Examining a Passage from The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch
The Goldfinch 

I posted earlier on the brilliant, beautiful novel The Goldfinch.  I had to do so in broad swaths, given how dense in character and plot the novel is, just to give you a taste of it. But now I want to go back and drill down on just one passage, to analyze what makes the writing—to me, at least—so marvelous. There are so many paragraphs I could choose, but I was particularly taken with the following description of how Hobie, the furniture restorer who takes in the young, homeless Theo, trains him in the art and craft of fine furniture repair.

As you read the passage, make a mental note of how you respond to it, and what you notice in particular (There will be a test . . .).

Auction houses all over the city called him, as well as private clients; he restored furniture for Sotheby’s, for Christie’s, for Tepper, for Doyle. After school, amidst the drowsy tick of the tall-case clocks, he taught me the pore and luster of different woods, their colors, the ripple and gloss of tiger maple and the frothed grain of burled walnut, their weights in my hand and even their different scents—”sometimes, when you’re not sure what you have, it’s easiest just to take a sniff”—spicy mahogany, dusty-smelling oak, black cherry with its characteristic tang and the flowery, amber-resin smell of rosewood. Saws and counter-sinks, rasps and rifflers, bent blades and spoon blades, braces and mitre-blocks. I learned about veneers and gilding, what a mortise and tenon was, the difference between ebonized wood and true ebony, between Newport and Connecticut and Philadelphia crest rails, how the blocky design and close-cropped top of one Chippendale bureau rendered it inferior to another bracket-foot of the same vintage with its fluted quarter columns and what he liked to call the “exalted” proportions of the drawer ratio.

Okay, Students! How did you respond to this passage? What was the first thing that struck you?  Did you like it, dislike it, love it, indifferent, irritated, what?

I wish we were sitting around a circle and I could hear your answers, which I’m sure will be much more interesting than mine!  And different.  You’ll just have to let me know.

Meanwhile, I’ll give you my take.

The first thing that strikes me is how much Donna Tartt knows about furniture restoration! She’s done her homework, boys and girls. She’s the smartest girl in the class. And it pays off. What authority this passage contains! It absolutely convinces us that the world she’s creating is real, solid, and authentic. We trust that she knows of which she speaks, so we can give ourselves over to the story completely. Surely she researched these esoteric details with someone extraordinarily versed in furniture restoration. Did she takes notes? No doubt. But I’ll wager the best note-taker in the world couldn’t transform mere research into this sterling passage of prose.

Beyond authority, what strikes me the most here is how sensitive and skillful she is in terms of language itself: words, the sounds they make, how they join together into sentences that create rhythm and meaning.  Most of all, her words awaken our senses. Here, words give us the deep pleasure that only our senses can provide. It’s quite a paradox. Most of the time in our so-called real lives, our senses are on pause, slumbering, acclimated to the quotidian. But when we read a passage like this, loaded with extraordinarily precise, sensory detail, our senses wake up and really pay attention, pulling our whole mind into the act. Continue reading “Examining a Passage from The Goldfinch”

The Silent Wife: A Fascinating Novel Both Psychologically and Technically

The Silent Wife I first became interested in The Silent Wife in when I read an August 4th, 2013  piece in The New York Times. The article described how the novel—a “sleeper,” written by an “unknown” Toronto writer and released as a paperback original (as opposed to a hardcover, which signals the publisher intends to push the book)–had vaulted its way onto The New York Times best-seller list. The book received some crucial attention from a handful of reviewers, and caught on via word of mouth.

I read that the author, A.S. A. Harrison, had died of cancer at 65, a few weeks before The Silent Wife was published. She was aware that numerous other countries had bought publishing rights and she knew the book was getting wonderful endorsements from other authors. It is sad to think that she didn’t live to see her novel receive the acclaim that it has garnered. But I imagine she knew how good the book is. You can’t write a novel this accomplished without knowing it.

