Monday, February 22, 2010

Monday Morning Quote: Stanley Kunitz on Ending a Poem

End on an image and don't explain it.

—Stanley Kunitz

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Final Top 10 for 2009

Shakespeare Wrote for Money, by Nick Hornby
Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout
The Tenderness of Wolves, by Stef Penney
The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell
Art and Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland
The Suicide Index, by Joan Wickersham
Last Night at the Lobster, by Stewart O'Nan
In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction, edited by Lee Gutkind
Abide With Me, by Elizabeth Strout
Anathem, by Neal Stephenson

This was not a great reading year for me—which is not a slam on the fine titles above, but only an observation that I read substantially less this year than in years past. And I'm late posting this wrap up. We'll all survive, I'm sure.

I was saddened that this year's list features the last collection of Believer columns from Nick Hornby, though of course happy to have one last, highly satisfying helping.

This is the second year in a row that the Pulitzer prize-winner has appeared on my list. This one initiated an Elizabeth Strout bender of sorts—though it's always a little disappointing to discover a new author you love and find that he or she has written anything less than 30 books. But Strout's three are all lovely and worth your time.

And though I've written about it here before, I'll say again that Art and Fear is a book I'll be reading again and again. I hope you like it too.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Writing Like a Farmer

Last Friday I went to see the wonderful Kris Delmhorst and her band at Passim. During the course of the show, she mentioned that she used to be a farmer, and that she still writes songs like a farmer: "You plant a lot of seeds at once, and they all grow up together."

The writer friend with whom I attended the concert asked me afterwards, "Did your heart just sink when she said that?"

And I was as surprised as she when my answer was, "No, actually."

The reason is that I've started writing poetry.1 One subset of my essay writing has been getting progressively shorter and more lyric, and for a long while this has seemed the natural next step to take. The biggest holdup was finding an introductory class that assumed no previous experience with poetry, but I finally found an eight-week course at an adult education center this winter.

And I'm loving it. In part, it's that poetry seems (to me, at least) so much less all-or-nothing than prose. The stakes on any individual poem are smaller. Don't like how it turned out? Throw it away! I haven't invested weeks or months exclusively in getting it right. Switching between works doesn't require the same level of effort. And revision is so much less painful, for reasons I have yet to understand. I know that all this should also be the case with prose, but that has always been more of a struggle for me.

Best of all, now I write like a farmer. Four weeks into my poetry class I've got four poems that are drafted and are cooling down for revision, two I'm actively working on, and two more in my head trying to build up the critical mass they need to get written.

Maybe it's just the change or a new set of goals rather than poetry per se, but I feel more productive than I have in years.

1 Because, you know, the number of people who read literary creative nonfiction is way too high.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Monday Morning Quote: Steve Almond on Persistence

Five different agents declined to represent CandyFreak. The publisher of Metal refused to even read a draft. My point is this: agents and editors sometimes don't know shit. When they reject your work, take it as your mission to prove them wrong.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Outtakes from the Legendary Cow Skulls

When the Cow Skulls first started meeting, almost six years ago, we were scrupulously faithful to the workshopping guidelines from Grub Street, where we all met. We started every meeting with a prompt and free-write, went around the table in turns offering a balance of positive comments and constructive criticism, didn't allow the author to speak until after everyone else had had a say.

Our meetings these days are much less structured and more collaborative—a kind of group therapy for prose. Ideas about a piece change over the course of the discussion, the author participates throughout, and the final take on an essay or story my be something none of us had thought of when reading it to prepare for the meeting. This improvisational aspect is energizing and valuable; it can, however, make for occasionally hilarious critiques. Notable quotes from a recent Wednesday night:

Cindy (to Julie): "I think this story is too long. Or else it's too short."

Julie (to me): "I love all the words in this essay, I just don't love it."

The best part of all is that these comments were actually both meaningful and quite helpful.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Monday Morning Quote: Ann Patchett on How Fiction Writing Is Like Duck Hunting

I came to understand that fiction writing is like duck hunting. You go to the right place at the right time with the right dog. You get into the water before dawn, wearing a little protective gear, then you stand behind some reeds and wait for the story to present itself. This is not to say you are passive. You choose the place and the day. You pick the gun and the dog. You have the desire to blow the duck apart for reasons that are entirely your own. But you have to be willing to accept not what you wanted to have happen, but what happens. You have to write the story you find in the circumstances you've created, because more often than not the ducks don't show up. The hunters in the next blind begin to argue, and you realize they're in love. You see a snake swimming in your direction. Your dog begins to shiver and whine, and you start to think about this gun that belonged to your father. By the time you get out of the marsh you will have written a novel so devoid of ducks it will shock you.

—Ann Patchett, What now?