Susan Sontag on the heaven of reading & writing


“Many writers who are no longer young claim, for various reasons, to read very little, indeed, to find reading and writing in some sense incompatible. Perhaps, for some writers, they are. It’s not for me to judge. If the reason is anxiety about being influenced, then this seems to me a vain, shallow worry. If the reason is lack of time — there are only so many hours in the day, and those spent reading are evidently subtracted from those in which one could be writing — then this is an asceticism to which I don’t aspire.

Losing yourself in a book, the old phrase, is not an idle fantasy but an addictive, model reality. Virginia Woolf famously said in a letter, ”Sometimes I think heaven must be one continuous unexhausted reading.” Surely the heavenly part is that — again, Woolf’s words — ”the state of reading consists in the complete elimination of the ego.” Unfortunately, we never do lose the ego, any more than we can step over our own feet. But that disembodied rapture, reading, is trancelike enough to make us feel ego-less.

Like reading, rapturous reading, writing fiction — inhabiting other selves — feels like losing yourself, too.

Everybody likes to think now that writing is just a form of self-regard. Also called self-expression. As we’re no longer supposed to be capable of authentically altruistic feelings, we’re not supposed to be capable of writing about anyone but ourselves.

But that’s not true.

Louise Erdrich’s advice for anyone writing a novel

Interviewer: A journalist once asked you what advice you would give someone trying to write a novel. You said, “Don’t take the project too seriously.” Is that what you would say today?

Erdrich: I think I meant that grand ideas kill first efforts. Begin with something in your range. Then write it as a secret. I’d be paralyzed if I thought I had to write a great novel, and no matter how good I think a book is on one day, I know now that a time will come when I will look upon it as a failure. The gratification has to come from the effort itself. I try not to look back. I approach the work as though, in truth, I’m nothing and the work is everything. Then I write to save my life. If you are a writer, that will be true. Writing has saved my life.

Capote on technique

Interviewer: Are there devices one can use in improving one’s technique?

Capote: Work is the only device I know of. Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself. Even Joyce, our most extreme disregarder, was a superb craftsman; he could write Ulysses because he could write Dubliners. Too many writers seem to consider the writing of short stories as a kind of finger exercise. Well, in such cases, it is certainly only their fingers they are exercising.


George Saunders on death

“Any story circling around the idea of death is going to be charged. But I would also say that I’m interested in getting myself to believe that it’s going to happen to me. I’m interested in it, because if you’re not, you’re nuts. It’s really de facto what we’re here to find out about. I hate the thought of messing around and then being like, ‘Oh, I’ve got pancreatic cancer.’ It’s terrifying. It’s terrifying to even think of. But to me, it’s what you should be thinking about all the time. As a fiction writer, the trick is how to be thinking about it in a way that makes it substantial. You want it to matter when you do induce it.”

What’s New

hay bales It turns out, hay bales give considerably when you leap across them. Their shape compromises with the soles of your sneakers. I never scaled hay bales as a kid but doing so this weekend made me feel young again. More accessible than a tree, anyway.

Cows, it turns out, are quick. Their open faces and slow jaws belie a rather frightening agility, given their size. I heard a cow moo from a distance and thought, oh my God, it sounds like a cell phone, instead of the other way around.

We spent time during sunset on Saturday shooting arrows into the soft sides of hay bales, our target a piece scrap paper fished from the truck—the paper remained unpierced. He flew a remote helicopter toy-drone that took pictures of us. We moved locations, beside a show-off of a tree, and shot a rifle at a tennis ball we could barely see from our distance. Again, we missed. We turned the laser on and laughed at how unable we were to remain still. We agreed not to talk about our failures, made steak in cast iron skillets with goat cheese, and she put extra chocolate chips in the brownies she baked from a mix, which I drank with a glass of whole milk.

The next day, my legs itched from the hay and my peace-sign fingers ached because I’d been gripping too tightly. I laughed with her, saying, It’s a metaphor.

Leonard Cohen on writing/music/life

What’s true is music is true for art is true for fiction. Cohen is spot on here:

“How did I ever get into this racket? I dunno! What am I exactly doing in it? I don’t know. I haven’t got a clue. I think it just comes down to nudging the guy next to you and saying, ‘That’s the way, isn’t it?’ They can either agree or not agree.”