The Silent Wife has been compared to Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. It covers similar territory, a “dark, psychological thriller about a broken marriage,” as the Times described it.  Like Gone Girl, it’s told in alternating “Him” and “Her” chapters. I only got 100 pages into Gone Girl before I put it down. I saw Gillian Flynn speak at the Key West Literary Seminar this year (on “The Dark Side: Mysteries, Crime and the Literary Thriller”). She was very bright, and articulate in her defense of writing “bad women,” women who can be evil, mean, bad, or selfish–though honestly, plenty of other authors since time immemorial have plowed that ground. I found Gone Girl smart and well-written, but it just didn’t interest me. I wonder if it has something to do with age. Flynn is in her forties (and looks about thirty) and Harrison was 65, having worked on The Silent Wife for ten years. Or maybe my preference for SW had to do with GG being written in first person, and SW in third, with a knowing, authoritative narrative voice, which interested me technically (more on this in a moment).  For whatever reasons, I found The Silent Wife far more fascinating and accomplished, and more mature, than what I read of Gone Girl.

photo by Harrison's husband John Massey
photo by Harrison’s husband John Massey

Susan Angela Ann Harrison (she used initials to disguise her gender) had previously written a porn novel with the artist AA Bronson which was quickly banned when it was published in 1970.  Her 1974 book, Orgasms, was a series of interviews with women speaking frankly about their sexual climaxes. (In my commitment to researching an author thoroughly (wink), I tried to order Orgasms  but alas, it’s out of print.)  Harrison collaborated on two other non-fiction books, one about striptease, experimenting with it herself, and another involving case studies in psychotherapy titled Changing the Mind, Healing the Body. She also wrote Zodicat Speaks, a guide to feline astrology.  Her friend, the author Susan Swan, said of Harrison, “She deconstructed prettiness.  She wanted to be larger than life, and she was.”  Swan’s daughter, Samantha Haywood, a neophyte agent, took her on as a client in 2004.  For the next decade, Harrison’s work was repeatedly rejected. But she kept at it, telling herself to “write better, Susan,” and donning industrial earmuffs to keep out noise.

What’s not to love—and admire—about her!

I was captivated by The Silent Wife from the opening paragraphs.

It begins:

 It’s early September. Jodi Brett is in her kitchen, making dinner. Thanks to the open plan of the condo, she has an unobstructed view through the living room to its east-facing windows and beyond to a vista of lake and sky, cast by the evening light in a uniform blue.  A thinly drawn line of a darker hue, the horizon, appears very near at hand, almost touchable. She likes this delineating arc, the feeling it gives her of being encircled. The sense of containment is what she loves most about living here, in her aerie on the twenty-seventh floor.

Notice how we’re placed inside the point of view of the character, Jodi, but there is also a narrative voice that is beginning to describe her psychologically.  Certain words—”encircled,” “containment”—seem suggestive of more than the physical landscape.  There is a distance in the narration, created partly by the use of her full name, as opposed to just “Jodi is in her kitchen . . .”  We hear a voice that is not Jodi’s but the narrator’s, who is taking care to select the precise details to begin to build not only the external world but Jodi’s interior one. Continue reading “The Silent Wife: A Fascinating Novel Both Psychologically and Technically”

Salter and Aciman on the Past

Street in Rome (Photo by Sean O'Neill@oneillsdc5)
Portico d’Ottavia in Rome  (Photo by Sean O’Neill@oneillsdc5)

Those of you who follow this blog know that I’m teaching an online memoir course.  I’m captivated by watching my students grapple with and write about the past.  Here are two passages for writers and anyone else who muses about the nature of memory, one from a novel and one from an essay, both beautiful and thought-provoking.

The first is from the narrator of the novel A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter:

Certain things I remember exactly as they were. They are merely discolored a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit. Most of the details, though, have long since been transformed or rearranged to bring others of them forward. Some, in fact, are obviously counterfeit; they are no less important. One alters the past to form the future. But there is a real significance to the pattern which finally appears, which resists all further change. In fact, there is the danger that if I continue to try, the whole concert of events will begin to fall apart in my hands like old newspaper, I can’t bear to think of that. The myriad past, it enters us and disappears. Except that within it, somewhere, like diamonds, exist the fragments that refuse to be consumed. Sifting through, if one dares, and collecting them, one discovers the true design.

