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When Stuck, Make Something

When Stuck, Make Something

Scallion Pancakes
Scallion Pancakes

Ugh — it was one of those days when I Could Not Get Anything Done. I mean, I got some stuff done — the chickens were mucked out — poor babies. It snowed a foot yesterday, then went into the 50s today, so my backyard is a lake. I got the chicken coop cleaned out and nice new shavings put inside, then bought them some new straw for bedding in their run, which seems to have put them high enough to be out of the wet — but my backyard was a lake, and the wind blew gusts into the 40mph range all day, and it was grey and wet and miserable.

So, I gave up on writing, and on the several writing projects on my list, and played with making scallion pancakes. I’m reviewing Carolyn Phillips magnificent All Under Heaven which means I *must* cook from it for a couple of weeks. Really, it’s my job … at any rate, I played around with these this afternoon. I don’t have them quite down yet — I’m not great at modulating the heat in my cast iron pan for flatbreads, but darn if that doesn’t mean I’ll have to try again.

And it got me out of my head, and out of the clickhole of Facebook/Twitter Garbage-Fire-of-the-Republic for a while.

So — scallion pancakes.

Process: Setting Goals, Making Plans

Process: Setting Goals, Making Plans

Weekly planner and pile of notebooks
Weekly planner and pile of notebooks

It’s Monday, which means my weekly session with the planner. About a year ago, I started deliberately planning my week — paid work projects, creative work projects, things I wanted to make — and started setting deliberate goals. My big goals for last year were to finish and send out essays for publication, and to get the mystery novel I’d set aside back on its feet again.

Sitting down every Sunday or Monday and taking stock, then setting goals for the week has helped enormously. I started out using the Passion Planner which I particularly liked for it’s large size and generous real estate per week. However, after a few months, I found the inspirational pages less and less useful — although I have stayed in the habit of doing a monthly summary of what worked, what didn’t work, what I accomplished, and what I’d like to accomplish for the forthcoming month.

Eventually, I moved back to the Moleskine weekly planner because I love the page layout (although I dearly wish they had a bigger size). I like having one blank page to sketch out what the tasks are for the week, and a day-by-day section to track myself. I wrote my first novel with little weekly calendars, where I noted down word counts to keep myself honest, and on track, and I find that essential to my process.

When I was in Milwaukee last summer, I picked up some of these softcover notebooks by Fabriano, and I’ve found them really useful for brainstorming and tracking my various projects: the mystery novel, the essays, the TinyLetter, the BlogReboot. While I still carry a general notebook, I’ve found it more useful to split up into these separate ones, as well as some smaller notebooks I use for reading notes, so I can find things afterwards. I’m not a bullet journal person — all that indexing, while useful, just annoys me — but this way, I can find the notes on say, John Berger that I wanted to roll into a TinyLetter.

My primary goal at the moment is finishing this mystery novel manuscript — I started it several years ago, then put it aside while I was working on a nonfiction memoir, a project I ultimately decided was not so much a book, as it was a series of essays. Abandoning a book is never an easy decision, but that nonfiction project just would not come together the way I wanted it to (and I *really* did not want to write a misery memoir), and after discussions with an agent, I decided to put it aside and mine those ten years of work for essays.

I’ve always been a big chicken about sending things out, and somehow, that changed this year.  In combination with a planning method that seems to work, I managed to pull together five solid essays and send them out. Four of them have been taken, so that’s pretty satisfying. One was taken as a conference paper (I need to rework it a little and send it out again), three were accepted for publication (only one has come out, in the Unearthing Paradise anthology — please buy a copy and help us fight the gold mines on the border of Yellowstone). The other two should be published in the next couple of months and I’ll include links when they do. I had one essay rejected, and I’ve sent it back out. And I have three more solid ideas I’m pulling together, but since I need to draft the mystery novel, I’ve put those aside for now.

And then there’s the new novel. I’d pretty much given up on fiction, and when I decided not to pursue the memoir, I went back to the two half-finished novel drafts I had in the house. They’re both actually pretty good — but I decided to pursue the mystery novel first for a couple of reasons. One is that because the mystery as a genre deals with murder, it allows one a natural outlet to explore in fiction topics like class and money, and good and evil, and life and death. I like people in extreme situations, perhaps because I’ve seen so many of them, and the mystery provides a great opportunity to test your characters under stress. The other reason I started with this one is that I really want to do a series — I love long long form work — and the mysteries I love the best are the ones with a core set of characters who appear across the volumes, and whose development you get to trace as the series progresses. But more than any of those idea-driven reasons for writing this novel — I’m having so much fun making people up again. There are characters living in my head again, and I’d forgotten what a joy that is.

