Summer Travel Interviews and Stories: Cynthia Ozick Reads “The Shawl”

This is the third in a series of travel interviews and stories by American masters I will post this summer.  If you’re traveling, and you’d like to add a little depth to your highway-skyway miles, you might be interested in listening.  This time, Cynthia Ozick reads her classic short story, “The Shawl.”  Poignant and hypnotic, this story–not for the timid–is a masterpiece in the use poetic, metaphorical language.


What It Feel’s Like . . . Fascinating True Stories from Esquire

“I liked working night shifts, because whenever they were awake, I wanted to apologize to them. When they were sleeping, I didn’t have to worry about that. I could just walk up and down the blocks all night long.

There was usually one detainee who would lead the call to prayer at five in the morning. That person was in the very last cell. The detainees, they sang beautifully. It was so eerie to hear, because it was such a beautiful song, and to hear forty-eight detainees just get up in the morning and, in unison, sing this gorgeous song that I could never understand . . .”

This is from the article “What It Feels Like…to Be a Prisoner Guard at Guantanamo Bay,” published by Esquire magazine.  The story, told by former guard Christopher Arendt, tells what it was like to actually guard the Guantanamo inmates.

What It Feels Like…” is an article series archived at Esquire.  Each essay gives an inside take on the most unusual experiences: what it feels like to be in a plane crash, to have multiple personalities, to be a drug mule, to live at the South Pole, to row across the Atlantic, to chop a man’s head off, to stay awake for eleven days, to have Jesus enter your heart.

Esquire’s fiction heyday is long gone, but these stories are worth the time.





Summer Travel Interviews and Stories: Jennifer Egan

This is the second in a series of travel interviews and stories by American masters I will post this summer.  If you’re traveling, and you’d like to add a little entertainment and insight to your highway-skyway miles, you might be interested in listening.  Up today, Jennifer Egan reads from A Visit from The Good Squad and talks about how she wrote it.



Cheever, Cummings, and the Biographer’s Quest

John Cheever said of E. E. Cummings:

I was in doubt that I could make something of myself as a writer until I met two people who were very important to me: one was Gaston Lachaise and the other was E. E. Cummings. Cummings I loved, and I love his memory. He did a wonderful imitation of a wood-burning locomotive going from Tiflis to Minsk. He could hear a pin falling in soft dirt at the distance of three miles. Do you remember the story of Cummings’s death? It was September, hot, and Cummings was cutting kindling in the back of his house in New Hampshire. He was sixty-six or -seven or something like that. Marion, his wife, leaned out the window and asked, “Cummings, isn’t it frightfully hot to be chopping wood?” He said, “I’m going to stop now, but I’m going to sharpen the ax before I put it up, dear.” Those were the last words he spoke.

Susan Cheever, John Cheever’s daughter, met the poet when she was fourteen years old and he came to her high school for a reading. Afterwards, she and her father drove him back to Manhattan. The story of this visit starts Susan Cheever’s new biography, E. E. Cummings: A Life.

I learned of her book when I came across the interesting article, “How to Solve an 88-Year-Old Literary Mystery,” written by Cheever, in The New York Times. In 1926, Cummings’ father died in a horrible accident: his new Franklin sedan was split in half by a steam-powered locomotive. The accident “catapulted Cummings into an adulthood that included his disastrous second marriage and the crisis of confidence that led him into therapy. It also inspired one of the finest dirges ever written, a glorious requiem mass of words, the poem that begins: “My father moved through dooms of love/through sames of am through haves of give/singing each morning out of each night.”