And this from “Intimacy,” an essay by Andre Aciman in his collection Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere.

In this passage, Aciman revisits after many decades the street in Rome where he lived for three years as a boy, having emigrated there from Egypt with his family, while they waited to get visas to America.

One more block and scarcely five minutes after arriving, our visit was over.  This always happens when I go back to places. Either buildings shrink over time, or the time it takes to revisit them shrinks to less than five minutes. We had walked from one end of the street to the Continue reading “Salter and Aciman on the Past”

Darin Strauss’s Memoir Half a Life: What Did He Owe the Zilkes?

Half a Life by Darin StraussThis week in the online memoir course I’m teaching, the students are working on characterization, both their own and that of others. We’re reading a chapter in Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington called “Writing about Living People,” in which she talks about how writers must come to their own decisions about their responsibilities to those whose lives are entwined with their own, and how one must balance the reasons for writing a story using real names against the harm that might be done to someone else.  I had thought this matter of what we owe people we write about was settled in my mind. I always counseled and taught that when writing about other people, one must try to arrive at the largest understanding and perspective, and while I didn’t think that was always easy, it seemed to me obvious and relatively simple.  Then last week I read a memoir by Darin Strauss called Half a Life, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award, and my complacency on the issue was given a good shake.

Half a Life is the story of how, when he was a senior in high school, Strauss was driving his dad’s Oldsmobile when a girl he barely knew, a junior at the same school, inexplicably swerved her bike across two lanes, collided with his car, and was killed.  Even though he was not responsible for the girl’s death, Strauss struggled with guilt that haunted him for decades.

I felt riveted by the writing and the story when I first started the memoir.  But I became troubled by Strauss’s writing about the girl’s family.  It has surprised and puzzled me how much this has bothered me. I won’t say it’s keeping me awake at night (other things do that), but I found myself thinking about it a good deal and feeling troubled by it. It has made me revisit the issue of the writer’s responsibility to other people.

Strauss first met the Zilkes when he attended Celine’s funeral, which was excruciating for him.  He acknowledges that his presence complicated Celine’s parents’ grief with the question of how they should treat him at the funeral.  “A possibly brave act for me, but awful for them.”

He describes the initial meeting with Mr. Zilke:

In the long moment before he found words, and as he took my hand, Mr. Zilke settled on an expression, a hard-won glint of: I will be friendlier than you have any right to expect me to be.

It occurred to me in reading this difficult scene that it was being filtered through a tremendously subjective narrator, which I suppose is true of everything in memoir. But I didn’t completely trust Strauss’s recounting of Continue reading “Darin Strauss’s Memoir Half a Life: What Did He Owe the Zilkes?”

Rachael Hanel’s “We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter” plus Two Questions

Hanel_cover_small (1)The cover of Minnesota writer Rachael Hanel’s memoir, We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, recently published by the University of Minnesota Press, is curiously upbeat, practically gay, with its jokey title in bright white, yellow, aqua, and salmon letterings. A better cover to my mind would have been a skull, for truly this book is a memento mori. Maybe the cover designer was a Minnesotan who, like the folks from rural Minnesota whom Hanel captures so knowingly, was afraid to face the real subject, death and its bride, grief. Maybe the cover designer thought it would put readers off to sense how dark this book is.  But to me that’s its great strength.  Death was the school of Hanel’s childhood, and she tried to learn its lessons. But when it struck suddenly and close to home, she was brought to her knees, finding nothing in her education had truly prepared her for what personal loss and grief really feel like.

Hanel grew up in Waseca, the daughter of Digger O’Dell, who had a grave digging monopoly in that area of south-central Minnesota, digging more than 100 graves a year. Her father, Paul Hager, took the name from a character on the Life of Riley.  He loved the outdoor work, having spent the prior 14 years from right after high school slopping pigs and cleaning manure off concrete floors with noxious chemicals. He and his wife also mowed and tended the cemeteries, often accompanied by their three children. Rachael was three when her father became a gravedigger, so she grew up playing around headstones, learning math by subtracting birthdates from end dates, seeing toys and balloons people left on babies’ graves, and studying the mystery of death, captured in the photograph of a young girl in a locket on one of the gravestones.

