Tag Archives: writing

What you usually call disgusting is my beauty.


Lydia Davis

While I was supposed to be reading Herman Melville’s poetry and Literary Criticism throughout the ages, I received The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis in the mail and I couldn’t read anything else. What the title of this entry suggests is how Lydia Davis turns everything we’ve ever known on its head. Where was she fifteen years ago for my beginning fiction courses? I can’t regret the years I haven’t read Lydia Davis. Let’s just be thankful, right?

I title this entry in reaction to the story: “Cockroaches in Autumn.” She begins:

“On the white painted bolt of a door that is never opened, a thick line of tiny black grains–the dung of cockroaches.”

Not a word wasted, this first line sets theme, character and introduces plot through a fragmented thought.


“I am alert to small moving things, and spin around toward a floating dust mote. I am alert to darker spots against a lighter background, but these are only the roses on my pillowcase.”

This dispassionate assessment of the infiltration and nerves that can set one into an anxiety spiral sheds new light on the subject: herself as an experient. It’s as if she sat down with the thought: I wonder if I can show myself as a removed observer and anxiety ridden at the same time? Mission accomplished.

She ends with the fragment:

“The white autumn light in the afternoon. They sleep behind a child’s drawings on the kitchen wall. I tap each piece of paper and they burst out from the edges of pictures that are already filled with shooting stars, missiles, machine guns, land mines…”

All of these fragments study, at arms length, relationships of sharing our spaces and environment with others, whether they have goals to subsist or to gain insight.

The entire collection asks: what do you know of the world? And the answers are many, layered, not over-thought, on the page at least, and will reside with you for the rest of your life. Thank you, Ms. Davis!






Some Pearls…

turning life into fiction hemley

Yes- I am reading some novels right now but I’m heavily submerged in craft, since I’m teaching it. My biggest gem lately emerged: Robin Hemley’s Turning Life into Fiction. Why is this text such a big deal? It doesn’t only apply to fiction. In fact, I applied its exercises to Memoir.

The “M” word. It’s fiction backwards. It’s reconstruction of a story given only half of the painter’s palette.  So why do we continue to write memoir? I believe for the same reason we write fiction: to send a message to the souls who need it.

Hemley is practical in his direction. He describes the focus in your writing as the “handle.” In fact, “Anything can be a handle. What we’re ultimately after is focus. Your handle is simply your focusing element.” But besides the handle,  Sue Silverman (of Fearless Confessions – More of this in a later post) calls this authenticity  “writing along the bone.” The story of our lives emerges from our bones. Both Hemley and Silverman refer to that focus but also that it might not emerge “organically” until after you have written the entire memoir.

I always direct students to go to the emotion and exploit it until drained. Go to the bone. Or it doesn’t have to be dark. Go to what you remember. Hemley champions mining the childhood “places” of our past. He writes, “Lift your grandmother’s teapot off the mantle – you know, the teapot that played ‘Tea for Two’ when you lifted it. Notice the aromas. What’s your grandmother cooking? Take a peek outside. It’s a fair day, take a walk. Go through the neighborhood. Wave to your friends and acquaintances. It’s been a long time.”

This might seem like memoir 101, but go and do it. You’ll be surprised at what you get by remembering one room in particular.

Robin Hemley is at LitFest Lighthouse this week. If you can get a chance to see him, please do.


Don’t Reveal, Uncover

“If your psyche is a balloon animal and you squeeze to eliminate the cigarettes and whiskey, the crazy has to go somewhere.”


I’ve been sleeping with Abigail Thomas’ book Thinking About Memoir, hoping its secrets and genius will wrap my body and surge in my veins.  I was introduced to her book Safekeeping in my Masters and since then, I’ve had this funny, or creepy, goal of running into her casually on the Upper West Side.  Either that, or find her at some writing conference.  I don’t know what I’ll learn from her that I haven’t already in her books, but when someone resonates with me that much, I just want to touch the hem of their garment.

So far, in Thinking About Memoir, we don’t get lectured and we don’t have a step by step guide on how to take skeletons out of closets.  Instead, Thomas wants us to look under couch cushions, at the bottoms of purses, and in our shopping baskets.  She admits to having a hoarding tendency.  She peppers writing prompts in between uncovering shames and embarrassments.

Under prompts, she follows up with her own responses.  For example, after the prompt: “Write Two Pages of Humiliating Exposure,” she writes,

My friend Denise tells me somebody told her, ‘Shopping is despair,’ but my daughter, Jennifer, says, ‘Shopping is hope.’  Hope gets out of hand.  One turquoise ring from E-bay is not enough.  I must have five.  A single, second-hand Coach bag is not satisfying, I bid on seven.  As I have implied, one is not a concept I understand.  When I smoked, I smoked three packs a day.  When I drank, well, let’s not get into that.  If your psyche is a balloon animal and you squeeze to eliminate the cigarettes and whiskey, the crazy has to go somewhere.

