Intimations: Six Essays

Intimations coverIntimations: Six Essays
Zadie Smith
Penguin Books (July 28, 2020), 111 pages
Kindle edition $8.99, Amazon paperback $6.99

How is it that I have never read Zadie Smith before?

I’m embarrassed. I have long known of her and I have seen her books reviewed, but I have never read any of her writing. Fortunately, when I was looking for my next book I (electronically) picked up Intimations.

Intimations is a small volume, just 111 pages in the print edition, but it is packed with superb writing. The essays in the book are Smith’s reflections on life during the COVID pandemic. Her subject matter is wide-ranging. She writes about observing flowers when the world was shut down: tulips that she wanted to be peonies. She comments on the nonsense spouted by the man who lived in the White House at the height of the pandemic. Smith offers her observations about a young man in the IT department at her university, an African American like herself. The author reflects on the chattiness of a distant relative she encounters at a bus stop and how her mother can exhibit a similar trait.

In one essay, Smith writes about people holding up signs at the park. (I assume she is referring to Central Park.) She offers practical advice on how to deal with the sign holders:

quotePeople hold signs up in the park every day. Sometimes they say “Free Hugs.” (Note to pretty Swedish backpackers: they’re not free.) Sometimes they offer a service: tarot reading, personalized poems, a discussion about Palestine, as in “Come Ask Me About Palestine.” (Don’t ask him about Palestine.)

One sign in particular caught her attention: “I Am A Self-Hating Asian. Let’s Talk!” Smith spends some time observing the man and making sure she was reading the sign correctly, but she did not engage with him.

As you have perhaps surmised, Smith writes in the context of the pandemic, but she doesn’t write solely about the pandemic. What I took away from the book is that I can learn a lot about writing from her. She also offers me a practical take on the value of writing. In discussing how we spent our time during the lockdown Smith notes, “We make banana bread, we sew dresses, we go for a run, we complete all the levels of Minecraft.” She then observes:

quoteI write because…well, the best I can say for it is it’s a psychological quirk of mine developed in response to whatever personal failings I have. But it can’t ever meaningfully fill the time. There is no great difference between novels and banana bread. They are both just something to do. They are no substitute for love.

I will keep writing. I have no doubt Smith will keep writing. But she offers a practical viewpoint to help me keep my writing in perspective.


Translating Myself and Others

Translating Myself and Others coverTranslating Myself and Others
Jhumpa Lahiri
Princeton University Press (May 17, 2022), 203 pages
Kindle edition $9.44, Amazon hardcover $19.79

When I read several years ago that Jhumpa Lahiri was moving to Italy and was going to start writing in Italian I had a couple of reactions. I wondered whether we were being deprived of one of our best storytellers in English. And I scratched my head, thinking that this was a rather odd decision. In Translating Myself and Others, Lahiri fills us in on why she made that decision.

The specific dates across the introduction and the various essays don’t sync up and had me somewhat confused, but the sequence of events is still clear. Lahiri decided she was in love with the Italian language so she moved there and began to write in Italian. She also became friendly with Italian authors whose work she later translated into English. At some point she returned to the United States to teach translation at Princeton but returned to Rome whenever academic holidays or sabbatical permitted.

The title of the book is an exact description of its contents. She writes about overcoming the fear of translating her own work from Italian into English, and she discusses translating the work of others, in particular novelist Domenico Starnone. Having lived in Italy, Lahiri has a fascination with the Roman poet Ovid and his work The Metamorphoses. She refers to passages from Ovid throughout the book and describes how she is working on a new translation with a Princeton classicist.

Lahiri is open to the criticism of her work. She writes that critics said that her Italian was not idiomatic. That is not the word they used, but that was the essence of their evaluation. She describes how American critics thought she was arrogant to write introductions to her translations of Starnone.

When she writes about the process of translation Lahiri includes the passage in its original language before providing the English version. She really wants the reader to understand what she is doing.

About translation Lahiri writes:

quoteTranslation has always been a controversial literary form, and those who are resistant to it or dismiss it complain that the resulting transformation is a “mere echo” of the original — that too much has been lost in the process of traveling from one language into another.

