Commonplace Book: The Joys of Editing

Lovely piece by Rebecca Saletan in Poets & Writers about editing, including this precis of a key moment in editing.

At its best—and it is often this good—editing means getting to be such a friend, and entering into that strange and almost primal process of divining the shape the work is trying to assume. It was Matthiessen himself who gave me my first experience of being taken seriously as an editor, back when I was an assistant to the formidable Jason Epstein, and Peter was working on a collection of stories. One day he asked if I would look at one he’d been laboring over. Something was hampering it, but he didn’t know what. I read it and instantly saw—or rather, felt—what was off: The story was constructed on a hinge, and the hinge was stuck, much as an actual hinge might be.


This ‘hinge’ issue (for some reason I usual think of these as pivots) is one of the major things in writing. Odd that it gets relatively little attention in writing instruction (or did in mine at least). In an essay, a story (even in a blog post sometimes) how the cards get turned over to reveal a pattern–and the moment that comes clear–is so important, and tricky to get right, with implications for what comes before and after. To try a different analogy, it is when the water hits the shore, and whether it is a gentle lap, or a tsunami, how it was prepared for is what makes the piece work. It’s hard to see how to fix it yourself (forest and trees idea, since analogies seem to be on sale today), and therein lies one of the many advantages of working with a good editor (and keeping them in editorial enterprises).

Funny Words: Philosophers Write Mysteries

Found this great column by philosopher Jonathan Wolff, who has the goods on academic writing.

“At least in my subject, we teach students to go sub-zero on the tension scale: to give the game away right from the start. A detective novel written by a good philosophy student would begin: “In this novel I shall show that the butler did it.” The rest will be just filling in the details.”

Worth reading the whole thing if you are in the academic game.

Great Ledes


Fruits of a long habit of noting great ledes (or leads in this non-hot type era).  Two recent ones that kept me reading, and the third from an Anthony Lane movie review from years ago.


It probably wouldn’t have surprised his long-suffering friends, but the remains of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge have been rediscovered in a wine cellar.


We’ve met only a few hours before and already New York City’s second-most powerful politician has told me about the moment he found out he was HIV positive, his former cocaine habit, the night he decided to get sober, has complained about online gay dating in New York, gotten choked up at least three times, told me he barely gets laid, talked about his mother’s love life, told me how he wants a husband and kids, smoked a cigarette, invited me over to his tiny studio apartment so I can see precisely how small it is — a touch over 300 square feet — and presented me with a proposed theme for a potential 2021 mayoral run.

That message: “Stop Fucking With Us.”


That is it like being Timur Bekmambetov? No artist should be confused too closely with his creations, but anybody who sits through “Wanted,” Bekmambetov’s new movie, will be tempted to wonder if the life style of the characters might not reflect or rub off on that of the director. How, for example, does he make a cup of coffee? My best guess, based on the evidence of the film, is that he tosses a handful of beans toward the ceiling, shoots them individually into a fine powder, leaves it hanging in the air, runs downstairs, breaks open a fire hydrant with his head, carefully directs the jet of water through the window of his apartment, sets fire to the building, then stands patiently with his mug amid the blazing ruins to collect the precious percolated drops. Don’t even think about a cappuccino.

Daily Prompt

Determined to keep this daily blogging up, I have run into the inevitable [at least for me] writer’s block, and have turned to the people who have a, “365 Days of Writing Prompts” ebook.  Ever the helpful pusher, those people.

These are mostly too personal, potentially pointless, or Pooter-esque for me, but I did like this prompt, so here goes:

Bedtime stories
What was your favorite book as a child? Did it influence the
person you are now?

