Category: what is right with us

February 19th, 2010

I just completed an interview for the forthcoming issue of the University of California at Irvine’s undergraduate creative writing journal, New Forum. Here’s an excerpt:

NF: Many writers including myself grapple with the fact that creative writing in American culture is for the most part considered leisure or hobby at best. There is an essential and important urgency which underlies passion for literature and yet remains beyond my ability to explain. How do you articulate your passion for writing?  What is the role of creative writing to you and what do you envision its role is in society?

AC: Well, for example, what I know about the Chinese emperors of times gone by is from Mencius. A poet. Not from any historical record those emperors commissioned.

What does that mean? It means what we do is not frivolous. What we do is record the culture, for the times we live in and the time to come. We communicate the values of the culture to each other and to posterity. This is so important…The treatment of the arts as decorative is criminal. Art, as the comic artist Lynda Barry says, is an immune system, for each of us. If we don’t participate, we’ll die.

Junot Diaz in O Magazine, On Becoming a Writer

But if the world is what it is so are our hearts. One night in August, unable to sleep, sickened that I was giving up, but even more frightened by the thought of having to return to the writing, I dug out the manuscript. I figured if I could find one good thing in the pages I would go back to it. Just one good thing. Like flipping a coin, I’d let the pages decide. Spent the whole night reading everything I had written, and guess what? It was still terrible. In fact with the new distance the lameness was even worse than I’d thought. That’s when I should have put everything in the box. When I should have turned my back and trudged into my new life. I didn’t have the heart to go on. But I guess I did. While my fiancée slept, I separated the 75 pages that were worthy from the mountain of loss, sat at my desk, and despite every part of me shrieking no no no no, I jumped back down the rabbit hole again. There were no sudden miracles. It took two more years of heartbreak, of being utterly, dismayingly lost before the novel I had dreamed about for all those years finally started revealing itself. And another three years after that before I could look up from my desk and say the word I’d wanted to say for more than a decade: done.

That’s my tale in a nutshell. Not the tale of how I came to write my novel but rather of how I became a writer. Because, in truth, I didn’t become a writer the first time I put pen to paper or when I finished my first book (easy) or my second one (hard). You see, in my view a writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway. Wasn’t until that night when I was faced with all those lousy pages that I realized, really realized, what it was exactly that I am.

Emphasis mine. Junot Diaz’s whole essay is here. Via the excellent Maud Newton, who has quite the Toddy recipe for your winter cold.

“Consider Writing an 86 Proof Sentence.” – Charles Baxter


Saturday, I drive to Vermont with my friend Tayari, to Bread Loaf. The mosquitoes are terrifying. At a cocktail reception, as we take turns outside spraying ourselves, Sigrid Nunez advances a theory that this is because the bats are dying and are not eating the mosquitoes anymore. All up and down the Eastern seaboard, the rise in temperatures has promoted a fungus that is killing the bats. Leaving their noses white.

I think of the stories of bald eagles driven to eat the young blue herons, because there are fewer fish, but say nothing.


Sunday, Charles Baxter delivers a brilliant lecture to the crowd on lush styles, entitled “Lush Life”, and inspired partly by his hearing the Sarah Vaughn version he heard, while waiting in an airport lounge. He was taken by the lyrics, and points out the song was written when Strayhorn was 17. His thesis is that we have taken to a default ironic and stripped down mode as a way to survive the lies fed to us by advertising, the media, our government.

Later this will explain to me why Twitter exists.

Also, novels, stories, essays, in that light, seem suddenly like acts of resistance.

He describes a lush style as being born often when the writer tries to combine the past and the present, to mix times. I see it briefly as a slowly sifting Black and Tan. I have two realizations. The first is that this is what has been so hard with the second novel, the reader’s relationship to time. The second is that the first novel solved for this by using the present tense to describe events in the past, and openly so. And that this may be why I like it.

In the afternoon, he returns with Thomas Mallon and their editor, Dan Frank. There he says something about how with long fiction, so often the problem comes over time that for mulling it so much, you can’t recall what is on the page and what is not.

This is something I’ve also noticed but have not articulated. I want to hug him for reminding me this is true. Because we love writers for when they can stand in the face of a thought and not reject it, pulling it out of the fire.


By the time Luis Urrea and Randall Kenan read, I feel as if I have been gone for several days, but it is just a day. But my mind keeps being blown, and that becomes some other way of keeping time, a sort of personal calendar of realizations with days that last for just an hour or 45 minutes.

Luis Urrea’s reading is like a lesson in how it matters to really love your audience. Not just for paying attention to you, but to love them because you just love them, out of your helpless and enormous heart.


I convince Sigrid Nunez to enter the barn dance. This moment counts as a day lasting approximately 40 minutes. Continue reading

This Is Not The Superhero Film You Were Looking For

In retrospect, the sturm und drang over whether the Watchmen was any good or not (as a film based on the graphic novel) made us lose sight of what it actually was—a story that’s at least meant to satirize the spectacle that is the costumed hero and the superhuman, using superheroes to comment on the human condition. I liked it well enough visually, and thought many things were rendered well, but watching it, I felt sure that Zack Snyder hadn’t… understood what the book was about, even if he did like it.

