The threshold

This fragment from Mansfield's diaries, close to the end of her life, hits a little too close to home.
Above all else, I do still lack application. It's not right. There is so much to do, and I do so little. Look at the stories that wait and wait, just at the threshold. Why don't I let them in? (The Dove's Nest xvi; from her Diary, July 1921)
Indeed. Why didn't she? Why don't we? And then:
My deepest desire is to be a writer, to have 'a body of work' done--and there the work is, there the stories wait for me, grow tired, wilt, fade, because I will not come. When first they knock, how eager and fresh they are! And I hear and I acknowledge them, and till I go on sitting at the window, playing with the ball of wool. What is to be done?
Such a mystery of creativity and work.
Back to Mrs. Dalloway I go.

Intensity, Mrs. Dalloway edition

I'm wrestling a file full of quotations into a book introduction. It's not pretty, but that's the project. My brain is like a jello salad that didn't quite set. I don't trust myself to blog. But I can share some great quotations with you. Like this one:
“I have had only 4 days writing at my novel [Mrs. Dalloway] since I got back. Tomorrow, I say to myself, I shall plunge into the thick of it. But how does one make people talk about everything in the whole of life, so that one’s hair stands on end, in a drawing room? How can one weight and sharpen dialogue till each sentence tears its way like a harpoon and grapples with the shingles at the bottom of the reader’s soul? (L 3.36; 13 May 1923; to Gerald Brenan)

Why didn’t I like that book?

I love reading bad reviews—really delicious, mean, pointed reviews, that get at the heart of what a book has gotten wrong—but I don’t like to write them. When I read a book that I don’t like, I’m much more likely to let it passed unremarked than I am to publicly excoriate it and its author. I appreciate—all too well—how hard writing is, so I don’t really want to add pain or disappointment to the world.

Still, I finished a book this week that I just thought was poor and I’m trying to figure out what was wrong with it. Let me, without naming the book, take a crack at the gap between what it was trying to do and what it did.

I’ll start by saying that everything about it should have made me like it: a friend in the book business sent it my way (hoping for publicity, sure, but this friend is judicious and knows my taste), the author and I have a lot in common (same kind of college, love of the same great American lyricist, one of us currently lives in the other’s home town, etc.), and it’s a comic novel, a middlebrow book by a lover of James and Wharton.

So, this is a fast-paced novel, the kind of novel that would make a really good ensemble-cast movie. I read fifty pages, fell asleep, and woke up from a nightmare at 3 AM and, unable to shake the dream, turned on the light and finished the book. But, doing so made me feel a little sad: the writer is clearly so smart and the book is sloppy, unfocused, and unsure of its genre. I can see the hilarious book behind it but this book is not it.

Here are two examples of scenes that misfire: There is a big wedding at the heart of the book. The bride and groom are ill-matched, the wedding is beyond expensive, and the groom has cold feet. As things begin to go wrong, there is an avalanche of the cupcake tower wedding cake. Slapstick is hard to write, but this should be a slapstick scene: full of frosting wrecking expensive shoes, tears, dogs getting sick, laughter, recriminations. To work, it needs to be big and hilarious. But the writer can’t forget that she also likes her characters, cares about them; I can sense her liking them, but we haven’t seen a nice moment from the bride in so many pages that I don’t like her anymore and am not sorry that “her day” is getting spoiled. Thus, the scene neither has enough action nor enough poignance to work.

There is also an injured child. Here, the author does a very very bad writer’s workshop thing: she shows us the child, motionless after a fall, then switches perspective to another character for three pages, then shows us the child, safe and sound with a few stitches in her scalp. Only then, in flashback, does she explain the accident.

Writers: do not do this. This is a very lazy way to create suspense.

There are some icky things going on with race in this lily white book where comic relief comes from the non-whites.

Finally, although there are metaphors and descriptive set pieces in the book, there is no motif—of images, of habits—to let us know the characters and their minds. In fact, the images are so underdeveloped that, in the next paragraph when the author refers back to “the crabwalker” or “the Flatlander,” I always had to slow down and re-read the set up for the reference.

Mark Sarvas does such a good job with the silly but consistent recurrence of the Monte Cristo sandwich in his book. Marcy Dermansky, too, gives Marie a real love of food that remains a touchstone in almost every scene--she is hungry, loving or hating the food and drink, over and over again. 

