My first book came out in the fall, which still feels miraculous to me. The stories took years to write and years to find a home for. Holding the actual book in my hands for the first time, I felt moved by the lovely cover and by the physical presence of words I had labored over in my thirties—which, by then, were almost over.
Next month I’m turning 40, a number that used to seem distant and possible to avoid. As my stepfather likes to remind me, when he turned 40, I made a giant banner that read “Over the Hill” and hung it on the wall as a snide happy birthday greeting. (I was thirteen at the time and probably more concerned with the fact that he was my stepfather than I was with his age, but whatever, he’s right: 40 looked ancient.) Alice Munro was 37 when she published her first book. Toni Morrison was 39. George Eliot 40. As a beginning writer I’d read the bios of brilliant, “late-blooming” writers and feel inspired. But also terrified: I couldn’t imagine waiting that long to find literary success.
When I began graduate school in creative writing almost a decade ago, I considered it reasonable to assume that my two years there would soon lead to the vision I had of “success”, which included not just a published book but tenure-track job and “a viable writing career.” To some of the twenty-somethings in my program, I probably already seemed old at thirty, but forty still seemed so far away. Of course I would publish a book before I was anywhere near forty!
One thing I couldn’t have known is how in my thirties the whole nature of time would change. Days and years used to feel full and incremental and possible to keep track of. Starting in grad school everything began to hurtle past.
Yet somehow the writing continued slowly. Mostly while I was working full time. And though sometimes the slow writing was painful, often it was the opposite: every word I made time for reinforced for me the joy of making art. Every sentence contained the promise of a magic trick—plucking something from my head and making it live on the page.
I’d like to believe that writing while working made me a better writer—or at least a writer who can usually find a few minutes to write, because sometimes that’s all there is. In grad school, I adored listening to professional writers talk about their schedules: the coffee in the hand, the butt in the chair for the hours of 8-to 5, or 9-2 while the kids are at school. It felt like a dreamy formula: caffeine + hours + story = bestselling/award-winning novel. For the majority of us who are working office jobs, or teaching, or taking care of tiny children, that kind of schedule is a luxury, not a mathematical proof.
Sometimes you have to write at work in secret. (I did some of my happiest writing in an office cubicle.) Sometimes you write only while the kid is sleeping or doesn’t realize you’ve slipped upstairs for some writing time but is about to realize it, so better write that sentence real damn quick. Sometimes you have to write late at night when the house is a mess. Sometimes early in the morning. (But never at 4am. Writers who get up that early are masochists and no wonder: they’re totally sleep-deprived!) If you want be a successful writer and you’re neither independently wealthy nor supported by a large advance for your Great American Novel, be flexible. Be kind to yourself. But don’t forget to write.
For me, the idea of success continues to be a moving target. I’ll never win any award for youthful brilliance. Probably not even for brilliance of the “over the hill” variety. My forties might slip by faster even than my thirties. But throughout the next decade I’ll be writing—ten minutes here, an hour there. My second book will come together slowly, and sometimes I will doubt whether it will come together at all. Every minute and every word along the way will be a small gift to myself. And, eventually, I hope to someone else.
I am that reader who devours every word between the covers of a book—the dedication, preface, prologue, epilogue, notes, and everything in between. I even pay attention to the copyright page, like the one in Justin Cronin’s The Passage that catalogues the novel under the subjects Vampire-Fiction, Human experimentation in medicine-Fiction, and Virus diseases-Fiction, story clues that not even the book jacket copy gives away.
I especially enjoy reading the acknowledgements. While every other part of the book ultimately belongs to the reader, an author’s acknowledgments offer a glimpse into her own life. Who or what we acknowledge reveals what we value in writing and life. Who does the author recognize, care about, appreciate? Does she thank family, friends, mentors? (Most everyone does.) A place of employment? (Only if they provided time or money for the writing project.) Sorority sisters with spare couches? (Angela Flournoy). La Virgen de Guadalupe Tonantzin? (Sandra Cisneros). What about the person who bought the writer his first dictionary? (Junot Diaz scores big points with me here.)
I’ve been named in book acknowledgements, and it’s usually an unexpected honor from a former student or a writer whose manuscript I read, someone who wants to remind me I’m a small part of their work, a member of their tribe. Now that my short story collection approaches its publication date and it’s my turn to appreciate the village it takes to bring a book to a reader’s hands, I’m terrified I’ll forget someone I’m expected to thank, like when Oscar winners ramble the names of everyone from their director to their barista but forget to mention a long-suffering spouse. Alanis Morissette, in her song “Thank You,” takes an even wider view, recognizing everything from India, a country of over a billion people, to more abstract concepts like disillusionment.
