Leslie Jamison on Commonness

In this craft/inspiration anthology, I also found and loved "On Commonness," Leslie Jamison's ode to Anne Carson's "The Glass Essay." In this essay, Jamison discusses simplicity — which I must admit I've never thought about in relation to Carson's books. Jamison points out that:

"Carson's mode of self-awareness doesn't apologize for its emotion She simply acknowledges that, whenever we feel, we do so in a way that anticipates the gaze of others — as well as anticipates the empathy or lack of empathy we'll encounter there. I feel some version of this happening when she writes:

When Law left I felt so bad I thought I would die. 
This is not uncommon. 

"These lines feel willfully melodramatic. [. . .] Carson's language is so surprising — you already know she can take any feeling and give it to you in some crazy, stylized way. Instead, she says, 'I thought I would die.' It's so willfully plain."

I love this: you already know she can take any feeling and give it to you in some crazy, stylized way. Yes. But Jamison's extended focus on some of Carson's most direct lines is exactly what I needed to read right now. I love both of these writers, so to get them together, one writing about the other, is like a double dose of medicine.

Earlier, I wrote about Lev Grossman's essay on fantasy in C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I've only seen the TV and film versions of their books, so the experience of reading Jamison's essay on Carson is entirely different. She's writing about one of my favorite writers, and showing me something new, something I hadn't considered, something that, now that I see it too, makes me shout, Yes! This!

"I really believe that there are extraordinary things to be said about deeply ordinary experiences. When I teach nonfiction, the biggest student conundrum around personal writing is: Why would anybody care about what happened to me? There's shame around just having lived an ordinary life. And it's not like they're wrong — it is going to be harder for them to get a book deal, say, for their memoir of living in the suburbs. But the paralyzing anxiety I hear students articulate, and also feel in myself, is what 'this is not uncommon' speaks to. The experience of trying to find words for an emotion that mattered so much, even while recognizing it's the most common thing in the world." 

Lev Grossman on Fantasy

A few weeks ago I checked out a ton of craft books. One I'll mention quickly today, because I read it quickly, is an anthology of essays that are less about craft and more about inspiration — about that book or that passage that transformed readers into the writers they would become. This anthology is titled Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process

One of my favorite essays is Lev Grossman's "Into the Wardrobe, into the Self." Having watched the first two seasons of The Magicians on Netflix, I felt particularly in tune with what he says about the influence C. S. Lewis had on him. Here's one of my favorite passages:

"The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a powerful illustration of why fantasy matters in the first place. [. . .] There's a sense of anger and grief and despair that causes Lewis to want to discard the entire war, set it aside in favor of something better. You can feel him telling you — I know it's awful, truly terrible, but that's not all there is. There's another option. Lucy, as she enters the wardrobe, takes the other option. [. . .] 

"But I bristle whenever fantasy is characterized as escapism. It's not a very accurate way to describe it; in fact, I think fantasy is a powerful tool for coming to an understanding of oneself. The magic trick here, the sleight of hand, is that when you pass through the portal, you reencounter in the fantasy world the problems you thought you left behind in the real world."

For a few different reasons, I needed to read this. Fellow teachers, this is a very teachable essay. And even as I sit here imagining all the scenarios that end with me giving this essay to a student, I am thinking of it as a teacher who's still (and will always be) learning and absorbing new lessons, too — especially those that find me when I need them most.

Because Fit is nonfiction with flights of fictional fantasy (even if that fantasy operates in the realist mode), I've been worrying lately about the role of these fiction fragments. Overthinking, I realize now. What Grossman says here is all I need — all that matters is, in fact, how the tea house woman, in her story, encounters different versions of my own problems. And because her story is the center and mine is marginal and inferior, her problems must be the more interesting. The ones I need to revisit, vertically, before pushing forward and reimagining mine.

Andre Dubus on Gestation and Vertical Writing
lily.jpg

I've been reading craft books for several days now, mostly focusing on short stories, although the how-to-novel books are starting to creep onto a second shelf of my bookcase for library books. In one craft anthology (nearly two decades old now), On Writing Short StoriesI found Andre Dubus's essay "The Habit of Writing," which spoke to me for a few reasons. First, because as I've shared before I am not an every-day writer; instead, I am a patient writer and I believe I wait more than write. There's always some shame in this, as if admitting it marks me as less committed to craft and practice than other writers. So it was affirming and heart-lifting to read Dubus's opening lines:

"I gestate: for months, often for years. An idea comes to me from wherever they come, and I write it in a notebook. Sometimes I forget it's there. I don't think about it. By think I mean plan. I try never to think about where a story will go. This is as hard as writing, maybe harder; I spend most of my waking time doing it; it is hard work, because I want to know what the story will do and how it will end and whether or not I can write it; but I must not know, or I will kill the story by controlling it; I work to surrender." 

He also says, when a "story is ready for me to receive it [. . .] I must write, with the most intense concentration I can muster." This is me, as well. When I am writing, I'm writing the thing itself and also writing (in my journal) about the writing and then I am writing (on this blog) about others' writing (or what I'm reading) because all of it feeds the writing that matters most. 

Dubus goes on to discuss one of his own stories and how it came into focus. About his two main characters: 

"Just follow them home, I told myself, and since then I have believed that you can write a story simply by becoming a character and following that character home. Or through a day or a night. Who among us is not a story, or several of them, every day? [. . .] Just follow the dots; become the character and follow; there will be a story.

One of the things I love about craft essays/books/anthologies is that you grow with them; you don't necessarily read, absorb, and 100% follow everything you've read and absorbed to the letter forevermore. There are some craft essays I return to again and again. Like Kate Bernheimer's "Fairy Tale is Form; Form is Fairy Tale." There are certain words of wisdom you just need to be reminded of, again and again. Then there are new lessons that you didn't even know you needed, until you find them and realize: Ah, yes, this is what I've been missing. This is what I need to do.

A few days ago, I wrote about Ron Carlson's advice to "see it through," and, today, I'm layering onto this what Dubus calls "vertical writing." These are closely intertwined, I feel. At least, in the way I'm receiving their advice in relation to my own particular writing struggles at this particular moment. Synonymous with both "seeing it through" and "vertical writing" is what Dubus first introduces in his essay as concentration. He writes: 

"I held my pen and hunched my shoulders and leaned my head down, physically trying to look more deeply into the page of the notebook. I did this for only a moment before writing, as a batter takes practice swings while he waits in the on-deck circle. In that moment I began what I call vertical writing, rather than horizontal. I had never before thought in these terms. But for years I had been writing horizontally, trying to move forward [. . .]; now I would try to move down, as deeply as I could." 

And this is what I've been missing. This is what I need to do. First take stock, as I did here, so I can assess and work with what I already have. Now it's time to concentrate, to move down instead of ahead. Then, I can start to see it through.