There are words, and then there are words….

Not very long ago, I found myself at a friend’s 75th birthday party, despairing aloud about the deluge of words that engulfs our world. A somber, very sober, man leapt to the defense of  language and good writers. There’s nothing I respect more, he said, than a good writer who can clarify and inspire.

Well, I like good writing and good writers too, I retorted….  but he wasn’t interested in anything I had to say. I was obviously some kind of philistine, or at the very least stupid.

He’s probably right. Not about the philistinism or the stupidity, but about words. Only words, well-crafted, beautifully put together, will be able to help us. No wordless vision, no great symphony, not even a Kumbaya, will do.

Albert Camus, 1957. Library of Congress.

I was reminded of this when I ran across an Adam Gopnik article on Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre in the April 9 issue of The New Yorker. Gopnik argues for the superiority of Camus’ journalism to his fiction or his philosophy. In a time in France that was nearly as chaotic as our own, Gopnik writes,

He struck a tone, not of Voltairean Parisian rancor but of melancholic loft. Camus sounds serious, but he also sounds sad – he added the authority of sadness to the activity of political writing. He wrote with dignity at a moment when restoring dignity to public language was necessary, and he slowed public language at a time when history was moving too fast.

How beautiful is that? Where is our Camus?

Writing in a world awash in words

The New York Public Library, where books congregate

Years ago, when I went to college in San Francisco, I was distressed by the numbers of people who wanted to write. My writing was to be special – more stylish, more moving, more profound than theirs. Besides, I had an important need to write. But when I got on with life I discovered that I didn’t have the mojo to make it happen.
Now that I’m at it again, the world of books has gone all peculiar on me. Today, as then, everyone is writing or expects to. The difference is that now, in much greater numbers, they can publish. Most of them, now as then, aren’t honest-to-god writers, not the way I dreamed of writing. But today everyone can publish books without the scions of the publishing world passing on them. And, somehow, I think that’s probably all to the good. Even if it does make me feel sometimes that the world is awash in words. Too many words.
Among these, are some that warn of a world where the digital book will not only kill off all the lovely paged books with colored covers that we adore, but books themselves. Even the ones on Kindle and the Nook will cease to exist. Everyone will have learned to express themselves in 140 characters or less. Sometimes, the critics just mean to prophesy the end of fiction, but that’s hardly less dire.
Ann Patchett, who is one of the nation’s finer fiction writers, recently wrote an op-ed in The New York Times complaining, as a writer and a reader, of the failure of the Pulitzer Prize Committee to choose a work of fiction this year. “… Either the board was unable to reach a consensus, or at the end of the day the board members decided that none of the finalists, and none of the other books that were not finalists, were worthy of a Pulitzer Prize.” She went on to name six or seven books she thought were worthy,* and to worry that the Committee’s failure to name any of them was a loss to all of fiction. The Pulitzer Prize is important because of the publicity and public celebration it creates. It stirs up “the buzz that is so often lacking in our industry – Did you hear about that book?”
We live in a time of transition, of chaos, of confusion. And nowhere is that more obvious than in media of every kind, and especially in fiction.
I’ve come of age. It’s taken a very long time, but I’m finally ready to write. But what’s happened, what’s happening, to the world?
All this to say that I’ve placed a small ad for the first book I’m publishing in this odd era. It’s to your right on this page. You’ll see that I’ve decided to become, among other things, a cozy mystery writer. In future posts, I’ll talk more about writing and writers, and especially the elderly among us. I’ll create another page on this blog to advertise and present samples of “The Body in the Butter Churn,” and eventually of other books. I’ll continue to help fill the air with words, words, and more words. I really have no other choice.

I think Ann Patchett’s list of books worthy of a Pulitzer is fascinating and, in the interests of doing my small part in the project to give them publicity, I’ve listed them. I’m afraid I haven’t read any at this writing. The first three were on the Committee’s short list.
“Train Dreams” by Denis Johnson
“Swamplandia!” by Karen Russell
“The Family Fang” by Kevin Wilson
“Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories” by Edith Pearlman
“Lost Memory of Skin” by Russell Banks “Salvage the Bones” by Jesmyn Ward
“The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides
“The Pale King” by David Foster Wallace

Snapshots with the heads on

A few snapshots.

