Writer-In-Chief: As a Man of Letters, Obama Will Be Missed

obama_man of letters

In the era of the 24-hour news cycle and ubiquitous WiFi, being a good writer would not seem to be much of an asset to a politician. A commanding TV presence and social media savvy are at least as important. It wasn’t always this way, of course. Until the arrival of the electronic age, the written word was the primary means by which Americans heard from their president, unless they had the rare opportunity to hear him speak in person. Whether they wanted to be or not, for a long time, presidents had to be writers of one stripe or another. That changed with a series of breakthroughs in communications technology.

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 was historic primarily because he broke the most impenetrable racial barrier of them all. But Obama’s victory was also heralded in the literary community as a return to the days of yore, when the occupant of the Oval Office was a man of letters.

Before Obama was a politician he was a writer. He first entered the public arena when he was named the first African-American to lead the Harvard Law Review. The subsequent notoriety led to the publication of his memoir Dreams of My Father in 1995. The book received mostly favorable reviews but its sales, according to the author, were “underwhelming.”

However, after Obama’s stirring speech at the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 2004, the book was republished and it rocketed to the top of bestseller lists. Much like John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage forty years earlier, the success of Dreams of My Father prompted insinuations that a ghostwriter helped or possibly even supplanted Obama, accusations which have largely been dispelled.Continue Reading

On Failure: Being a Writer Who Translates and a Translator Who Writes

hands-woman-apple-deskI spent a large part of last spring working in coffee shops all around the Finger Lakes region with a group of writers. One of them had published several novels; another had just signed with an agent and was making revisions to her novel-in-progress; the others were working on the early stages of different projects.

I was in an in-between position. I had finished writing a novel a while earlier and was having trouble deciding whether or not I wanted to continue revising it and send it to more agents, or whether the many rejections I’d already received were reason enough to shelve it for the time being.

This dilemma shouldn’t have stopped me from writing anything else, but to a great extent, it did. It was hard to think about any other piece of writing when this one was still on the operating room table, its fate unclear. I was stuck.

On the other hand, translation projects were coming in steadily, some of them slated for publication, all of them involving payment. While my friends were working on their fiction, more often than not I was translating or editing translations. When they lamented every moment they had to spend working on other projects, I concealed behind my shame at not writing an immense relief that I had translation projects that were due soon and provided me with the perfect excuse. Continue Reading

Our Ladies of Perpetual Sorrow


There’s something happening with the personal in writing, and Jason Guriel’s highly circulated Walrus essay “I Don’t Care About Your Life” wants to warn us about it.

“I Don’t Care About Your Life” isn’t as polemical as it sounds. For one, its title doesn’t so much reveal Guriel’s hand, as lampoon precisely the under-achieving self-referential voice that the essay goes on, at greater critical distance, to critique.

Then the actual argument is relatively light: Guriel advocates for the suspicion of “personal” writing in criticism, where personal is defined stylistically by conventions like the first-person pronoun. Yet, as he further historicizes and theorizes “confessional criticism,” the path toward a coherent and consistent sense of personal writing feints and digresses. In focusing on critics, Guriel implies that writing “about” a cultural product and writing about oneself are distinguishable and potentially mutually exclusive modes. Taxonomically, it’s unclear where personal writing ends and the “confessional” begins—or if, according to this framework, they overlap entirely.

This particular slurring elides the point that the writer of personally inflected criticism is not composing a diary entry. She’s choosing to refract personal anecdote or revelation through the investigation of an object or text (though fellow lapsed Catholics might interject that it’s all the more “confessional” to disclose, as it were, through a partition). This refraction may obfuscate both writer and object; it may alienate the reader from both. Or it may bend light in both directions.Continue Reading

L’Appel du Vide: On Visual Caesuras and Erasure

Stoddard Title - Au Sable Chasm - Jacob's Well, looking out

I take the five students of my poetry micro-workshop outside to discuss Claudia Emerson’s latest collection Impossible Bottle. As we sit in the sun, bending over the brilliant bright book pages, a student points to the poem “Metastasis: Web” and volunteers to read it aloud before our analysis of the author’s craft choices. You—join us. Lend your voice to the poem too. It’s meant for the ear.