Like many, E.B. White’s children’s books–Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, and the Trumpet of the Swan--were the guiding stars of my childhood reading. My parents read Stuart Little to me at bedtime in first grade, but I was able to read Charlotte’s Web by myself in second grade, crying the night I finished it, and going down stairs to see my parents. There my father, in a moment that has stayed with me, explained that the wonderful thing about books was that I could return to the start, read again, and Charlotte and the farmyard gang would all be there, and alive as ever.  That both my parents comforted me on crying over a book offered a validation (sometimes missing in other aspects of my childhood) made me realize that reading would be front and center in my life, as indeed it was in theirs.

Whether Charlotte, Wilbur, Templeton and Fern influenced me is harder to discern, but certainly White’s lean, polished, gently humorous prose did calibrate something in me.  It may be hard to imagine the extent to which he was the gold standard for writing in the mid-century.  His essays were given as models for my school writing exercises, and his way of being a writer, complete with his reluctant status as a sage; even leaving New York for a small town in Maine seemed the vision of cranky Yankee ‘lit’ry’ idealism for me.  (That said, I was not exactly hankering to be the next Hunter Thompson or Norman Mailer though. )

He has held up for me, most of all the rhythm of his prose and a style, notable in descriptive passages, where you seldom catch him “writing.” That said, it is odd that he was such a paragon for writing students. What is beautiful about his writing is as distinct to him as a fingerprint: that prose rhythm, and a sense, really a New Yorker sensibility of humor. (Almost completely gone from the magazine today.) The things I loved about him were the things that were most elusive to a beginning writer. The visible bits, structure and rhetoric, which in theory you could take apart and assess, were often  mystifying to me. Even The Elements of Style, which is still a charmer, is a little thin literally and figuratively when it comes to practical writing advice. And what is there, I have practically made a career of avoiding.

Still, the feelings, aspirations, and fantasies of childhood and adolescent reading must stay with any writer, and I’m sure that I’m shaped even by those essays I couldn’t parse.  One thing I suspect: he wouldn’t have abided rambling, self-indulgent blog entries, so best to finish it up, with the the hope that I have inspired you to read the man himself.

“The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last for ever. Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year – the days when summer is changing into autumn – the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.”

Commonplace Book: Anne Enright

The Irish novelist Anne Enright, with a meditation on Genesis and the evolution of blame. Excerpt below.

She goes on to evoke everything from Milton to Twitter, with her usual lightly worn, but amazing wit and erudition. The whole thing is worth a read.


From the Metropolitan Museum

The story of the Fall is one of the most enduring stories we have, and it is never fair. You could use it as a template for a certain kind of novel: put a choice in there, tip the balance, make the consequences so disproportionate we doubt our sense of cause and effect, make them suffer, make them into better human beings. Visually, the narrative is brilliantly successful, for being so easy to hold within a single frame. There is nothing static about the way the viewer sees an image of the first couple considering apples. It is a moment of great tension, and they are wearing no clothes. So, to the rules for writing a successful fiction, we might add, pretend that it is not about sex, make the world symbolic, expand the small asymmetries. Here are two human beings who are slightly, but perhaps disastrously, anatomically different. She likes something long, he likes something round – what could possibly go wrong?

The story is a riddle about authority and predestination that has survived the theological palaver of generations because, simple to the point of transparency, it is also impenetrably self-enclosed. It is held in a brilliant web of balance and contradiction by a few hundred words; so it is worth looking at those words and what they actually mean.

Just to be clear: there was no seduction. There was no devil, nor any mention of Satan, who was, at this stage, an unimportant figure. Although he played a sporadic role in the torment of Job, or in the temptation of Christ in the desert, Satan was not a mythical force before the bestiary of Revelations, and the rebellious Lucifer was some other angel until Milton came along. The idea of a great battle between light and the forces of darkness did not get going until early Christian times, possibly because this small, persecuted sect needed to find a great spiritual enemy against which to pit themselves. The creature in Genesis was just a snake, and though he was crafty, he didn’t seduce, nor did he ‘tempt’ Eve – this last term means ‘to test’ and is used only once in Genesis, when God tests Abraham, requiring the sacrifice of his son Isaac. So Eve did not tempt Adam, either, nor was he seduced by her nakedness. There is, in fact, very little sex in the story. Our readings of it are all subtext, all interpretation, all error.