This book should have been a comic masterpiece, a funny book by a smart person about silly rich people. I would have been better off reading two brilliant examples of the genre: Mark Sarvas’ Harry, Revised and Marcy Dermansky’s Bad Marie. For now, I’m choosing between Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris and Eloisa James’ bodice-ripping retelling of Cinderella: A Kiss at Midnight.

Sylvia Beach and Me

In honor of the publication of Keri Walsh’s edition of Sylvia Beach’s letters, I wanted to do something special here at Fernham: all week, we’re celebrating Sylvia Beach. Please drop by for a new post—or two--on Beach every day. And then head to your local independent bookstore and buy a copy of The Letters of Sylvia Beach.

I wanted to be a writer since I could hold a pencil. I started taking French lessons—an hour a week—at age seven. Though I never practiced my French outside that hour of singing “Ainsi font, font, font,” I was avid for it.

That combination meant that it wasn’t long before Paris in the 20s found me. Before I’d finished high school, I’d read A Moveable Feast and Noel Riley Fitch’s Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation. Paris in the 20s still has its allure and, if I spend most of my intellectual time imagining Bloomsbury and London in the 20s, Paris has lost none of its glow in the intervening decades.

Fitch wrote a lovely, generous foreword to Keri Walsh’s new book. It moves me to think that she, too, still finds so much that’s so special in Sylvia Beach, this American woman who opened a bookstore.

To Hell with Roland

Today’s gem, from a 1965 textbook on editing:
How to get over, how to escape from, the besotting particularity of fiction. ‘Roland approached the house; it had green doors and window blinds; and there was a scraper on the upper step.” To hell with Roland and the scraper!”—Robert Louis Stevenson, Letters

Anatomy of a Rejection Letter

I don’t really mind the phrase “due to the volume of submissions” as apology for rejecting a submission without comment. The phrase that trips me up is “Several of us have read it.”

At first, I feel a slight glimmer of hope: it was good enough for the intern to pass on to her boss. Then, dejection: two interns read it and neither one liked it. Then I go round and round, trying to imagine their process. Who is this “us” and how many of us are interns, how many editors?

Then, we move to the next level, in which I realize, alas, that “several of us have read it” is probably not a special phrase for a level two rejection, but just a gentle way of saying that they really did read it. (I always, in my desire to protect my ego, that there is some harsher boilerplate rejection letter and that what I’m reading is the one for the special rejects, the ones who have permission to try again.)

In any case, I have written a really nice editorial, which, I anticipate, is about to be rejected for the second time. I will post it here when its timeliness expires or I’ve gotten tired of trying.

Into the Well

I was on the phone with a colleague the other day and he asked how my leave is going.

I groaned. He laughed. He told me that when he’d seen our colleague for the first time, back at work after a year’s research leave, he looked like he was still at the bottom of a deep well. We both laughed and then we talked about the well for a while.

I like that metaphor because that is what it feels like when I spend the day in the library. It doesn’t take more than three or four hours for me to turn into a disoriented, blinking mole, shocked at the clamor and noise of the world around. When I get deep enough into my work to actually break ground—which is rare—it can be hard to return to family life. Most days, however, I have to be so conscious that I need to leave at 4:30 in order to fetch the girls that all I do is peer down into the well, imagining what I might find in the distant darkness.

Peering down isn’t enough, however. If you want to find the treasure that lies beneath the surface, you have to dive down into the well.

Merry little magpies like me find many reasons to peck around at the ground instead. The sky is blue. The children are charming. Smart friends and acquaintances are tweeting away, updating statuses with wit and energy. Why leave this happy conflagration for the mysteries of the deep?

Because the treasure is at the bottom of the well.

Progress Report

You think you can do these things, but you can’t, Nemo, you just can’t!
March is upon us. My sabbatical is two months old. How has it been going?

  • I continue to be grateful for the time. Every day, I feel blessed to have some of the many stresses of teaching and administrated lifted from me for this spell. But, as each day passes, I feel under increasing pressure to achieve what will feel like a worthy achievement come August. And, of course, removing the pressure of a full schedule has meant that I've caught up on all kinds of time-consuming errands that still do keep me from my writing (dentists and more).
  • I have kept to my resolution of exercising five days a week and I’ve been better than usual at tracking my exercise and eating over at WeightWatchers. But I’ve only lost five pounds. That’s five more than zero, but five less than I’d like to have shed by now.
  • I have made progress on the most odious project of the Dalloway edition: collating changes among editions. But I’m not done.
  • I have begun three new (non-scholarly) essays. But finished none of them. And I’ve read a lot.
And, twice last week while walking the dog, Nemo’s dad’s horrible advice popped into my head unbidden: You think you can do these things, but you can’t, Nemo, you just can’t! Who knows why we are so cruel to ourselves. This version of self-flagellation is particularly hilarious and ridiculous: the whole point of that moment is that Nemo can do these thing, that, in hearing himself limit his child, the father has an epiphany about expectations and limitations. The other problem here is that after 10 years of higher education at top-tier universities, my super-ego can be blockaded by an animated clownfish from Pixar.