But an acknowledgments page has a specific purpose: to give recognition to whomever or whatever supports the writing and production of a book. That narrows it down some. India has no role in my story collection and needs no thanks, and I don’t always appreciate my moments of disillusionment. Still, give credit where it’s due. Writers don’t create books alone. Sure, the actual act of writing is solitary. You alone plant your butt in a chair, turn on a computer, open your document, and conjure words. You pace the floor and cry on your own, and you alone decide to push past the urge to play Candy Crush or Pokemon Go. When you fail, which every writer does, over and over, you do that all on your own too.
But you never succeed on your own, as the very custom of acknowledgment reminds us. Every writer who keeps sitting in that chair depends on the invisible community of people carried into the writing space. Maybe it’s the teacher who taught you how to “nibble the pig” so your project seems less daunting (thanks, Ron Carlson, for all those years I kept a picture of a roast pig on a platter above my computer to remind me it was only possible to eat that thing one bite at a time). Or the relative who bought you books every birthday. Or the small town you thought you hated and wanted to leave, while the people there hang on in your mind, populating your pages.
The acknowledgments page is where writers honor the people and places that nurtured and mentored them. Writers frequently mention professors, workshop members, even the program administrators who made their MFA years easier. Junot Diaz, in four pages of acknowledgments in The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, goes well beyond that, thanking his many clans and the people who “bought me my first dictionary and signed me up for the Science Fiction Book Club” and also “Every teacher who gave me kindness, every librarian who gave me books.”
Acknowledgments also credit those people who provide whatever the writer needs to shape a book and usher it into the world, everyone from trusted friends who read and comment on drafts to agents, editors, designers and publicists. And I discovered in a quick survey of books in my personal library that those people deserve not only gratitude, but small horses. Justin Cronin offers “thanks and ponies” to his supporters, and Jenny Offill promises her “crackerjack editorial, publicity, and production staff at Knopf”: “I owe each and every one of you a pony.”
Some writers share gratitude specific to a book’s content. Margaret Atwood, in Oryx and Crake, thanks the people from whose balcony she saw “that rare bird, the Red-necked Crake,” and Alice Munro’s acknowledgements for the collection Too Much Happiness focuses solely on the people and books that led to her discovery of Sophia Kovalevsky, subject of the title story.
Nearly every author saves their final thanks for those intimates who, as Margaret Atwood describes her husband, Graeme Gibson, “understand[s] the obsessiveness of the writer.” No surprise there, as those are the people who respect your closed door, nurse you through every “art attack,” and celebrate those small victories peculiar to writers, like a “good” rejection note. They deserve public recognition and your private appreciation—every day.
My acknowledgments page is already with my publisher. I still have a small window of time to add names. But really I think of those acknowledgments as formalizing what the people who support me—or any writer—should already know and feel, whether it’s between the covers of a book or not: their value exceeds what mere words can say.
Thanks. Just thanks. (But no ponies—they really don’t make good gifts.)
I think about creative inspiration a fair amount. It can be hard to explain to others because it is so specific to the individual. Like every other writer I have certain authors that I simply worship — Edith Wharton, E.M Forster, Alice Munro, Ron Carlson, Lorrie Moore, Katherine Mosby, Michael Cunningham. These are just the first few names that come to mind as I write this. But it’s a rather long and varied list, a haphazard collection of the famous and the unknown. I keep adding to it over the years and no one ever really gets knocked off. It’s not like Survivor — there’s room for everybody here and they all inspire me one way or another. But my creative inspiration can come from some pretty random places too. For instance, in the 1980 movie Ordinary People there is a climactic scene on a golf course, where the character played by Mary Tyler Moore has this huge meltdown. It is where her character’s true nature is revealed for the first time. I have a lot of thoughts when I watch this scene.