Through Thomas’ crazy, we have a path to ours.  It’s almost like riding a bicycle, first Dad holds the handle bars, then lets go…yes, this is a facile analogy, but in this case, we’re riding naked, overweight, with spider veins amplified, every embarrassing deed is written in sticky notes all over the bicycle and falls into hands of wealthy neighbors who you’ve been trying to keep out of your business for ages.

Living in Denver is certainly not getting me closer to that chance encounter on the Manhattan street with Abigail Thomas, but there’s always hope.

Triangulation drove them all apart.

      I’m stumped.  When I read other greats like Raymond Carver, I can name devices, I can see how he opens the scene with concrete detail, how he develops character through first, the gesture, then the dialogue.  Jumpha Lahiri did it to me too, where I had to physically pull my body out of the story to be able to stand outside and learn.  Ann Packer makes me want to run for the hills.  Why?  I both get too sucked into her characters and I can’t extract myself at all to find out why.  I guess my favorite story from Mendocino, it’s hard to pick, was Hightops.  I know why I love this story.  I love it when an author can take people’s lives in her palm like dice, roll them around and throw them hard against a table.  This story is about the term triangulation.  Also about mooching drifters in all of our lives.  If you haven’t had a mooch, please count yourself lucky (or naïve).

This section is in the beginning of the story.  The mooch?  A perfect name: Winch.  Probably short for Winchester or something like it, but Packer knows we’ll fill in that part in our brains.  (That’s called Gestalt, where there’s inference in everything.)

Winch sits on the porch steps of Luke and Sarah’s apartment.  He has forgotten the key again.  He knows exactly where it is, too–in the little painted bowl Sarah keeps on the coffee table in the living room, where he sleeps.  He put the key there last night because Sarah was trying to get Luke to talk about whether or not there ought to be something in the bowl–whether the bowl would look better with something in it–and Luke would not cooperate.  Winch felt like a peacemaker, donating his key to the cause.  When he saw the key in the bowl, Luke snorted, a sound that Winch finds extremely disagreeable.  He can’t remember Luke ever making it before, but he makes it a lot now.

You see, I still get trapped.  I’m in.  I’m instantly in that living room, hearing the snort, with the bowl and watching the dynamic grow between Sarah and Winch.  It’s not that Packer is merely showing and writing sensually.  It’s also intense story, where she has cut away at any loose detail, anything she was previously married to, she’s omitted and now all you have is that pure connection to motion.  A kismet that ultimately wrecks and releases in pure story arch.

Luke didn’t just snort, but snorted when he saw the key in the bowl.  It’s not wordy or pretty.  It’s merely the physical world reflecting the inner world, that perfect sphere we’re always striving for, right?

Her Dress was Wet from the Cold

In my undergrad writing class: Advance writing, my teacher told us to dig out our manuscripts we were about to hand in and asked us to go through and cirlce all the “was’s” that we could find.  Change your manuscript to exclude them.

We had beautified our stories and visibly shuddered as we took our red, purple, black, orange or chartreuse pens to cross out every “was” we found, which I can tell you were many!

No one dare ask why in that class.  We just did.  Here’s something I had written:

“Engagements are applauded.  Weddings are revered.  Divorces tend to dissolve one’s existence.”  It’s something I threw away.  I started over after this and wrote a highly detailed dissolution of my marriage that was later published.  I started out with was and are, but I ended up with “dissolve.”

I am reading The Death of the Heart and keep thinking of the main character, Portia, wiggling into a damp dress in a damp house by the seaside.  It’s so tactile, I wonder if Elizabeth Bowen ever had to sit and take out her “was’s?”

“A black night wind was up and Waikiki (name of beach house) breasted it steadily, straining like a liner: every fixture rattled.  This all went to heighten a pre-party tensity of the nerves.  Portia wormed her way into her black velvet, which, from hanging only behind a curtain, had taken on a briny dampness inside: the velvet clung to her skin above her chemise top…She was first downstairs and, squatting on the tiled kerb in front of the fire, heard the chimney roar.  With arms raised from the elbows, like an Egyptian, she turned and toasted her body, feeling the clammy velvet slowly un-stick from between her shoulder blades.”

Okay, yes, we do have some “was’s” in this passage, but look at all those yummy active verbs.  “Wormed,” and “rattled” and “taken on” and “toasted’ and “un-stick.”  There’s also “briny dampness” and “clammy” velvet.

I’ve had the great luck of being a nanny for a family with a seaside house.  What?  You own a seaside house?  Can I visit?  At any rate, the clamminess is spot on.  Everything takes on salt.  I remember that fine line between being annoyed by the sound of the sea and being lulled by it.   I want to take the next flight to a rocky crag of a beach line in England, so I can do what I love to do with reading and that is experience the synchronicity of the exact surroundings of the book I’m reading at the time.  It’s a rare occurrence, but delicious.  Actively seeking the surroundings in which a book was written is perhaps the nerdiest goal I have. I allow myself all the was’s of a writing moment, though.  It’s through the “was” and “are” that we get to “wormed.”

Somehow, I think Ms. Bowen didn’t have to cross out a single “was” for this one.