When I quit my job in September, I had about 15k words, and I’m just north of 40K now. I think it’s going to clock in somewhere in the neighborhood of 80K — which is about what Place Last Seen came in at. The planning is necessary because, for instance, I just lost three whole weeks to political madness, and so I found I had to come back, look at the page, and make a real plan. Even if part of me thought I was going to get the whole 40k written in January, and that same part of me is bummed not to be some sort of wordcount superhero, I know myself well enough that if I can come up with a reasonable schedule, and break the project into parts, then I’ll be able to get it done. Barring more insanity from Washington (or more than the level we’ve now become accustomed to), I should have a finished manuscript sometime in the middle of April. And if I can do that, I’ll have proven to myself that I can finish a book in six months, which means that pitching a book a year isn’t totally unreasonable.

The next planning challenge I’m dealing with is figuring out the revenue end of the struggle. I’ll be saying more about that in the days to come, but I’m considering a number of options, including a Patreon. In the meantime, I’ve opened a Store page on the blog, where I’ve linked to books on my Alibris store — so if you’d like to contribute that way, please go buy a book!

Also, please leave notes in the comments — what planning strategies work best for you? Are you a planner? or not-a-planner? How do creativity and planning work in your artistic life?


Making and Creating

Making and Creating


So, everything is fairly terrifying right now. The election is horrific. Climate change is continuing to wreck havoc across the globe. I don’t have a job, or at the moment, even any freelance gigs signed. And the Red Sox, sigh.

So I’m making things.

I made the jacket in the photo above, from two fabrics in my stash. The blue wool is from a piece I bought on eBay a year or so ago, and has the loveliest selvage on it. I used it for the end of the sleeves, which you can see when they’re not cuffed. It’s lined with an end-piece of orange raw silk I bought a year or so ago when I was in Seattle at District Fabric, and that I’ve been trying to figure out ever since what to do with — it was too short for a dress or a skirt. I have another jacket in this pattern cut out downstairs — in heavier wool, charcoal grey color, with a grey Robert Kaufman chambray to line it with. It’ll be terrific for dog walking, and will distract me for the three or four hours it takes to put it together. I knit a Hitchhiker shawl  from a ball of ombre sock yarn that had too much space between the colors (I would have wound up with one black sock and one white sock). I’m also working up a pair of Kate Davies stranded Pawkies, which I’m doing as mittens, because winter is coming, and dog walking is upon me. I’m going to experiment with knitting a little hole for my index finger so I can select stuff on my iPhone through the mittens — I like taking Instagram shots while dog walking.

I’ve been thinking a lot about making stuff and creativity as I try to sketch out and envision what kind of freelance life I’d like to build. Sadly, I can’t retire, or tap into my savings, so I do have to find work, but my hope is to find work that allows me to write about issues I’m interested in, and in the best of all possible worlds, about people who are doing creative things.

In the meantime, I’m staving off panic by thinking about what I want to wear this winter. I have a couple of skirts I made this summer that I loved, and wore all the time. So I’ve been eyeing my stash (since I quit my job, and Can Not Buy More Fabric) and thinking about which patterns would work in which fabrics. It’s also Slow Fashion October, during which my Instagram feed is full of people who sew and knit thinking through their issues of consumption, of how clothes are made and sold in a consumer capitalist model and how, by making our own, we can strike back, even if only on small personal levels, at an economic model built on the idea of cheap, fast, and replaceable items.

Part of the pleasure in making clothes, for me, is thinking about it beforehand. What do I want to look like? And how do I want my clothes to feel? And then, can I make that happen? I have to say, three years into making most of my own clothes, I love getting dressed. I was never fashion-y, but now, I look in my closet, or more likely at my clothesline after doing wash, and it’s just so pleasing. Clothes I like, that fit me, in colors I wanted, that go together most of the time, which last, and that I made myself.

I had a friend visiting about a week ago. Months ago he convinced me to propose my first ever academic paper, nearly 20 years after I finished my Phd, for the Western Literature Association conference which was over at Big Sky this year. It was nearby, and seemed like a good idea. It was fine — I wrote about it in more detail over at my TinyLetter (subscribe here). He was amazed the whole weekend at the way the Montana writers all seem to know one another, and how, for the most part, we’re all pretty supportive of one another. And then, driving around town the next day, showing him Livingston, with our old school buildings repurposed as artist studios and theater spaces, our community garden and used bookstore/reading space, our funky little shops which exist because rent is cheap, it did strike me that we’re a pretty creative bunch of folks around here.