When I read those words this seemed like a rather narrow perspective, but if I am honest I know I can be guilty of taking such a view. Maybe that’s why most of what I read are books originally written in English. That is limiting, however. One book I thoroughly enjoyed was Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski. I very much liked the writing, but the book I read was a translation into English from the original Polish. I do not know how well translator Klara Glowczewska reflected Kapuscinski’s Polish, but that didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the book.

Another case in point: Isabel Allende. I know she writes in Spanish and her books are translated into English. I don’t know if she translates any of her work herself or if a translator is responsible for the English versions. What I know is that her literary fiction meets with high regard and that I am missing out on some good reading by overthinking these questions.

So, about translation: If the topic interests you be sure to read Translating Myself and Others. You’ll be glad you did.


Rebel with a Clause

Rebel with a Clause coverRebel with a Clause: Tales and Tips from a Roving Grammarian
Ellen Jovin
Mariner Books (July 19, 2022), 396 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $24.29

I believe that I first encountered Ellen Jovin on LinkedIn where she posted a photo of her grammar table. Ellen is a language educator who took conversations about grammar to the city street. She set up a table in New York City with a sign offering to answer grammar questions. From there she took her table around the country. Her husband joined her, making video recordings of her conversations. She took those conversations and made them into a book.

Jovin is brave. Her first chapter discusses the Oxford comma. There is nothing more likely to tie the knickers of grammar nerds into a knot than the Oxford (or serial) comma. To my disappointment, Jovin is only lukewarm in her support of the Oxford comma. She writes that she once had a job with an organization that did not use the Oxford comma, and though she has since begun to use it she does not feel strongly that others use it. I’m very aware that neither the Associated Press Stylebook nor The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage use the Oxford comma, but I am a Chicago Manual of Style guy myself and they support it.

My favorite example in support of the Oxford comma is in a book dedication, probably apocryphal, in which it is omitted:

I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

I had originally inserted a snarky comment here, but I’ll let the example speak for itself. Discussions about both Ayn Rand and God can stir up potent emotions.

In another chapter Jovin discusses the appositive, where a noun or noun phrase further identifies the subject of the sentence:

WH Auden, my favorite poet, captured the spirit of his time.

The phrase “my favorite poet” is the appositive. Jovin then combines appositives with the Oxford comma, and things really get gnarly. I’m not going to try to explain that here; you’ll need to read the book.

Jovin devotes a chapter to singular “they,” something else that gets people’s knickers in a knot, not all of them grammar nerds. While sometimes it is better to recast the sentence, there are times when it makes sense to use it. Chicago in its latest edition, the seventeenth, began allowing this.

In a chapter on lie/lay confusion, Jovin goes to a great deal of trouble to set the visitors to her table straight. She always keeps a notepad at her table and she reproduces a diagram she would sometimes draw to clarify all the various forms. She seems to be something of a stickler on this point, though things get rather arcane, especially with tenses like the present perfect of lie (which is lain). I tend to agree with linguist John McWhorter who in a recent podcast suggested that in this case we should probably let sleeping dogs lay. I mean lie.

Jovin covers a variety of topics: the book has forty-nine chapters. She discusses affect/effect, adverbs, semicolons, commas, apostrophes, and many other topics about which the visitors to her table brought questions. What’s great about Ellen Jovin is that she is always congenial, she is never confrontational or dogmatic. If she brings her table to your town stop by and visit.

And whether she does or not, consider buying Rebel with a Clause. You’ll enjoy the conversations.


Index, A History of the

Index, A History of the - coverIndex, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age
Dennis Duncan
W. W. Norton & Company (February 15, 2022), 351 pages
Kindle edition $9.66, Amazon hardcover $20.95

Like most people who read books, I am familiar with the index in its modern form. In my college days back in the 1970s, pre-personal computer and pre-online search, the index was indispensable. I would check books out of the library and use the index to find material that was relevant to the term paper I was writing. During my days as a technical writer I would insert markers into the publishing program I was using to generate an index when the user guide was complete. (After the manual was printed I would look at my index and ask myself, “Who was the knucklehead who created this index?”)

