Quotable Words: Scott Korb on John McPhee

This McPhee quote caught my eye in this piece about teaching freshman English.

“Some lines from the great writer John McPhee have helped me consolidate these lessons over the years. Reflecting in The New Yorker in 2011, he wrote: “I once made a list of all the pieces I had written in maybe 20 or 30 years, and then put a check mark beside each one whose subject related to things I had been interested in before I went to college. I checked off more than 90 percent.”

That’s true of me too, but I’m honestly not sure it’s anything to be all that proud of.

In other communications news, Jeff Bezos’ letter to shareholders is out, among its other points, (also picked up by the NYTimes).
“Amazon doesn’t allow PowerPoint slides during meetings. “Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos,” then silently read them before meetings begin, Mr. Bezos wrote.”


Can’t believe that I agree with him, but I do.

The Reading & Writing Life: Periodicity

Like many, I found term papers in college a grim business. Despite any amount of planning, they were always a rush at the end, and despite my characteristic glibness, and being a fast writer, they were usually a mess and busted as such by faculty.

I assumed the deficits were all on my side, and mostly moral failings at buckling down to do the work, so it was odd to discover a few years later when I was writing for a daily newspaper as a stringer that I never missed a deadline, and mostly enjoyed the experience of getting a piece written and filed. I also thrived in the culture of a daily newsroom, finding a natural place within the shared rhythm that grows out of the collective imperative of getting the paper out on time. (The wonderful term “putting the paper to bed” like muskox, a nice bit of journalistic jargon now lost, gives a sense of how it feels when the paper has finally gone to press.)

In talking with my mother about this phenomena, she reflected on her journalism career in newspapers and magazines, saying, “well, it always seemed that working on a daily was easier than working on a weekly, much less a monthly or quarterly. The deadline shaped the work and you got it done.” A daily deadline means a workflow, helps you make sense of what you have to do that day, creates a system if only by default.

By that measure, annuals, and “occasionals” would be hard, and one-time productions, like a Ph.D. dissertation or magnum opus, would be most difficult of all. In those contexts, external factors likely don’t help, except perhaps to create neurotic and corrosive pressure, “when are you going to finish?” or worse, “when are you really going to start?”

Thus it surprised me then, and still does today, that we expect college students, and to some extent, high school students, to figure out how to cope with these long timelines, pulling together materials for a coherent term paper on their own without the guidance a workflow might give. It certainly was never any fun for me–nor, as nearly as I can tell, particularly edifying. I finally wrote a satisfactory term paper in grad school (no doubt in part because I had the confidence of having written for a newspaper under my belt). Perhaps all the botched attempts earlier did add up to some kind of embedded wisdom, at least of the “here’s what not to do” variety. But it really did seem a waste of writing and reading time all around.

Now of course I write every day, and it makes me pause to wonder if I had committed to writing every day on a term paper whether that would have been the ticket. (I doubt it.) People do sort of write a newspaper every day in their collective FB, Twitter, txt, email and other constant streams of content. This seems to bring up the inverse of the problem with the long lead time for a term paper, the constant deadline of “now,” that is, of no deadline, means that while the means to writing has never been easier–simple as pressing “post”– the rhythm is just a constant beating chaos of “update me” no putting it to bed, not much shared pulling together to get something done, just sort of a “feed me” 24/7 editorial maw. I wonder how newspapers–which I am long out of–even begin to cope.

Reasonable Words: Twenty Rules for Detective Stories

A great review of some Victorian mystery novels in the LRB (in particular the deliciously convoluted “Notting Hill Mystery“)  tipped me off to this advice from mystery writer S.S. Van Dine.

“The dectective story is a kind of intellectual game. It is more — it is a sporting event. And for the writing of detective stories there are

The Moonstone
T.S. Eliot called it the first and best detective novel–not the first it turns out, but still one of the best. I gobbled it up in high school instead of doing my algebra homework.

very definite laws — unwritten, perhaps, but none the less binding; and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them. Herewith, then, is a sort Credo, based partly on the practice of all the great writers of detective stories, and partly on the promptings of the honest author’s inner conscience. To wit:

1. The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.

2. No willful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.

3. There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.

4. The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit. This is bald trickery, on a par with offering some one a bright penny for a five-dollar gold piece. It’s false pretenses.

5. The culprit must be determined by logical deductions — not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem in this latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase, and then telling him, after he has failed, that you had the object of his search up your sleeve all the time. Such an author is no better than a practical joker.

6. The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic.

7. There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader’s trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded.

8. The problem of the crime must he solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic se’ances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio.

9. There must be but one detective — that is, but one protagonist of deduction — one deus ex machina. To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem, is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader. If there is more than one detective the reader doesn’t know who his codeductor is. It’s like making the reader run a race with a relay team.