You can forget how important it is to live embedded in a community of creative people until you have to leave it for a while. I’m not slagging on the academics, but that conference, along with the one I went to a year ago, both confirmed for me that I was right to leave academia when I did. And my buddy who came to visit, and who is marooned in the Midwest, in a town where he doesn’t have a circle of people to help feed his own creative work, well, it just drove home for me that even if I sometimes roll my eyes when the local creative types get a little woo, I’d rather live among folks whose first response to most things is “what can I make from it?” or “how can I fix it?” or “can we use this somehow to improve our community?” It’s a small town, and like most small towns we sometimes get kind of fed up with one another, so it was a good reminder of just how fortunate we are. it’s not perfect, goodness knows, but it is creative. And for that I’m deeply grateful.

How Routine is a Creative Practice

How Routine is a Creative Practice


I’ve been walking this same two mile stretch of road every morning pretty much since Hank-dog came to live with me two years ago. It’s a quick drive out of town, and there’s usually no one else there, which is important. Despite having made most of my close friends upon moving here through our dogs, at this point, I don’t want to chat on my dog walk.  Also,  there aren’t many cars. Hank and I are still working on the concept that cars do not need to be herded (neither do runners, or bicyclists).  So for two years I’ve walked exactly the same stretch of road, and I’m the opposite of bored by it. It’s both the same, and different every day. The colors of the vegetation change in the creekbottom below the road. The sky is a different blue with different clouds every morning. The wildlife changes —  one morning it’s a hawk and a goldfinch, eyeing one another from two branches high in a cottonwood snag, another day it’s the kingfisher diving for minnows, and nearly every day the blue heron rises out of the creek on his enormous wings. Right now, the chokecherries are coming ripe, which means I’ve got an eye out for bears.

It’s not just the ever-changing details that keeps this walk crucial to my day — it’s actually the routine nature of our walk that opens up my head and activates both my powers of observation and creative thinking.  Because the structure of the walk is the same, the task doesn’t take up any head space, which allows my mind to wander in the best kind of way for that 40 minutes every morning. I’m not there to accomplish anything other than giving both Hank and myself a little exercise, and practicing Not Herding Inappropriate Things. And because I’ve deliberately chosen a road where I don’t usually run into people, it gives me a solid 40 minutes to talk to myself, usually in my head, but sometimes, yes, I find myself muttering out loud. This road has become the place where I think up ideas, where I outline essay and story structures, where I talk things over with myself. Sometimes I dictate into my phone — I’ve discovered that if I pull up a Google doc, I can dictate in the roughest of rough drafts, which as someone who loves editing, I’ve discovered is a great way to jump start a piece, or get myself unstuck.

I’m with Flaubert, who wrote: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” It has always been the central project here at LivingSmall — to pay off the house, to bring my expenses down so I can afford to chance a freelance life, and to build for myself the kind of domestic routines that allow my brain the space to roam, to make things up, to imagine worlds in which all kinds of things can happen — and then to get those worlds down on the page.

For me, routine is the mental scaffolding that allows the work to get done. It’s not that I go dog walking in order to produce ideas, it’s that when I go for a dog walk, when I let my mind drift — when I look at a landscape both as deeply familiar as this one but which is, because it is a natural place, is also always in flux, different colors, different birds, sometimes the cattle are in the bottom, sometimes they’re up high — all this makes space for ideas to emerge.

Our culture has become so obsessed with productivity, so addicted to the drug of busyness, that we forget how crucial daydreaming is to our mental wellbeing. It’s difficult to advocate for taking a walk, for daydreaming, for carving out time to protect those routines that feed our creative processes, when we’re all struggling so hard just to make a living.

Figuring out what routines we need seems to me one of the biggest challenges of building a creative life. For one thing, it seems so precious and bourgeois — oh poor me my challenge is not to survive and put food on my table and make sure my kids have shoes but to figure out my perfect little artistic life —  but if we’re to get the work done, it’s one of the most important things we need to not only figure out, but to protect.

I’d love to hear from you all in the comments — what routines work for you? Do routines work for you, or are you the kind of creative who needs to shock your system once in a while? It’s been ages since we’ve had a commenting community here at Livingsmall, but it was always one of my favorite parts of blogging, and I hope that (if you’re out there), you’ll join in.

Building A Creative Life

Building A Creative Life


For many years, I thought of my maker projects and my writing as separate. More than that, actually,  I got into a bad habit of thinking of them as oppositional — as if my making was only a kind of procrastination or evasion from writing. I felt guilty about it. As if spending time in my garden, or putting up a batch of jam, or making a shirt, or learning to knit socks was somehow betraying my “real” creative work, which was supposed to be writing novels and essays.