Duncan’s book is interesting in that he goes back to the precursors of the index. In the days before page numbers a scholar would use other markers to point the reader to the point in the manuscript that had the content they were looking for. Some early indexes were not alphabetical, particularly for religious texts. For example, the first entry might be “God” with a list of attributes of God pointing to the various textual entries, and then move down the list hierarchically rather than alphabetically.

The author describes one example where the manual copying of manuscripts did not fit well with the index. The copyist copied the manuscript on a smaller size paper than the original, so the pagination did not match, but copied the index verbatim, so the references didn’t point to the location where the material actually was. The invention of the printing press pretty much eliminated that problem.

Duncan writes about how an index might be used to fight an academic battle. Adversaries would create an index of an opponent’s work to highlight the errors and inaccuracies. They might even include snarky comments as part of the index entry. One professional indexer was opposed to the content of a book the author hired him to index and so created entries that suggested the opposite of what the book actually said.

Social critics did not hesitate to use the idea of the index to beat up on their targets. They would accuse socialites of skimming an index rather than reading the entire book so they could sound informed at parties. That made me think of Dick Cavett, who admitted going to the index and looking for his name when a new memoir or autobiography came out.

There is also a brief foray into the idea of indexes in fiction. Duncan writes that Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando included an index, but that was part of the spoof since Woolf presented the novel as a biography. A couple of other novelists tried this in the early twentieth century, but fortunately it never caught on. When reading this section I kept wondering if The Lord of the Rings needed an index. Probably not.

Duncan includes an appendix in which he shows an index of the current book generated by a computer program. His point here is that human indexers have nothing to fear.

If you are a book nerd add Index, a History of the to your reading list. You’ll enjoy it.


the fiction in nonfiction

I wrote last week about Marius Kociejowski’s memoir A Factotum in the Book Trade in which he recounts his life in the book business. Kociejowski writes about how the author Bruce Chatwin lived in the building above one store where he worked. Chatwin is the author of In Patagonia, a travel book that I thoroughly enjoyed when it first appeared in the seventies. Kociejowski writes of Chatwin:

quoteChatwin was an excellent writer and raconteur, but he was not above inventing things in order to keep the reader’s interest alive and in doing so he put into motion a worrisome trend in travel literature. It is hardly surprising that many readers have come to mistrust it as a genre.

I was disappointed but not surprised. But we can hardly blame Chatwin for this phenomenon. John Steinbeck published the book Sea of Cortez with Ed Ricketts in 1941 and reissued the narrative portion of the book as a stand-alone travelogue, Log from the Sea of Cortez, a decade later. By the time he wrote the narrative his marriage had ended, but when Steinbeck and Ricketts made the trip there (it’s a body of water also known as the Gulf of California), he was still married and his wife was along on the trip, doing the bulk of the cooking and chores. In the published volume, however, Steinbeck has her waving them goodbye from the dock.

bookstoreSteinbeck published Travels with Charley in 1962, marketed as a travel memoir. His biographers, however, say that most of the encounters in his book originated in his study at his typewriter.

Paul Theroux, on the other hand, is guilty of the sin of omission. His wife did not want him leaving home and riding the rails in Europe so he could write what became The Great Railway Bazaar. When he came home months later he found her in bed with another man. But Theroux did not admit to this until many decades later.

Nor do I believe Kociejowski is correct in limiting this issue to the travel genre. Lillian Hellman published the book Pentimento as nonfiction, though commentators have long questioned the reality behind at least one section, the one entitled “Julia.” It describes an anti-Nazi activist in World War II helping to smuggle money for the resistance. The story was, it seems, for the most part fabricated. More recently, James Frey published A Million Little pieces in 2003 as a memoir of his life in the world of drug addiction. In a highly publicized scandal, it came out that the book had no basis in actual events. It got Frey in a heap of trouble, especially since Oprah had promoted Frey and the book when it first came out.