Susan Cheever’s article describes her quest to find out how the accident happened.  “I read everything written about the accident, yet it continued to baffle me. Why didn’t Rebecca [Cummings' mother and driver of the car] stop at the railroad crossing? How could she have missed the belching, screeching, clanking steam locomotive bearing down on her?”  Answering such questions are part of a biographer’s job description, but in this article, Cheever takes us inside into her personal quest to find the answer.  Find the full article here, and the poem alluded to above below:

my father moved through dooms of love
by e.e. cummings

my father moved through dooms of love
through sames of am through haves of give,
singing each morning out of each night
my father moved through depths of height

this motionless forgetful where
turned at his glance to shining here;
that if(so timid air is firm)
under his eyes would stir and squirm

newly as from unburied which
floats the first who,his april touch
drove sleeping selves to swarm their fates
woke dreamers to their ghostly roots

and should some why completely weep
my father’s fingers brought her sleep:
vainly no smallest voice might cry
for he could feel the mountains grow.

Lifting the valleys of the sea
my father moved through griefs of joy;
praising a forehead called the moon
singing desire into begin

joy was his song and joy so pure
a heart of star by him could steer
and pure so now and now so yes
the wrists of twilight would rejoice

keen as midsummer’s keen beyond
conceiving mind of sun will stand,
so strictly(over utmost him
so hugely) stood my father’s dream

his flesh was flesh his blood was blood:
no hungry man but wished him food;
no cripple wouldn’t creep one mile
uphill to only see him smile.

Scorning the Pomp of must and shall
my father moved through dooms of feel;
his anger was as right as rain
his pity was as green as grain

septembering arms of year extend
less humbly wealth to foe and friend
than he to foolish and to wise
offered immeasurable is

proudly and(by octobering flame
beckoned)as earth will downward climb,
so naked for immortal work
his shoulders marched against the dark

his sorrow was as true as bread:
no liar looked him in the head;
if every friend became his foe
he’d laugh and build a world with snow.

My father moved through theys of we,
singing each new leaf out of each tree
(and every child was sure that spring
danced when she heard my father sing)

then let men kill which cannot share,
let blood and flesh be mud and mire,
scheming imagine,passion willed,
freedom a drug that’s bought and sold

giving to steal and cruel kind,
a heart to fear,to doubt a mind,
to differ a disease of same,
conform the pinnacle of am

though dull were all we taste as bright,
bitter all utterly things sweet,
maggoty minus and dumb death
all we inherit,all bequeath

and nothing quite so least as truth
—i say though hate were why men breathe—
because my Father lived his soul
love is the whole and more than all









Shifting the Paradigm of Not Knowing: Writer’s Sweet Spot

The blank white page have your brain constipated? Maybe it’s a good thing. Not knowing where your writing is going can be frustrating, scary, and debilitating, but what if it wasn’t? What if the uneasiness you feel when trying to write something that matters to you is precisely what’s needed to create something of imaginative value?

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the positive psychology researcher who has devoted much study on creativity, points out, in the clip above, that in his research, the most successful creative artists don’t start with preconceived ideas.  Trying to understand the problem they are confronted with is what makes them successful.

This is echoed by Jennifer Egan, when, according to Rachel Hodin, she “described the horrifying moment when you are nearing the end of your novel, and you don’t know what’s going to happen to your characters next”:

“How can I not know what’s going to happen when it’s coming up so soon? I am their creator, after all!” But then, she explains, it’s this exact feeling of uncertainty that a writer needs to succeed. Because any of the possible paths you might have in mind for your character are too obvious and should not be employed.

Tim O’Brien notes how the not knowing frustrates a lot of writers, but for him, it’s what propels him forward:

The act of writing for me is largely the act of following sentences and making sentences. And for most people that probably is the time to click off and look at something else, but unfortunately for me, stories grow out of a sentence. For example, the sentence, “This is true,” began one of my stories. I wrote the sentence and had no idea what was true, true in what sense I had no idea. Then I wrote another sentence to follow that: “A buddy in Vietnam named Bob Kiley.” Well, I’m partly discovering and I’m partly just curious about or fascinated about issues of what could be true and what is the character going to say is true, and does this character really mean it? Does he really mean it’s true? And to what degree does this character think it’s true? And how can anybody say “this is true” without a little tongue-in-cheek action going on? So, it’s a discovery, and what I think is one of my better stories grew wholly out of the unplanned, out of a scrap of language.