About a year ago I got really interested in the notion of creative practice. This is quite a common idea in the art world, but writers don’t tend to think in these terms — or at least not the writers I came up with. Process was fine, but the point was publication. Where you were published was frequently not as important as the fact of publication, especially when I was still in academia. And there was a hierarchy. “Little” magazines at the bottom, then real magazines — the ones who paid — and at the top, publishing a book. That I published a book with a commercial publisher was sort of a big deal back in the day. But as the years have stretched on, and I haven’t managed to finish another book manuscript, I’ve gone through many cycles of despair and reinvention, then gotten stuck and have done it all over again.

It was in those down times about a year ago when a manuscript I’d been struggling with had come apart, again, that I discovered a group of knitters in the UK who were building these really vibrant networks of creativity. They had podcasts and book projects and were starting their own lines of yarn and making patterns and researching the history of knitted textiles in the British Isles in ways that seemed enormously exciting. Kate Davies, for example, who writes these beautifully-researched books on Fair Isle knitting, or yoked sweaters or haps … books that include not only terrific patterns, but these essays about the history of these handicrafts, and the women who made them, and the economic conditions that helped turn these things into the luxury items of their days. Turns out that Kate has a PhD in 18th Century History, and an academic career cut short by a stroke she suffered in her early 30s. She reinvented herself entirely — took the thing she loved doing, and in exploring it deeply has built a truly creative life for herself, as well as a business. Felicity (Felix) Ford is another one I’ve been slightly obsessed by, because again, she has that combination of true enthusiasm and academic and artistic expression that just makes my heart sing. Also known as Knitsonik, Felix is a sound artist and knitwear designer who wrote the absolutely astonishing Knitsonik Stranded Colorwork Sourcebook which is my very favorite kind of how-to book. There are patterns, several really wonderful ones, but just as my most beloved cookbooks are a collection of recipes in service of teaching a person how to really cook — how to think about flavors, how to acquire the techniques needed to make those flavors and textures happen, how to set you free to truly cook on your own, Felix’s Knitsonik Stranded Colorwork Sourcebook is all about learning to really see, and then to translate what you see and love into patterns that can be knit into any number of garments.

I am not a particularly visually adept person. My mother is a talented visual artist who can draw and paint, but that’s never been my strong suit. And what I loved about Felix’s book is that it is rooted in place, which has always been the source from which my writing begins. The book is a workbook of sorts, leading the reader through several of Felix’s projects where she takes elements of the landscape that she loves — whether it be the brickwork of her hometown Reading, or an ancient stone wall, or the meandering highway over which she commuted to a University job — and rethinks them as colors and patterns that can be translated into the medium she loves, knitting. I was set on fire by this book. I was SO excited about the way it had me looking at colors, and patterns, and the contrast between colors and patterns — every morning for weeks. My morning dog walks took on a heightened sense of thrill as I tried to translate the shapes and colors of the mountain ranges, the sky, and my beloved creek bottom where we walk every morning with it’s willows and bullrushes and blue heron and cows. And while I’ve yet to knit anything from it, that it opened up my creative mind again, got me thinking and seeing and simply being excited about creating again — that was enough. (Although I do have plans for a very special pattern I want to develop using her methods.)

Felix has a terrific Knitsonic podcast, which seems to be on hiatus at the moment as she works on a project for the Dickens museum on Catherine Dickens, Charles’s long-suffering wife who he both divorced and erased late in life. And that podcast led me to a few others that also felt really inspirational — KnitBritish and A Playful Day in particular — podcasts that take on the big question of how do we build creative lives that will also support us? They’re women telling stories about making up their own lives, and interviewing others who have done the same — built creative businesses that not only support them, but feed their creative practices.

All this has been in my head this year as I’ve been planning my Great Leap into Freelancing. I have a stack of writing projects, and for the first time in decades, I’m sending things out. For ages every manuscript submission felt life-or-death to me, as if it was the Final Judgement on whether or not I was any good at this. Maybe its getting to that age where a woman famously doesn’t give a shit anymore what other people think, maybe it’s having a solid footing underneath me for the first time ever — a settled domestic life, a safe home — or maybe it’s just a very belated sense of confidence in my own talent, but sending things out no longer seems like such a big deal. The next challenge is going to be figuring out how to find paid work that isn’t so divorced from my creative life as that I’ve been doing these past fifteen years or so. It was a deliberate choice on my part — I wanted a job that didn’t creep into those creative parts of my brain because I thought it would compete. And perhaps I was right, or right for what I needed at the time. Now I’m in a different space, a space of really exciting creative brainstorming. The three things I love: making, wilderness, and writing are all right here — and my goal is to bring them into some sort of constellation that allows me to pay my bills while doing good work — work that brings creative energy into not only my world, but becomes an expression of that energy out into the universe. I have no idea how I’m going to accomplish this, but the challenge has me waking up mornings with a head full of plans, plans that it looks like I’ll have time now to start putting into place. It’s so exciting. Terrifying, but exciting.

