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Entries in writing (19)


A State of Fiction

I wrote a piece on Barbara Browning's books (and fiction, and reality, and emotion, and death, and bathing) for the Emily Books blog:

It’s disturbing in a way to think of these very real characters as illusions. Browning herself talks about the difficulty of portraying real people in fiction. And as I said before, what good is an invented woman to a real one? But aren’t we illusions to other people? To ourselves? When we put on lipstick, when we play dress up, when we feign interest in a topic out of politeness? How much of our relationships with other people are things we invent entirely in our heads? Most of them? All?

How is the fiction of our reality any different from the reality of fiction? And why should our emotional reaction to one be any different from the other? Isn’t all of it the fantasy of perception? Or deception?

Read more here.


Drawing Without Looking

(drawing without looking, Todd Rundgren)

Everyone should go read these two things right now:

Danielle Henderson's Give Up Giving Up
There’s something you really want to do right now. Maybe you’re thinking of performing on open-mike night at a comedy club. Or applying to your dream school. Or submitting your work to a magazine, journal, website, TV show, etc. Or trying a new sport or musical instrument. Or just asking someone out. It’s something you’ve never tried before, and it could get you one step closer to a dream of yours. But, right this minute, you’re already talking yourself out of it. (more)

Antonia Cornwell's On Drawing
"I mean, even when you are grown up, and have your own house, make sure it has paper in it, and pencils, and pens, all kinds. Make sure you keep drawing things in your house. Have them there for when you want them or need them. If you have had a good day, draw. If you have had a rubbish day, draw. Your drawings make you and other people happy. That's what I mean. Always draw." (more)

I'm not one to tell you to "go make something" or "be productive" because I'd be completely hypocritical if I were to say those things. So I'm not going to tell you that now. But I'll tell you this: the two essays above are making it easier for me to be productive, loosening the grip that the Fear of Creation & Submission had on my hands. (Recently I had my first UFC bout explained to me, and with that I can confidently say that this fear was using a Kimura on me.)

May they do the same for you as well.

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.


Line By Line

I will tell you how the line got me from there to here: I didn't know it was Malamud who wrote The Natural

I don't know how I'd gotten away with not knowing that, but I didn't until I looked it up. It was Saturday, I had gone to Joseph-Beth to buy a chapter book for a friend's daughter. I purchased two books for her and headed for the exit. Then something made me turn back. I was standing in the middle of a bookstore, suddenly compelled to buy a book about baseball, typing "the natural book" into a search engine, where it spat out Malamud's name, and I smacked my palm to my forehead. Of course, Malamud. After I bought the book (its cover was a baseball with its stitching unraveling, and the stitching becomes the type that forms the title of the book) and tucked it into my bag, I rounded a corner past the low flourescent-spined shelves of science fiction, and there noticed a display of Andre Dubus III's Townie, a book I read and loved last year, announcing that he'd be reading and signing his book at two o'clock. 

That is how I got from there to here, where I now sat in the front row on a wooden seat, reading about Roy Hobbs and his bassoon case on a train cutting a line through the great western expanse towards Chicago, Hobbs throwing pitches and me eating a lemon poppy seed muffin from a white paper bag. Waiting for a different author to appear.

The line continued from Mr. Malamud to Mr. Dubus the Third, as he arrived late from the airport and began to tell an audience at the edge of our wooden seats that he hadn't intended to write a memoir: he was trying to write an essay on baseball. 

Dubus III said too many good things to transcribe: he paraphrased Doctorow, who once said that writing fiction is like driving at night, you can only see as far as the headlights in front of you but you know you'll reach your destination in the end. He said that writing was one line at a time for him, that he had to write to find out what his characters would do next, even if it was just going to the bathroom. He had to know. He said that the opposite of remember is dismember, and that remembering means you're piecing your memories back together. He talked about how one night, he was headed out to the gym to punch some guy's face with boxing gloves, to exorcise the spirits of anger that afflict so many young abandoned men, then something made him turn back. He walked to a table, pulled out a piece of paper, and wrote a scene. The lines that diverge on the page: when we think we know where the story is headed, and it turns around on us altogether.

So it was with Tom the priest.

In the middle of a wonderfully intelligent and engaging conversation with audience members, a priest in the front row quietly raised his hand. "I wondered if you might talk about your father's spirituality, or lack thereof."

Dubus III asked the gentleman his name. "My name is Tom. And it was thirty years ago this May that I read your father's Adultery and Other Choices, quit my job, and entered the seminary."

How can we even begin to imagine how the story will lead us from there to here? Or where the story we write will end up leading someone else?

Later that night: a hockey game, defiant and phallic sticks rising in confrontation on the ice, Notre Dame's Fighting Irish baring their teeth for our local team. (If the Catholic theme wasn't already obvious enough, each time a player was put in the box, a woman behind the glass held up a piece of flourescent yellow poster board, with the words "The Confessional" written in black marker.) I shouted at players, watching them cut lines across the ice with their skates, and thought of the priest. Of the lines cut through our lives, towards an unknown goal. Of how the priest's line turned quickly with the dig of a toe pick. How it can turn like this for any of us at any moment because of something we read, because of something we hear, or, more importantly, because of something we write.

I hadn't expected to be sitting in a bookstore listening to Dubus III that day, but he said some things that were important for me to hear about writing, about the process of constructing a text, both fiction and non-fiction. More than that: about the bigger picture of remembering, of reconstructing our life on the page, of turning the fluid wavelengths of experience into distinct, clear lines of story. I'm still following these lines, writing each word to see where it will take me. What these fictions and non-fictions I construct will cause me to do next. 

