Why I Reread The Writer’s Chapbook

I love The Writer’s Chapbook. Compiled by the late, great George Plimpton from the Paris Review’s Writers at Work series, this volume is a collection of wisdom from 20th Century writers about anything and everything literary, from first efforts to children’s books, from sex to writers’ colonies (which often go hand-in-hand).  The section on technique is useful to me as a teacher, since I can pull helpful quotes about dialogue, character, plot, etc. and feel the support of the ages as I deliver some basic information.

One of my favorite parts is “On Reading,” where writers list other writers and works they admire. I enjoy, for example, learning that Auden’s favorite childhood collection of poetry was Harry Graham’s Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes, an excerpt of which follows:

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Occupational Hazard

I started writing “Occupational Hazard” eight  years ago, out at the Marin Headlands Center for the Arts. I had a bedroom/studio in an old house, former officer’s quarters, and I found myself sleepy all the time. It was so quiet, there—a break from my Tenderloin apartment in the city—and it was much easier to take a nap on the bed until dinner than to write. Especially a first draft, which is never the part of writing I enjoy.

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Why I Reread “Leg” by Steven Polansky

I return to “Leg,” a short story by Steven Polansky, in large part because I enjoy the way he covers my material—that is to say, the lives of believers in Protestant evangelical communities. This is not to say it isn’t his material, too. We can all write about whatever we want. But I enjoy the way Polansky treats his characters and their beliefs with great delicacy. Aside from that fact that he’s Jewish and Ivy-League educated, I don’t know anything about Polansky’s background; but those two things alone—no offense to anyone, I hope—make him a likely tourist in the strange land of Protestant evangelicalism. But the way he observes these true believers is full of respect, curiosity, and meticulous attention—kind of like the attention with which Nabokov fashions sentences out of his non-native English in Lolita.

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Why I Reread the Sun Also Rises

I first read The Sun Also Rises in college, in a survey course of the American Novel. I don’t know if such survey courses even exist anymore, or if Hemingway is still taught to our undergraduates. But I took this class during springtime in Kentucky, which is long and warm, and I would read the book on the largest campus lawn and then shuffle into class with grass stains on my skirt (we had to wear skirts) and listen to my favorite professor tell me what critics had to say about Hemingway’s biography, his writing style, his personal politics, his views on women and Jews. I would dutifully underline the passages the professor read aloud. Sometimes I would take margin notes and sometimes I wouldn’t, leaving me a little confused, now, as I look over the same dog-eared paperback copy, of underlined passages like the following conversation between Jake Barnes, Brett Ashley, and the count:

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Why I Reread “First Love and other Sorrows” by Harold Brodkey

This is a story I love because my grandmother might have loved it—though perhaps for some of the wrong reasons. Brodkey’s character (like Brodkey) is a high school boy born into a life of education and privilege but taken down a peg by the death of his father. He and his mother and beautiful older sister have all had to “downsize” into a nine-room apartment. Despite the teenaged insecurity he feels, friends still comment on his charm. His charm! In high school! His sister has graduated and is working an acceptable office job until she gets an acceptable offer of marriage. She is exceptionally beautiful. Their mother helps her get ready for dates, and even though his sister treats him like a pesky younger brother, he understands how important her beauty is, in their world, and loves and respects her for it. He understands how marriage to the right man, a man who recognizes the importance of good—if poor (kind of)—family will save them all.

When I knew my grandmother, she had lost all money a long time ago, even before she’d married my preacher grandfather. But on the way into town—the town in Kentucky where I grew up—you can still see her family’s original brick Jeffersonian estate, pillars and all, sitting atop a green knoll in the middle of what has become a picturesque horse farm. I think a family with 15 children rents it, now. It’s been kept up (with its own on-site labor force of 15). The fences around the rolling fields are black these days, not white, and made from the kind of plastic pops apart upon impact from a car, but still. Kentucky is a beautiful, bucolic place (in spots) and the family estate looks like My Old Kentucky Home of Stephen Foster fame.

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Why I Reread Lithium for Medea

I came to Kate Braverman through her story “Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta,” which appears in the collection Squandering the Blue and was chosen for the Best American Short Stories in 1991. In 1991 I was still in college, which is to say a tiny, evangelical college in a tiny, Protestant evangelical town in rural Kentucky. Same town in which I was raised. At that time I’d never been to Los Angeles, never lived on the West Coast, never written any stories of my own, never met any Jews, even, except the Jews for Jesus who came through and put on a show at the Methodist church.