Then there’s Joyce Maynard. (Yes, I have an unhealthy obsession with Maynard, about whom I have written not just once but twice, and have mentioned other times in my blog.) She and I are the same age. Maynard published Looking Back in 1973. I fell madly in love with her when I read the book in about 1976 because it expressed the same feelings and values that I had at the time. I learned later that she did not hold those feelings and values at all, but was writing what she thought her audience wanted to read. For years I felt angry and betrayed beyond anything rational. To her credit Maynard later admitted that she was misguided to have written the book the way she did.

I have written about fabrication in books released as nonfiction before (more than once), but my reading of Kociejowski’s memoir made for an excellent opportunity to revisit the topic. Just because a book is published as nonfiction doesn’t mean that it is.


photography and writing

I recently wrote about Barry Lopez’s 1998 book of essays, About This Life. In addition to what you would expect to see from Lopez, writing about nature and the outdoors, he devotes a long essay to the merits of the Boeing 747 jetliner and another to his experience with photography.

Lopez writes that he delved into photography for a while, and in fact he sold several photos. But, he realized, when recalling an encounter with a polar bear:

quoteRemembering what happened in an encounter was crucial to my work as a writer, and attending to my cameras during our time with the bear had altered and shrunk my memory of it. While the polar bear was doing something, I was checking f-stops and attempting to frame and focus from a moving boat…. As a writer, I had begun to feel I was missing critical details in situations such as this one because I was distracted.

Nikon P500I had a similar realization one year when we were at Lake Shasta. I realized I was so focused on getting pictures that I was failing to enjoy the moment I was in. I had a lovely Nikon D70 digital SLR camera with multiple lenses which I then sold off in pieces on eBay. I replaced it with a compact digital camera which served me fine on our Alaska trip in 2011. I wanted to keep something of a hand in photography without being obsessed by it, but that camera simply didn’t feel right in my hands. Right after the Alaska trip I bought a Nikon P500, which has the look and feel of an SLR, but with a fixed lens. It’s the camera I still use today when I want something more than my iPhone can offer.

After my dad’s death in 2020 my brother urged me to take his Sony A230 digital SLR, which I did. I used it some, but the two of us just never hit it off. I’m sticking with my P500 for my “beyond the iPhone” camera needs.

These many years later I feel much the same as I did at Lake Shasta. I am sticking with my writing and I’ll take photos here and there when I feel so moved.


Collected Essays by Joan Didion

Collected Essays coverCollected Essays: Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album, and After Henry
Joan Didion
Open Road Media (March 6, 2018), 665 pages
Kindle edition $15.99
purchased on sale for$4.99

This book is not collected essays in the formal sense of the term. Joan Didion published other essay collections that are not included here. The three volumes do, however, represent a solid body of Didion’s work from the sixties, seventies, and the eighties.

Having never read Didion before, I did not realize that she belonged to the school of gonzo journalism (or new journalism) that Hunter S. Thompson originated and others like Tom Wolfe practiced. If one defines this school of reporting as the writer involving him or herself in the story he or she is writing, however, these three volumes certainly qualify. And if one stereotype of this approach is that the practitioners are known for their substance abuse, Didion seems to fit the mold. Regarding writing the essay from which the first book takes its title Didion writes, “I was in fact as sick as I have ever been when I was writing ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’; the pain kept me awake at night and so for twenty and twenty-one hours a day I drank gin-and-hot-water to blunt the pain and took Dexedrine to blunt the gin and wrote the piece.” That passage made me wonder how Didion lived to age 87. (She died on December 23, 2021.)

In The White Album Didion covers the waterfront, if you will forgive the cliché, of the sixties. She writes about John Wayne shooting a movie and has dinner with him and his wife. She visits the school for social thought Joan Baez set up in Carmel Valley. She writes about the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, a sort of liberal think tank that had its heyday in the sixties. Didion’s ability to craft a sentence in her unique style shows up in this essay:

quoteI have long been interested in the Center’s rhetoric, which has about it the kind of ectoplasmic generality that always makes me sense I am on the track of the real soufflé, the genuine American kitsch.