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On Quitting my Day Job

On Quitting my Day Job



I took the leap.

I gave notice at my day job.

It’s pretty terrifying. I have a few things in the pipeline, but it’s a big risk. I’ve got another month of steady work, then it’s me and my little freelance shingle, hoping I can make it work.

And this is the photo I’ve been looking at every time I get spooked. That’s my friend Dennis, who died last month. Denny was the first person outside of my family who truly saw me. We spent the summer after I graduated from high school leading canoe trips in the Boundary Waters and talking. It was one of those summers you hope for any young person you love — we were besotted with each other. We spent every waking moment together, and most of it we spent talking (no surprise to anyone who knows either of us). He was never my boyfriend — he was three years older than I am and had a girlfriend at college he was moving in with, and I was a very young 17 year old that way. But we loved one another. I have the letters he wrote me on birchbark to remind me. And then, years later, when I was suffocating in New York City, and flailing around trying to figure out what to do with myself and frightened I’d made a terrible mistake and had ruined my life, Denny came to the rescue again. He got me a job at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, and backed me up when my mother was furious I’d left a good job in New York City to go be a raft guide, and loaned me a boat so I could learn to really paddle. Denny was in love with Nancy by then, who he married, and had two gorgeous girls with, and just left behind.

Dennis lived every single day to the fullest. He was the most enthusiastic person I’ve ever known, and the most authentic. He spent a lifetime teaching wilderness EMT courses, and saving people’s lives. He and Nancy took their girls on an adventure of a childhood, living in an RV while they taught courses all over, from the Southeast, to Alaska, to Arizona and finally settling, in a real house, in Maine. That Denny could get a chronic illness, and then a very quick cancer and then die has shaken even me, the woman who has lost so many people I really love, to the core.

There is no time to waste.

And so, I’m jumping off the rock even though the timing is not ideal. Look at that photo. It’s cold in that photo. Denny’s jumping in even though it’s so cold there’s no leaves yet on the trees – that water is COLD — and yet, there he is, leaping into the river — for what, I’m not sure. To demonstrate something for a river rescue class, perhaps to actually rescue someone, perhaps because he’s Denny and he always jumped in.

The house is paid for. There are two half-written novels and a pile of essays that might, someday come back into a nonfiction book. There are environmental issues I want to write about and essays I’ve been dictating into my phone on morning dog walks about knitting and sewing and creativity. I went to a reading last week, and for the first time in fifteen years looked up and thought I’m ready to get back up on that stage.

I accomplished my goal at my day job. I paid off my PhD. I paid off my house. I have money in my retirement savings.

And now it’s time to leap.

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Back to Work …

Back to Work …


Five weeks ago I had reconstructive surgery on my left ankle, and I thought that being laid up would be sort of useful. That I’d get a lot of work done. I’d read books! I’d get back to the one I’m writing! I’d knit (I did knit …).

The truth is that I seem to have spent most of the past five weeks fucking around on the internet. And complaining about not being able to do anything. I got nothing useful done.

And so, I finally had to face up to the fact that I needed a new planning regime. I have not been using my 3 days off work productively, and as one does, I’ve been watching good ideas float off into the ether, and things I meant to write about drift off, happily unmolested by my attempts to corral them into meaning.

So I pulled out the planner again, and went back to a method that’s worked for me in the past. It’s nothing fancy — just identifying at the beginning of each year, month, and week what you intend to accomplish, then keeping track of the steps you take to make those things happen. And re-evaluating at the beginning of each week and month. Basic stuff. Keeping on track stuff. Making yourself account for your time so that if you do do something as ridiculous as spend an entire afternoon following rabbits down Twitter holes (or looking at knitting on Instagram) you at least have to own up to it.

We’re just about at the vernal equinox, which I think of as a sort of new year, so here’s to resolutions, and to getting more things accomplished, and to breaking loose from my drifty, pleasant, but ultimately unproductive state …

The Two-Book Curse?

The Two-Book Curse?

A long weekend, a big snowstorm, my sweetheart’s delightful cabin (available as a vacation rental!) with a woodstove and snow outside and two deer in the yard in the morning, which meant I had a lovely, unplugged stretch of time to catch up on some reading.

