Writers and Their Times

November 8, 2016

At significant historical moments, I think it’s important for writers to pause, step back from our work, and consider what we do in the widest possible context. Of course we are all interested in self-expression; we all want to write beautiful sentences; we all want to craft our work in ways that make it accessible and understandable. But have we stopped to consider why we’ve undertaken each of our projects? Yes, there is that compelling personal need to, in my case, write my father’s story during World War II. Why? To retrieve the father who’d gone away. Was there, though, something beyond that solipsistic desire that propelled the work?


Grace Paley once told me that writers must live in their time. That writers, in some way or another, either overtly or covertly, respond to what they witness, what they see in the world they live in. In that sense, writers are “seers.” Writers record what others sense but might not necessarily articulate.


I found it easier to stay connected to my work once I began stopping to understand the writer’s task as I understood it for the work that was under my pen, I did this because of Grace Paley’s influence, yes, but also because I stumbled upon statements in which writers I respected stood back from their work to understand what they thought they were doing. Henry Miller, for example, said he wanted to be a working-class Proust. And although his work might be considered extremely egocentric, nonetheless, his task, as he saw it, was to record what it was like for a working class man to find his voice in the context of a culture that makes it enormously difficult for such a man to do so. And this, he does brilliantly, in Tropic of Cancer, among other works. Virginia Woolf wanted to write about women’s experience in a new way. And although many mistakenly view her work as being “dreamy,” for example, she was tough-minded in her analysis of how her female characters moved in a world that made it very difficult for them to live lives of their own choosing. You can see this in The Years as well of her more polemical works like A Room of One’s Own.


These two writers knew what they were doing in their work and why they were doing it. And the paradox is that in responding to issues in their culture, in being deeply rooted in the issues of the historical moment in which they lived, they each wrote works that transcended their time (although we can learn a great deal about when they lived by reading their work) and that continue to speak to us as readers so many years later living in a world they would hardly recognize and, in the case of Virginia Woolf, surely, would be horrified by.


So on this significant day in our writing lives, it might serve our work to stop, think, meditate, and record what it is that we think we’re doing when we sit at our desks. What is it that we want to do? And how are the issues we take up in our work related to a context greater than ourselves.


When I’ve asked my students to do this exercise, and I have during classes when extremely troubling historic events occurred (after 9/11, for example) they learned that their work was bigger and more important than they at first realized. Whether they were speaking for relatives who had disappeared, or addressing the unfortunately all-too-common experience of sexual abuse, or discussing how difficult it is to live a life after being involved in a war, they began to understand that their work was not about their experience, but about the human experience. For as May Sarton said in one of her memoirs, the only way to portray universal experiences is to write very specifically about one person’s life.



I’ve been reading Toni Bernhard’s How To Wake Up: A Buddhist Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow. Uncertainty and unpredictability are bound to arise in our lives, for the only constant in life is change, Bernhard writes, citing one of the Buiddha’s teachings. Those of us who desire certainty and predictability and who cannot accept that uncertainty and unpredictability are normal features of human existence are sure to become unduly stressed, which will make difficult times even harder. For many of us, learning acceptance of change is be a lifelong project.

In our writing practice, uncertainty and unpredictability abound. And understanding this in our work is good practice for understanding this in our lives beyond the desk. Was today a good writing day? If so, do we expect tomorrow to be equally wonderful? And are we ready to walk away from our project if it is not? If it is a fine writing day, all well and good. But if it isn’t, do we become disappointed in our work, in ourselves, for not being able to continue to exist in that sweet writing spot where everything seems to go well? Conversely, was today a difficult writing day? If so, do we fear tomorrow’s work as we convince ourselves we’re on a losing streak in our work? But it’s impossible for us to predict whether tomorrow will be equally difficult. It might, but then again, today’s angst might be the prelude to tomorrow’s breakthrough. And if we’d walked away from our work, in despair because of how the work went on a difficult day, we’d miss that shift in the work that took it in an altogether new and exciting direction. For there’s no way for us to predict, there’s no way for us to know with any degree of certainty what will happen in our writing lives when we sit down to do our work tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

This then becomes a part of our writing practice: working at understanding that it will be of necessity unpredictable. That there will be magical days. That there will be miserable ones. And that we can never predict what will happen on any given day. I suspect that some people are dissuaded from the writing life because of this inevitable fact. But we can shift our perspective so that we use our work as a training ground for accepting the uncertain and unpredictable nature of our lives away from the desk. So the idea is to simply do our work, to let what happens happen, and to work at acknowledging that we have relatively little control over whether a day’s work will feel as if it were a blessing or a curse. We will likely have both kinds of writing days in equal measure over the course of our writing lives. And on our good days, we can be grateful. And on our difficult days, we can try to accept and understand that the tenor of each of our writing days will always be unpredictable.