I need a new mantra.

Advice for Writers

Oh, I’m in trouble now.

I finally clicked over to the excellent Guardian compilation of advice for writers. Roddy Doyle’s first rule stopped me dead in my tracks: 
Do not place a photograph of your-­favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.
I have to laugh! The bathroom may be the only room in our house without a picture of Virginia Woolf in it. (I have a really good fridge magnet of her…)

Tomorrow, I say to myself, I shall plunge into the thick of it.

An amazing gem on the writer’s life, from Woolf’s letters:
“Here we are with our noses to the grindstone. The grindstone is made of innumerable books which have to be transubstantiated into precisely the right number of articles, containing the right sentiments, views and facts, in the right number of words at the right moment. This not once, but weekly, every week, very month, every year—till all our precious time is over, and life, which surely has other uses, has poured in cataracts of printers ink, down the main gutter to the Thames. Perhaps the horror will mitigate. I have had only 4 days writing at my novel [Mrs. Dalloway] since I got back. Tomorrow, I say to myself, I shall plunge into the thick of it. But how does one make people talk about everything in the whole of life, so that one’s hair stands on end, in a drawing room? How can one weight and sharpen dialogue till each sentence tears its way like a harpoon and grapples with the shingles at the bottom of the reader’s soul? (L 3.36; 13 May 1923; to Gerald Brenan)

Two Contests: Fiction & Nonfiction

Michelle Herman (whose memoir in essays, The Middle of Everything, I really admired) writes that there is a new deadline—January 31--for The Journal’s nonfiction prize. Here is the info:
Please, if you write nonfiction, send us something! New deadline: January 31, 2010.
Annual William Allen Creative Nonfiction Prize
(A competition that honors William Allen, the founding editor of The Journal)
$500 and publication of the winning essay in The JournalAll styles, subject matter, forms welcome. New deadline for postmark of mss is January 31. All mss will be considered for publication. An entry fee of $10 should accompany each manuscript (make checks payable to The Journal). Max word count is 6500 words. Include an SASE.
Send submission & entry fee to:   

Nonfiction Prize
The Journal 
Department of English
The Ohio State University
164 West 17th Avenue
Columbus, Ohio 43210

Alison Weaver, of H.O.W. Journal (of which I’m on the board), writes of their fiction contest (that deadline is a generously distant May 15)—judged by Susan Minot.

H.O.W. Journal is hosting its first short story contest to be judged by acclaimed author Susan Minot.Guidelines:
The contest is open to all writers and all themes. The word limit is 12,000. We do consider unpublished novel excerpts if they feel like complete stories. It's fine to submit more than one story. Manuscripts should be submitted with a cover note listing the author's name, address, phone number, and email; names should not appear on the stories themselves. All submissions should be clearly typed manuscripts, double-spaced on 8 1/2 x 11 inch white paper, one side only. Submissions will not be returned. No simultaneous or previously published work.

  • 1st Place - $1000 and publication in H.O.W. Journal
  • 2nd Place - $300 and publication in H.O.W. Journal
  • 3rd Place - $100 and publication in H.O.W. Journal

Reading Fee per story: $20.00
Send your submissions and reading fee (a check payable to H.O.W. Journal) to:
H.O.W. Journal
 -- Short Story Contest
12 Desbrosses Street

New York, NY, 10013 
Submissions must be received in the H.O.W. offices by May 15th, 2010. We look forward to reading your stories!
Both have entry fees ($10 & $20, respectively), so submit with care. But sometimes a contest is just the motivator one needs. Good luck!

L’Esprit du Salle de Bain

I don’t really suffer from l’esprit du l’escalier: I’m not witty enough, don’t go out enough, to find myself agonizing over the devastatingly apt bon mot I should have uttered.