Metastasis: Web

no mistake   this web’s expanse
near invisible

in cornered light     the screened porch-door
open year round   the world’s

entrance to it   the wren’s
discovery   the accident

the web become larder   the spider
grocer   its lovely apron

filament   parcels of the air
asleep   and bound   and you

approve   somehow of the commerce
as though   agreed to

the ease of deft return   the joy
such   swift   excision

(“Metastasis: Web” is used with permission of Louisiana State University Press)

Thank you. How quickly did you read the poem? Did you pause in the middle of lines? Where? Did you read through the lines for the syntax, as we’re taught? Or did you end every line, every break as if it’s a question? (Poet voice, ahem.)Continue Reading

Origin Stories: Don DeLillo’s UNDERWORLD

The Triumph of Death

UNDERWORLD’S prologue takes its title from Pieter Bruegel’s THE TRIUMPH OF DEATH.

Novelists, like paranoiacs, see connections where other people don’t, which is to say that both are always trying to uncover plots. Don DeLillo is a dean of both groups, so it’s fitting that his 1997 masterpiece, Underworld, is a conspiracy of people, events, and cultural touchstones (both real and invented) that seem at first blush unrelated.

As DeLillo recounted for Gerald Howard, Underworld began with a poetic and only slightly paranoid connection:

I was reading the newspaper one morning in October 1991, and there was a story about the fortieth anniversary of a legendary ball game between the Giants and Dodgers, the third game of the play-offs, which the Giants won dramatically on a ninth inning home run by Bobby Thomson…It seemed to be a kind of unrepeatable event, the kind of thing that binds people in a certain way. Not only people who were at the ballpark, but fans in general and even nonfans who were not necessarily interested in the baseball implications. There was a sense, at least for me, that this was the last such binding event that mainly involved jubilation rather than disaster of some sort. Anyway, I went to the library and found a reel of microfilm for the New York Times of the following day, October 4, 1951. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but what I found was two headlines, symmetrically matched. It was like fitting together two pieces of ancient pottery. One headline concerned the ball game, “Giants Capture Pennant” and so on. The other headline concerned an atomic test that the Soviet Union had set off in Kazakhstan. Very few details were given, but the two bold matching headlines caused a sort of pause in me. There was a strong sense of the power of history, and this is what got me started thinking about the Cold War.

DeLillo’s research uncovered another wonderful coincidence: J. Edgar was at the famous baseball game. The fact struck DeLillo “with the force of revelation, because it meant that I had someone in the Polo Grounds who was intimately connected to what had happened in Kazakhstan.”Continue Reading

Waiting to Write

Like any writer I dream of being awarded a life-altering grant or winning the state lottery, or at the very least, the heart of some word-loving benefactor, a silver-haired sugar mama or daddy who’ll rescue me from hard labor, no strings attached, simply for the satisfaction of seeing my words released into the universe. Centuries ago artists and writers had patrons. Some still do. The British had the dole.

In his essays “Sacked” and “On the Roof,” Geoff Dyer remembers living on the dole as a golden age when the safety net of Britain’s welfare state allowed Housing Benefit to pay his rent and Social Security to provide him money to live on.  The first twenty-five years of his life were cushioned by “free health care, free school, free tuition at university, a full maintenance grant and then – the icing on the cake—the dole!” The relative economic freedom Dyer and his “doley” friends experienced nurtured a whole generation of aspiring actors, dancers, writers, and musicians. Dyer calls the dole “the equivalent of waiting tables in New York.”

For the time being I’ve chosen the employment Dyer mentions to support my writing, that is, the life of waiting tables. My decision five years ago to leave a steady office job worried family and friends, but the gifts of a service industry job continue to do me good. In the right place with the right establishment, a writer can make good money on a flexible schedule, her mind left free to ruminate without too much responsibility.

Waiting tables, however, is not like living on the dole. Besides sleeping with a pillow under jammed knees and forever scrutinizing the tableside manners and tipping habits of friends, working dinner services leaves a writer in NYC unable to attend readings and events that help establish friendships and beneficial connections. Most significantly, restaurant serving, like all other work that pays the bills, diminishes time at my desk. But we all must grind, and this is the ages-old challenge of being an artist: how to survive and create in a society that values its art and culture, to a great extent, in terms of economic viability and success?Continue Reading

Obama the Ellisonian: Another Reading of the President’s Worldview


Early in the speech that Barack Obama gave last year to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” standing in front of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama, the president asked, “What can be more American than what happened in this place?”

That line deserved more attention than it got. To recap what happened there: a large group of unarmed, peaceful protesters walking from Selma to Birmingham to demonstrate for voting rights for all citizens attempted to cross a bridge named for a Confederate general and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan. While crossing, they were ambushed by a force of state troopers who, first, refused them passage and then, when the protesters didn’t yield, chased them back and attacked them with fists, billy clubs, and tear gas. It was a moment when all of America’s history, tradition, and institutional authority seemed to coalesce violently to beat back a fragile movement toward racial justice.