Somehow I’d missed Nicole Krauss these past couple of years, probably because I had been dismissive of the Brooklyn writers. They seemed like emo music to me, one of those things I’m too old to find charming, or deep, or meaningful. But there was a New Yorker story I liked, and her new book, Great House, was getting such good reviews that a few weeks ago I got The History of Love out of the library. While I didn’t think it was as groundbreaking as the reviews and the gushing articles about Krauss and her husband, Jonathan Safran Foer, the “golden couple” of the New York writing scene, would have one believe, it seemed to me like a very fine novel — there were interesting characters, the sentences are lovely without being show-offy, and even the inevitable coincidental connections between the seemingly-disparate characters were handled with grace. Like I said, I thought it was a very fine novel.

And so, I put myself on the list for Great House, and even tucked it in my backpack for the ski up the hill to the cabin. Again, it is beautifully written by an author who clearly shows great talent. Again, there are seemingly-disconnected characters who turn out to have connections between them, although this time I found that structure less delightful. Again, there are writers, and writing which connects these characters, as does their Jewishness (which I found far less irritating than the Dedication to Art aspect). The Holocaust looms once more, but the characters are all Jews, so that was far less irritating than was the fact that all of these characters are writers, except for the ones who supportively orbit the writers, or those who have dedicated their pale lives to some other art, like playing the piano. (The exception is Aaron, the furious father of the mysterious Dov, whose life might be ruined by the fact that he didn’t become a writer? Although to me, becoming a successful London judge sounds more interesting, but that’s a profession Dov mysteriously quits when his mother dies in order to return to Jeruselem and languish in his childhood bedroom, much to the concern and irritation of his father, and of this reader).

The book was lovely, it was beautifully written, but it made me want to shake Krauss, made me want to tell her to go get a job and to write about something, anything, other than writers. This is the second book in which writers and books and writing are the only subject. Enough already. Maybe it’s that I live in a town rotten with writers, I know plenty of writers and believe me, most of them are not romantic figures in the least (especially the ones who think they are). The “romance” and “mystery” of the two, count them, two women writers in this book who continually shut out their spouses, who stop arguments in mid shout and stalk silently, remotely, coolly, off to the mysterious and enormous and magnetic desk at the center of this tale wore thin early in the story. Krauss is very young. She has only ever been a writer (except for being a daughter, a wife and a mother). She is married to a writer. I get the sense she only hangs around with writers. And it is clear from her recent, and widely-mocked blurb for Daniel Grossman’s new book that she is a true Romantic when it comes to writing, one who believes that it is a High Calling, and that Art is something worth dedicating one’s life to.

All of which makes me want to run off and read someone bracing, like Anne Dillard or Margaret Atwood. Years ago, when I was in grad school at UC Davis, Atwood came for the standard weekend of lectures and meetings with students. I’ll never forget her chastising the graduate students who were studying her work. “You’re all clearly very bright,” she said. “You should go do something more useful with those brains than this. Go figure out how to stop global warming or something.” They were crestfallen, but I always thought she was right.

That these hermetically sealed books about upper-class white people in America keep getting praised to the high heavens is an ongoing concern of mine. While the hype surrounding her book is no more Krauss’s doing than the circus Jonathan Franzen seems to unleash with each book is his own, I do find it problematic that books about “white people’s problems” — the difficulty of creating Art, the woes of suburban life and marriage — are the ones being chosen by publishers, then hyped by them and every reviewer out there. I don’t want to read books about the people just like me (or like the me I might have been had I not left my publishing job in NYC in 1988, or like the me I might have been had I gotten an academic job after grad school). I want to read books about people who struggle with something real — who worry about their jobs, and putting a roof over their heads, and who are, perhaps up against something terrifyingly real like the death of their loved ones. Which means someone will probably complain in my next book about the body count, and that I keep killing people off for cheap effect. We all have our personal obsessions, and that Krauss’s are writing and Art and Jewishness are less worrisome to me than the idea that a two-book contract, and the success of her first book, might have led to pressure to “do it again” — the sort of pressure that leads to a second book which  contains so many of the pleasures of the first one that this reader, at least, became frustrated. Krauss is clearly very talented. Now I just want to see her stretch that talent, and do something new with it.

On “Unlikeable” Characters

On “Unlikeable” Characters

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the subject of fictional characters and “likeability.” Probably because I’m writing again, but also because it’s a topic dear to my heart, since so many readers found Anne, in Place Last Seen deeply unlikeable (go take a look at the Amazon reviews if you don’t believe me). Patrick and I used to laugh about it, because we both thought I’d pulled my punches and had made her sympathetic, or at least much more sympathetic than in her earlier incarnations. I wasn’t entirely surprised when she was greeted with a hail of criticism because I’d already weathered a couple of years of graduate workshop populated by writers doing Katherine Mansfield-esque odes to their idyllic childhoods, and whose consistent response to Anne was “no mother would do that!” (A response that indicated to me that I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing with the character.) At any rate, I didn’t want her to be “normal” — what would be the interest in that, either as a writer, or as a reader? I wanted her to be odd; to be Anne.