Bad Reviews: John Simon

I’m long, and gratefully, out of the arts reviewing game. (Despite an occasional lapse).

When I was doing it regularly,  an editor once told me my positive reviews were, atypically, better than my negative ones. Don’t know why, certainly for me the really bad review is a guilty pleasure, probably for others too. (Seems like it keeps Anthony Lane employed at the NYker. I’m not sure he honestly knows that much about movies, but the man knows how to pan a film.)

One of the great ‘left it for dead’ masters was John Simon of New York Magazine, who really let you know when he hadn’t liked something.

Here he is from 1987 on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express (the one with the roller skates). This is a piece, like Tom Shales interview of Phyllis George, that newspaper folk handed around to one another. Lodestones that point towards a not particularly admirable compass point, but point they do.

It would be best if children remained small,’ concludes Erich Kästner’s charming poem ‘A Mother Takes Stock.” This is even truer of model trains, which should not exceed the size of a small puppy and definitely should not be anthropomorphized as they are in the ghastly juggernaut of a musical from Britain, “Starlight Express.’

The conceit (in both senses of the word) is to put seeming adults on roller skates and make them pretend they are trains competing in a trans-America race imagined by a child, whose taped voice narrates the event. The repetitious preliminary heats and self-contradictory main races cannot be followed; the story is ludicrous and confused. Just when the trains veer into humanity, they become derailed into nonsense; just when the humanoids achieve some trainlikeness, they become choo choo cute.

Also immense and monstrous. The set—really an environment—is a huge, three-tiered track that winds across lowering and revolving bridges, around platforms that rise from a central declivity where most of the action takes place, and along winding paths that encircle two pockets of spectators but do not have the decency to envelop the entire audience (as they did in London) and thus at least occasionally be visible only on small TV monitors. Here the entire vertical three-ring circus is always in full, fulsome view, bespangled with garishly colored lights to put the brashest discotheque to shame, with characteristic bits of American cities from coast to blinking coast flaring up fitfully. And the often deafening sound is the most denatured, unnatural, dehumanized clangor ever to hit Broadway. Starting with that child, a mere computerized voice (the real boy, Braden Danner, has the good sense to be the live Gavroche up the street in ‘Les Misérables’), everything sounds canned. Hordes of performers whizzing about on skates have to be lip-synching, but even on the occasions when someone stands still long enough for a viva voce song, elephantine electronics make it all clank and clatter like a can tied to the Great Bear’s tail. [ARS: what would Simon make of today’s Broadway amplification?]

Witnessing ‘Starlight Express’ is to feel trapped inside a gargantuan tape deck while watching a Brobdingnagian Erector Set go through the most elaborate mechanical gyrations. The human performers railroaded into the show have to be actors, singers, dancers, roller skaters, and, considering the danger to life and limb, Evel Knievels, which is too much to expect of anybody, and so no one quite manages to huff and puff up to snuff.

The plot is simplemindedness itself. The insomniac child envisages a race through America for a shining silver dollar. There are trains from various countries, e.g., a Japanese bullet train, an Italian espresso (that’s the humor of it), etc., but the musical and dramatic possibilities of multinationality are promptly dropped as we concentrate on Rusty, a nice American steam engine that competes against a nasty American diesel called Greaseball and a campy, outer-space electric train, Electra, both of whom steal his pretty but fickle female tender, Pearl, as they try to trip and elbow him out of the race, sometimes using the services of the treacherous and androgynous Red Caboose, a cross between the Joker of ‘Jeu de cartes’ and Anybody’s from ‘West Side Story’—but, then, everything here is really from somewhere else.