Take a 30-Minute Holiday

September 13, 2016

I’ve noticed that if my writing isn’t going as well as I’d like it to, even though I know that it’s part of the process to have rough patches, I tend to work more rather than less, as if by “worrying” the work I’ll have that breakthrough that I need to move the work along.

And that’s the worst thing I can do. If, instead, I step back from the work, take some time to myself to do something enjoyable, I return to the work refreshed, and I’ve sometimes figured out what needs doing without working at all.

I’ve often had a conference with a student writer lamenting the fact that her/his work had hit a rough patch. I’d always suggest that they leave the college and take a walk in Central Park before their next class, no matter how much work they had to do, no matter how it seemed that they didn’t have enough time for a half hour’s pleasure. (And have we come to this as a society, that a half hour’s pleasure during a day seems an impossible undertaking? If it is, as it seems to be, we are royally screwed. At times, during my teaching, gazing at my students, knowing how hard they were working, I’d give them the homework assignment of “doing something pleasurable that doesn’t cost anything that is enriching.” Some looked at me as if they couldn’t fathom what that would be.)

I’ve been reading Winifred Gallagher’s Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life (NY:
The Penguin Press, 2009), a magnificent and worthwhile book for writers, but important, too, for how we can create a deeply meaningful, satisfying, and enjoyable life. In Rapt, Gallagher cites the work of Fred B. Bryant and Joseph Veroff whose book, Savoring (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2006), reported results from the following experiment.

Three groups were instructed to go for a walk a day for a week. The first were told to look for and focus on all the enjoyable things they witnessed: flowers, children playing, clouds in the sky and to savor them–to immerse themselves in how enriching these simple experiences were. The second were told to focus on negative things: graffiti, broken sidewalks. The third were told to simply walk.

After a week, they discovered that the first group reported being happier than they were before the exercise; the second group, less happy; the third, in between the first two. The conclusion: “you can train yourself to attend to the joy out there waiting to be had, instead of passively waiting for it to come to you.”

Bryant suggests this very simple activity to incorporate into our daily lives to enrich them immeasurably: taking a “daily vacation”; “spending twenty to thirty minutes focusing on something you enjoy or suspect you might but have never done.” Then, at the end of the day, you “revisit and relish this pleasurable interlude and plan the next.”

As writers, as people, we immerse ourselves in activity and work so much that we forget that doing creative work of any kind, including constructing a life lived well, necessitates that we nourish and enjoy ourselves.

When I think back on all the holidays I’ve had, and the most enjoyable moments I’ve had on them, I realize that, wherever I was, the pleasures I’d enjoyed most were simple ones that I can recreate right here, right now.

Sitting in a garden and knitting. Sitting in a park and reading. Savoring a pastry and a coffee at a cafe. Sitting in front of a single painting and looking at it for a long time. Listening to a magnificent piece of music. Cooking something with an ingredient I picked up at a local market. Walking and enjoying the local domestic architecture. Looking at a view. Wandering through a food market and buying one ingredient I’d never seen before. Going to a bakery and studying all the breads and pastries and buying a bread to enjoy. Browsing in a bookshop and finding a book to read that I wouldn’t ordinarily choose. Driving down a road that looked inviting. Studying an art book bought at a gallery.

All those hours I’ve spent traipsing through museums, through historic houses, through the “top ten” sights in a given city are not what I now recall as having given me great pleasure. Rather, it was those quiet, solitary moments of savoring small pleasures that I now remember.

I can’t travel afar now. But it doesn’t mean that I can’t have a daily holiday, as Bryant suggests. In fact, I’ve promised myself a daily 30-minute holiday. Bryant says that, at the end of a week, we’ll feel as if our lives are far more pleasurable and meaningful, no matter what the circumstances, than they were before we began this practice.