So I was Googling around when I came across Emily St. John Mandel’s terrific essay at The Millions, In Praise of Unlikeable Characters, an essay that caused me to fire up the Kindle and download Bad Marie. It’s a terrific read, which is such a pleasure these days. a book that really sucks you in and in which many things actually happen, and that has characters in whom you become deeply invested. Marie does indeed do some very “bad” things, but Marcy Dermansky does such a good job writing her from the inside that you get sucked in, and nod along in agreement that of course, Marie’s is the only logical course of action. She makes her sympathetic without necessarily making her likeable. You always doubt her — especially since so many other characters tell her how bad she is. It is that seed of doubt that lurks, no matter how much one might be rooting for Marie that that made me feel the book pulled it’s big punch. I won’t give away the plot point, but there is a moment very late in the book, after you’ve seen Marie act in many impulsive and unwise and even vengeful ways, where she comes right to the precipice of doing something truly monstrous. And while the naive reader part of me, the part of me that really does believe somehow that characters are people, and who comes to care about them (the part of me that still feels guilty for breaking Jonathan’s leg for plot purposes at the end of Place Last Seen), while that reader was glad that Marie didn’t go over the precipice, the cold-hearted novelist in me wishes she had.

No one writes books like that any more. Books that take a character all the way over the edge. (Or perhaps no one who writes like that can get them published, another discussion altogether.) I was trolling around in the Paris Review’s newly-opened interview archives and in David Mitchell’s interview he talks about reading Nabokov, and trying to figure out what he was up to:

I used to read Nabokov with an X-ray on, trying to map the circuitry of what he was doing and how he was doing it. Lolita is an act of seduction. This is a lovable rogue, you think, this Humbert Humbert. How interesting life is in his company! Then there’s a place where, toward the end—and this is one of the most chilling scenes in English literature—he realizes that Lolita has lost her magic. She’s not the pliant young fairy she once was. But it’ll be OK, he thinks, because I can have a daughter through her and start all over again. That’s when you know you’ve really been had here—this Humbert figure is a damaged, dangerous piece of work, and you’ve been riding along happily in his car for a hundred and fifty pages.

There’s a corresponding problem to the “likeability” problem (and not that all women must have pink high-heeled shoes on the covers of their books) and that’s the flip side, the total monster — at it’s best, you get someone like Dostoyevski, at it’s worst, you get Hannibal Lecter or American Psycho, books that are only about an unredeemable character, that plumb the depths and claim, by doing so, to be breaking new ground. Those aren’t the unlikeable characters I’m interested in — the ones I’m interested in are like that family member that you can never figure out, or the friend about whom you continually find yourself saying “how could she do that?” Someone who seems just like us, but who isn’t — and it’s that difference that makes it interesting. What makes someone like that tick? Are they really “bad”? I love the exploration of that murky ground, and I especially like it when the author resists the urge to “heal” the character, resists the therapeutic narrative of our age. They’re hard to find though, which is why I find myself turning back to Elizabeth Bowen, or Mavis Gallant, writers who had their gimlet eyes firmly fixed on the flaws of human character.

So readers, in the comments, tell us who your favorite “unlikeable” character is, and why?

The Wire, The Novel and the MacArthur Grant

The Wire, The Novel and the MacArthur Grant

There’s a lot of chatter this morning about David Simon winning the MacArthur Foundation Grant. While it’s true that he’s hardly a starving artist, and hence there’s griping about whether or not he needs the money, I think it’s a fascinating choice on their part. Simon, along with his many collaborators including novelists like Dennis Lehane, Richard Powers and George Pellacanos, has in some crucial way reinvented the novel as a multi-part, long form television show. Or maybe I’m wrong, maybe it’s the other way around, maybe he’s just plain old reinvented the long-form television show. All I can say is that The Wire, which I missed during the years it was on the air, is the most astonishing and rewarding and exciting thing I’ve ever seen on television.