Unlike photographs or portraits they’re quick, casual glances at people. My father usually cut off the subjects’ heads. I promise, at the very least, that I won’t do that.

A few days ago I met a couple who retired into travel, Spanish immersion, writing, and music. Jenna is a historian and writer; Tom is a computer scientist and mathematician. Music was the occasion for our encounter. Our mutual friend, Sally, knew they were looking for a piano player to accompany them on Handel’s sonatas for  recorder and continuo. She knew that I’d said that I was practicing the piano hoping that I would someday be able to play with a group. Just play. Not perform. Sally, being Sally, ignored “someday” and decided that Jenna and Tom were a group.

So we’re going to try.

But aside from that, and even more curious, was Tom’s story of his venture into fiction. He’d never been interested in writing, he said, that is, until his Spanish instructor assigned a 250-word story in Spanish. It was a whole new experience. The flood gates opened and the stories poured out. All in Spanish. He still has no interest in writing in English. Of course, he and Jenna have speculated about why, and it’s fun to guess:

1) In a last life he was a Hispanic poet;

2) Spanish gives him the emotional distance he needs to tap that magic place fiction comes from;

3) Spanish closes the emotional distance so that he can tap that magic place fiction comes from;

4) Tom’s guess—it’s such a romantic language. That may say it all.

The other night I saw Kate for the first time in years. Kate used to sing everything from torch songs to blues to country. She cooks a mean meal in her industrial kitchen and makes jars of jam every year. She weaves. She runs one of the best nurseries in the area and does landscaping besides.

And the other night I discovered she remembered the Latin name for every plant I thought to mention when I and most of the people my age that I know find our nouns dropping out all the time. “Yeah, you know, that guy who founded our country…. name begins with G…. maybe it was George, George who? …. you know …. it’ll come back to me in a minute.”

I was impressed by the landscaping but really…. I don’t know how old Kate is but she’s not that far behind me!

In New York I had lunch and a museum trek with my friend, Nancy. She and her husband Barney have been potting and selling pots for the last two and more decades. How wonderful to grow old potting with someone you love! (I plan to do a post of them sometime soon.)

My friend, Steven Dansky, just celebrated his seventh marriage anniversary with his husband, Barry Safran. They were among the first to be married in Massachusetts. Steve has turned into very daring and very amazing photographer. He’s just finished his first (I think) novel and continues to write essays on gay liberation—the politics and the history. He’s still organizing!

Steve is in a great hurry because the decades are running out and he still has so much to do.

Eudora Welty’s photographs

Making pictures of people in all sorts of situations, I learned that every feeling waits upon its gesture, and I had to be prepared to recognize this moment when I saw it…. These were things a story writer needed to know.

One Writer’s Beginnings

Eudora Welty has been widely acclaimed as one of the 20th century’s best writers. She was also, I think, one of our best photographers of the period of the Great Depression. I learned years ago that she had taken pictures, but I only saw them recently on the Internet. They were remarkable but I wasn’t quite sure why.

I’d looked for them because of an interview in a 1995 book called Literature and Photography where the interviewers tried, not always successfully, to get Welty to talk about the influence of her photography on her writing. They did get her to speak at some length about the way the photographs or, as she called them,”the snapshots,” came about.

As she had said before, also in One Writer’s Beginnings. “The camera was a hand-held auxiliary of wanting-to-know.” She was interested in people. She asked them if she might take the picture as it began to take form in front of her and they nearly always said yes. “There was no sense of violation of anything on either side. I don’t think it existed; I know it didn’t in my attitude, or in theirs. All of that unself-consciousness is gone now. There is no such relationship between a photographer and a subject possible any longer.”

The interviewers tried to get her to compare herself to people like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange since their pictures were of Southern poverty in the same period. She explained more than once in the course of the conversation that she had no agenda. Unlike those and other WPA photographers, she wasn’t making a case against poverty which, in any case, had always been there (in Mississippi). As in her writing, she had “an inquiring nature, and a wish to respond to what I saw, and to what I felt about things, by something I produced or did.”

I’m not well-versed enough in Eudora Welty’s work to speculate about it and her photographs at any length. Even if I were, she’d probably question the exercise. “But as in everything, I want the work to exist as the thing that answers every question about its doing. Not me saying what’s in the work.”