The title essay, taken, of course, from the W.B. Yeats poem, involves her visit to some of the young runaways in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. While some of us (and I include myself) are wont to look back with nostalgia on the hippie era, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” portrays a bleak and sometimes depressing picture of the lives these young people lived.

The second volume, The White Album, is a rather different set of essays. Didion writes about her family and her origins in the rural country outside Sacramento. She writes about Santa Ana winds and California wildfires. She writes about the Manson murders and the subsequent trial. In true gonzo fashion Didion picks out the dress for one woman who was a witness at the trial. In a less grim setting, Didion attends the Jaycees’ 32nd Annual Congress of America’s Ten Outstanding Young Men, although she is not comfortable with the values of the organization. She writes that participating in that event “was a curious and troubling way to spend a few days in the opening weeks of 1970.” In her survey of shopping malls in their heyday she writes, tongue firmly in cheek, that she considered building such a mall as a way to support her fiction writing. She carefully describes the definitions of the three types of shopping centers: A, B, and C.

The title After Harry refers to an editor Didion and her husband shared, and in particular to his untimely death. (She always refers to her husband simply as “my husband,” even though he was, of course, the well-known writer John Gregory Dunne.) Didion writes about the 1988 presidential campaign, focusing in particular on Michael Dukakis. She discusses the last days of Tom Bradley’s mayoral tenure in Los Angeles and her time as a visiting professor at her alma mater, UC Berkeley, when she visited both Lawrence Livermore and Lawrence Berkeley labs. She offers a history of the Los Angeles Times and reports in detail about how many staffers and readers believed that the (then) new Orange County edition distracted the paper from its proper mission.

Since Didion is a native Californian I was rather surprised that she wrote California Highway 1 “runs from the Mexican border to the Oregon line.” In fact, Highway 1 ends at Dana Point on the south end and on the north ends at Highway 101 near Leggett, after having turned inland past Rockport. To be fair, her focus was that section of Highway 1 in Los Angeles and Orange Counties referred to at the Pacific Coast Highway or PCH. (Being an exiled Northern Californian, I would never use that term to refer to the stretch of Highway 1 from San Luis Obispo north.) And that is a small matter in a set of books full of informative and well-written essays.

As someone who had never previously read Joan Didion’s work I found Collected Essays interesting and entertaining.


The Typewriter Century

The Typewriter Century coverThe Typewriter Century: A Cultural History of Writing Practices
Martyn Lyons
University of Toronto Press (February 2, 2021), 275 pages
Kindle edition $18.12, Amazon paperback $32.95

I have a long history with the typewriter. When I was in elementary school I asked Mrs. Werner next door to teach me to type on her manual upright typewriter. I guess I was a poor student because I never did learn to touch type. Over the next few years I whined enough that my grandparents finally got me a typewriter for my birthday. It was a small Royal portable. It wasn’t well made, and it kept going back to the stationery store for repair. Eventually, the very patient owner, Mr. Hubb, replaced it with a newer and slightly better model.

For some reason that typewriter never made it to Pitzer College in Claremont with me. Instead, I took an old manual portable, perhaps an Underwood. It too had its problems, and it frequently visited the typewriter repair shop in Pomona. But it got me through college. After college, unable to bear the thought of leaving Claremont, I shared an apartment with my friend George. He let me use his electric typewriter, but objected to my frequent use of liquid paper, which he called “bird shit.” It must have been after I moved to Oklahoma City that I got a portable SCM typewriter, which I loved because I could effortlessly swap out the ink cartridge for the correction cartridge. My final typewriter was a fairly fancy one that had a memory of several hundred characters.

It was with interest, then, that I saw an ad in the New York Review of Books for The Typewriter Century. The book presents a unique viewpoint as author Martyn Lyons is an Australian educated at Oxford, and the University of Toronto Press published the book. We certainly read more about Australian writers than we might find in a book on the same subject by another author.

Lyons writes both about the history of the machine and the people who used it. It is interesting to read about the various iterations and attempts at creating a mechanical system for writing. The author points out that the QWERTY keyboard was not necessarily the best option to keep fast typists from jamming keys (the reason Christopher Latham Sholes invented it); it was simply the design that won out. And, as we all experience every day, it still dominates the market despite the occasional attempt to replace it.