My problem comes not at the end of a social evening but in the transition from the morning shower to the day. In my shower, I imagine the clever blog posts I’ll compose, the quickly dashed off letter of recommendation, the lyrically satirical short story, the thoughtful and surprising essay. Then, I get upstairs, clean but hair uncombed (I really do hate to brush my fine, tangly hair, so I postpone as long as possible), check facebook and call it good enough. It's l'esprit du salle de bain: a momentary feeling of great creative power that, confronted with the fact of a sink full of dirty glassware and a living room strewn with dollies, dissipates as quickly as the steam on the bathroom mirror.

When I was in high school, one of my parents said to me “Anne, your [father? Mother?] and I think that you’re basically lazy.” They don’t remember it and I think that’s because it was said only once, in a very specific situation, in response to a moment of underachieving from me. Teenagers are exasperating and I was a teenager at the time. They certainly never treated me like a lazy person. But oh, how my superego feasts on this phrase, wandering between the prick of ambition and the siren song of procrastination.

Bridget Jones Redux

The problem of how to spend, mark, and assess the worth of my research leave has been bugging me. It’s a high-class problem, believe me, I know. Still… My husband is reading Murakami’s running book, which, I read, got its start as a training journal. This and my own goals have got me thinking, mostly jokingly, about writing an amped up version of those tired year-in-the-life memoirs: how many pages written and read, how many minutes of what kind of exercise, how many WeightWatchers points consumed, how many pounds lost and gained. It’s a 9-month leave, if you include summer, and maybe I could just keep track of my progress and setbacks.

All of this, however, seems too depressing and too far from the real goals of having fun in the gym while losing weight, and, more to the point, of contemplation, reading, and writing something that makes a real contribution to a meaningful conversation.

It’s not that I’ve lost my sense of humor: heaven forbid! Just that I feel my energy draining away in the triviality of witty comments on friends’ status updates or bits of self-deprecation about my latest sampling of the children’s macaroni.

I was shocked recently when my mother, stern-voiced, told me that she hoped I would work very hard during my leave: “Why don’t you put in four good days each week,” she said, as if imposing a strict limit. All I could think was four? Only four? “and then do something nice for yourself on Fridays: go to a museum or a movie.” My girlfriends agreed with my mom.

Frankly, Fridays “off” hadn’t occurred to me. But it has now. I’ve been to the gym. I have a small task to do for my spouse, and then I’m heading to a matinee. See you on Monday.

Where I've been, etc...

It seems like I'm gone, but I'm not.

I will be back.

See, usually my blog is a welcome dose of sanity during a busy semester. This semester is no less busy, but approaching I see the heartening sight of January and with January comes A SABBATICAL.

So, I am simultaneously very very busy and looking forward to regrouping with you all when I really have a moment to compose myself.

Until then, I will be grading papers.

How to Write a Fan Letter

I’m taking some notes on Woolf’s letters. I find her recommending Thomas Hardy’s poems to an old friend in December, and then, in January, writing to Hardy himself, thanking him for his poems and for all his books.

Hardy was born in 1840; Woolf, in 1882. In 1915, she had written only one novel and many, many reviews. So, she approaches him very much as a young writer approaching an elder. The letter is brief and gracious: she has a clear pretext (Satires of Circumstance [1914] includes a poem to her father, Leslie Stephen [1832-1904]), but it’s the last line that I love:
I write only to satisfy a very old desire, and not to trouble you to reply.
So graceful and grateful. That’s a real fan letter.

First novels, Race, and the MFA

I was about 100 pages into Jessie Redmon Fauset’s There is Confusion (1924) when Short Girls came. Both are great stories of young people striving in the face of racism, but only Nguyen’s is an easy, lovely read. Both Fauset and Nguyen show their characters experiencing and, as important, reflecting on racism. Both women take a deep interest in helping—it does feel like that’s the right verb even though it’s slightly absurd—their female characters find both love and work that will fulfill them.

When I finished Short Girls, I returned to Fauset and, somehow, really got involved in the story and finished it with great pleasure. Still, it cannot be said that this, Fauset’s first novel, is flawless: it’s overplotted, it’s got too many characters; it’s too talky in parts.

I kept thinking about the difference it would have made if Fauset had an MFA. I don’t think MFAs can create talent, but they do seem to help writers prune their manuscripts, think about their audience, focus their purpose. This is a somewhat disheartening conclusion, and I want my literature great more than competent, but, over and over again while reading Fauset, I would think, oh! If some fellow reader, if some instructor, could have helped her smooth that over, edit that out, how much better this book would be.