After I’d read the interview and looked at the photographs, I went to my bookshelves and found her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Optimist’s Daughter. Rereading from it, I was curious to discover that it reminded me of her photographs in some important way. I may be stating the obvious, but I think it’s because she’s profoundly interested in the people she’s writing about. They live and act in front of us the way the people in her photos do and, in both cases, what matters most is who they are and what they’re doing. She doesn’t ask us to take sides, to interpret or judge—just to to look at them with interest and concern.

Why read? Why write? Why live?

Some people suggest that reading, and especially reading literature, is out of style and will gradually become obsolete. After all, you can find any information you need on the Internet. Graphic novels and celebrity memoirs are the order of the day. Reading literature—whether poetry, fiction, plays, biographies or critical essays—is no longer something many people do. For pleasure, they watch TV and movies, or play video games. For business and learning, they consult Google or Wikipedia.

A recently published book by Marjorie Garber entitled “Use and Abuse of Literature” argues that literature does something no other medium can do: “The absence of answers or determinate meanings” is exactly the set of  “qualities that make a passage or a work literary.”

Literary works have no single meaning. More probably, they have many interpretations. They leave readers with questions and moral quandaries; they don’t impart facts or moral truths so much as they educate us to question the world and our place in it. They make us more human.

 And so, says reviewer Seth Lerer, of the San Francisco Chronicle, “Why read? In the end, the answer to the question is as complex and compelling as “why live?”

Then there’s that other question: “Why write?”

The answer is not to make something for readers to read. There’s already a surfeit of books.

Reading about the contemporary publishing of books can drive a hopeful writer into a deep, deep depression. Publishing companies are going broke. Thousands of people are self-publishing, the vast majority of them with memoirs and how-to books. Unfortunately, many of those how-to books are writing manuals. The how-to’s and— for those with more money and the right connections—the writing workshops for the MFA degree, have bred hundreds of thousands of would-be authors, says Jessa Crispin, an editor and blogger (

The deluge of writers is not new. The widespread publication of them is. There have always been the hobbyists, the men and women who scribble their life stories for the benefit of their children or grandchildren, the poems hidden in the bottom drawer, the screenplay the banker works on before bed. Tell someone in a bar that you’re a writer and within seconds they’re tellling you an idea for a novel they’ve been mulling over and asking you for tips. Telling stories, constructing narratives out of the chaos of our lives, fantasizing about what could be—they’re all in our blood. Putting it down on paper is an act of optimism. It’s willful, and it helps us make sense of things.

The difference is that now whatever you can scribble on paper or type on your computer, you might as well publish as a book. What was once fantasy—becoming a published writer—now can be a reality. Sorta. You and your book have to face the [resulting] din and most likely will get lost in it. All that respect, glory, and laurels you expected would greet you in your new life as a writer is still in the realm of the fantastic. You’re met instead with silence, just of a different sort.

The how-to books and the MFA’s, says Crispin, have become an industry with an eager clientele.

When things are so uncertain—and the publishing industry is nothing but uncertain these days—people look for someone to tell them what to do. Those taking their money probably aren’t going to do much to question their motives, or clue them into all the other ways to go about things. Certainly not when excising all their adjectives, replacing their libraries of novels with guides, writing their memoirs or maybe a vampire trilogy, and submitting to agents seems like such a sensible, tried-and-true-pathway to becoming a writer. Whatever that may be.

The answer to the question “Why read?” is clear. The answer to the question, “Why write?” is less certain. Ambiguous. Indeterminate. Almost like literature itself. Like life itself.

Where will all the poets go in an age of virtual realities?

Yesterday a friend of mine who manages a desktop publishing business that’s turned mostly to proofreading got a letter from a 95-year-old woman. It was neatly typed (yes, on a typewriter!) and well written: she was clearly alert and intelligent. She’d created a book, a memoir about her life, and wanted to publish it, mostly for her family and friends. The small publishers she’d looked at in North Carolina where she lived wanted a digital copy and scanned photos. She was, she thought, too old to learn about all that. Could my friend help her?

Oh, I did feel for her.