I found the discussions about the relationships that writers had with their typewriters fascinating. Lyon writes that the typewriter was essential for T. S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway. He notes, “The machine was inseparable from their creative work.” Of course, I suspect that Hemmingway’s terse style was inherent to his character and not strictly the result of his using the typewriter.

Lyons dispels the myth of Jack Kerouac and his scrolls. Yes, Kerouac did write early drafts on scrolls, sheets of paper taped together. However, he submitted his manuscripts to his publishers in the conventional manner.

The author spends considerable space discussing Erle Stanley Gardner and the writing factory he set up on a ranch outside Temecula, California, just half an hour south of where I sit composing this review. Gardner had a staff of typists to shape his considerable output into a form suitable for submission to publishers. Gardner didn’t especially love writing, however. Lyons reports Gardner told an interviewer, “I’m in the game for money, and if I have any talent I haven’t prostituted, and find it out, I’ll start her out on the streets tonight.”

Lyons devotes a chapter to women authors of the twentieth century, from Agatha Christie to Barbara Taylor Bradford. He provides some interesting insight into their lives and work, but his treatment comes off as just a tad sexist.

The treatment Lyons gives to the transition from the typewriter to the word processor is weak from my perspective. He fails to discuss that there was something of a battle as to whether word processing should be done on a separate machine or be incorporated into a multi-function computer. When I was living in Oklahoma and visited my college friend Sue in Santa Monica in the early 1980s she was working for the RAND Corporation. She said that she believed that word processing was splitting off from computing. As late as 1990 or so, my friend Don, a retired schoolteacher, wanted to write his memoir for his family. He was debating whether to buy a word processor or a computer. I recommended a computer; he bought a dedicated word processor. Several months later we had a conversation that went like this:

Don: “Maybe I should have bought a computer.”
Me: “Don, I told you that.”
Don: (sheepishly) “I know.”

Today one would be hard pressed to find a dedicated word processor, and I’m not sure why someone would want one.

The Typewriter Century is enjoyable reading for anyone interested in writing and its associated technologies.


some sound advice on writing

Bird by Bird coverBird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Anne Lamott
Anchor (December 18, 2007), 258 pages
originally published by Pantheon Books, 1994
Kindle edition $10.99, Amazon paperback $8.69

 

Writing Your Story photoWriting Your Story (video recording of a one-day workshop)
Joyce Maynard
streaming video $39.95 when on sale at The Great Courses
(if it’s not on sale don’t worry – the sale price will come around again)
or stream with a Wondrium subscription

 

I have a long history with both Anne Lamott and Joyce Maynard. All three of us are the same age.

I first encountered Joyce Maynard after I graduated from Pitzer College in 1975 when I found her book Looking Back while I was working at B. Dalton Bookseller. I loved her take on the culture of the late sixties and the early seventies and believed we had a very similar worldview. Later, I discovered she wanted to be the “voice of her generation,” but did not hold those views at all. I felt betrayed, to say the least. I was disgruntled by her commentaries on the CBS Radio opinion segment Spectrum, in which she took the conservative viewpoint. Maynard was, of course, the mysterious woman who dropped out of Yale to live with J. D. Salinger, something she wrote about twenty-five years later in her memoir At Home in the World. Over the years and especially having read At Home in the World I have come to forgive her.

I first became acquainted with Ann Lamott when she was a regular guest on the San Francisco public radio program West Coast Live in the mid-1990s. She raised her son Sam as a single mom and wrote about it in her book Operating Instructions. Sam was born just a year before our nephew Race, and Terry’s sister also raised Race as a single mother. Lamott wrote her book Bird by Bird as a distillation of what she taught in her writing classes. She has also written several books on spirituality and faith, with which I have resonated.

It occurred to me that if I am serious about continuing to develop my writing skills I ought to read Bird by Bird. I have no idea why I didn’t read it long ago. Since I have a Wondrium subscription I decided to read Lamott’s book and watch Maynard’s workshop simultaneously. After all, these two women have something in common that I lack: they have both published books. I decided I had something to learn from both of them.