It didn’t strike her as anything special or unusual to have a gravedigger for a dad, and she says, at least in the beginning, that spending so much time around graves and being exposed to so much mortality didn’t bother her.  Her parents were modest, practical, hard-working people with a secure and respected place in the community. Death and burial were just part of life, just what they did, and it didn’t occur to them that their impressionable daughter might be affected by so much exposure to death, nor would they have known what to do about it.

But at least as this memoir is shaped, Hanel was affected by all the death, to the point of being somewhat obsessed with it.  She was certainly on her own in processing it; death wasn’t discussed and people in that area, “stoic Germans and Scandinavians, reserved northern Europeans who wore stony faces for the world while they withered inside” taught her nothing about how to deal with her own grief, when it came to her as a staggering blow.   She was fifteen and her father forty-six when he died in great pain within three days of being diagnosed with cancer. At the real heart of this memoir is the story of a daughter’s love and loss, and the aftermath.

Hanel recounts an incident when she was five years old, standing at the grave of her uncle, being horrified that his daughter Michelle was actually sobbing in public. This raw emotion frightened the young Rachael, who “felt as embarrassed for her as I would have felt had she been physically naked.” This is her first glimpse of the real pain that accompanies death, the first time she grasps what losing a loved one can mean to someone:

The cemetery took on a different meaning. It became more than an expanse of lawn marked with jutting granite and marble teeth, more than just a place where Dad and Mom worked. It was no longer the place where I sat in the pickup with my books until I could go home and play with my Barbies. Instead, the places where I watered flowers or picked up sticks were the same places families like Michelle’s had stood. Holes were opened to receive their bounty, then closed forever. Bodies rested below me, invisible tenants.

But it is only when she experiences the death of her father that the enormity and confusion of death is truly brought home to her.

Continue reading “Rachael Hanel’s “We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter” plus Two Questions”

Andre Aciman’s NYT Piece on Memoirists’ Relationship to the Truth

Andre Aciman
Andre Aciman

On Monday I started teaching an online course on writing the book-length memoir for Stanford University Continuing Studies.  For the next 10 weeks my students and I will be thinking and talking (or I should say e-mailing) about writing memoir, including the question that the Watergate hearings posed so beautifully: “Where does the truth lie?” I’ve always enjoyed the double entendre of “lie” in that line.  How do the facts of the past and the truth get along? It’s clear that the facts do not produce the truth, not the emotional, psychological truth that the modern memoir demands.  But how important are the facts, and what exactly are they? Are details facts? Are they a form of truth? And if so, which ones and to what degree?  Anyone writing out of memory, out of the past, quickly encounters subtle and difficult encounters with facts and truth.

This was brought home to me when I read a fascinating opinion piece called “How Memoirists Mold the Truth” in this past Sunday’s New York Times, by the memoirist and novelist Andre Aciman.  Aciman was born in 1951 in Alexandria, Egypt.  He grew up in a French-speaking multinational Jewish family which had settled in Alexandria in 1905.  He moved with his family to Italy when he was 15 and then to New York at 19.  He’s currently a professor at the graduate center of City University of New York, where he teaches the history of literary theory and the works of Marcel Proust. He’s the author of the Whiting award-winning memoir Out of Egypt (1995) as well as a number of other books, and he has a new novel coming out in April called Harvard Square.

He opens his essay with the story of his mother furiously rearranging the living room furniture whenever she was enraged and fed up with her life. This was her attempt to try to take control and put a new face on things, in light of not being able to change much else about her situation. It taught him, Aciman says, “that if changing the layout of your problems doesn’t necessarily solve them, it does make living with them easier.”  He extends this lesson to the work of memoirists, who, “unable to erase the ugliest moments of their past or unwilling to make new ones, can shift them around.  They don’t distort the truth, they nudge it.”