There was a time, not too many generations ago, when the world we entered at birth was still recognizable at death. But not any more. The landscape of our lives is changing at such a rate that many older people who grew up before computers became everyday and altered realities a popular topic of conversation, can only throw up their hands in despair. Something I’m going to try not to do for at least another 20 years.

But what will the world look like by then? I remember when I was a student, many decades ago now, reading a book by Ortega y Gasset. I don’t remember much about it anymore, but I never forgot one of his predictions for the future: someday, he said, instead of taking  trains, airplanes, or space ships, we will travel as some form of energy. We will be transmitted at the speed of light to any place we want to go. “That,” I thought, “is for me!”

Well, it hasn’t happened yet but, as the science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke, once said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So, any year now.

Cite des Sciences et de l'industrie, Parc de la Villette, Paris. Photo by Feuillu (Pierre Metivier). Flickr. Creative Commons.

It’s become commonplace to talk about “the social media” and to refer to the internet as a new reality, a different and remarkable place to meet and greet. Many of us have fancied ourselves Serena Williams or Roger Federer playing tennis on Wii. A recent “Nova” showed soldiers recovering from post traumatic stress from “virtual reality therapy.” We also watched soldiers training in interactive battle situations created by computers. The most frightening part of the show was a look at soldiers in Las Vegas piloting drones in Pakistan and Iraq. Blowing up the enemy long distance.

Another segment showed children who, after swimming with whales in virtual reality, believed they had done so in real life. Not far removed from the young woman who claimed “I’m closer to everyone on-line than in real life.” Said the narrator, “Distinctions between real and virtual space are disappearing.”

I had mixed feelings about most of this—the question of what is real has always been at the heart of the human experience. Plato and the shadows on the wall of the cave—even thousands of years ago, we knew it was a mystery. Alarm bells started going off though when I was assured by one futurist that words were going to be usurped by the experiences given to us by virtual reality. We’d be able to exchange experiences and not have to rely on the clumsiness of  language to do it for us. There will be no need for symbolism, and certainly not for metaphor. What you see, hear, touch and smell can be made available to me.

It reminded me of Clarke and fellows like him who were writing science fiction back when not everyone was doing it. There was something cold about it, I thought. Something flat and one-dimensional. Same thing here. Our reality is so complicated and so much of it is made by words, paint, musical instruments (even acoustical ones), bodies-in-motion, complex media with even more complex information. Something’s wrong here. I hope I can figure it out before I’m 95 and decide to leave it up to the young ones.

The faltering foundation, the fragile self

I’ve been reading Searching for Memory: The Brain, The Mind and The Past by Daniel Schacter, a professor at Harvard. I know. It sounds over-rich, dry perhaps, not exactly riveting. But actually, it’s both well written and compelling. Since the book dates back to 1996 some of the science is probably out of date, but since my ignorance dates back much farther back than that, it’s all to the good as far as I’m concerned. I’ll get to later books and articles when I can. The good news is that Schacter takes the subjective memory of individuals seriously and appreciates the exploration of memory by writers like Proust and artists like Israeli artist Eran Shakine.

In Shakine’s painting Hadassah (1992) he uses fragments of old photographs and text veiled by layers of milky white. “Says Schacter: “Shakine struggles with the seeming paradox that our sense of self, the foundation of our psychological existence, depends crucially on these fragmentary and often elusive remnants of experience.”

How fragile we are!

In an earlier chapter, Schacter describes the experience of a man called GR who suffers a stroke that damages the left thalmus of his brain. He can’t remember his occupation, his paintings, the books he’d been writing, the city in which he lives. He can’t recall any specific incidents from his life. He’s shown pictures and told stories, but he remains deeply depressed: they’re all secondhand; they’re not genuine memories. He stops creating because “he has no more self to express.”

About a year after his stroke, his doctors determine he needs a pacemaker. He’s given only a local anesthetic. Suddenly, lying there on the operating table, he remembers keenly, in all its sensory detail, a surgery that he’d had 25 years before. That memory, like Proust’s madeleine cake, triggers a whole lifetime of memories. He’s overwhelmed with impressions and sensations from his past and soon he begins to feel like the same person he was before the stroke.