What I hear: Don’t worry if you feel uneasy.  Relish it.  Be patient.  Give it time.  Expect something good to follow.




Moons, Coins, Men . . . The Language of Cormac McCarthy

As with most things, I came upon Cormac McCarthy late. The film No Country for Old Men drew me to the novel of the same name. I found the story and the writing strange and compelling. Same with The Road. But a friend suggested Blood Meridian, so I started into it. As I read, I felt a mixture of frustration, illiteracy, awe, and confusion. The language is nothing like I’ve known. Written pre-computer, it’s filled with GRE words, 1850′s rhetoric, and a blend of Old Testament and William Faulkner mixed in for fun. The critics call the novel McCarthy’s masterpiece, and there’s no doubt that it is an artistic achievement to marvel at.

I read what others thought of the novel, and was encouraged by, of all people, Harold Bloom, the famed Yale literary critic, to keep reading. Bloom gave up 60 pages in at first, but went back and reread it until “the third time, it went off like a shot. I went straight through it and was exhilarated” (see “Harold Bloom on Blood Meridian”). As I continued to read, I became more engaged. I wanted to know what happened to this band of “scalpers” as they traversed the Southwest landscape of the Mexican-U.S. border to earn their livelihood.

If you’ve not read Cormac McCarthy, the following passage, a dazzling set piece from Blood Meridian, no doubt offers a taste of what he’s capable of:

[…] They made camp on a low bench of land where walls of dry aggregate marked an old river course and they struck up a fire about which they sat in silence, the eyes of the dog and of the idiot and certain other men glowing red as coals in their heads where they turned. The flames sawed in the wind and the embers paled and deepened and paled and deepened like the bloodbeat of some living thing eviscerate upon the ground before them and they watched the fire which does contain within it something of men themselves inasmuch as they are less without it and are divided from their origins and are exiles. For each fire is all fires, the first fire and the last ever to be. By and by the judge rose and moved away on some obscure mission and after a while someone asked the expriest if it were true that at one time there had been two moons in the sky and the expriest eyed the false moon above them and said that it may well have been so. But certainly the wise high God in his dismay at the proliferation of lunacy on this earth must have wetted a thumb and leaned down out of the abyss and pinched it hissing into extinction. And could he find some alter means by which the birds could mend their path in the darkness he might have done with this one too.

The question was then put to whether there were on Mars or other planets in the void men or creatures like them and at this the judge who had returned to the fire stood half naked and sweating spoke and said that there were not [….]

The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.

The universe is no narrow thing and the order with it is not constrained by any latitude of its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.

Brown spat into the fire. That’s some more of your craziness, he said.

The judge smiled. He placed the palms of his hands upon his chest and breathed in the night air and he stepped closer and squatted and held up one hand. He turned that hand and there was a gold coin between his fingers.
Where is the coin, Davy?

I’ll notify you where to put the coin.

The judge swung his hand and the coin winked overhead in the firelight. It must have been fastened to some subtle lead, horsehair perhaps, for it circled the fire and returned to the judge and he caught it in his hand and smiled.
The arc of the circling bodies is determined by the length of their tether, said the judge. Moons, coins, men. His hands moved as if he were pulling something from one fist in a series of elongations. Watch the coin, Davy, he said.

He flung it and it cut an arc through the firelight and was gone in the darkness beyond. They watched the night where it had vanished and they watched the judge and in their watching some the one some the other they were a common witness.

The coin, Davy, the coin, whispered the judge. He sat erect and raised his hand and smiled around.

Summer Travel Interviews and Stories: Saul Bellow

This is the first in a series of travel interviews and stories by American masters I will post this summer. If you’re traveling, and you’d like to add a little entertainment and insight to your highway-skyway miles, you might be interested in listening to one of these interviews or stories. First up, Saul Bellow. From critics to crafting sentences, from philosophy to jokes, and from winning the Nobel Prize to the marvelous and exhilarating experience of living on this earth, Bellow offers his thoughts and views.