I’m not sure what he means by “nudge” here.

He says that everyone has reasons for altering the past.  But isn’t the work of memoirists the exact opposite—to be true to the past to the best of one’s ability?  It’s the word “altered” that gives me trouble here.  He continues in the same paragraph, “We may want to embellish or gloss over the past, or we may want to repress it, or to shift it just enough so as to be able to live with it. Some, in an effort to give their lives a narrative, a shape, a logic, end up altering not the facts they’ve known but their layout – exactly what my mother was doing.”

I accept that memoirists give their lives a narrative shape by rearranging the material to some extent.  In my memoir Crossing the Moon, for example, I had my mother say a line to me (“People who don’t have children are the most selfish people in the world.”) in a scene in which she did not actually say that line. She did say those exact words to me, only I’m not sure when or where – I think over the phone. So I altered not the facts but the layout, to make for a better read.

But Aciman loses me when he says we may want to embellish, gloss over, repress or shift the past so as to be able to live with it. That seems to me quite different from rearranging material that actually occurred.

But Aciman is right when he says, “Writing alters, reshuffles, intrudes on everything.  As small a thing as a shifty adverb, or an adjective with attitude, or just a trivial little comma is enough to reconfigure the past [I think he’s inflating that comma a bit but never mind  . . .].”  Anyone who writes memoir knows it’s not the simple, straightforward act some people imagine it to be to write about the past.

Aciman recounts how in 1990 he published an account of a walk with his brother on their last night in Alexandria. Four years later, when he published his memoir, Out of Egypt, he described that walk as one he took alone. He took that same walk when he returned to Egypt in 1995, to see whether he remembered walking there alone or with his brother. A third option presented itself: it occurred to him that he might’ve made the whole thing up. The written version or I should say versions had taken the place of what actually happened.

Today I remember the walk I took alone, but only because I spent more time writing it. Ask me which of the two is truer, I’d say, ‘Probably the walk with my brother.’ Ask me again and I might admit making the whole thing up. Ask me yet again, and I won’t remember.

I found this confession totally candid. Certainly once you try to write the past, what you’ve written tends to become the memory, rather than the other way around.  As Annie Dillard advised in her essay “To Fashion a Text”:

Don’t hope in a memoir to preserve your memories.  If you prize your memories as they are, by all means avoid—eschew—writing a memoir.  Because it is a certain way to lose them.  You can’t put together a memoir without cannibalizing your own life for parts.  The work battens on your memories.  And it replaces them.

Aciman says a similar thing when he relates how within a few weeks after his mother had rearranged the furniture, it was no longer possible to recall the previous living room configuration.

Words radiate something that is more luminous, more credible, and more durable than real facts, because under their stewardship, it is not truth we’re after; what we want instead is something that was always there but that we weren’t seeing and are only now, with the genius of retrospection, finally seeing as it should have occurred and might as well have occurred and, better yet, is still likely to occur.  In writing, the different between the no more and the not yet is totally negligible.

This he calls “the spectral realm of quantum mnemonics,” and thus leaves some of us, myself included, in the dark.

It’s a maddening essay. He’ll say something that seems quite brilliant and then go off the deep end!  As you can see in the quote above.  He’s into ontological waters where I can’t swim.

There seem to be two camps of memoir readers/critics. Or perhaps it would be better to describe these as two ends of a spectrum. On the one hand are the Fact Sticklers. They want to know whether the brother was there or not, dammit! It matters to them, and it undercuts the reliability of the memoirist who plays fast and loose with the facts. Aciman’s answer to this is that “Writing not only plays fast and loose with the past; it hijacks the past. Which may be why we put the past to paper. We want it hijacked.” This is the sort of thing that makes the Facts Sticklers apoplectic.