I’ve been watching it all summer on DVD and chief among the many merits of watching the series this way is that without the interruption of seasons, one can really see the narrative arcs play out. This isn’t network television, and so the shape of the narrative is much closer to the shape of a great novel than it is a television show. Ideas play out over a long time. Motifs crop up, disappear, and come back. Characters have time to disappear for a while (I’m in the middle of season 4, when McNulty is almost entirely in the background) then reappear without the sort of idiotic explanatory crap a network show would stick in there because they assume we’re too stupid to remember who someone is if we haven’t seen them in the last five minutes. It’s a show that doesn’t assume we’re morons, that believes we’ll stick around in a world that is almost entirely black, that we’ll care not only about the scrappy bunch of eight graders who are still kind of cute, but about killers like Omar and Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale and about the cannibalistic mothers who groom their boys to go out and take their places on those corners because that’s the only vision they have of what it means to be a man.

It’s also a show that deals with work. As Lorrie Moore said in this terrific piece in the New York Review of Books (which I was reading last night when the news came in about Simon),

“The most intriguing phrase Simon has used regarding The Wire is that it is about ‘the death of work.’ By this he means not just the loss of jobs, thought there certainly is that, but the loss of integrity within our systems of work, the ‘juking of stats,’ the speaking of truth to power having been replaced with speaking what is most self-serving and pleasing to the higher-ups. … in the world of The Wire almost everyone who tries to buck the system and do right is punished, often severely and grotesquely and heartbreakingly. Accomodation is survival at the most basic level, although it is also lethal to the soul.

One of the issues that the sweetheart and I have been discussing all summer long as story after story spews forth from the mainstream press about the “end of the recession” and the “jobless recovery” is the absolute stream of bullshit that is any actual discussion of the economy. We’re each of us in slightly odd positions in this economy, both insiders and outsiders — he has an Ivy League degree and has spent his career building houses, while I have the full string of graduate degrees, wanted to be an artist, and wound up spending a decade in corporate America, a place I never expected to be. We’re both pretty conservative, financially — we’ve mostly lived below our means, saved some money, don’t have a lot of debt, and bought houses we could afford to pay off. Neither of us ever wanted to get rich, but we’ve always worked, and have watched over the past decade or so as the boom-and-bust mentality of what passed for economic policy consistently screwed over those of us among the vast majority of Americans who don’t want to get rich, but who just want to work, have a house, food on the table, and maybe put a little bit away for a rainy day.

What strikes me about The Wire is that it’s one of the only portraits I’ve ever seen on television of how hard it is to just get by in America. The cops, the dockworkers, the teachers, the government workers — they’re all trying to stick it out, keep roofs over their heads, food on the table, sneakers on the kids feet. The Wire is the only show I’ve ever seen on television that shows the lived experience of what happened as we all stood by and watched while factories were dismantled and jobs were outsourced and schools and government and unions and the newspapers were gutted from the inside. Sure, for some of us, our 401ks went up as these big corporations posted profits that were based on getting rid of all their employees, but they weren’t real profits, they were short-term paper profits (or was it just the ponzi-scheme effect of shifting everyone’s retirement from pensions to 401ks?). We’ve all spent the past thirty years living for short term quarterly numbers with absolute disregard for the means by which we were meeting those numbers. And now, we’re all standing around in the aftermath, like Svobodka in Season 2, looking at the docks and the closed factories and the graineries and lamenting the fact that we used to make things in this country.

The corrosive contempt for the working class, the continual griping that “they’re” making too much money, the pissing and moaning about unions with the audacity to negotiate for health insurance all somehow misses the point. If there are no jobs, then no one is making any money, and if no one is making any money, they’re not going to be able to spend it on the consumer goods that drive the economy. A solid and healthy middle class is the sign of an economy in good shape, and somehow, we’ve decided in America that we’re going to let the richest 1% take 24% of the wealth of the nation, let the richest 20% take a full 85% of the nation’s wealth. I’ve never understood why people aren’t more angry about this, and all I can figure is that somehow everyone has decided that they’re going to win the wealth lottery — maybe this is what’s behind the insane proliferation of “reality” shows about people who have neither talent nor accomplishment. A loss of integrity regarding work indeed.

And so, I think it’s brilliant that Simon won the MacArthur grant. Clearly the committee thinks he’s saying something crucial about the state of our society, and is using a medium that is too often gutted from the inside by it’s own reliance on formula and cliche in order to do this. He’s given voice to a whole section of American society that is too often hidden or demonized, as well as to that great silent middle class that we only see as the but of jokes or satire. And he’s done it by creating some of the most compelling characters ever seen on television. It also seems fitting after a few weeks where white, upper class, highly-educated men have been claiming a book about their experience is the central experience in American society, that the MacArtuthur Foundation has bestowed it’s “genius grant” on someone who spent so many years drawing a detailed, compassionate, character-driven portrait of the America in which the other 85% of us live.