So today I will take my friend Laurie Lico Albanese’s Stolen Beauty: A Novel, which I am reading pre-publication, out into my garden, and I will spend thirty minutes reading it. It’s a gorgeous book, about Adele Bloch-Bauer’s relationship with the painter Gustav Klimt, and her niece, Maria Altman’s life during the Nazi invasion of Austria. It’s precisely what I’d be doing on holiday, so today that will be my thirty-minute holiday. And tomorrow?

Tomorrow I might go to the Montclair Art Museum to revisit Janet Taylor Pickett, The Matisse Series, an extraordinary exhibit of the artist’s collages inspired by the work of Matisse. I’ve been there once. But I’d like to go again and again and study just one piece for a half hour because they are so complex and evocative. I’ve even considered learning how to do collage because of Pickett’s exhibit.

And the day after that? Well, I’ll have to see what strikes me. So, what will you do when you take your 30-minute holiday? Let me know. Maybe we can encourage each other to enrich our lives by daily pleasurable acts of attention.


What’s Next?

August 24, 2016

In the New York Times on August 18, 2016, there appeared an article entitled “Luck Unites a Couple for a Lifetime of Great Collaborations” about Gregory White Smith and Steven Naifeh. The two men, who met and fell in love while they were in law school, co-authored more than two dozen books during their forty year partnership (among them, biographies of Jackson Pollock and Vincent Van Gogh). Over the last twenty-five years, they together restored Joye Cottage, a huge landmark estate in Aiken Georgia. What made their work and this restoration financially possible (the Pollack biography took them ten years; they received a $22,500 advance for it) was the financial success of their joint publications Best Lawyers and Best Doctors.


As anyone reading this blog over time knows, I believe that learning how “real” writers work helps us do our own work. And, for me, this article is no exception.


What struck me is that in 1974, the year they met, Smith was diagnosed with hemangiopericytoma, a “rare and . . . deadly” brain tumor. Over years of treatment, he lived through “13 brain surgeries, kidney and facial surgeries, radiation, nuclear treatments and constant pain,” and died only recently in 2014, many years after his original diagnosis, many years after his expected life expentancy. Through all this time, except when severely incapacitated, he worked. And he wrote about patients like himself who lived with excruciatingly difficult illnesses in his book Making Miracles Happen.


Accompanying the article is a photo of a sitting room in which Smith worked. Nafieh described how much time Smith spent over the course of five years sitting on the white sofa in that room reading Van Gogh’s letters in preparation for writing the biography.


The final words Smith spoke to his partner before he died were “What’s next?” It is the same question Smith asked Nafieh throughout their partnership, the question whose answer propelled him from one accomplishment to another. Nafieh believes, one reason Smith lived so long and so well was that he was continually embarking upon projects that would take many, many years to complete, as if his beginning a huge endeavor would ensure that he would survive its completion.


In this period of unrelenting illness that I myself am living through, I will think of Smith sitting on that sofa reading Van Gogh’s letters, knowing that it will take years for the two of them to complete this next, enormous project, knowing that during that time, there will surely be serious medical matters to attend to. And I like to imagine that immersing himself in his work helped him immeasurably, as all work well done helps us.


How many of us can say that we would carry on despite such enormous difficulties? And yet, it is perhaps within our capacity (baring, of course, incapacitating illness) to do so. I do know that I have spent many an hour stuck in bed feeling quite sorry for myself and yet when I have propelled myself out of bed into my study to work on a project, I’ve forgotten, for those precious minutes, what I myself am enduring, Still, Smith’s words, “What’s next?” can become our mantra, too, urging us to move to our own couches or desks or kitchen tables to read whatever we must to complete whatever enormous project we have decided to undertake, no matter what else is going on in our lives.


August 12, 2016

Today I began to unravel a sweater I’d knit for my son Jason. It was gorgeous, the sweater, knit in a simple yet complex stitch that showed off the expensive yarn I was using–Noro Silk Garden, a yarn I’ve knit with countless times. When we bought the yarn, I told my son that it cost the equivalent of four months’ rent for my first apartment. Yes, the yarn was magnificent, the sweater was gorgeous, but after I finished it, we discovered it didn’t fit. It was too tight, too short, and the sleeves didn’t even cover his wrists.