A truly slavish adaptation would have been better, if 4 or 5 hours long—and would have included the Black Freighter story, released as a kind of special feature the week the film went out, and which had no intrinsic value on its own. “Am I supposed to bring it into the film and watch it on my hand-held at the appropriate moments,” I remember complaining to a friend who understood, and shook his head at the idea also. The film that came out was anything but a slavish adaptation—it was a hammy, unironic imitation of what the book meant to critique. The Watchmen wasn’t supposed to be a spectacle on the scale of last year’s Iron Man, and so I knew there was a problem when it was billed to us as if it would be. The original comic pulls the very idea of Iron Man apart critically, even as it reaches towards a very earnest ending.

To be clear, the Black Freighter storyline, in the comic, functioned as a narrative intervention that also enlivened the narrative at the same time. In the comments section of various reviews, people arguing about this have complained that The Black Freighter takes them out of the story but…it’s supposed to, as a way to make the story about something larger. The Watchmen as a comic is a fragmented narrative, and the purpose of fragmenting a narrative is to break the it into pieces so it can fit around something much larger than what a facile whole narrative can contain. It implies more than it describes as a result, and the reader, when this is successful, feels the touch of something greater than the story can provide otherwise.

With this fragmentation removed from the story, the satirical aspects collapse and fall away, and the faux-naive story it became comes forward. And thus, all was quite literally lost. Continue reading

Most of What I Like to Do Is Indoors


Canada has more comics than we do, it occurs to me, as I walk through The Beguiling in Toronto. It is the best comics shop in Toronto, and perhaps in all of Canada. I pause to admire what appears to be an actual original page of a Tintin comic, framed and on the wall. Tintin in the submarine that looks like a shark, with Snowy.

At the border, the guard had questioned me. Business or pleasure? When I said “pleasure”, she said, It’s a terrible time to come to Toronto for that. She raised an eyebrow, genuinely skeptical.

Most of what I like to do is indoors, I say.


As I walk out of the Lululemon store in Toronto’s Eaton Center, I’m looking for a place to stop and put on the shell I just bought. I’m there for the weekend and the temperature has dropped so quickly, the air is like a lash. In the Eaton Center, it’s warm and nothing is on sale really, unlike in the US. Also, everyone looks happy and healthy. It’s almost like traveling back into the American past. I feel a little doomed by it and put the bag down.

As I pull the tags off, I notice someone standing near me, leaning back over the glass railing a little while he reads a row of text messages on his iPhone, smiling. The smile is familiar. He’s young, dark-haired, handsome, has a kind of effortless casual chic—dark slim jeans that are still a little loose, a sort of dark car coat, boots, a long scarf wrapped close to his neck, and scruff, of course. He looks like the boys I saw in Paris. His coat is even a little tatty, but on him it’s adorable, not sad. His expression changes—and I realize I’m watching him closely because he’s Dominic Cooper, the actor from the History Boys who made it one of my favorite films.

He looks at me sideways and I say, Excuse me, are you an actor? I start soft in case I’m wrong.

I am, he says.

Were you in the History Boys?

I was, he says. Did  you see me in the play or the film?

The film, I say.

Not many people have seen the film, he says, and smiles.

I compliment him on his work, ask him about future projects. The person he’s with appears, I let him go with a “keep up the good work.” About fifteen minutes later, he walks past me as he leaves and gives me a big smile. Cheers, he says, and nods his head.

By now I’m standing with my friend Juliet, who I’ve come to visit. She smiles at me. He didn’t have to do that, you know, she says, teasing. He loves you.


Later that night, at Baby Huey’s, my new favorite club in Toronto, as the dj gets the crowd moving, I realize Toronto is like if New York and Portland, Oregon had a child.

I dance and then leave.


In the Toronto airport, I imagine writing many, many things that could be made into films starring Dominic Cooper. It seems to me the second novel, for example, most certainly has a role for him. And as I write this, I realize he could be in the first one also. I get into the smallest plane I can imagine, a twin-prop, and my flight races the snow back to Hartford.  I drive north to Amherst, even leaving the storm’s edge on the highway, but it catches me by the time I get home, and as I sleep, covers the ground around my house with snow.

Only Canada Air, it occurs to me, when I hear of all the flights that were canceled. Only Canada Air could have gotten me home.

On The Pleasure of Imagining How It Would Be

As a student at the Bennington Summer Writers Workshop in my junior year of college, I remember hearing Blanche Boyd say, If you’re fiction is good enough, they’ll believe it all really happened to you, and if your nonfiction is good enough, they’ll believe you made it up.

I think about this more than I would have thought in the years since that author Q&A. That, and the thrill of being a college student, waiting in line for the keg with Joy Williams on a summer night in Vermont. Who was dressed in her tennis whites.

This week, I was editing an interview I did with Sigrid Nunez when an author Q&A arrived from Nami Mun’s publicist, and there was a coincidence worth describing.

From my forthcoming interview with Sigrid Nunez, which will appear soon over at Memorious: Continue reading

Some Stupid People Lose, A Few Good People Win, World Equally Unfair To All