What does it mean to characterize that as the essential American moment? And to do it in a speech described as optimistic? And if you do that, how can you also be criticized for your romantic view of American history, and for your refusal to “accept that plunder and bigotry are part of America’s foundation?Continue Reading

Conflict & Tension: What Writers Can Learn From How Visual Artists Use Contrast


MLContrast is the visual artist’s most powerful tool. Contrast does not necessarily mean opposite. Evil and contentment, white and off-white are both contrasts, but they are not opposites.

Artists use a spectrum of tools to achieve contrast: color and light, saturation and tone shading and line, focus, scale and perspective, body language and facial expression, subject matter and concept and every one of these tools can be used the same way in writing.

At its most basic, contrast can telegraph to an audience what’s important and where to look. I might concentrate my focal point on my character’s fidgeting hands and fade everything else into the background. Contrasting light can do the same thing.

But what makes contrast such a powerful tool is its ability to render complexity, tension and conflict.Continue Reading

When Parents Die: William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow and Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs

Mother headstone

Photo by Anathea Utley

Last week my friend’s mother died, with brutal speed, of cancer. Ten years ago, my father died of a neurological disease so drawn out and cruel that we all wished for its end. Parents die, usually before their children, andso long so both of these deaths were inevitable in one way or another. But as the narrator of William Maxwell’s novella, So Long, See You Tomorrow, says of his mother’s death, “the idea that kept recurring to me…was that I had inadvertently walked through a door that I shouldn’t have gone through and couldn’t get back to the place I hadn’t meant to leave.”

The narrator is ten when his mother dies of influenza during the epidemic of 1918. It’s an event from Maxwell’s own life. The story of her death is told in chapter two, and the narrator is defined by it. His father and older brother are distant and never speak to him about their shared loss. The book is ostensibly about a lurid murder that occurred in the narrator’s town, committed by the father of a boy he once knew. But his mother’s death permeates the novella. He spends half the book imagining the story of the crime, but in the final chapter we find him lying on an analyst’s couch.

I relived that night pacing, with my arm around my father’s waist. From the living room into the front hall, then, turning, past the grandfather’s clock and on into the library, and from the library into the living room. From the library into the dining room, where my mother lay in her coffin. Together we stood looking down at her. I meant to say to the fatherly man who was not my father, the elderly Viennese, another exile, with thick glasses and a Germanic accent, I meant to say I couldn’t bear it, but what came out of my mouth was “I can’t bear it.” This statement was followed by a flood of tears such as I hadn’t ever known before, not even in my childhood.

Continue Reading

Big Picture, Small Picture: Context for Ray Bradbury’s THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES

Mars_Excursion_ModuleThis blog series, Big Picture, Small Picture, provides a contextual collage for a chosen piece of literature. The information here is culled from newspapers, newsreels, periodicals, and other primary sources from the date of the text’s original publication.

“So, we’ll go no more a roving
so late into the night
though the heart be still as loving
and the moon be still as bright.”

 -Lord Byron

April 30th, 1950. Stars and planets speckle the Sunday night sky that hangs above the elm-lined streets of suburban Waukegan, Illinois, the hometown of author Ray Bradbury. A solitary resident on an after dinner stroll might breathe in the cool, blossom scented air, or admire the black silhouettes of lightning rods reaching up from the roofs of the modest neighborhood homes. With his naked eye, he’d be able to see Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn. Mars, though, would be the crown jewel. “Though it is drawing away from us and getting fainter,” an article in the local paper assures, “the planet Mars is still brighter than any other planet or star to be seen in the evening sky.”

Mars shines brightest in the imaginations of America’s youth, as well. The Monday edition of the Sandusky Register features an article in the Boys and Girls section that speculates on the build and demeanor of a Martian:

“They’d be funny-looking people. Because air is scarce, they’d probably have to eat a lot of oxygen so they’d have big stomachs too, but not as large as moon people who would have to eat all their oxygen…they might appear to be unfriendly, but it’s simply because they have no time to have good manners.”

The TV series Space Patrol debuts on ABC with an episode called “Treachery on Mars,” in which the sinister Martian Major Gorla, who is humanoid but decidedly un-American, hurls cosmic bombs at our hero Buzz Corry’s sleek, silver rocket ship.Continue Reading