“You’ve lost your knitting chops,” my son said. I knew, that with this sweater, I had. I knew, too, that just like writing, though I’d finished an extraordinarily complex sweater knit in a circle a while before, every new project presents new challenges and just because you knit the last one well doesn’t guarantee that the next one will be a success. You always begin at ground zero.


The sweater had taken me months to knit. And I couldn’t figure out what to do. Or rather, I knew what I had to do but I couldn’t bring myself to start doing it.


I couldn’t toss the sweater: the yarn cost too much. I spent a few days trying to salvage the project. Told myself I could knit a gusset, then sew it between the back and front–that would solve the too tight problem. I could lengthen the sleeves easily enough. I could knit a border on the bottom although it would take time and experimentation to find a pattern that complemented the one on body of the sweater. That would take care of the length.


But I realized, soon enough, that my attempts to fix the sweater would destroy its integrity. There was nothing for it but to rip it out–we knitters call it “frogging–and begin all over again.


Well, not entirely. I had the yarn (and enough extra to knit a bigger sweater). I had the pattern. I had the stitch. All these had taken time for us to decide upon. So I wasn’t exactly beginning from scratch. But I’d have to knit the sweater all over again. A few months more work. But I’d get to reuse that magnficent yarn. Get to make a garment that fit as perfectly as it should.


So. What does this have to do with writing?


How often have I gotten to the end of writing a book, or writing a big chunk of a book, and have had to admit that it wasn’t working. I had my material. I thought I knew how the components of the book fit together, what the arc of the narrative would be, what the form looked like. But when it was finished, and I looked at it again, and reread it, and spent some time evaluating my effort, I knew it didn’t work. I knew, deep down, I’d have to “frog” the book.


And just like with that sweater, I’ve spent agonizing days, sometimes weeks, sometimes months, trying to effect a quick fix. Moving a chapter here. Writing a new beginning. Or an interchapter. Adding something to the end. All the while knowing I’d have to tear the whole thing apart, begin at the beginning, and write the damned book all over again.


I know there are writers who toss books that don’t work. But I’m tenacious. And I don’t like to let things go. I don’t like to let material go. Plus I believe there’s a lot to be learned from dismal failures, from reworking something that didn’t work the first (or second or third) time round.


That father book I’ve written about, Chasing Ghosts. Rewritten from beginning to end, what? Three times, maybe four? The voice was wrong. The form was wrong. It was too historical. It wasn’t historical enough. There was no significance to my father’s story. I wasn’t in the book enough. I was in the book too much. Ten years that took. And yes, I did write other books during that time when I couldn’t figure out what to do next.


But the material–my father’s experiences during World War II and how they affected me and our family, how every wartime experience affects all families–was too important to me to let it go. And each revision taught me something more, not only about writing (how to use history; how to use documents; how to use a chapter to synopsize an entire relationship; how to shift voice), but also about the subject I was treating. I started the book blaming my father. I ended the book beginning to understand (though I never could of course) what he’d experienced.


I am a fan of making mistakes, big ones, and learning from going back and trying to fix them. I think it makes for deeper work. It did in my case. I once told a student who wanted to toss one narrative that didn’t work after another that she’d never learn anything if she continued to do that, and I insisted that she stick with something that was an utter failure until she could make it work. And she did–brilliantly.


So now I’ll begin my son’s sweater anew. I hope that this next version is the final version. But I know myself well enough to realize that if the it doesn’t work, I won’t give up until it does.


Write It Down

July 16, 2016

Cleaning out old files, I come across a folder named “Book Ideas” that I’d forgotten about. Reading the pages inside, I learned that I’d been keeping a record of all the books I wanted to write starting in 1980. There were scores of them. A book on Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath (Woolf’s influence on Plath). One on the late works of famous writers and painters (Rembrandt, Lawrence). A book about writers writing about summertime. One on writers’ ideas of Italy. A daybook for writers. One about asthmatic writers enlarging my work in Breathless. A novel about a researcher unlocking a secret about her subject no one’s ever known. A book about how to succeed in college. One about Charles Darwin.

And on and on the list goes, some sixty or so ideas. All these books, as yet unwritten, in all likelihood never to be written.

But on the list, too, were books I have written, and what I learned is that I thought about writing these books far, far earlier than I got around to actually writing them.