At the other end of the spectrum are the loosey-goosey Literary Liberals. They don’t care whether the brother was there or not; they are after something else. They want to know if the scene works, if it’s true to something below and beyond mere factual accuracy.  Is it true in the deepest sense, in a spiritual, emotional, psychological way?  Is it what the persona of the memoir actually felt? The brother is a detail which may or may not matter. They trust the writer to make that determination. They, like Aciman, may not believe that the past is solid and can be captured with a high degree of accuracy. They accept the role of the imagination in the writing of memoir. They don’t want things that matter made up– but they’re willing to accept the kind of nudging, perhaps, that  Aciman seems to be championing.

Most memoir writers fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. They’re doing their best to be true to the past as they know it. At the same time, they understand that the act of writing transforms the past, replaces it, and creates it to some extent.

Aciman says, “We want a second chance, we want the other version of our life, the one that thrills us, the one that happened to the people we really are, not to those we just happened to be once.”

I don’t think this is true for most memoirists. They write out of the person they really are now about the person they once happened to be.  But maybe Aciman means that in the writing, we become or at least access our deeper, truer selves, both now and then. We write a version of the past that is truer than a mere recitation of factually accurate details.  I haven’t read the two passages of that last walk in Alexandria that Aciman refers to. But I can imagine that his focus was on some personal truth of the experience, what he would call one version of the past, that was true, not literally to exactly what happened, but to the felt-sense of the experience, the literary truth of it.

I don’t mind, myself, that he nudged the brother out of the way.

P.S.  The online comments following Aciman’s piece make for fascinating reading as people react to his provocative piece.

Vivian Gornick on Situation and Story


Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative

In her short book called The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick describes one of the most useful and important ideas about writing that I know:

“Every work of literature has both a situation and a story.  The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” 

I just critiqued a novel where Gornick’s concept seemed particularly relevant.  On the whole it’s an amazing novel, but I had a clear sense towards the end of where it went off the track, and why.  It was because the writer lost track of the “story,” and just wrote “situation.” Without the “story,” the situation became merely material.  Even though the material at that point was dramatic and even riveting, it lacked the real power that comes from the writer carrying through with the story under the situation.

It can be a little confusing because Gornick’s not using “story” here in the traditional narrative sense. The way I understand Gornick’s “story” is that it is like an interior narrative, the internal journey that the protagonist is experiencing or undertaking which the external action–the situation–the plot– dramatizes and plays out.  This journey is psychological, emotional, spiritual or all three.  It is what the reader is actually tracking, even as his or her attention is captured by the external situation and action.  It’s what gives shape and meaning to the situation. 

Gornick gives this example:

Continue reading “Vivian Gornick on Situation and Story”

What the Reader Needs…


The Antioch Review

“…to be conscious of what the reader needs and only what he needs…” 

I first encountered this bit of writerly advice in 1984 in The Antioch Review, in a piece written by Nolan Miller, who was then Associate Editor. It has served as a North Star of writing for me ever since.  

Miller was a short story writer and novelist who taught creative writing at Antioch College for over fifty years.  The Antioch Review, remarkably, has been publishing continuously since 1941.  It publishes fiction, essays, and poetry, from both emerging and well-known authors.  When it published a story of mine, it was a huge thrill in my literary life.  If you want to read one of the best literary magazines around, subscribe to it:  http://antiochcollege.org/antioch_review/subscribe.html

Miller composed his piece as an imaginary interview between a Reader, Writer, and Editor. He posed the questions that he wished to answer as the editor of the Review, such as: what are literary magazine editors looking for; how do they make decisions; what makes them accept a story; what do writers need to do to develop; and much more, all articulated in a gracious but authoritative voice evoking a professor sitting in a old wooden English Department chair with a pipe in his mouth.  Though the world of publishing has changed dramatically since Miller wrote this piece, his advice about writing is still relevant.  Some things about literature remain the same, eternally let’s hope.  You can read the whole article at this link: Editorial: Reader, Writer, and Editor: An Imaginary Interview   (Copyright 1984 by the Antioch Review. First appeared in the Antioch Review, Volume 42, and Number 2. Reprinted by permission of the Editors.)

