistakes that appear in our own personal and professional lives, and we can’t help but use these reflections to become stronger, better versions of ourselves–and we become writers of our own series, crafting our imperfect yet admirable selves into the protagonists we really want to be.
It was a weekend of panels! After spending Saturday at the PEN World Voices Festival, I went on Sunday morning to the Food Book Fair, for a discussion about cookbooks and publishing.
“Probably the most significant takeaway from the panel was a comment made by Deborah Brody: cookbooks, she said, are ‘a growth area,’ and there ‘seems to be quite a bit of demand’ for them. In precarious times for publishing, it’s great to know that cookbooks are still salable (and perhaps the publication of Michael Pollan’s newest, Cooked, will increase demand for cookbooks!).
But how to get that inkling of an idea for a cookbook to become reality, a published collection of recipes, stories, and beautiful photos?”
Read the rest of my blog post at the Green Rabbits site.
I’ve spent all day thinking about my upcoming trip to India. This was supposed to be a trip to research a book proposal, and it’s turned into all sorts of things: liberation, nature, ashrams, the Ganges. This is part of a quest to integrate yoga and writing. They need to develop in tandem, not apart. The way to address writing is to deal with it like the chakra system—work from the ground up, create balance, clear out blockages, let the energy move through, and send it up and outward.
So far, here’s the itinerary: Rishikesh, Varanasi, Hampi, Kerala, Auroville. And of course other places I don’t even know about yet. I’m going to figure out India like I learn yoga postures: easing into it with curiosity and wonder, examining myself and responding, moving with grace, cultivating strength, listening to the music.
Longform.org podcast with n+1 editor/founder Keith Gessen:
Gessen: “I learned when I was a staff writer at New York magazine that pitching stuff to editors, in a way it’s kind of hopeless. As a writer, you just don’t know what editors are thinking, and you’ll never know what they’re thinking. The New Yorker . . . sent me to Kazakhstan, and they sent me to the Arctic . . . There’s a kind of vague outline and then you have to fill it in. With ‘Moscow Traffic,’ this is a story I pitched numerous times and they were like, ‘This isn’t gonna work.’ And so I just did it–I’ve done that a few times. You can ask for permission all the time, and if you think it’s a good idea you just do it and send it in.”