10. The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story — that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest.

11. A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion.

12. There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed. The culprit may, of course, have a minor helper or co-plotter; but the entire onus must rest on one pair of shoulders: the entire indignation of the reader must be permitted to concentrate on a single black nature.

13. Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story. A fascinating and truly beautiful murder is irremediably spoiled by any such wholesale culpability. To be sure, the murderer in a detective novel should be given a sporting chance; but it is going too far to grant him a secret society to fall back on. No high-class, self-respecting murderer would want such odds.

14. The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be be rational and scientific. That is to say, pseudo-science and purely imaginative and speculative devices are not to be tolerated in the roman policier. Once an author soars into the realm of fantasy, in the Jules Verne manner, he is outside the bounds of detective fiction, cavorting in the uncharted reaches of adventure.

15. The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent — provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face-that all the clues really pointed to the culprit — and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter. That the clever reader does often thus solve the problem goes without saying.

16. A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no “atmospheric” preoccupations. such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude.

17. A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story. Crimes by housebreakers and bandits are the province of the police departments — not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives. A really fascinating crime is one committed by a pillar of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities.

18. A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide. To end an odyssey of sleuthing with such an anti-climax is to hoodwink the trusting and kind-hearted reader.

19. The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plottings and war politics belong in a different category of fiction — in secret-service tales, for instance. But a murder story must be kept gemütlich, so to speak. It must reflect the reader’s everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions.

20. And (to give my Credo an even score of items) I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective story writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are familiar to all true lovers of literary crime. To use them is a confession of the author’s ineptitude and lack of originality. (a) Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect. (b) The bogus spiritualistic se’ance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away. (c) Forged fingerprints. (d) The dummy-figure alibi. (e) The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar. (f)The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person. (g) The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops. (h) The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in. (i) The word association test for guilt. (j) The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unraveled by the sleuth.”

These all make so much sense, and yet one of my all time favorite detective books fails on most of them, perhaps because the putative detective is a hapless librarian.

Quotable Words: Donald Murray on Writing

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Commonplace Book from the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

The writing teacher and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist on just getting on with it…

“The longer I write, the more important I believe it is to write the first draft as fast as possible. In drafting, I push myself so I am at the edge of discomfort. . . Later, it will be time for consideration and reconsideration, slow, careful revision and editing. But on the first draft I have to achieve velocity, just as you do if you want the bike to balance.”

-–Donald M. Murray

Reasonable Words: Guthrie and other Writing Machines

Among many great things in the 9 May London Review of Books was a review of Woody Guthrie’s novel House of Earth by Ian Sansom. I don’t think of Guthrie as a novelist, but he was one, and intermittently at least, a good one. Sansom gives this passage from the novel, introducing Tike Hamlin, the main character, with much in common with Woody (although he’s made himself a little taller, a move I sympathize with!)

Five feet and eight inches tall, square built, but slouchy in his actions, hard of muscle, solid of bone and lungs, but with a good wide streak of laziness somewhere in him … a medium man, medium wise and medium ignorant, wise in the lessons taught by fighting the weather and working the land, wise in the tricks of the men, women, animals, and all of the other things of nature, wise to guess a blizzard, a rainstorm, dry spell, the quick change of the hard wind, wise as to how to make friends, and how to fight enemies. Ignorant as to the things of school.

Of its era, the 1930’s and 40s, certainly, but a good rhythm, nice staircases of lists.

Having not known he even wrote a novel, I now want to read it, and Sansom also has some interesting comparisons to other writers while discussing another of Guthrie’s books, Seeds of Man,

a novel clearly enhanced with large doses of autobiographical fact, but also the thousands of songs, song fragments, gobbets of verse and prose, and the cartoons, journals, diaries, letters and endless observations banged out on a typewriter, or scribbled on a steno pad, and often carelessly discarded. Guthrie, like, say, Balzac, Simenon, Joyce Carol Oates, Bob Dylan, Richmal Crompton and Stephen King, was basically a writing machine, someone constantly in the process of noting, notating and composing.

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This machine writes novels: the IBM Selectric of my youth…a lot less fun than WordPress, and the kind of typewriter I wrote many truly terrible high school and college papers.

I love this image of “a writing machine,” the opposite of how most people view (or experience) writing. (“A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” -–Thomas Mann ) The trope on writing is that it is such a heroic struggle–be it a 500 word theme for a high school English class, or The Magic Mountain. The notion of getting up and just writing every day because you need to, because you are a writing machine, is a neat counterpoint to this, a story worth telling in its own right.

Reasonable Words: Tierney on the Power of Positive Procrastinating

He’s late, I’m later…nice piece on why you should procrastinate in an NYTimes piece by John Tierney.