First, I think of Judith Guest, who wrote the wonderful novel and created the characters on which the movie is based and then I think of the screenwriter Alvin Sargent who faithfully did the screenplay adaptation and won an Oscar for it. I think of Robert Redford too, who directed the film and (according to an interview I saw once) shot this difficult, pivotal scene in one fluid take. And of course, there is Ms. Moore’s performance which is so raw and terrifying; it kind of takes your breath away, particularly because she had long been known as one of Hollywood’s sunniest performers. Her acting here was considered something of a revelation. The scene had an enormous impact on me the first time I saw it, but even then I realized a number of very talented people had collaborated on it. Everyone was working to get their piece right. I think it gave me a very early sense of how one can aspire to create something (or be a part of creating something) that will have a lasting impact on others. This is true even if you are not tackling a major motion picture, but working on a much smaller scale.
Still, if we are lucky we can be inspired everywhere we look. Creativity exists on a number of levels, from Tom Brady’s surgical precision during his triumphant fourth quarter performance in Super Bowl XLIX (defaltegate be damned!) to my own son’s insane (and for me heartstopping) landing of a 16-stair jump with his battered and beloved 5Boro skateboard. These breathless moments, whether they are on the page, on the screen or on the playing field, when I am left asking “How did they do that?” often energize me to jump back and focus on my own stuff, to see what I can do. I am always grateful to encounter amazing work, whether it’s reading a flash fiction piece in a little magazine or hearing Broadway star Sutton Foster sing a show tune — or watching some terrific episode of Girls or Looking — those two beautifully written, character-driven shows on HBO. Yes, I’m one of those people who believe Lena Dunham is a true genius; and my devotion to the characters of Patrick and Richie on Looking (created by Michael Lannan and so persuasively acted by Jonathan Groff and Raúl Castillo) approaches the restraining order territory (HBO’s recent cancelation of this show is perhaps the first real sign of the Apocalypse!).
At any rate, in these random ways (and countless others) I have been moved and been better off for it. But it all comes back to the idea of trying to make an impact with your own work, of adding to the conversation, of attempting to put something out in the world that hasn’t been there before and, most of all, paying attention to what truly inspires us.
One of the greatest teachers of literature I ever had was a mathematician named Michael Comenetz. A spare-bodied man with a close white beard and a brown, bald head, Mr. Comenetz (who still teaches at my college, St. John’s in Annapolis) sort of resembles Don Quijote in looks, though in spirit he has more in common with Cervantes–patient and thoughtful, gentlemanly, with those subtly glittering eyes you see in people who are both very wise and very funny. Mr. Comenetz once interrupted a discussion, I think it was on Homeric heroism, by whistling the theme from High Noon, until all of us fell silent, one by one. At my college, seniors must read a good chunk of Marx in the late spring; if you have Mr. Comenetz for this, he will insist that your whole class sing a rousing rendition of The Internationale. There is a fragment of Heraclitus’s which puns on the Greek word bios, a word which can mean both “life” and “bow” (Guy Davenport translates it, “A bow is alive only when it kills.”); after reading this fragment, Mr. Comenetz asked that we at least try, to create, in English, a similar pun out of the many homonyms attached to the spelling “bow.” We were wildly unsuccessful, but of course success didn’t matter to Mr. Comenetz’s method. He was challenging us to engage with high culture at the most playful level possible. He is, himself, a supreme technician of letters (he writes an excellent blog; you can read it here), but one who understands that literature, even great literature, is nothing but a chest of toys. He co-authored a translation of Paul Valery’s The Graveyard by the Sea, and was the first person I ever heard tell that joke about Vassar girls, the one where they’re laid end to end, and no one is surprised.
Well, so one day, Mr. Comenetz gave an informal talk on the subject “Maps and Similes.” A map, after all, is a simile of the world, or a small part of it. (See, e.g., the Eschaton episode from Infinite Jest, where catastrophe breaks loose because one player ruthlessly lobs a ball at another, misunderstanding that the player’s body is not the coalition of countries she represents, but rather that coalition’s presence on the map, a simile for it.)
I asked Mr. Comenetz, “Why similes? Why not metaphors?” His answer was something like this:
“Well, I don’t really trust metaphors. They are necessarily untrue, aren’t they? Saying this is this? Of course it isn’t. This is like this, sure. But the servant’s brow is not a moody frontier. King Edward hasn’t actually sped up the seasons, and made summer out of winter. There’s a kind of preposterousness, you see, at work in every metaphor . . .”
All apprentice writers struggle with finding their “voice.” By voice, I think we mean the peculiar stamp that separates my writing from yours, and yours from hers, and hers from his; in other words, it’s one of those Potter Stewart-type things: hard to define, but you know it when you see it.
Contrarily, one of the quickest ways to tell that a writer isn’t ready yet–that he or she still needs work–is when the writing can’t be separated out from the writing of others. I see on the Twitter the complaints of people (slushpile trusties, for the most part) who are seeing page after page of transparent imitation: lots of Cormac McCarthy wannabes, I hear; even a few Tao Lin apers, for reasons passing understanding.
To these writers, I could not be more sympathetic. My earliest serious attempts at fiction-writing were themselves parrotings of Cormac McCarthy that would curl your toes. Here, let me show you:
The young man’s steady, rhythmic cries were the dominant sound in the room, as if he held the floor in a parliament of grief. Steadily those of his wife seeped in, filling the spaces between his with her coarse, dynamic sobs. The man’s cries like grunts and the woman’s like moans, the silence of the elders surrounding and supporting them like as the cold bleak of space to a chaotic and liferidden planet.
Ye gods: “like as the cold bleak of space”? “a chaotic and liferidden planet”?
In my defense, however, this is how it gets done. Remember in Finding Forrester, how Sean Connery jumpstarts the young guy’s writing by having him re-type one of his (Sean’s) old essays? We’re all doing that, in the beginning. We imitate writers in order to learn. Hunter Thompson used to copy out lines from Gatsby on his typewriter. He wanted to feel the rhythm of those words, as they came out, letter by letter; he wanted to know how it felt to have prose like that jump into being, underneath his own fingers.
This is natural, this is what John Cheever called “the parturition of a writer.” Each apprentice takes bits and pieces of the masters and builds up a kind of jury-rigged scaffolding, like one of those wobbly towers made of pianos and bird cages you see in old cartoons. You can reach a nice altitude on something like that, but it’s treacherous. To create good and original prose, one needs sturdier footing.
Mr. Comenetz’s preference for simile over metaphor is idiosyncratic, reasoned, hard to argue with, and slightly, just slightly, insane. If one is abandoning metaphor because all metaphors are preposterous lies, then one must abandon all fiction, if one means to be consistent. Clearly, Mr. Comenetz didn’t mean for his point to go that far.
This preference of his, however, is a perfect example of the little stylistic choices a writer must make, the scruples of taste she must develop, in order to gain a voice. In short, I think a writer’s voice is simply what happens when he or she applies private rules–a kind of second grammar.
It will be easier to elaborate if I give an example from my own private rules. Me, I adhere as strictly as I can to the common notions of spelling and punctuation. This wasn’t always the case with me. Back when I was drunk on McCarthy, I slammed words together and ditched quotation marks all day long. This was not a stylistic choice, however; this was not the application of my own private rules. I had not worked through any process like the one by which McCarthy decided to use enjambment-coinages like “scabbedover” and “rubymeated,” and neither did I have any good reason to leave off punctuation marks. I was imitating, superficially. I wasn’t getting past the appearances to find the solid form beneath, and that was fine: I hadn’t earned that yet. I hadn’t done enough reading or enough writing to earn that. By the time I had, though, I’d learned an important truth about myself: I need as much structure as I can get. I need the safety of it. I’m not a tightrope walker: I take hiiigh steps anytime I get off an escalator.
And it hardly needs to be said, but my way is not your way, nor should it be. Faulkner, for instance, was a tightrope walker. Lord only knows what that man thought this thing “;–” meant, but he used it all the time. If that’s your way, too, then you’re in good company. I do think these choices should be deliberately made, though, and the reasoning behind them should be both sound and personal. It’s not enough to abandon traditional punctuation merely out of homage–the choice must be original, and guy-lined by the writer’s personal vision. Faulkner, I think, did it because he sensed a great fracture in the world, a brokenness, an incommensurability between truth and regulated description. It won’t cut the mustard to do the same thing just because it strikes you as cool (which, if I’m being honest, is why I did it).
The more one reads, the more one sees these little rules, these underlying knowledges, at work in all the great writers. Charles Portis, like Jerry Seinfeld, works clean: you’ll find very few curse words in his books. Portis also seems to think that any time two characters are talking, they might as well be fighting. This is not a bad rule to test out, in your own work. Alice Munro nearly always tells you what her characters look like, but not always the first time you meet them. There is a great insight into the manipulability of the short story in this; it displays a powerful understanding of how the mind and heart meet imaginary people, and of how an invented person comes to be cared for by readers. Stephen King hardly ever lets his narrative voice depart from that of The Friendly Co-worker, the kind of guy who’s quick with an easy joke or a breezy bit of small talk; this is powerfully American of him, and when future generations want to know how the post-World War II middle-class talked to itself, they will miss the mark wildly if they don’t consider King.
Here’s a question: What’s the point of writing fiction if another medium could serve your material just as well, if not better? It’s a critical concern for all of us, and I think the answer to that question is one of the rules that guided David Foster Wallace in his writing. I don’t think he ever wanted to do something that a filmmaker, showrunner, painter, or musician could do, too.
E.g., when Wallace employs long block paragraphs of narration, with a rotating perspective, he’s doing something it’s impossible to do except in fiction: he is creating a slow-motion, extreme close-up, Altmanesque crowd scene. Re-read the final locker room segment from Infinite Jest (20 Nov. Y.D.A.U.). Ironically, when all those characters are tossed into long paragraphs together, jumbled up in that big wall of text, we can see more vividly each of the little things they’re all doing. Wallace starts with a packed room and moves closer; he takes small character movements–each one a part of a sequence, each sequence a little story all of its own–and makes each of those movements central and enormous for the length of a phrase or a sentence; he goes from one character to another, to another, to another, then moves back. The effect is a rigorous re-mapping of life into narrative, and it just can’t be done any other way. You’d have to paint some huge Boschian canvas and then animate each character as it acted out its own peculiar torment, or whatever. Even then, the artist would have no control over sequencing; and with a canvas large enough to present sufficient detail, a debilitating physical distance would arise between the viewer and large parts of the painting: one might see the lower third fine, but the middle third poorly–and the top third hardly at all. Even Altman couldn’t do something that Altmanesque, because time in a movie, at least in a scene like that, has to move at normal speed–you miss things when you can’t slow down, re-read, when your eyes have to dart all over the screen to keep up with what’s happening. Fiction has limitations cinema doesn’t–as McCarthy noted in conversation with the Coen brothers (published in Time, but only available to subscribers), you sort of have to believe what you see on a screen, because you see it; that’s not at all true of what you read on a page, so problems of belief-suspension are trickier for fiction writers than for filmmakers. Of course this cuts both ways, and a movie could never cooperate with a mind as intimately as a page of prose can–the stops, the re-do’s, the run-backs, the skips-forward: all these little tools a reader can wield when breaking down a text are exclusive to the form. (And thank God, because writing needs all the help it can get.)
A breakthrough has to come before imitation gives way to real influence. There have been plenty of young writers–God bless them–who’ve gotten drunk on DFW, the way I got drunk on McCarthy. Y’all on slush detail know who they are, from the footnotes and the ambitious vocabulary, to the funky little tri-particle transitionals, (“and then so” “but so then” “so now but”), that Wallace was so fond of and used so well. And like I said, that’s fine, that’s normal–it’s like kissing poorly the first few times you do it.
Perhaps that’s the correct metaphor for an apprentice writer copying a master: a person who’s never kissed before making out with an accomplished osculator; there will be learning done, but it will be of limited general utility. Everyone else is going to be different, because kissing means different things to different people. Until a person understands what kissing means to them, they won’t be able to share that meaning with anyone else; nor will they be able to find out if what kissing means to another person matches what it means to them.
This is a small model for how the writer learns the craft, because it’s a question of learning why the craft matters. You copy the work of others, trying to see what it meant to them, until you’ve learned what it might could mean to you. And even then, you aren’t complete. You need what Franzen calls material, what Updike called his assignment. And that is a discussion for another day.
Still, it’s possible that learning what rules one wishes to apply to one’s material–the process, I’ve argued, of finding one’s voice–is a journey that goes hand in hand with learning why you want to write in the first place. Both these things are part of the larger project that all human beings are engaged in, of seeking to know ourselves. In Barry Hannah’s great conversation with Wells Tower (published by The Believer; you can read it here), Hannah says a thing you don’t often hear said about writers: that they are, for the most part, good people. Sure, some of us are jackasses, but Tower has to agree with Hannah, remembering that there’s a humility which gets beaten into your head, when you’re working at becoming a writer. From humility, goodness tends to follow.
The crushing humiliation of straining your soul, over and over again, only to produce hundreds of dog-gagging sentences (“like as the cold bleak of space to a chaotic and liferidden planet”) is the gauntlet you must run before you can become a better writer. It is possible, let us hope it is possible, that this and everything else you go through might also, in the end, make you a better person.