An unusual case, Schacter says. Neurosurgeons called it the “petites madeleines phenomenon.”  But what it reveals is how our sense of ourselves depends crucially on the subjective experience of our remembered pasts.

I’ve still in the beginnings of the book, but what is becoming clear is how tattered and faded our memories usually are, how much they depend on our present-day experience and interpretation, how much work goes into their reconstruction.
What kind of foundation is this for any self-respecting individual?

Surely not one built on rock. Shifting tides. Shadows.

Unlikely encounters

Sometime in the last century, there was a TV program with actors playing people from different periods of history—people who would be unlikely to dine together but who might have interesting things to say to one another. Not a very enlightening show, as I recall, but not a bad concept.

Recently, looking for a reference to Isak Dinesen’s eating habits for a project,  I found an account of an extraordinary get-together (from Steve King at Today in Literature), and wondered how I’d never heard of it. It seems that in 1959 Carson McCullers (Reflections in a Golden Eye, Member of the Wedding, Ballad of the Sad Café)  hosted a luncheon date with the Baroness Karen Blixen-Finecke (Isak Dinesen) and Marilyn Monroe. At the time Dinesen was 74 years old, sickly and emaciated at only 80 pounds on a diet of oysters, grapes, champagne and amphetamines. She’d come to the U.S. to give the keynote address at the annual dinner of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She was a precious relic from the past to those who loved literature, and a great entertainment for her fans who were especially devoted to her most celebrated book, Out of Africa.

McCullers was 42, and almost as well-known for her depression and despair as Dinesen was for her love of great adventure. For over two decades she’d read Out of Africa every year and had come to think of Dinesen as an “imaginary friend,” one always “there in her stillness, her serenity, and her great wisdom to comfort me.” She’d arranged to sit beside Dinesen at the Academy dinner, and hearing her say that she would like to meet Marilyn Monroe,  consulted with her friend Arthur Miller (Monroe’s husband) about hosting a luncheon for herself and the two other women.

Monroe was 33, and knew nothing about either of the others. Fresh from the success of  Some Like It Hot, she was late to lunch and dressed in a black dress that showed off her “lovely bosoms,” (Dinesen’s words). McCullers said that the overall effect made Dinsesn’s face radiate “like a candle in an old church.” Dinesen herself wore a gray turbaned ensemble that she called “Sober Truth.”

Photo by Ralph Hogaboom. Poster design for the 7th St. Theatre. Creative Commons.


Carson McCullers. Photo by Carl Van Vechten. 1959. Collection of the Library of Congress.


Photo by Claire Schmitt (rockinfree) Flickr. Creative Commons.

Apparently, the three women had a wonderful time, and while the story of them “dancing together on McCuller’s marble-topped table” wasn’t true—that it was circulated at all says something about the meeting. Everyone enjoyed Monroe’s story of trying to finish cooking pasta with a hair dryer and thought it as good as anything Dinesen had to tell. Dinesen thought Monroe was “almost incredibly pretty, full of “unbounded vitality,” “and unbelievable innocence.”

Less than three years later, Dinesen died of malnutrition and Monroe, more famously, of a drug overdose. Four years later McCullers died of a final stroke.

What a delight that luncheon must have been. How wonderful it would be if there were more such meetings. Not meetings of people who dislike each other. I don’t think much good would come of a meeting of anyone with Sarah Palin: I’m not proposing something that would resolve our national affair with violence. Just something among people who may say unlikely things to each other. Just something that will delight, or perhaps stir things up. Kind of like Yo Yo Ma’s performances with a bandoneon player, an Appalachian fiddler, jazz singer Diana Krall, and a host of others. Like Louise Bourgeois’s spider on a New York city shopping plaza (Louise Bourgeois’s Spider 6/20). Like jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker’s addiction to the music of cowboy singer Gene Autry. Like flash mobs. (See my post Flashmobs and Surprise Parties 12/03)

Why read books if we can’t remember them?

I know I’m not alone in reading a murder mystery, only to realize—perhaps a third of the way or half through—that I’ve read it before. Having reacquainted myself with the plot, I can usually remember who dunnit! Except for their resemblance to one another, murder mysteries may be the most easily recalled of books. I’ve forgotten so many others. I look around my library and I’m embarrassed that I’ve read so much more than I even begin to remember. Now, I realize, happily, that I’m not alone.

