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What does it mean to be about something?

What does it mean to be about something?

Most of the fellow students in my workshop got something from my book which is not my primary question.  Yes, the thing they got is in the book, but it wasn't the deep read.  I don't resent that they got something out of it that wasn't my primary intent.  It did puzzle me, as I thought I had done a better job with my themes and questions and what it meant for me.  I've got more revising and writing to do than I anticipated.

But all this raises questions about aboutness, of meaning, of hermeneutics.

We learn in most contemporary hermeneutics that authorial intent (whatever that is) cannot determine the meaning of a text, especially an ancient text like the Bible.  Meaning is created by the community of authors, readers, commentors, etc.  I agree with those who contend that Rembrandt's paintings or Steinbeck's novels are just as helpful in interpreting the meaning of sacred scripture as Calvin's commentaries.

I do not think my job as a pastor is to establish the meaning of a text.  It is to open the text for my congregation to engage in determining its meaning.  Thus, two stories:

I deliver my candidating sermon on the Doubting Thomas story at CoH-OKC in April 2005 and when I sit down the Rev. Michael Piazza says, "You did such a good job of leaving it open such that those who believe in an historical, literal resurrection heard that and those who believe the resurrection is metaphorical or spiritual heard that."  To which I answered, "Yes, that was my goal."

When the Committee on Ministry of the Oklahoma Association of the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference of the United Church of Christ asked me to write a paper detailing my theological beliefs, I gave them a paper that excerpted a variety of stories from my sermons.  They said, "This isn't what we are used to seeing.  We don't think everyone will understand it."  "It's the only way I can fulfill your assignment with authenticity.  I don't believe in propositional theological language."

I have my questions, my reasons, my meaning in writing the book.  I'm excited when others get it, but if for them it is something that simply helps with the social issue of being gay and being Christian, fine, but that topic is banal to me.


Colm Toibin

Colm Toibin

"I am completely opposed to similes.  Let's all agree not to do that anymore."  Colm Toibin grinned and the room filled with writers laughed.

Asked later, "What about metaphors?"

"Metaphors too.  I'm against anything that tries to put language on display.  Stay plainer, stay truer."

"But," Eileen Pollack asked, "It sounds as if you are against tired language and cliches.  Surely one of the true delights of writing is finding a way to compare two things that are not normally compared?  It is for me."

He cocked his head momentarily in thought.  "I guess you could make it work"--you could sense relief spreading across the crowd--"but I try to avoid it."

He did confess to one simile in his published writing, used in describing a gay sex scene between teenage boys (based on a personal experience of his from Catholic school).  I'll spare you the simile, though he didn't spare the audience (Sexual comments are suddenly a thing this year in presentations, following on Terry's condom joke at the beginning.  He reported today that the count is down to 883 remaining.).

"The two best gay sex scenes were written by women."  One was Annie Proulx in Brokeback Mountain.  I didn't know, or catch, the other one.  "I've always wanted to ask them how they did their research."

"The more we watch our words, the better they are likely to be."

He had the room captivated, laughing, responding.  His craft talk began with the story of Henry James and the failure of his play Guy Domville.  After the failure James determined to make the next decade, his fifties, his best.  He wrote A Turn of the Screw.

"James put elements of himself into the novel.  We have to let something of ourselves into the story.  The only craft involved is to find a metaphor for yourself."

Ah, I wish I'd examined my notes during the Q&A and asked about that line given what he later said.

"As a writer you must be alone, maybe every other weekend.  Tell your significant other they must leave you alone or that you are going away.  When other people go to the bar, go home to write.  Say, 'I'm writing a book.'  People love that."

"Writing is a form of communication, not a forum for self-indulgence.  The screen or page is not a mirror."

"It is morally wrong to not finish your story."

He described how he is a vulture, taking germs of stories from other people.

"You will get it right by reading it.  Read it at night before going to bed and in the morning when you get up."  This was advice for the key paragraph of any work.  "Everything depends on getting that paragraph exactly right."

"The best craft is a sort of feeling.  Explore a feeling you are afraid to have."


Tom Ashbrook

Tom Ashbrook

After Tom Ashbrook, host of NPR's On Point, described how he and his staff sort through the large stacks of books that come to his office, not even opening the vast majority of them, he was asked "What are you looking for that will get you to read the book?"

"Be famous."

Nervous, knowing laughter all around.

"Aside from that, do great work and pray that it gets well reviewed.  It also helps if your topic is timely.  If you have a memoir about being an employee of the Clinton Foundation, for instance."