For the past 5 years, or maybe it’s more like 10, I’ve been meaning to publish a New Year’s Day column offering a bold resolution for the coming year: “The Power of Positive Procrastination.”

Lots of gems to contemplate in lieu of doing something more odious (like filling out your timesheet), including this rigorous advice on writing from Raymond Chandler.

Screen Shot 2013-01-17 at 1.13.41 PMChandler forced himself to write detective stories by setting aside four hours a day and following two rules:

a) You don’t have to write.

b) You can’t do anything else.

“It’s the same principle as keeping order in a school,” Chandler explained. “If you make the pupils behave, they will learn something just to keep from being bored.”

Not sure about Chandler’s take on educational psychology, but I bet his technique would work for writing.

Word on Writing: Penelope Fitzgerald

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Novelist Penelope Fitzgerald

I have tried, in describing these books of mine, to say something about my life. In my last two novels I have taken a journey outside of myself. Innocence takes place in Italy in the late 1950s. The Beginning of Spring in Moscow in 1913. Most writers, including the greatest, feel the need to do something like this sooner or later. The temptation comes to take what seems almost like a vacation in another country and above all in another time. V. S. Prichett, however, has pointed out that “a professional writer who spends his time becoming other people and places, real or imaginary, finds he has written his life away and become almost nothing.” This is a warning that has to be taken seriously. I can only say that however close I’ve come, by this time, to nothingness, I have remained true to my deepest convictions—I mean to the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong, and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities, which I have done my best to treat as a comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it? –British novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, 1916-2000, who published her first novel at age 60. From her book of essays, The Afterlife.

I got Innocence out of the Cambridge Public Library, after liking, but not being terribly engrossed, by another of hers, The Bookshop. One moment in Innocence caught me, as novels sometimes do: all at once I’d made a connection to the book and its characters as vividly as if this story were part of my lived experience and concerned people I had always known. On my list of books I’ll never forget.

Beautiful Sentences: The TLS

If book reviews are a guilty pleasure of yours, as they are for me, The Times Literary Supplement is a high quality, high value supplier. Beautiful sentences, bracing opinions.

To wit a couple of nice bits from recent issues:

1) a (likely very just) takedown of Tom Wolfe’s latest doorstop:

Back to Blood is certainly vast, and full of generous description of social existence in the “Immigration City” of Miami. Yet it also is largely lacking in artistic merit, empathy and any vestige of beautiful writing.

In the beautiful writing category: check out this lead paragraph from a review of a new novel by Ronald Frame. It’s the reviewer, rather than the novelist, I want to hear more from…

Miss Havisham’s story is well known and briefly told: well known since briefly told by Herbert Pocket to the teenaged Pip in Chapter 22 of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Over their first meal together, between tactful hints to the low-born Pip not to put his knife in his mouth or to use his spoon “over-hand”, Herbert recounts Miss Havisham’s back-story. Resented by her wastrel stepbrother, betrayed and jilted by her con-artist lover before either Herbert or Pip were born, the proud heiress of a brewing empire stalks their imaginations as she does ours: the ageing recluse, shunning daylight, in her rotting wedding gown amid her rotting bridal feast. Miss Havisham has become a byword for trauma: the psychological wounding that compels its victims to tour painfully round and round the scene of the psychic crime, never able to move on, never coming to terms with what Derrida called the “unexperienced experience”. In Dickens, she is a vivid grotesque whose intensity and hypnotic power are in no small measure a function of her absolute pulsating stuckness in a single moment, a single sunless setting. The same is true of the innumerable versions and revisions of the Havisham story, from David Lean’s film Great Expectations (1946) and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), to Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “Havisham” (1998) and, most recently, screen performances by Gillian Anderson and Helena Bonham Carter. Few figures in literature or film are so singular, so completely identified with one location, one set of props and costumes, one palette of lighting, one repertoire of gestures, one vengeful desire (“Beggar him”, she tells her ward, Estella). She is a living, livid scar.

Brought to mind a theatrical presentation of GE I was in at my Montessori-lite middle school. All the kids in my year were boys, so a boy played an eye-rolling, somewhat campy, and yet  ever-so-creepy Miss Havisham.

National Novel Writing Month! It’s Here…

Do you have the “Great [x] Novel” in you? Possible values for [x], cricket*, American, sushi, nudie bowling, secret life of rhizomes, sci fi meets scrapbooking, frozen confectionary noir, vintage taxidermy or so many, many other topics….

Well, your time is now: National Novel Writing Month has begun. Get on over to their nifty WordPress set up. It awaits you and and soon your deathless prose can join the 32 million words written already!

*Oh, and if you are thinking about writing the Great Cricket Novel, it’s been done. I’m in the middle of reading it… and totally caught up, even though I don’t even like cricket.

And for a contrary view on novel month, check out Laura Miller’s scold, although even she admits that one hit came out of it.

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