A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.

“Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it ? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we loved ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.”

Franz Kafka in a letter to Oskar Pollak

A Smattering of Literary Mags on Twitter

Lit mags, so I am learning, have been on Twitter for quite a while, offering the latest submissions and publication info, as well as links to their essays, stories, poems, and interviews. Here’s a small sampling:

The Black Warrior Review

 

Conjunctions

 

The Iowa ReviewThe Iowa Review

 

The Kenyon Review

 

Ninth Letter

 

The Normal School

 

Ploughshares

 

Southeast Review

 

Third Coast

 

Tin House

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writer + Agent = To Kill a Mockingbird

Jonathan Mahler’s New York Times‘ article, “The Invisible Hand Behind Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,'” offers a glimpse into the interdependent process of creating a masterpiece.

“In the spring of 1957,” Mahler writes, “a 31-year-old aspiring novelist named Harper Lee — everyone called her Nelle — delivered the manuscript for “Go Set a Watchman” to her agent [Tay Hohoff] [but] the manuscript was by no means fit for publication. It was [. . .] ‘more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.’ During the next couple of years, she led Ms. Lee from one draft to the next until the book finally achieved its finished form and was retitled ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’”

Read the article here.

And for kicks, check out this wonderful interview with Harper Lee.

 

 

“Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything” . . . A Life in 28 Lines

Written over 400 years ago, from As You Like It. Has anything changed about the way we grow old?

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

“Tiara” by Mark Doty

 

I came across this poem by Mark Doty in a folder of mine. I’d first heard the poem when we were interviewing candidates, and one of the better ones used it in her teaching demonstration. I was so taken by it I asked for a copy.

Tiara
Peter died in a paper tiara
cut from a book of princess paper dolls;
he loved royalty, sashes

and jewels. I don’t know,
he said, when he woke in the hospice,
I was watching the Bette Davis film festival

on Channel 57 and then—
At the wake, the tension broke
when someone guessed

the casket closed because
he was in there in a big wig
and heels, and someone said,

You know he’s always late,
he probably isn’t here yet—
he’s still fixing his makeup.

And someone said he asked for it.
Asked for it—
when all he did was go down

into the salt tide
of wanting as much as he wanted,
giving himself over so drunk

or stoned it almost didn’t matter who,
though they were beautiful,
stampeding into him in the simple,

ravishing music of their hurry.
I think heaven is perfect stasis
poised over the realms of desire,

where dreaming and waking men lie
on the grass while wet horses
roam among them, huge fragments

of the music we die into
in the body’s paradise.
Sometimes we wake not knowing

how we came to lie here,
or who has crowned us with these temporary,
precious stones. And given

the world’s perfectly turned shoulders,
the deep hollows blued by longing,
given the irreplaceable silk

of horses rippling in orchards,
fruit thundering and chiming down,
given the ordinary marvels of form

and gravity, what could he do,
what could any of us ever do
but ask for it.

Vonnegut on Novelists

” . . . novelists are not only unusually depressed, by and large, but have, on the average, about the same IQs as the cosmetics consultants at Bloomingdale’s department store. Our power is patience. We have discovered that writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent, if only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little bit each time. It is a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anybody can do it. All it takes is time.”

-Kurt Vonnegut, Palm Sunday

Observations on First Lines and Voice in Fiction

The opening lines of a novel matter (there are lists, after all, for such things, the “Best First Lines from Novels“). Point of view is set. Characters are introduced. Voice is established. And maybe more, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez notes:

One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph, and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily. In the first paragraph you solve most of the problems with your book. The theme is defined, the style, the tone. At least in my case, the first paragraph is a kind of sample of what the rest of the book is going to be.

So what happens when writers cast out those first lines? Where do the words come from? What is the writer looking for? And how does he or she know when they’ve found it? Below are author insights culled mostly from The Paris Review interviews.

John Steinbeck: I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straitening shyness that assail one. It is as though the words were not only indelible but that they spread out like dye in water and color everything around them. A strange and mystic business, writing.

Edna O’Brien: I always have the first line. Even with my very first book, The Country Girls, I went around with this first sentence in my head long before I sat down to write it.

Joseph Heller: My novels begin in a strange way. I don’t begin with a theme or even a character. I begin with a first sentence that is independent of any conscious preparation. Most often nothing comes out of it: a sentence will come to mind that doesn’t lead to a second sentence. Sometimes it will lead to thirty sentences which then come to a dead end.

I was alone on the deck. As I sat there worrying and wondering what to do, one of those first lines suddenly came to mind: “In the office in which I work, there are four people of whom I am afraid. Each of these four people is afraid of five people.” Immediately, the lines presented a whole explosion of possibilities and choices—characters (working in a corporation), a tone, a mood of anxiety, or insecurity. In that first hour (before someone came along and asked me to go to the beach), I knew the beginning, the ending, most of the middle . . .

INTERVIEWER
Was it the same process of “receiving” a first line with Catch-22?

HELLER
Just about. I was lying in bed in my four-room apartment on the West Side when suddenly this line came to me: “It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, Someone fell madly in love with him.” I didn’t have the name Yossarian. The chaplain wasn’t necessarily an army chaplain—he could have been a prison chaplain. But as soon as the opening sentence was available, the book began to evolve clearly in my mind—even most of the particulars . . . the tone, the form, many of the characters, including some I eventually couldn’t use. All of this took place within an hour and a half.

Joan Didion: What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.

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