Lamott and Maynard agree on a lot, but they disagree on one significant point. Lamott takes the view that most teachers of writing espouse: if you’re stuck, just start writing and clean it up later. Maynard does not believe in that approach. She believes that you’ll never be able to properly clean it up, so you should carefully consider what you want to say before you write.

They both advocate writing in small chunks. Lamott talks about one-inch picture frames and Maynard tells her students to use “containers.” They both make clear that you need to keep your readers’ interest. Lamott was fortunate to have a father who was a published author, and his agent was willing to indulge Lamott by looking at her work. He returned one piece, however, with the comment that Lamott seemed to think that everything she did was interesting. Maynard emphasizes that not all details are equally interesting. She says that it’s probably not worth noting that your English professor had brown eyes. However, if he smoked a cigar in class, that might be worth mentioning.

The focus of Bird by Bird is on fiction, so much of the book doesn’t apply to my nonfiction writing. But there is a lot I was able to take away from it nonetheless. Maynard focuses her class on memoir, so she provided me a lot of useful material.

Both Lamott and Maynard take a similar approach to getting your work published. Lamott says:

quoteWriting can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up. But publishing won’t do any of those things; you’ll never get in that way.

Maynard tells the class much the same thing. It’s not about getting published; it’s about the opportunity to express yourself. She tells the workshop that getting published will not make you rich. Recorded in 2018, she tells the group that she drives a 1995 Honda Civic.

I learned a lot from both women, and they no doubt have more to teach me about writing.


To Show and to Tell

To Show and To Tell coverTo Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction
Phillip Lopate
Free Press (February 12, 2013), 242 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon paperback $10.39

I have been reading and writing essays since my days at Pitzer College in the 1970s. I believe it was the second semester of my senior year that I took a course in composition and fell in love with the form. In particular, I admired the essays of George Orwell, so much so that I bought the complete set of Orwell’s Collected Essays not long after graduation. (Along with everything else of Orwell’s that was in print, but we’re talking about nonfiction and essays here.)

Phillip Lopate is a professor at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where he teaches nonfiction writing, and has been director of Columbia’s nonfiction program. In the present volume he has a lot to say about the writing of nonfiction in general, and the essay in particular. Lopate states that “some of our best recent writers were arguably better at nonfiction than fiction.” I believe that to be true of Orwell, whom he lists, but he also includes Mary McCarthy, James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, and Joan Didion in this category.

Lopate holds up the Frenchman Montaigne as the originator and the gold standard of the personal essay, an assessment that I’ve encountered before. In fact, I once bought a Kindle edition of one of Montaigne’s essay collections and found it practically unreadable. I have to allow that it may have been the translation, however. And in any case Lopate offers many other examples of skilled essayists, including Virginia Woolf, Loren Eiseley, and Edmund Wilson.

The author writes about the idea of obsession, and how that is a useful tool for fiction. But he says that “we nonfiction writers don’t need it.” He asks rhetorically, “Then what is needed to generate nonfiction?” His answer: curiosity. Lopate states:

quoteThe challenge faced by the nonfiction writer is to take something that actually happened, to herself or to others, and try to render it as honestly and compellingly as possible.

Lopate has given me a list of authors to add to my reading list. He says that the best writer of the nature essay is Edward Hoagland. I haven’t read him. He offers excerpts from the essays of James Baldwin. Magnificent writing I’ll have to pursue. He states that the best travel writers are Robert Byron, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Bruce Chatwin, and Kate Simon. I have only read Chatwin. (And how could he omit Paul Theroux?)

The book’s title comes from the overworked axiom constantly thrown at writers: “Show, don’t tell.” Lopate writes, “I would argue that literary nonfiction is surely the one arena in which it is permissible to ‘tell.’” Lopate does both superbly. It wasn’t until I got to the acknowledgments at the end of the book that I discovered it is a compilation of essays published elsewhere. The book flows beautifully as a single, cohesive work.

To Show and to Tell motivates me to keep reading and keep writing.