Since the concept and music are by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who, as we know from ‘Cats,’ likes to go metaphysical on us, there is also God. Assuming the disembodied gospel-singing voice of Poppa, Rusty’s earthly father, this is the eponymous Starlight Express, appearing as a light show in the starry sky, who might as well be called I Am That I Amtrak. The mentality of the piece, as written by Lloyd Webber and his doggerelist Richard Stilgoe, is resolutely reactionary. Steam wins out over diesel and electricity (a curious position for a show that depends wholly on computers and state-of-the-nonart electronics), and women are neurotic or simpering tenders, sleepers, dining or smoking cars, the male locomotives’ subservient playthings or prostitutes (“I’m a sleeper with a heart of gold”) who, in a typical dance sequence, get kicked in the rear by Greaseball, for whom they bend over backward.

Lloyd Webber’s tunes are scavenged from all over, not least from Lloyd Webber, though here and there a patch of melody fleetingly pleases. Stilgoe’s lyrics tend toward things like “Was I corroded/Or overloaded?” “The coach I thought was going with me,/She up and joined electricity,” not to mention grating repetitions of “Freight/ Is great.” John Napier’s scenery and costumes here lean toward excess, as in “Cats,” but Meccano lovers should exult in them; David Hersey’s lighting just about twists itself inside out to come up with fancier effects (some compelling, some merely frantic), and the skating and break dancing by Arlene Phillips, though not up to what one sees in the streets outside the theater, has its moments. Trevor Nunn’s direction is pretty obvious here, and among the performers, only Reva Rice, Jane Krakowski, Greg Mowry, Steve Fowler, and Andrea McArdle come off passably [A few names that have continued in lights since then]—but, then, no one has much of a chance with an orchestra piped in from a “specially designed ‘orchestra room’ off stage” and very possibly on Mars.

“Starlight Express” is a tale told by an idiot with son and lumière. It is a light show, an industrial show, a circus show, a freak show—everything but a show show. It belongs in a sports arena, exhibition hall, or oversize discotheque; all it can do in a theater is cheapen it. But the audience palpitating around me was entirely apposite: They looked and behaved like people who had never been to a theater, and “Starlight Express” is guaranteed to do nothing to change that. Perhaps the most characteristic thing about it is a sign reading RALIEGH [sic], for this is postliterate or, at any rate, illiterate theater.

Writers on Writing

“The Writer” from Fragonard, The Fantasy Figures at Washington’s National Gallery of Art. I always blog in a tunic like that.

A round-up of some quotes on writing (no certainty that these are all accurate). I found them nosing around the web looking for a Peter De Vries quip–always one of my favorites.

“Writing is a way of talking without being interrupted.”
Jules Renard

“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”
Kurt Vonnegut

“I love being a writer, what I can’t stand is the paperwork.”
Peter De Vries

“If the doctor told me I had six minutes to live, I’d type a little faster.”
Isaac Asimov

“Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about.”
W. H. Auden

“I always write a good first line, but I have trouble in writing the others.”

“The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.”
John Steinbeck

“Hard writing makes easy reading. Easy writing makes hard reading.”
William Zinsser

“You can fire your secretary, divorce your spouse, abandon your children. But they remain your co-authors forever.”
Ellen Goodman

“It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.”
Robert Benchley

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
E. L. Doctorow

“I’m writing a book. I’ve got the page numbers done.”
Steven Wright

“Writing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.”
Don Marquis

“When you’re writing, you’re conjuring. It’s a ritual, and you need to be brave and respectful and sometimes get out of the way of whatever it is that you’re inviting into the room. ”
Tom Waits

“Novelists are no more moral or certain than anybody else; we are ideologically adrift, and if we are any good then our writing will live in several places at once. That is both our curse and our charm.”
Andrew O’Hagan

“If you know what you are going to write when you’re writing a poem, it’s going to be average.”
Derek Walcott

“Writing nonfiction is more like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing. Novels are like paintings, specifically watercolors. Every stroke you put down you have to go with. Of course you can rewrite, but the original strokes are still there in the texture of the thing.”
Joan Didion