James Collins in the September 19, 2010 issue of The New York Times Book Review writes

I have just realized something terrible about myself: I don’t remember the books I read…. Nor do I think I am the only one with this problem. Certainly, there are those who can read a book once and retain everything that was in it, but anecdotal evidence suggests that is not the case with most people. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most people cannot recall the title or author or even the existence of a book they read a month ago, much less its contents.

He then asks the obvious but troubling question: Why read books if we can’t remember what’s in them?

Collins consults an expert and examines his own experience of reading, which is a pleasurable one. Which also turns out to be the first answer to the question: reading is pleasurable. A second answer proposes that reading is like any other experience—we are changed by it and on some level it stays with us. Collins objects: he doesn’t read for some general benefit to his character and intelligence; he reads for information. In conclusion, he briefly examines some of the techniques that are supposed to help us remember what we read.  It doesn’t sound as if he’s taken to any of them.

Oddly, even though Collins is a writer of novels, he doesn’t seem to worry that most of his readers will be just as forgetful of his own books.

Nor does he consult the writer’s experience of remembering. When I write—and I’ve heard enough interviews with others to know I’m not alone—I seldom have a precise memory of any past event. I have a plethora of memories, most of them vague, and stirring them up somehow elicits whole chapters that I didn’t expect. The surprise that’s the text is one of the joys of writing.

If that kind of remembering happens with past experience, I can’t imagine that it doesn’t happen with books. Some of what we read will be remembered in detail, but most of it will come back when we least expect it, and very probably in forms we don’t recognize.

The eye and the word


my eye in front of the lens. Photo by onkel_wart (Thomas Lieser). Flickr. Creative Commons license.


The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was the first book by Oliver Sacks I ever read, and what a beauty it was with its elegant text and touching content. I was an instant fan, and then, as now, I become deeply irritated when a few reviewers accuse him of exploiting his patients for his own literary gain. Because Sacks’ patients are not just oddly afflicted, they are deeply human. The author‘s respect for them and their humanity is the warp and woof of every essay he writes at the same time as the text helps illuminate the ways in which the normal brain deals with perception, memory, individuality, and in his latest book—The Mind’s Eye—language.

The book, reviewed by Mehan Crist in the November 14 Los Angeles Times,  is about our subjective experience of the world and the ways in which we try to describe it.

While most scientists will describe a neurological anomaly’s biological and mechanical causes in all their complexity, they will refuse attention to what Sacks calls “its qualitative and subject aspects.” But what happens neurologically doesn’t just happen; the fact is that it is experienced. Why do we have this extra dimension? Why do we experience anything at all? Some scientists will argue that unless what we’re interested in is objective, measurable truth, it isn’t science at all. But Sacks believes that if we don’t ask it about the subjective experience of it, we’re missing something of great importance, and possibly even what’s central.

We must try to imagine our way into minds unlike our own.

The Times reviewer describes a conversation Sacks has with Temple Grandin, the animal behaviorist who has turned her autism into extraordinary insights into nonhuman behavior. “When he admits to her, who “thinks entirely in terms of literal images she has seen before, that he cannot summon visual images at will,” she is baffled: “How do you think then?” Here lies the fundamental tension between perception and language; How do you translate mental experience into words?”

Sacks finds again and again that people who are radically different from one another seem unable to imagine the perceptions of others at the same time as he urges the reader to try, and in fact spends the book helping us to do so. Among these essays is one where he describes his own recent experience with ocular melanoma where people turned into bizarre, elongated, El Greco-like figures, tilted to the left—they made me think of the insectlike Selenites pictured in my edition of H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon. Faces in particular would develop translucent, puffy, almost protoplasmic protuberances, like a Francis Bacon portrait.

Certainly, Sacks’ description of his own condition is powerful.

Writes the reviewer: The Mind’s Eye expresses a stubborn hope that rests on language, “that most human invention,” which Sacks says can enable what, in principle, should not be possible. It can allow all of us, even the congenitally blind, to see with another person’s eyes.

And if that’s true, then the writer is not just one more possible purveyor of truth, he or she is essential to our understanding of ourselves and each other.