Category Archives: Recommended Link

Writing and Reading and the Invisible Forces at Play

I teach a personal development course where journal writing is a major portion of the work we do. This is a guided journal with prompts aimed at self-revelation: our strengths and weaknesses, our influences and challenges, what holds us back, what turns us on. The idea is to freewrite the answers to the prompts. No editing. No censoring. Just catch what you can on the page. And, like fishing, the more you cast your thoughts, the more likely you’ll catch something you didn’t even know existed inside you.

The idea of discovering the unknown is also true in creative writing.

In the New York Times article, “The Invisible Forces That Make Writing Work,” Roger Rosenblatt explores an interesting phenomenon of composition: the idea of hidden influences that shape a work of art:

You come up with an image, phrase or sentence. Your head snaps back, and you say to yourself, Where did that come from?! I’m not talking about automatic writing, though that may be part of it. I mean the entire range of invisible forces that produce and affect the work. There are things the writer sees that the reader does not; things the reader sees that the writer does not; and things neither of us ever sees. These, the most entrancing of the lot, have a power of their own.

Things the writer sees that the reader doesn’t.

Things the reader sees that the writer doesn’t.

Things neither sees.

The Invisible Forces That Make Writing Work” is an insightful take on the writing and reading process.

 

 

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Denis Johnson’s Last Line: “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.”


“There’s nothing wrong with me”—I’m surprised I let those words out.
But it’s always been my tendency to lie to doctors, as if good health consisted only of the ability to fool them.
Some years later, one time when I was admitted to the detox at Seattle General Hospital, I took the same tack.
“Are you hearing unusual sounds or voices?” the doctor asked.
“Help us, oh God, it hurts,” the boxes of cotton screamed.
“Not exactly,” I said.
“Not exactly,” he said. “Now what does that mean?”
“I’m not ready to go into all that,” I said. A yellow bird fluttered close to my face, and my muscles grabbed. Now I was flopping like a fish.

from “Car Crash While Hitchhiking”

I first heard of Denis Johnson in 1985 when a co-worker told me her sister had dated him. He was a poet she said. This was in Jacksonville, Florida, a million miles away from the world of Denis Johnson. A few years later in graduate school, Padgett Powell had us read Johnson’s first novel, Angels. It was a gritty underbelly kind of story, like glimpsing into a bus station and seeing someone with tinfoil on his head. Later, I tuned into his other novels, such as Fiskadora, which the New York Times described as “the sort of book that a young Herman Melville might have written had he lived today and studied such disparate works as the Bible, ‘The Wasteland,’ Fahrenheit 451, and Dog Soldiers, screened Star Wars and Apocalypse Now several times, dropped a lot of acid and listened to hours of Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones.” And then, way after the fact, I read what most would call his masterwork, a short story collection called Jesus’ Son. I’ve read it multiple times since. Anyone who has not read Denis Johnson should start with Jesus’ Son. A blurb on the paperback gives us a clue to what special magic is going on here: “Reading these stories is like reading ticker tape from the subconscious.”

The opening story that starts the collection is a kind of storytelling you probably haven’t experienced before. Jeffrey Eugenides describes it as a story where plot matters less than the “brokenness” of the narrator’s voice, “where the personal brushes up against the eternal.” Johnson, in his youth, had been a heroin addict, and if you combine the spiritual emptiness of a druggie with a gifted poet, a  storyteller who studied under Raymond Carver and was inspired by Isaac Babel’s The Red Calvary, and an artist with a clear unabashed honesty and the courage to go where few would ever admit to going, let alone describe, you get that first story in Jesus’ Son, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.”

Denis Johnson, who, from all accounts, enjoyed people but shunned them like he did the booze and drugs that nearly killed him, lived in the woods in upstate Idaho with his wife. According to Deborah Treisman, The New Yorker fiction editor, Johnson had a shed by a lake on his property where he would sometimes work. Treisman writes, the lake “provided a metaphor for how he thought about his sentences, which he polished, sometimes for years, until he felt he had got them right. ‘There’s a surface tension to the words,’ he told me. ‘It is an illusion, and you can poke at it once, and then after that you’re just poking the ripples.’” Lawrence Wright said Johnson described writing a novel to him this way: “You get in your teacup and take your oar and strike off for Australia,” he said, “and if you wind up in Japan, you’re ecstatic.” Wright uncovered three writing rules Johnson told students:

-Write naked. That means to write what you would never say.
-Write in blood. As if ink is so precious you can’t waste it.
-Write in exile, as if you are never going to get home again, and you have to  call back every detail.

And once written, how did Johnson take the reviews? “A bad review is like one of those worms in the Amazon that swims up your penis. If you read it, you can’t get it out, somehow.”

A lot of people loved the writing of Denis Johnson. And a lot of writers who marveled at his words will no doubt be reading them again in the coming days. Johnson was 67 years old when he died earlier this week from cancer.

Moving Backward in Time: John Ashbury on Delmore Schwartz

John Ashbury’s essay, “The Heavy Bear: On Delmore Schwartz,” explores Delmore Schwartz’s life and poems and mentions his most famous short story (read above, oddly, by Lou Reed), “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” Ashbury writes of the story, here “the poet himself moves backward in time, dreaming he is in a movie theatre watching a silent film of his parents’ courtship at Coney Island years before. At a crucial moment, “I stood up in the theatre and shouted: ‘Don’t do it. It’s not too late to change your minds, both of you. Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous.’ ”

 

A Manner of Being: Writer’s on Their Mentors

A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentorsedited by Annie Liontas and Jeff Parker, is a collection of essays by writers reflecting on the influence of their mentors (or lack of mentor). Most of the relationships were born in university classrooms, but despite this similarity, the experiences explored in Manner of Being are as varied as the collection of writers from which they’re drawn. The book delivers many lessons–in writing, teaching, life–and the lessons aren’t always delivered by writers (a nanny here, a bookstore owner there). There are some heavy hitters, though. Of the seventy essays, some of the writers represented are Pam Houston, Philip Levine, Mary Gaitskill, Gore Vidal, John Irving, Gordon Lish, Mary Jo Salter. There are also lesser known writers who have wonderfully told tales of their apprenticeships.

Click here for an example essay originally published in The New Yorker: George Saunders on Tobias Wolff.

 

The Web Poet: Best Selling Tyler Knott Gregson

In The New York Times, Alexandra Alternov writes about a new breed of poet: Tyler Knott Gregson, a web poet whose found success with his viral verse: “Seven years ago, Mr. Gregson, 34, was scraping by as a freelance copywriter, churning out descriptions of exercise equipment, hair products and medical imaging devices. Now, thanks to his 560,000 Instagram and Tumblr followers, he has become the literary equivalent of a unicorn: a best-selling celebrity poet.” Check out the unheard-of-before success of his first book of poetry, Chasers of Light, here.

 

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.