“Revision is one of the exquisite pleasures of writing.”
Bernard Malamud

“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.”
Graham Greene

“I never attended a creative writing class in my life. I have a horror of them; most writers groups moonlight as support groups for the kind of people who think that writing is therapeutic. Writing is the exact opposite of therapy.”
Zadie Smith

“I’m never, I hope, stupid enough to believe that Twitter or blogging or any of this stuff is a substitute for actually doing the work of writing a book.”
Neil Gaiman

Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea.
Richard Ford

Commonplace Book: Lament for the Blogging & The Internet

Tipped by the always readable Farhad Manjoo, a NYTimes tech writer (with  a good twitter name), I checked out Jia Tolentino’s lament for blogging, in The New Yorker, pegged in part to the closing of The Awl, sort of the blog equivalent of an alternative daily.

It’s a nice piece, although perhaps a bit impredicative in that it (I assume unwittingly) embodies some of the reasons people might not be so interested in blogs any more. Although it oversells a golden age” of the Internet that has been lost (such vanished Edens have always been with us, although perhaps they are disappearing over the horizon faster and faster), there is a sense of fun that has diminished (even for somebody who barely even qualifies as a blogger, like me).

In passing she quotes Alex Balk, writing in 2015. He was a founder of The Awl, and his update to the ‘lament for the makers‘ is bracing:

I have previously shared with you Balk’s Law (“Everything you hate about The Internet is actually everything you hate about people”) and Balk’s Second Law (“The worst thing is knowing what everyone thinks about anything”). Here I will impart to you Balk’s Third Law: “If you think The Internet is terrible now, just wait a while.” The moment you were just in was as good as it got. The stuff you shake your head about now will seem like fucking Shakespeare in 2016.

Perhaps true, but also perhaps ever so, for more than just the Internet. Somewhere I recall a Mark Twain quote, “no matter what the show, the golden age seems to have ended the day before I bought my first ticket”

Commonplace Book: Wacky Weddings

Trying–yet again–to get the blog re-energized. For now just going to use it as a commonplace book, and this Sunday’s NYTimes was full of great stuff. Perhaps none better than this wedding story, which has the best lede I’ve read in a while:

Not your average wedding venue…

“A man born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Toronto and schooled at a Yeshiva and a Japanese-American man raised on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, were married in the rare books section of the Strand Bookstore in Greenwich Village before a crowd of 200 people, against a backdrop of an arch of gold balloons that were connected to each other like intertwined units of a necklace chain or the link emoji, in a ceremony led by a Buddhist that included an operatic performance by one friend, the reading of an original poem based on the tweets of Yoko Ono by another, and a lip-synced rendition of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” by a drag queen dressed in a white fringe jumper and a long veil.

The grooms met on the internet. But this isn’t a story about people who swiped right.”

The copyeditor did right by the headline too:
Of All the Blogs in the World, He Walks Into Mine




Why there will always be a Chicago Manual of Style

From their droll Q&A.

screen-shot-2016-12-06-at-4-58-33-pmQ. A sentence in a manuscript: In a landmark collection of essays, The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare’s Two Versions of “King Lear,” a range of scholars made the case . . . The book title is of course in italics—but then how does one treat that comma after Lear, and then the quote mark after the comma? Would the comma be in roman, and then the quote mark in italics?

A. This situation is a sticky wicket. The quotation marks must be italic, since they are both part of an italic book title. But the comma doesn’t belong to the title. According to Chicago’s preference for putting punctuation into the same font as the “surrounding text” (6.5), the comma would be roman. But this comma is “surrounded” by italics! If only we could use “logical punctuation,” whereby the comma would go outside the quotation marks, to render the issue moot. But that would be un-American. Editors here disagree on the best solution, so style the comma as you wish with the hope that its tiny size will allow readers to ignore it.

%d bloggers like this: