Revision is Always Dreadful

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Until it’s not. The truth is I will undertake endless revisions and write countless drafts if I feel that it’s in service of my story. I am not too proud. (What doesn’t need revision in my life? My shoes? My toothbrush? My cat?)

I remember hearing once that Ruth Krauss cut The Carrot Seed from 10,000 words to just over 100. I try to keep that in mind whenever I’m feeling grumbly or tetchy.

(Image from How to Make an Earthquake by Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson, 1954.)

Trailblazers

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Ezra Keats and Gyo Fujikawa, who blazed a trail for diversity in picture books in the early 1960s, made it look so easy. Why is it still a struggle in publishing to acknowledge the full spectrum of children who read and adore books?

I found this dismaying: “[D]ata analyzed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center in 2010 found that only nine per cent of the three thousand four hundred children’s books published that year contained significant cultural or ethnic diversity…[T]he white default—in books, as in other forms of mass media—is learned and internalized early, including by children of color.”

Read the full article here.

Old Machines

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Stray Love is set in a clunky, messy pre-computer world. It’s a world of inky fingers and jammed keys. I’ve always had a thing for typewriters and typewriter ephemera so this collection of vintage typewriter ribbon tins (courtesy of Janine Vangool) makes me very happy.

I also love this photograph of Stan Bevington at Coach House Press. Give me dirt and grinding noises any day. I will always be wistful for old machines.

p.s. Stray Love has recently received a few nice reads: here and here and here and here and here. I really appreciate it when writers take time to review work by their peers.

To End is Human

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Q: What is your best advice on how to write the ending of a novel?

A: It’s probably best to end on some dramatically cathartic and conclusive note: the villain taken away in handcuffs, the couple reunited, the wetlands saved, etc. But I don’t roll that way. And, anyway, I think it depends on the particular piece of fiction. A heavily plotted novel demands a heavily plotted ending. A less plotted narrative has more freedom—which includes the freedom to acknowledge that stories, like life, don’t really end. (It would be weird if a book by Dan Brown petered off with a Chekhovian finale: “The rain beat against the windows all night long.”)

I personally like an ending that combines a sense of awe and ordinariness and conveys a degree of messy “truthiness.” But I think the problem is that while writers may like ambiguity, most readers like a bit more closure. So, ultimately, for me, it’s about striking a balance between closure and non-closure.

Given that there are no generic solutions, here are a few fun ways to end a story:

End mid-sentence. (The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence.)

End on a question. (The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss.)

End on an exclamation. (Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. )

End the same way you started. (Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton.)

That’s it. The end!

(My response to this month’s Fiction Craft question—nine novelists were asked to share their advice on writing the end of a novel.)

Agnes Martin’s Hands

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Thinking about hands that make things, thinking about Agnes Martin’s hands. Martin (1912-2004) was a Canadian-born American painter who spent the second half of her life living alone on a remote mesa in New Mexico, who consciously distanced herself from the social life and social events that brought other artists into the public eye, who used her hands for the rough work of building houses in the desert and the refined work of minimalist drawing. Is it my knowledge of her life and art that renders her hands so mysterious and riveting?

Thinking about the shyness of her hands, if it isn’t the same understatement I detect in her spare and ethereal canvasses, the same lonesomeness I imagine in her hand-drawn pencil lines. Thinking about this and what happens to hands when they are suddenly placed in the camera’s frame after years of working unwatched; that this is how hands sit (stoic and apprehensive) when, after years of working vigorously and reclusively, happily and self-reliantly, they are suddenly asked to be idle and observed.

28,000 Pots of Flowers

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For four days
in November of 2003
, the Massachusetts Mental Health Center
was in bloom. Artist Anna Schuleit created a living memorial project to mark the closing of the historic building. Noting that psychiatric patients are rarely brought flowers, Schuleit used old hospital records to calculate how many people had passed through the facility since it opened in 1912 and decided to commemorate each one with a pot of flowers (“bringing together all the flowers they had never been given.”)

What was once a place of healing and confinement was transformed into a place of fantasy and delirium. When the four days were over, the plants were distributed to patients in care homes throughout the region.

I have fallen in love with Schuleit’s site specific work, which in the past has incorporated everything from ringing telephones to wild ducks. With Bloom, I love the way a space can be transfigured so simply, how pots of pert orange tulips can bring a new feeling tone to a dingy office, how a river of white mums or African violets can infuse a bleak institutional hallway with fragrant dreams. I love the way art can entirely disarrange a familiar setting, make it strange and incomprehensible.

Moments of Being

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Are the mental habits of the memoirist conducive to happiness? Do we risk distancing ourselves from our experiences by writing about them? Is it possible to abstain from self-narrativization?

We all self-tell to varying degrees. Literature would be nothing without the great generosity of writers who have divulged, examined, and dissected their lives in the hopes of sharing some tangled and illuminating insight. But is there a price to pay for standing back, for mining slivers of meaning from the residue of an experience?

Patti Smith, author of the memoir Just Kids, argues that the writer can never enjoy the equanimity of the non-writer. “You never can be normal,” she says. “You go into church to pray, and you start writing a story about being in a church praying. You’re always observing what you do. I noticed that when I was young going to parties. I could never lose myself in a party unless I was on the dance floor because I was always observing—observing or creating a mental scenario.”

Woolf was a writer whose work epitomized this state of perpetual self-examination. From The Waves to On Being Ill, everything she wrote feels like a flood of revelation and reflection. It is rare to encounter such fierce intelligence and, yet, almost pathological self-awareness. I know of few other writers who have put as much faith in writing as the path to self-understanding, who have so bravely explored the writer’s consciousness and the “violent moods” of the soul. As her biographer Hermione Lee noted: “She is always trying to work out what happens to that ‘myself’—the ‘damned egotistical self’—when it is alone, when it is with other people, when it is contented, excited, anxious, ill, when it is asleep or eating or walking, when it is writing.”

While it may be true that in telling stories we risk objectifying our experiences, I think Woolf’s most significant legacy was to show that, at its best, writing could also re-immerse us in our lives. The very phrase “moments of being” emerged from her belief that there are moments in which an individual experiences something intensely and with awareness, in contrast to the states of “non-being” that dominate most of an individual’s life, in which life is “not lived consciously,” but instead is embedded in “a kind of nondescript cotton wool.” For Woolf, it was the quality of attention and wakefulness intrinsic to a conscious writing life that could take a mundane activity (such as walking in the woods) and make it extraordinary.

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