He was a Presbyterian from the Midwest who grew up learning of God's love, which he believes made him open to the diversity of people and experience.  He shared of his time as a foreign correspondent, his journalism after 9/11, and the fourteen years doing On Point, especially the many authors he has interviewed.

"Yoko Ono. Going into it I thought she was a caricature, but I could have talked to her all day."

"Toni Morrison.  So magisterial.  Where do you begin?"

He does the show live and doesn't bring any prepared questions into the interview.

He had come to Yale as an undergrad directly from the farm to study writing.  Gordon Lish assigned them a task--write a story about your deepest secret, "for what you think is your own private thing is shared by everyone."  Ashbrook wrote about fucking a sheep.  "I had never done so, but I knew he'd eat it up."  Lish did, and declared Ashbrook the next Faulkner.

"It was too much to live up to, so don't let your workshop leaders mess you up.  Learn from them, but watch out."  He went to work the Alaskan oilfields and learn from Okies and Laplanders about mining and dynamite.

"Getting to the truth is a lot of work, even if you are prepared to be honest."

"Stay connected with the first spark."


Language, Form, Aboutness

"Details are what makes prose terrific," Eileen Pollack said as she launched into our first class as part of the Memoir Intensive.  She was discussing the three elements of a book length memoir--language, form, and aboutness (What is it about?  What questions are you trying to answer?).  

Avoid "It was" and "There are" constructions and words like "thing," "situation," and "process." She said she had marked every appearance of the word "it" in our manuscripts that we were supposed to eliminate 19 out of every 20 appearances.  "If you are talking about a dog, I'd rather read the word dog seven times in the same paragraph than see the pronoun it, because the word 'dog' is more concrete and makes me think of a dog."

There are many forms for the memoir.  Story, journey, profile, spatial ordering are some examples.

There are three kinds of writing in a memoir: scenic, expository, and meditative.  The essentials of scenic writing are characters and dialogue.  Action, setting, and sensory details are features as well.  The scene changes when you move in time and/or space.

Expository writing is the telling part, so memoir can't simply follow the old cliche "show don't tell."  Expository writing should be used to explain something, summarize, or to give a notion of habitual action.  Expository writing should also be filled with specific and dramatic language describing setting and sensory details.  The opening paragraph of George Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant" is an excellent example of detailed expository writing:

In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter. No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress. As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter. This happened more than once. In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.

She spent most of her time on Meditative prose saying that this was the area all of our memoirs needed to work on.  This prose is analytical and creates meaning by sharing what you are thinking and feeling.  It also requires specificity, but this is difficult.  It is the hardest prose to write.  We need to make meaning while avoiding language that is obvious, hackneyed, or cliched.  

There are several levels of meditation in most memoirs.  What were you thinking and feeling at the time the events occurred?  What were other people thinking and feeling (you may have to do research and ask them)?  Now, looking back, what are you thinking and feeling?  And what are you currently thinking and feeling in the present?

This parallels with Robin Hemley's advice last year that there needed to be two authorial voices in the memoir--you as a character when the events occurred and you now as the author commenting and reflecting upon them.  I must admit that this advice was difficult for me as I wrote all year.  In fact, I edited out most of my contemporary-voiced commentary and analysis.  I may struggle with incorporating this meditative voice, though I look forward to learning from Eileen how to do that well.

It is the meditative prose which created aboutness.  You have to let the readers know the meaning of the raw material they are reading.  And the point of writing is for you as the writer to discover and learn something.  Memoir is NOT your clever dinner party stories that you tell all the time.  Ask: What don't I understand about my own experience?  We need to be human beings digging at our own experiences, making meaning of them, coming up with the questions, though we may never answer the questions, only explore them.  Knowing your questions helps you figure out what to include and what to leave out, because you know what is relevant.

As you read non-fiction you like, hone in on the meditative answers to questions and learn from how that author did it.

She indicated that early in the book you will need to devote pages to raising your questions.  This parallels Robin Hemley's advice about writing a preface.  I must confess that I wrote many prefaces over the course of the year (Robin said you should write many prefaces, as they help you organize your thoughts as to what the book is about), but ultimately I chose to eliminate the preface and get the introductory parts into the first chapter of the story.  I plan to review what I've written and see if there is enough of the meditative prose creating the aboutness.  After the class yesterday one of my classmates said he thought it was there, in the character of my grandfather.

So, we didn't get to workshopping my book yesterday.  Instead we will get to in on Monday, the next time we are together.


Nicholson Baker

The 2015 Yale Writer's Conference opened with Terry Hawkins informing us that the university had provided 1,000 condoms in the laundry room.  A colleague asked later at dinner, "Are they male or female condoms or both?"