This is exactly what my favorite writing does—it touches something you already know, whether or not you’re aware of it. The quiet bell of recognition sounds, and you relax: Yes, this is the way it is. And no matter how terrible that ‘way’ may be, at least you are not alone in knowing it, in feeling it.

Jenni Fagan: Life Inspiring Art


Based on the press info included in my review copy of Jenni Fagan’s debut novel, The Panopticon, I basically assumed that the novel was autobiography in the guise of fiction. Fagan grew up in the Scottish social care system; so to does her narrator, Anais. Fagan has had four different legal names; Anais, at least three, by my last count. But Fagan assured me in her interview that this book is not her story, and I believe her for two reasons: 1.) She told me she did write her autobiography, and that she’ll publish it when she’s old, and 2.) The voice of her narrator sounded so wholly different than the woman with whom I was speaking. Fagan spoke quite convincingly of Anais’s motives, sure, and it was obvious that Fagan’s understanding of her narrator was complete–but she also spoke of her from a distance, and without any self-consciousness, and with the delicate, measured talk that so often spills from the mouths of skilled writers when asked about their characters and all it takes to wrangle them. Anais’s voice got into Jenni’s head, and into mine as well.

The Kirkus Reviews feature is up here, and find Jenni’s blog here.

Our new house

Is beautiful. Now we just need to find jobs in Austin. As my sister says, I’m not unemployed, just under-employed…



Rilke spouting genius, in a letter (and echoes in Saunders)

image from Wikipedia

“I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other.”

Just this morning, after a headstand-y, dolphin-y (aka woooo-that-was-hard) yoga class, I grabbed some donuts and a ham & cheese kolache and dug up the above Rilke quote from the New Yorker‘s review of Adam Phillips’ new book Missing Out: In Praised of the Unlived Life. Reviewer Joan Acocella echoed/unpacked Rilke’s statement this way: “People, [Phillips] writes, have no discernible connection to one another. But we can give solace to those we care about by allowing themselves to just be, without having to explain themselves.”

It’s so easy to feel like my loved ones are my responsibility, or that they reflect on me or I on them, like I have some kind of worker-bee job to do, plodding away to effect change. Sure, I think it’s healthy, important change I’m cheering for. And surely goodhearted, honest advice has some merit, some place in our lives. But really: What do I know? And how often does what we say make a difference anyway? How good does it feel to be left alone–in other words, accepted without question, loved for your bad habits and your little meannesses alike?

It came up again, this idea, in “Tenth of December”, a story I reread this afternoon and which broke my heart all over again. An ailing, aging narrator remembers his relationship with his wife:

“When they were first married they used to fight. Say the most insane things. Afterward, sometimes there would be tears. Tears in bed? Somewhere. And then they would—Molly pressing her hot wet face against his hot wet face. They were sorry, they were saying with their bodies, they were accepting each other back, and that feeling, that feeling of being accepted back again and again, of someone’s affection for you always expanding to encompass whatever new flawed thing had just manifested in you, that was the deepest, dearest thing he’d ever—”

In other words: No explanation necessary.

Alas, this desire to shape persists despite the fact that I know such an endeavor is useless, proud, and nearly always unfruitful, if not irrelevant. And so this review was a lovely thing for me to come across: Why not instead work harder at not changing them? The more I think about it, the more I fear any attempt otherwise is not just useless, but harmful, even poisonous—like any number of species of ripe red berries stumbled across on a long hike, just asking to be plucked and tasted.

writing about reading

I spoke with Manu Joseph about his newest book, “The Illicit Happiness of Other People”, and it made me very happy, indeed. (Photo credit:

This fall, at an impromptu party thrown for those authors stuck post-Texas book festival and as Hurricane Sandy brewed back in NY, I connected with the editor of Kirkus Reviews Online (also at this party, I stared slack-jawed at Robert Caro and ate raw marshmallows because I was too shy to toast them.)

The happy result of meeting the editor has been a handful of assignments that do not feel like work at all: I get to read books, and then interview their authors to find out what makes them tick and how the story came about. The glory! The pestering! The insight into craft shared neuroses!  Anyway, the first one is up here and the second one is due out shortly.

(Oh, and the craziest part? Finding your praise (and name) in the editorial section of Amazon!)