Amazing the difference that those 80 years have made.

UPDATED to say: What I wanted to add here is that Fauset herself knows this: there is an incredibly affecting scene late in the book. The protagonist has finally gotten her dream job, dancing in a Broadway show. It's an integrated cast and the exposure brings her, for the first time, into a bohemian group of friends, many of them white. She wonders at their accomplishments: how can they have done so much when she's been dancing all this while. Then she thinks back over all the time she's spent overcoming obstacles put in her way by racism: finding the dancing teacher who would teach black students; getting him to agree to a special class when white students refused an integrated one; finding 10 other black dancers to join her, etc. She things ruefully about all she would have done had she not had to beat down her own path.

Point of View

My mother-in-law and I were talking about how much we’d loved Olive Kitteredge. She singled out the way that Elizabeth Strout moves, seemingly effortlessly among the multiple points of view. You go in and out of Olive’s perspective and that of the other townspeople easily, knowing all the while just where you are.

What was once a huge innovation in fiction a century ago has become commonplace, the way people write novels now.

Still, as a writer who is not a novelist, I’m continually amazed when writers pull it off. I’m back at editing Mrs. Dalloway again, hoping that my sabbatical next spring will afford me the chance to bring this process to a conclusion.

This time through, I was struck by this lovely, eery shift in point of view from the opening pages, when all the characters look up to see a skywriter:
So, thought Septimus, looking up, they are signalling to me…Tears ran down his cheeks.
It was toffee; they were advertising toffee…
Woolf wanted to show “the world seen by the sane & the insane side by side” (Diary, 14 October 1922) and in this tiny moment, in which an advertisement is both a secret signal and a lure to all with a sweet tooth, does just that.

For interruptions there will always be….

As I sit in our plain little rented house on the river’s edge, I have in my head this image of an English country cottage, a Cotswolds thatched cottage, with rambling roses and a swinging gate. I imagine it full of bowls of oranges, jars of gingerbread, and the possibility of endless mornings of writing.

But the thought soon sickens me: it starts seeming like some of those crafty mommy blogs that I mostly read for schadenfreude, full of Martha Stewart-y tight extreme close-ups of the perfect peach, the porcelain mug of green tea.

In any case, I find that, in the end, I like life with a wider angle. Sitting here with a box of Dora Band-aids, a couple quarters from my husband’s pocket, my watch, a white rock, some crumbs, a bent paperclip, all on a very loud oilcloth tablecloth (huge yellow sunflowers on a blue background): Martha Stewart would need an army to fashion this into something redolent of the charms of a month in a rented house by the River.

Maybe I have to learn to dislike the fantasy of a cell, of a life apart and uninterrupted. It’s not that I don’t need time to write without children around: I do, and that’s why we hire a sitter for the mornings. It’s just that, since I am blessed with children and the desire to write, I need to strike a richer balance. That’s a banal insight, worthy of the mommy blogs themselves, but a little rougher around the edges.

Not about Virginia Woolf: Fiction Conference at Fordham University

The Mercantile Library is so awesome! I cannot exaggerate how much fun I had leading one of their reading groups this spring. I love teaching, but there is something really special about a non-credit class, with a bunch of adults who give up an evening just to come together and talk about a novel.

And, as all blog readers know, there is nothing more awesome than Beatrice’s own Ron Hogan.

So, when then Merc asked me if I could get Fordham to co-sponsor the Mercantile Library Center For Fiction’s Writer’s Conference, I said YES!

Now, I’m emerging from my pre-Woolf Conference flurry to encourage you to register for the conference and spread the word.

Ron has put together an amazing day of information and advice for writers. PLUS for the registration fee of $200, you also get a month of studio space at the Mercantile Library. Who is speaking? Well, the fabulous Lauren Cerand of luxlotus, Toure himself, Ben Greenman, whose been getting such amazing publicity for his funky new book. Also: the funny and wise Jennifer Weiner. And Sara Nelson, former editor Publisher’s Weekly. And the dry and intelligent Richard Nash, formerly of Soft Skull. And Sigrid Nunez, who wrote a book about Leonard Woolf’s marmoset (among other things). In short, in a single day, you have the chance to hear from novelists, publishers, publishing insiders, and publicists.

All of this is happening at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus, my home base: 113 W 60th, just one block west of Columbus Circle. Register today and pass it on! It’s going to be great.