When I first read “to be conscious of what the reader needs and only what he needs” it struck me as an essential key to writing that I had been missing.  I don’t believe I had ever thought about the concept, or at least I had never heard it articulated so directly and with such command. I didn’t become enlightened at that moment.  But Miller showed me what I needed to work on: to give the reader what she needs and only what she needs.  Seemingly simple.  Very difficult to master. 

In Miller’s words: “Learning to be direct, to be honest, to be always conscious of what the reader needs and only what he needs requires tremendous self-discipline.”

What does the reader need, exactly?  And as the writer, how do you know what that is? 

What we need may be necessary, relevant, functioning information.  It may be tone, the writer’s attitude towards the material that helps us interpret it.  It may be the kind of original, concrete, specific, sensory detail I talked about in my August 8th post.  It may be starting the story or memoir in the right place, striking the key note from the get-go.  It involves writing with the kind of authority that says the writer knows what she’s doing, and has found the best possible way to do it.  It’s a lot of things, and it varies from piece to piece.  But it comes down to the feeling that as readers we can give ourselves up to the writing because the writer knows what works. 

How does one come to write with that kind of authority and certainty? Continue reading “What the Reader Needs…”

Henry James’ Weak Specification–eek!


“Office at Night” by Edward Hopper

I live in fear of weak specification.  I consider it the eighth deadly sin: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, gluttony and weak specification.  I’m guilty of it, I admit.  I’m only human, or, some would say, all too human.  I strive to overcome my weaknesses, to improve myself in every way (occasionally) but especially in the matter of weak specification.  I try to be diligent, only to find it sneaks up on me. 

I first heard the term “weak specification” years ago when I read a piece by Flannery O’Connor called “Writing Short Stories” (in Mystery and Manners).  One could do worse than sleep with this essay under one’s pillow every night, hoping trenchant wisdom from it will seep into one’s brain and embed itself there, to come out forever after in one’s writing. 

I felt the sort of conversion experience Paul must have had on the road to Damascus when I read the following passage:

“Fiction Writers who are not concerned with… concrete details are guilty of what Henry James called ‘weak specification.’ The eye will glide over their words while the attention goes to sleep.  Ford Madox Ford taught that you couldn’t have a man appear long enough to sell a newspaper in a story unless you put him in there with enough detail to make the reader see him.”

I was guilty!  I committed weak specification in my writing, and half the time I didn’t even know it.  But that didn’t matter.  It was NO EXCUSE.  I determined that I would do better.

What O’Connor is referring to by concrete details are sensory details: what can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched. If the writing is not grounded in concrete, sensory detail—if the words are imprecise or inaccurate—the reader will sort of go dormant, even while “reading.”  Haven’t you had this experience?  And haven’t you noticed when you’re riveted to the page by the very specificity—we could say strong specification—of the writing? 

"Chop Suey" by Edward Hopper
“Chop Suey” by Edward Hopper


I’m reading Carry the One right now, a fine novel by Carol Anshaw, which I’ll post about when I finish it.  I love her writing because it is so highly specified.  Because of her details and descriptions, because of the voice that is delivering the observations and descriptions with such aplomb, you cannot glance away. 

Here, for example, is the opening paragraph:

So Carmen was married, just.  She sat under a huge butter moon, on a windless night in the summer of 1983, at a table, in front of the remains of some cordon bleu.  She looked towards the improvised dance floor where her very new husband was doing the Mexican hat dance with several other large men, three of them his brothers, other Sloans.  Matt was a plodding hat-dancer; his kicks threw the others off the beat.  In spite of this lack of aptitude, he was waving her over, beckoning her to join in.  She waved back as though she thought he was just saying hi.  She was hoping to sit out this early phase of her marriage, the mortifying dances segment.

Here we have the first moments of this marriage, the first paragraph of this novel, and I ask you: Can this marriage be saved?

Don’t you love the butter moon, the cordon bleu, the image of a plodding hat-dancer throwing the others off beat?  It’s delicious.  Why?  Because it’s concrete, specific, original and exact. There is nothing weakly specified about it. 