That wasn't really the opening comment, but it makes for a good opening to my blog post.

After opening remarks by the Dean and Campus Security, we had our keynote address by Nicholson Baker.  Last year he delivered the final craft talk of the conference, and I didn't like it at all.  He rambled away with no sense of preparation, organization, or structure.

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This year Terry got me cackling (the loudest laughter in the room, and something I've been notorious for before--OBU theatrical productions) with his introduction of Baker.  He said that Baker was responsible for the second presidential impeachment, as his novel Vox, which is about phone sex, was one of the gifts that Monica Lewinsky gave the president before their affair began.

Baker than rambled on for about a half hour, but it was far more interesting and entertaining than his presentation last year.  Then, he began a slide show emphasizing the need to pay attention to the details (the design and the beauty) of ordinary things--and this part was simply brilliant.  He showed images of glasses, and a Crate and Barrel clerk wrapping the glass in paper.  The cover art of mid-20th century children's encyclopedias.  The design work of his father.  Family photos.  The dining room table he grew up with.  The entire time he was using the most eloquent language to describe what he was showing, some of it extemporaneous.  I saw it as an eye into his process.

I also enjoyed sitting at the back of the room--something I usually do--and watching how people responded.  I observed one woman lean over to the person beside her and say, "What does any of this have to do with writing?"  I thought--"I hope she isn't in my group."  She wasn't.  Thank God.

Here are a few of the notes I took from his keynote address:

The last thing you want as a writer is responsibilities.  You need to be free to think.

It is really good for a writer to be forced to be idle, especially in high school.  People should feel boredom and understand that if they are going to do something, it must come from them.  (as part of this he was criticizing too much homework these days)

2 things you should do as a writer:
1)  Read poetry.
2) Get a spiral notebook and copy things out that you like from other writers.  You are forced to become not yourself when copying these excerpts.  And you begin to question and learn why the author made the choices they made.

Sentences are never enough.

Look at things.

Trees are very old, but they're always doing something different, they always have something new to say.

***

I'll write a separate post about our first workshop in the memoir intensive (spoiler: we actually didn't get to my book today.  Monday we will.)

Tonight was the opening reception at Mory's, an event that I delighted in last year.  As I entered this year a nondescript gentleman walked up to me and said "Hi."  "Hi," I said in return.  He then said, "I'm Colm Toibin."  


Memoir Intensive

This year there is a new feature to the Yale Writer's Conference--novel and memoir intensives.  These are small groups (six people plus faculty member) who submit 50,000 words of a completed manuscript (and summaries of the skipped sections) for workshop.  I'm taking the Memoir Intensive, which is the main reason I returned to the conference this year.

I spent the last year completing my memoir, a project I had been working on in fits and starts for a decade and which I used last year's conference as a kick-in-the-pants to get completed.  In the winter I applied for the intensive and was accepted.  In March my 50,000 word manuscript was due.  I also received five other 50,000 word manuscripts.  Since then I've been reading and commenting on each of those.

So, this year the workshop really began in March, and we've had regular e-mails from our faculty member Eileen Pollack.  Besides the in-person discussions of the manuscripts, we are each submitting marked-up copies and a letter to the authors with our overall comments on the manuscripts--what worked for us and what didn't and our suggestions for what the book needs.

Last week Eileen sent us the schedule.  My memoir is up first.  We will begin workshopping it this afternoon.


Davenport College

I awoke at 2:30 this morning.  I had my alarm set for 4 a.m., but Sebastian awoke and wanted fed at 2:30 and instead of going right back to sleep was wide awake.  I never got back to sleep before 4 rolled around.  But I did get some time with him, which was nice.  

I can't believe I'll be gone from my newborn son for eleven days.

Though I'm very excited to return to the Yale Writer's Conference.  It does not feel as if an entire year has passed.  The 16 days here last year was so much time and such rich time that returning feels like just a few weeks.  That feeling began in the airport in Philly as I ran into other conference attendees back from last year.

Dorm room view

This year we are in Davenport instead of Berkeley College.  This is a better location for our meeting places and for New Haven restaurants, shops, and bars.  But I also really enjoyed the relative quiet of Berkeley College and the great view I had from my dorm room of the Beinecke Library.  This time I'm overlooking a busy commercial street.  Glad I brought the ear plugs.

Because there is no AC, so you have to sleep with an open window.  I got the ear plugs last year, after being awakened before dawn every morning when a delivery truck stopped somewhere on the street outside my window.

I'm also going to miss the Berkeley College hammock where I spent so much time last year.