“Tall Tales” seemed like it had the power to transport me to a world where…women lived on their own in apartments, for example (that modest dream!). Interacted with men their families hadn’t met. Used language in an incantatory, non-Protestant way. Protestants are famous for plain-spoken practicality. They ousted all that nonsense iconography. All those paintings. Images of God? Offensive detractions from his unimaginable reality. (But you should have seen our hand-lettered felt banners on Easter Sunday!)

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To the Lighthouse

Many writers weigh in on the effect of today’s numerous MFA programs on the quality of contemporary fiction writing. Like others, I am—helpfully—100% ambivalent. The MFA served me well in many ways. After I graduated from college I went right into a full-time job editing sewage treatment reports for the state of Indiana. After a year or so of that, I was thrilled to be accepted into Indiana University’s writing program, where I found that despite teaching 2-3 classes a year, despite a rigorous curriculum that included lit and theory courses, despite a mounting conviction that I was the only person in workshop who wasn’t a real writer, I still had more time to devote to trying my hand at it than I had experienced while working my day job. And this, the time factor, has held true with all my intermittent forays into full-time professional life (public relations, politics, creative services). Academia, in the forms of fellowships, degrees and teaching assignments, nearly always provides the more flexible schedule.

That’s one way of looking at it. Another is to ask what happens when you institutionalize the teaching of something that has been described, probably romantically, as unteachable? How does curriculum and process intersect with subjectivity and creativity? And what about the worthy mission of academic institutions to provide the forum for scholarship that calls into question the arts and the assumptions—aesthetic, political, otherwise—on which they are founded at any given time? Talk about having to watch your feet while you’re trying to learn how to dance!

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One Day at a Time: Why I Reread “Helping”

Robert Stone

Robert Stone’s story, “Helping,” is told (mostly) from the point of view of Elliot. He’s a Vietnam vet and a recovering alcoholic social worker married to Grace, a lawyer who works for child protective services. Clearly these two share an occupational dedication to helping others. They also invest, gamely, in various methods of helping themselves. In addition to having participated in couples counseling, Grace, unhappily childless, faithfully attends Mass. Elliot has joined Alcoholics Anonymous and has logged eighteen months of sobriety as the story opens.

And the story opens on the day he falls off the wagon, something he attributes to thinking of a trip he took to Boston months before, when “the wet streets seemed cold and lonely” and “old hopes tormented him like phantom limbs.” He manages to stay sober anyway, until a man comes to him for counseling, a man who has been in the system a long time and has grown accustomed to being indulged by therapists and doctors—a man who enjoys being helped. Although the man is not military and has never been to Vietnam, he shares with Elliot some dreams that recall Elliot’s trauma there in a way he can’t shake. By the time Elliot gets home he has stopped by a bar and loaded up on whiskey, and the conversation that follows between him and his wife is a desperate, painful and acerbic exchange during which he says things like:

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Jean Rhys and Wide Sargasso Sea

Widely read in English department post-colonial courses, Wide Sargasso Sea imagines the life of “the madwoman in the attic” of Jane Eyre and suggests the background of her madness. The book is divided into three parts, narrated by Antoinette Cosway (who becomes Bertha Mason) and Rochester. But the book also brings to life other voices—their Martinique house woman, Christophine; a Jamaican girl, Amelie, who seduces Rochester; a relative—Daniel Cosway—from an extramarital union (for lack of a better term) of Antoinette’s father. Like a prism, this book has been “unpacked” from every conceivable academic angle. And like the best works of art (a term I admit I cling to in spite of/because of all the cultural/aesthetic issues it lays on the table) this book continues to open up under analysis, yielding layer upon layer of interpretation.

Much of what’s remarkable about Wide Sargasso Sea is indicated in the opening lines:

They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks. The Jamaican ladies had never approved of my mother, ‘because she pretty like pretty self’ Christophine said.

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“In a Pig’s Eye:” Why I Reread “Rock Springs”

By the time I first read “Rock Springs” by Richard Ford, I had already crossed the country seven times by car, four of them through the eponymous town. One of these times my friend and I were on a road trip just for the sake of it. Or for the sake of her novel research. The other times I was caroming from one end of the country to the other, relocating with a new plan, learning the hard way that, as the story’s narrator learns from a napkin, “…between the idea and the act a whole kingdom lies.”

Lately I’ve been preoccupied with the idea of occupational hazard. This term is the title of my piece in the current Ploughshares, a story in which a sewage treatment plant inspector dies from a bacterial infection. I’ve been attracted to the way the concept of occupational hazard indicates an inevitable intersection between our work—and by “work” I mean any mechanism we have found for getting through life emotionally, spiritually, financially—and the compromises or risks inherent in it. Things catch up with us, after all. We eventually find ourselves on the grim spectrum that runs from dire consequence to thoughtful reflection.

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