Here’s a description a page or two in:

Carmen entered the farmhouse by the back door into the kitchen, which at the moment was vacant of humans, going about a life of its own.  An ancient refrigerator emitted a low, steady buzz.  The pump spigot dripped into a sink whose original porcelain was, in a circle around the drain, worn down to the iron beneath.  A fat fly idled around the open window amide dangling pieces of stained glass.  The room signed out its own smell—a blend of burnt wood and wet clay.  Trace elements of blackstrap molasses, tahini, apples, and dirty socks were also in the mix.

As a piece of writing this description is pure pleasure.  See how your senses draw you in as you hear, see, and smell.  Notice how closely observed it is.  “Close observation” is a key concept.  It makes you aware that you need not only to see, but to see beyond your first glance, your first look, to really see and experience what you’re describing more acutely, more originally, more specifically.  Read the passage again and see just how specific the details are.  James and O’Connor would approve.  Continue reading “Henry James’ Weak Specification–eek!”

Colm Toibin and “What is Real is Imagined”


Colm Toibin
Colm Toibin

In an essay called “What is Real is Imagined” in the July 15, 2012 The New York Times, Colm Tóibín describes being back in the remote place on the Coast of Ireland which his family visited in the summers until he was twelve.  When he passes the house where his family once stayed, it’s his parents’ bedroom he sees in his memory with its iron bed and the cement floor, and the clover he smells is the same as it was in 1967.  Or, as he amends, because he is trying to dream that world of 1967 into existence, “it is sometimes closer now than it ever was.”

It would be easy to exaggerate, he writes, and say that his remembered town is more real than the one that is there now, where almost everything has changed.  But he resists that temptation, saying that clearly what is real is what is there now.  In a beautiful passage, he muses on the difference between what he sees around him and the fiction originating in his memory:

The world that fiction comes from is fragile. It melts into insignificance against the universe of what is clear and visible and known. It persists because it is based on the power of cadence and rhythm in language and these are mysterious and hard to defeat and keep in their place. The difference between fact and fiction is like the difference between land and water.

What occurs as I walk in the town now is nothing much. It is all strange and distant, as well as oddly familiar. What happens, however, when I remember my mother, wearing a red coat, leaving our house in the town on a morning in the winter of 1968, going to work, walking along John Street, Court Street, down Friary Hill, along Friary Place and then across the bottom of Castle Hill toward Slaney Place and across the bridge into Templeshannon, is powerful and compelling. It brings with it a sort of music and a strange need. A need to write down what is happening in her mind and to give that writing a rhythm and a sound that will come from the nervous system rather than the mind, and will, ideally, resonate within the nervous system of anyone who reads it.

In his book Power in Writing, Peter Elbow was perhaps trying to get at the same thing, though less eloquently.  He talked about the central characteristic of “real voice” being that “the words somehow issue from the writer’s center—even if in a slippery way—and produce resonance which gets the words more powerfully to a reader’s center.”  Tóibín speaks of writing as “a sort of music…a rhythm and a sound.”  What writers and readers respond to is often the cadence, rhythm, and tone of language.  The writer listens to the sound of the sentences to see if they ring true, not in a factual sense but in the sense of resonating with whatever inchoate vision is trying to come into being. Maybe they ring true in the body.

Tóibín goes on to describe the process of developing the character based on his mother:

I don’t know what she thought, of course, so I have to imagine. In doing so, I use certain and uncertain facts, but I add to the person I remember or have invented. Also, I take things away. This is a slow process and it is not simple. I give my mother a singing voice, for example, which she did not have. The shape of the story requires that she have a singing voice; it is the shape of the story rather than the shape of life that dictates what is added and excised.

But the singing voice is a mere detail in a large texture of a self that gradually comes alive — enough to seem wholly invented and fully imagined, although based on what was once real.

The demands of the story, not an allegiance to memory, become the driver.  “The story has a shape, and that comes first, and then the story and its shape need substance and nourishment from the haunting past, clear memories or incidents suddenly remembered or invented, erased or enriched. Then the phrases and sentences begin, another day’s work.” Continue reading “Colm Toibin and “What is Real is Imagined””