Monthly Archives: January 2012

Outgrowing David Foster Wallace

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My eyes first glanced over David Foster Wallace’s words in the early 2000s. I was in in my grad school days. Only in Harper’s magazine did I ever read him, though. Then he died and I started to travel the world, in countries where the bookstores don’t carry much serious contemporary American literature. Finally, with this trip back to the States I dug into Consider the Lobster.

 

Our reading preferences change greatly in ten years. Wallace’s words no longer had that resonance, his voice no longer had that ring. Words spinning like the cogs in a clock.

 

Literature need not ramble endlessly on. That’s obviated by the fact that today works brief enough for a Hallmark card fill innumerable publications. It’s evidently his free-association that rubs me the wrong way. (I felt similar after reading other authors/writers who rose with Wallace. That style leads me to empathize particularly with one quote from Consider: “Has the son of a bitch ever had one thought published?”).


Consider some examples from Wallace’s book. Let’s look at the essays “Up, Simba”, “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s”, and “Authority and American Usage”. The first wasn’t an essay but long enough for a graduate thesis. That makes a reader long for its end. Its lack of structure is a pathos that annoys the reader, resulting in a distant reader/writer relationship. Its constant shifting feels like a house of mirrors until no points made seem to stand up or take on relevance. In the “View” Wallace spent half the essay to reveal its subject matter. Its lack of dynamism makes a reader feel like she’s crawling through mud. The images are enjoyable until wandering enough along makes her wonder what the whole point is. “Authority” possessed the same structure flaws as “Simba” but made them two-dimensional by using excessive footnotes that even scholars would roll their eyes at.

 

It’s of sad relief that others have also found flaws with these essays.

 

A subtle control and implicit use of literary tropes appeal more than rambling and careless structure. For me the difference between the free-association writing style and one more like Graham Greene’s is the difference between simple and easy. This is thanks in part to editors. They shape our writing. Editor after editor in my 15 years of professional writing made me shorten paragraph lengths, deconstruct elevated vocabulary, and deftly structure the work.

 

David Foster Wallace

Not everything in Consider irritated me.

 

Wallace does address more societal issues. In his essays he shows his quandaries and questions. He ponders the power and clone-like behavior of mainstream American media in “Simba.” He addresses the fact that Americans find politics so deceitful to place much faith in anymore, too. In “The View” he implicitly writes that most Americans are overly reliant on television, that they can barely communicate effectively any more.

 

In “Lobster” he notes the dissonance between animal-rights activists and those who attend an overhyped annual lobster bonanza in Maine. He, in true essayistic style, doesn’t give us an answer but lets us brood on the matter. Take these examples:

“I’m not trying to give you a PETA-like screed here— at least I don’t think so. I’m trying, rather, to work out and articulate some of the troubling questions that arise amid all the laughter and festivities … of the Maine Lobster Festival.”

“I’m also concerned not to come off as shrill or preachy when what I am is more confused.”

 

Just like my recent posts on Chuck Palahniuk, it’s clear that as we read more and grow (AKA age) we outgrow some authors. It’s a tough pill to swallow sometimes. It’s good to remain thankful, however, for the joy you once derived from their work.

Join the SheWrites Global Writers Chat

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The plan was to return to Peru after six weeks in the US. Due to unforeseen circumstances, I’ll apparently be here for double that time. It’s killing me. I long to be around friends I’ve made there in Peru, to be back in travel mode. Most of all, I miss the writing schedule established during the six months spent in Lima last year. Living with your newly retired father who doesn’t at all understand your writerly wackiness does not an easy writing schedule make.

 

Fortunately there’s SheWrites. Here we global writers share our writing yays and woes, especially with events such as next week’s Global Writers chat (8 PM EST, Tuesday, 10 Jan.). The first chat I participated in, in outstanding Anna Leahy‘s Submission Mission group, blew me away. The hour flew. After which I wondered, “What the H just happened? When can I have more?”

The conversation never lulled. We had much to share, much to ask each other, much to commiserate about, much to celebrate. From that we all extended our literary tentacles, sharing invaluable information on the submission process.

In my 15 years of professional writing, only twice have other writers extended a helping hand. Why is that? Here at SheWrites, especially in these chats, the information gleaned helps us advance our abilities more rapidly than we alone can do. These chats are the difference between swimming in the kiddie pool and jumping off the high dive. They are a game card that allows us to  advance enough spaces to handily win. How…liberating…it is to have a group of people–friends– who know your  plight, who know your scheduling and inspiration challenges, who know your needs, and who all have information to readily share.

SheWrites give me, for instance, the courage and confidence necessary to approach writers whose success and skills far surpass and therefore intimate me. SheWrites has helped me garner exceptional critique friends, increase productivity, write better, get a reviewing gig, and discover literary publications which may have otherwise eluded me.

 

In the spirit of paying it forward, I’m hosting this month’s SheWrites Global Writers group chat. It’s an honor to stand in our gracious host Tracy Slater, who’s got a super busy career. My hope is that many women experience the relief and glean rewards as I do with each SheWrites chat I do. I hope that you take a nugget from it that helps you move exponentially closer to your career goals.

 

Consider some of the things we’ll be discussing at 8 PM EST on Tuesday, 10 January.

  • It’s unlikely we can subscribe to every publication we’d consider publishing in, especially given foreign subscription rates and length/iffy postal delivery in our respective countries. How do you keep up with your hopeful or favorite publications, especially those only in print form?
  • Which web sites and/or social forums (outside of SheWrites) help you connect with fellow writers? (Such as LitReactor, NewPages, MediaBistro.)
  • How do you keep up your writing flow whilst traveling?
  • Are you participating in NaTraWriMo? Have you participated in other monthly challenges? What are the benefits or drawbacks of NaTraWriMo? Have you experienced success with these writers challenges?

These chats remind me that being stuck in the States isn’t the worst thing that’s happened to me. After all, my fellow traveling writers know what it’s like to be forced to put your wanderlust in neutral. We know what it’s like to miss our writers groups back home.

Eventually I’ll be back writing in Peru. Until then, and after, I’m thankful for SheWrites.

Writing Privacy into Nonfiction

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Lest you think my last post on writing proposed lying, deceit, or reckless insensitively writing your nonfiction, let’s consider it from another direction. I want to look at Nancy J. Brandwein’s “Scraping the Bottom,” an essay published recently in the fantastic literary journal Hippocampus. But keep in mind Kaylene Johnson’s essay discussed in my last post.

Nancy Brandwein

What Courage!

Brandwein‘s at wit’s end with her husband, possibly with their marriage. Imagine writing an essay/memoir that coincides with the song “Is That All There Is?” The song hums through my mind as the memoir progresses. I’m reading that Brandwein’s bliss, relief,  and happiness of her once-young fantasies are all but dead memories.

 

“Back then irritation was a precursor to romance. Now irritation, is, well, irritation,” she writes.

I can feel my own grimace grow. I can feel the clench of having been in a relationship too long. But there’s more.

“She is looking at her husband’s profile with seething resentment.”

“I couldn’t help seeing the petrified bedroom and living room furniture as metaphor for marriage in midlife.”

 

There is no telling if the author is still married to her husband at the time of publication, but they were at the end of the essay. In fact, she had a beautiful essayistic twist. Not only does it delight with the subtle capacity for a twist. It also shocks at its exceptional intimacy. Here we have a different angle to exposing private facts through nonfiction.

Unhappiness Requires Liberty to Write

In “Scraping” Brandwein does this to herself and her husband, giving us an intimate view of the interior of one’s life– one that’s

daring in its revelatory details of a crumbling marriage. Yet never once does this essay come off as a ranting, self-pitying journal entry. That’s where a lot of new writers go wrong.

Johnson’s “Privacy in Creative Nonfiction” addressed that. The subject such as Brandwein’s could so easily be initially seen as a question from amateur, yet what we tackle in essays and memoir— literary nonfiction overall— is the legitimate concern of writers everywhere.

 

“It turns out that permission to write about these hard truths is more easily gained than one might imagine—so long as truth, compassion, and empathy are braided throughout the work,” Johnson writes.

 

Here’s another example of how Brandwein might have forgotten the professional side of writing and lost it all to a handwritten entry in her journal:

 

“The last leg of our trip becomes a struggle to keep from sobbing, which is hard to manage when The Shirelles are singing Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? Richard wrote out the lyrics for me when we first lived together, his way of saying that yearning uncertainty was now behind us. Thinking of the numbing certainty of our life together, I blurt, ‘I can’t bear it!’”

 

This is indeed an essay. Brandwein brings it round, trying to figure something out in true essayistic style. She doesn’t become sappy or melodramatic. She partially makes fun of herself and tells us what “exactly” happened to get her to turn it all around, to stop being a crybaby. Why did she do it? “There is something freeing about confronting the disappointments and limitations of our marriage.”

 

Asking Permission

Did Brandwein ask her husband’s permission to write this and that detail, to publish the thing? Did he have a chance to look at it before it went to the publisher, even before it was submitted? After all, as Terry Tempest Williams once wrote, “The minute we pick up our pen, we are on the path of betrayal.”

 

Now let’s flip that statement onto its side. Could we see in Brandwein’s essay what Johnson says in hers– that all writing is about revenge?

 

Or we might liken it to Freudian psychoanalysis. “Freudian psychology allowed for the exploration of private experiences, which in turn revealed the motivations behind our public personas.” Freud believed psychoanalysis might allow man to take a deeper look at himself, “to control himself more from within than through external authority…” Johnson writes. We as nonfiction writers do this. We work through our insecurities through our writing (and sometimes psychotherapy too). It is not, however, our responsibility to ensure that the subjects of our work are equally as secure in self-awareness and/or self-exploration.

 

Be on the look out for a third post in this series on privacy in nonfiction.