When I entered the college there was Terry Hawkins, director of the program and dapper dresser, to greet me.  And within 30 seconds I had my keys and all; unlike my long wait last year.  I've been to Walgreens for supplies--detergent, kleenex, some 3M hooks since there was no towel hook behind the door, and a coffee mug (part of the swag last year, but it looks like not this year).

I've arranged my room, called my son (though I didn't reach him), and lounged reading on a bench in the courtyard.  Now, as chimes play I'm preparing to head out for dinner and drinks at Rudy's, famous for their mussels.


Roth on the hypnotic materiality of the world

From Philip Roth's speech in Philip Roth at 80 these two paragraphs stood out to me:

In my defense, however, I should insert here that remembering objects as mundane as a bicycle basket was a not insignificant part of my vocation.  The deal worked out for me as a novelist wasthat I should continuously rummage around in memory for thousands and thousands of just such things.  Unlikely as it may seem, a passion for local specificity--the expansive engagement, something close to  fascination, with a seemingly familiar, even innocuous, object like a lady's kid glove or a butcher shop chicken or a gold-star flag or a Hamilton wristwatch, according to Poppa Everyman the Elizabeth, New Jersey jeweler, "the best watch this country ever produced, the premier American-made watch, bar none."

I was saying that this passion for specificity, for the hypnotic materiality of the world one is in, is all but at the heart of the task to which every American novelist has been enjoined since Herman Melville and his whale and Mark Twain and his river: to discover the most arresting, evocative verbal depiction for every last American thing.  Without strong representation of the thing--animate or inanimate--without the crucial representation of what is real, there is nothing.  Its concreteness, its unabashed focus on all the particulars, a fervor for the singular and a profound aversion to generalities is fiction's lifeblood.  It is from a scrupulous fidelity to the blizzard of specific data that is a personal life, it is from the force of its uncompromisingparticularity, from its physicalness, that the realistic novel, the insatiable realistic novel with its multitude of realities, derives its ruthless intimacy.


Philip Roth at 80

I subscribe to the Library of America, and this week they sent us a free book.  It is  entitled "Philip Roth at 80" and is the collection of speeches given at Roth's 80th birthday party by Jonathan Lethem, Hermione Lee, Alain Finkielkraut, Claudia Roth Pierpont, Edna O'Brien, and Roth himself.

One learns nothing overwhelming in the speeches.  Some are more entertaining than others.  Generally, you can see their effort to be entertaining.  Roth's own speech is the best.  Most of it he reads an excerpt from Sabbath's Theater (a novel I didn't finish because I was tired of reading about a dirty old man's sexual escapades).

I have such a strange response to Roth.  I greatly enjoyed Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint when I first read them in the late 90's when I was in my mid-twenties.  They were my introduction to Roth.

But then I was mostly bored by The Human Stain and couldn't make it through Sabbath's Theater.

Later I read and deeply admired American Pastoral but found that The Plot Against America didn't live up to my expectations.

Recently I read, deeply enjoyed, and learned from The Counterlife.

At various points I wasn't sure I would read any more Roth.  Now I figure I'll read one every now and then, as I pick a volume up at a used book sale.

As an Atlantic subscriber I relished every time a new Roth novel emerged as Christopher Hitchens would give it a devastating review that was always a delight to read.  Hitchens was also tired of reading the next intsallment of the AARP version of the masturbatory fantasies of Portnoy's Complaint.

But I really admired the excerpt from Sabbath's Theater that Roth read in his speech.  It was from near the end of the book, which I never reached.


Writing Update

One month on from the Yale Writers' Conference, how am I doing at my writing?  

Well, my session two workshop suggested a radically different starting point for my memoir, so the day I flew home, I began writing from scratch (with some cutting and pasting of course) from that new spot.  I had two pretty productive weeks before I stalled, unsure what to write next and unsure that what I had written was exactly the best way to go, though it had been a productive experiment during which I also applied much of the advice I'd received throughout the conference.

In an attempt to move forward, I tried an exercise that my session two teacher, Robin Hemley, had suggested to me. It was an exercise that should help one figure out structure.  Take each major episode of the story and write it on its own index card.  Initially lay them out chronologically.  Then decide on a starting point and begin picking up the cards in the sense of "Well, card X requires a flashback to card D," etc.  

But the exercise, as instructed, didn't work for me.  I thought of 5-6 starting points and experimenting with each one, I didn't get very far.  I did however, leave them all spread out on the table over the weekend.

At the beginning of this week, I had an idea to try a different prologue, and to basically begin chapter one as I had that day flying home, but to go in a different direction after that.  So far this week, that has been productive and feels better to me than where I had been heading.  So, in some way the exercise worked in prompting me.