In 1980, I thought about writing a book about writing as a way of healing. I published that book in 1999, nineteen years after I first thought about writing it! And when I began, I’d forgotten I’d penned that note all those years before and only came upon it today.

In 1980, also, I wrote that I wanted to write a memoir. That became Vertigo, published in 1996, and all my subsequent memoirs, the last of which is Chasing Ghosts, recently published.

In 1980, also, I wrote that I wanted to work on a book about creativity. I finally got around to that in The Art of Slow Writing, published in 2014.

 In 1989, I listed six books I wanted to write, among them a book on literature as revenge, which I did write and publish; another about Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf which became the edition of Sackville-West’s letters to Woolf, and a book about D. H. Lawrence that I’ve researched but haven’t yet written or might never write.

 Oh, and there is the Hart Crane biography I did some research for but never wrote. The Leonard Woolf biography a publisher was interested in that I researched but couldn’t see myself writing. The book about Darwin I got a contract for and researched but then another project captured my fancy and I didn’t write that one either.

I was amazed I’d completed so many books I’d imagined writing so many years after I first started thinking about them. I learned, too, that that I had many good ideas for books that never materialized for one reason or another.

I’d always told my students that it’s important to write down all the ideas we get about writing so that we can free ourselves to conceive of even more ideas. I’m glad I didn’t just think about the ideas for these books but wrote them down. Writing down the idea for a book, I learned, is the first step to completing it.


May 15, 2016

Recently I was asked why so many books about writing tell you not to judge your work and just do your work when in fact to get to the end of a project we need to make so very many decisions. Right now for instance I am organizing some essays I’ve written over the years into book form. I’m in the process of deciding whether the beginning of a piece overlaps too much with material I’ve described in an essay I’ve placed earlier (about my father wanting to throw away a lot of family memorabilia). Surely that’s a judgment I have to make in that I have to make a decision about it. So what’s this about not judging?

For one thing, when we’re beginning a piece, say, the question of how much information belongs and how much can be deleted is best left alone until way later in the process. So at the beginning it is surely more helpful is to just get a lot of language on the page and to trust that through our many revisions we’ll be able to see what needs to be done as we respond to the words on the page. It’s tough to describe this process but it feels pretty much automatic. There’s a sense that something’s not working and then the editor self takes over and makes a change. So in fact we seem to be making judgments all the time, but perhaps it’s more germane to say we’re assessing what’s on the page against some ideal in our head and making changes that at some level we understand will benefit the piece or more accurately state our intention.

I think the easiest way to explain this business of not judging is to say that a certain kind of judging our work will likely stall our project. And I hear A lot of it from my students. “This stinks.” “The middle is a mess.” Then there are the judgments we make about the worth of the self, the writer, even though they may not sound like they’re about the self but a statement of fact. “I’m no good at this.” “I’ll never get this done.” “I don’t have time.” “I have no idea about what to do.”

I always invite the writers I work with to ask whether the statements they make are useful, whether they will aid in the composition of the work, and if the answer is “No” I exercise my teacherly prerogative and indicate that I’d like them to transform the utterance into one that gives the writer something to do.

“This stinks” clearly doesn’t help. But “This piece isn’t saying what I want it to say” does. That is, I think that in writing we need to evaluate our work in ways that give us the next thing to do with it. In the example of my work given above, it would go like this: “Reread all instances where this moment is described. Decide whether to trim or eliminate later instances and revise accordingly. Sometimes it makes sense to write the directions we give ourselves down.

In the “It stinks” example, the writer might ask him/herself to identify whatever is working and whatever isn’t. And then to take each instance of what isn’t yet working and work with it, continually asking “Precisely what doesn’t work” along the way.

A writing friend of mine is near the end of revising her book and she’s come to a chapter where there is a time shift. She’s asked herself whether she’s let the reader know enough about how she’s changed. (That’s making an important assessment of the work appropriate at this stage of the process.) Note that she didn’t say the chapter stinks or it’s no good but she stated in neutral language something she has to evaluate and decide. If she decides the reader needs more back story , then she has another job: to figure out how to do it.

So the most useful statements we can make about our work are ones that help us solve the creative challenges we ourselves have made. Then writing becomes nothing more, nothing less than creative problem solving.