Even if it's just going to the bathroom.

I highly recommend you go see Andre Dubus III if he's ever speaking near you. And read Townie while you're at it. James Salter's wonderful NYRB review gives a better explanation of why you should read it. Or as the woman at Joseph-Beth said: "He can WRITE, can't he?" I would certainly say so. Finally, considering the last line, I wanted to title this post "House of Zan and Bog" but I respect the guy too much to do that...

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.


We Were Connoisseurs of Synonyms, Or: Why I Use Twitter

It is easy to make light of this kind of "writing," and I mention it specifically because I do not make light of it at all: it was at Vogue that I learned a kind of ease with words [...], a way of regarding words not as mirrors of my own inadequacy but as tools, toys, weapons to be deployed strategically on a page. In a caption of, say, eight lines, each line to run no more or less than twenty-seven characters, not only every word but every letter counted. At Vogue one learned fast, or one did not stay, how to play games with words, how to put a couple of unwieldy dependent clauses through the typewriter and roll them out transformed into one simple sentence composed of precisely thirty-nine characters. We were connoisseurs of synonyms. We were collectors of verbs.

(Joan Didion, "Telling Stories," 1978)



I had better tell you where I am, and why.

We had been to see The Descendants and I still couldn't stop crying.

Afterwards, over an Indian dinner buffet in a booth next to the drooping Christmas lights strung across the windows, my dad questioned the motives of fiction. "Why do people want to make up sad stuff?" As I dabbed my eyes with a paper napkin, I suggested that most fiction exists for us to process our feelings through something other than our own realities. Or even emotions that don't exist in our own reality, but we feel the need to process anyway. 

This lingering sadness, still furrowing my brow: I'm still processing that damned film.

Part of it, I swear, was Hawaii. Kauai in particular. J and I were supposed to go to Kauai almost eleven years ago now, on our honeymoon. But then the realities of finances set in and we never made it. We'd planned the entire trip in our heads, and those places kept showing up in The Descendants. The beach on which George Clooney's character runs barefoot: a few miles from the cabin I'd wanted to rent. The bar where Clooney finds Beau Bridges downing a whiskey: a restaurant we'd listed for a visit. We were meant to be in the background of those shots, learning to surf, consulting a map for a hike along Na Pali.

Hawaii, the great unaccomplished trip, hangs over my head like a misty cloud, once in a while seeding the atmosphere of my mood with tiny raindrops. These raindrops remind me of other things left unfinished. A promise to take up sewing. The accordion. Plans with friends for a group project cast aside into the ethers. The inkling of a novel I had in me once about a family coming to terms with the fact that as you get older, things disintegrate in order to make way for new things, like the erosion of the soil as a river grows wider and deeper.

Not so long ago I'd decided that I might never write a novel, and I was okay with that. But I think I might be changing my mind. 

* * *

To Joan Didion, Hawaii belonged to James Jones. But to me, Hawaii is forever Joan Didion's. By her own criteria:

Certain places seem to exist mainly because someone has written about them. [...] A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image...

Didion's Hawaii is rendered not with palm trees and luaus but with curtains drawn in hotel rooms. Barracks, smoke fires, and porous volcanic rock. The stench of a marriage falling apart. In her essay "In The Islands," Joan Didion writes about witnessing a couple's public disagreement on a delayed plane, and how as a result the man storms of the plane before it takes off. 

It was not until we had passed Diamond Head and were coming in low over the reef for landing at Honolulu, however, that I realized what I most disliked about this incident: I disliked it because it had the aspect of a short story, one of those "little epiphany" stories in which the main character glimpses a crisis in a stranger's life—a woman weeping in a tearoom, often, or an accident seen from the window of a train, "tearooms" and "trains" still being fixtures of short stories although not of real life—and is moved to see his or her own life in a new light.

And then: 

I was not going to Honolulu because I wanted to see life reduced to a short story. I was going to Honolulu because I wanted to see life expanded to a novel, and still do.

Didion confesses (elsewhere) that she writes in order to experience things. That until she has written something down, she hasn't been able to fully process it. I think that in addition to understanding past experiences, there is something in the intent of writing that forces future experience: where we say WE WILL and I HOPE and SO IF, what we do is born: We will make it to Hawaii. We will make Hawaii our story, a story of our happy marriage; not of death, not of divorce, not an abstract vision on a screen. We will face our fear of flying, our fear of turbulence, of winds and ocean. We will write the book that is our life, it will go on for thousands of pages, we won't let it become a mere short story.

It seems like no accident that The Descendants came out around the same time as Didion's Blue Nights. Both are about the challenges of confronting death, death that is always too soon. Descendants director Alexander Payne's Hawaii matches Didion's: a place where things fall apart at the seams, islands are created from the chaos of volcanos, fossils, resorts. These octoberian portraits of life as a great crescendo followed by the inevitable decrescendo, or worse: the music stopping suddenly altogether. So then what do we take from these fictions (and remembered non-fictions)? If we don't take anything, where are they taking us?

Try this: by expanding life into a novel, or blowing it up large onto a screen, by forcing ourselves to explore emotions we don't even know yet... Maybe this is how to confront the things we're angry at that aren't yet a reality. Learning how to harness the emotion before it even happens.

Maybe we will make it to Hawaii. Maybe, then, we will make it our own.

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.