Where to Begin?

November 3rd, 2011

Last month, at the Wisconsin Book Festival, I did a reading with Larry Watson, the author, of among other novels, a short, riveting, beautifully made one called MONTANA 1948. After we read from our work–Larry read from his new novel, AMERICAN BOY, which, like MONTANA 1948, is quiet and low-key in style but powerful in its depiction of human frailty–we answered questions, one of which was this: How do you begin your stories or novels? Do you have an outline or map? If not, how do you know where you’re going?

Larry and I both said that we didn’t necessarily know where a particular story or novel is headed when we begin it. I said that I often start with little more than a general notion about a character, and then follow the character to wherever he or she seems to lead me. You discover who or what you’re writing about as you write–at least, that’s the hope. Of course, this “method” will sometimes take you into thickets of trouble, with no apparent trail out of them, but the chances are that you will have discovered something useful in the process of getting lost and may have even written some salvageable passages.

Larry said that there was “something intuitive” in the way he went about beginning a novel, and he went on to note that a non-linear approach allowed him to digress, to take side-trips into the wilderness–excursions that may or may not end up in the final version of the novel but which nonetheless serve to help the writer understand more deeply the nature of his characters. Later, in an email, he said this to me: “It strikes me now–things always strike me after the fact–that the map metaphor might be the wrong one for writing fiction. Or at least the wrong one for some writers. What if we used a painting metaphor–a blank canvas as opposed to a paint-by-numbers canvas?”

The next night, I came back to the same venue (the Museum of Contemporary Art, in Madison) to hear three other fiction writers read: Diana Abu-Jaber, Mary Gordon, and Jacquelyn Mitchard. (Mary Gordon had been scheduled to read with Larry Watson and me, but the plane that was to bring her from New York had the sort of mechanical “issues” at the departure gate–a smoking engine part, to name one–that can scare reasonable people into finding alternative transportation, so she delayed her arrival.) The three writers were asked the same question: How do you begin?

All three women said pretty much the opposite of what Larry and I had said, and seemed to suggest in their answers that it was kind of nutty not to begin with some sort of map. Diana Abu-Jaber, a friend and the author of such wonderful novels as ARABIAN JAZZ and CRESCENT and most recently BIRDS OF PARADISE, said that she begins her novels with a fairly detailed outline at hand, though she added that she felt free, once she was some way into a book, to lay the outline aside and let her novel go wherever it seemed to be going. An outline is useful, in other words, until it isn’t. One sometimes has the sense reading Diana’s books, so full are they with foods deliciously described, that she is often happily led astray from her outline by the scent of something on the stove, either something in her own kitchen or something down the block. Her readers are only too willing to follow her. There are all kinds of ways to write novels and all kinds of ways to satisfy hunger.

Mary Gordon, whose first book, FINAL PAYMENTS, remains, thirty-three years after it came out, one of the finest novels by a writer of my generation, also said that she needed to know where she was going before she started. She didn’t say much about why she feels this way, but her fiction is to some degree about opposing ideas, and much of the power and beauty of her fiction comes from the way she dramatically pits those ideas against each other, from the way, that is, she constructs an argument. (In an interesting aside, she said that the digressive portions of a novel that one ends up cutting out are absolutely vital to the book, that a writer has to write them and then give them up before the book can be any good.)

Of the three women, the most adamant believer in starting with a map was Jacquelyn Mitchard, the author of several very successful novels, including THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN. Mitchard said that “if I’m going to Minneapolis, I want to get on a train that’s going to take me there,” not somewhere else. (It might be noted here that long-distance American trains, the kind on which you might have time enough to read a novel, don’t always make it to where they’re supposedly going, and passengers are sometimes required to disembark from these underfunded broken-down trains and stand around in some lonesome place before a bus picks them up and carries them by some possibly obscure route to the big city.) She then ranted about writers who “channel” their fiction–read: “writers who take an approach different from my own.” She said, “I don’t get that channel on my cable.”

It may have merely been a coincidence that the two male writers took an “intuitive” approach while the three female writers seemed to be more of the rationalist school. Or it may be that there is actually some sort of gender-stereotype reversal going on. It is a fact, supported by much anecdotal evidence, that while male drivers (to stick with the transportation metaphor) won’t ask for a map when lost, female ones will.

Is the intuitive approach just another sign of male arrogance and laziness? Or does it indicate some faith in the creative subconscious, some recognition that it’s more productive in the end if you don’t try to control everything that passes through your mind (and censor what seems to be not “pertinent” to the so-called task at hand)?

But then there is the example of an imperiously intellectual male writer such as Vladimir Nabokov, whose novels and stories were often constructed like chess problems (”meant for the delectation of the very expert solver”), with every move thought out far in advance. Every word he wrote was, he claimed, an entirely deliberate and artistic choice, art being in his view something quite separate from life, an improvement on life, in fact. The brilliant maps he began with were in his formidable head.

But Nabokov–who, incidentally, did not do his own driving or typing; his wife, Vera, did these things for him– is, as he would’ve pointed out, something of an exception. The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami is a good example of the modern male intuitionist. In a recent New York Times Magazine article about him, Murakami said that he begins a story or novel with nothing more than an image or a title “and then just sits at his desk, morning after morning, improvising until it’s done.”

John Irving once said that he doesn’t discover where to begin until he finishes a draft of the novel and knows how the book will end. He finds a map in the course of writing rather than beginning with one.

And here is what a female writer, Flannery O’Connor, whom Mary Gordon (in an essay of thirty years ago, which can be found in her collection GOOD BOYS AND DEAD GIRLS) has described as “a superb and practical critic,” says on the same subject, in a 1957 letter to a fellow Southern writer named Cecil Dawkins: “I have heard that Katharine Anne Porter writes her stories in her head before she puts them down but I always tend to think such reports are exaggerated, perhaps because they don’t fit with what I find I can do. I always have an idea of what I want to do when I write a story, but whether I’ll be able to remains always to be seen. I am writing a story now and have proceeded at a regular rate of two pages a day, following my nose more or less. They have to work out some way or other, and I think you discover a good deal more in the process when you don’t have too definite ideas about what you want to do.”

Though some writing teachers and novelists with pulpits may suggest otherwise, it seems clear that there is no right way to begin a story or a novel. All that matters in the end is the finished thing–and whether the finished thing has, as William Maxwell put it, “the breath of life” in it. Flannery O’Connor’s description of how she goes about it–with an idea but “following my nose more or less”–seems like perfectly sound advice (while not being a recipe).


October 4th, 2011

In WHITE PEOPLE, his 1990 collection of stories, Allan Gurganus, whose generous nature can be found everywhere in his beautiful and funny writing, says on the Acknowledgments page at the back of his book, “Thanking people is my favorite vice.” He then names fifteen people whose readings of the book when it was a work-in-progress benefited him. He thanks, too, without naming them, his “former students, and so many other fellow believers.”

By the standards of today, a mere twenty years later, Gurganus’s Acknowledgments page seems rather brief, if not terse. (By “Acknowledgments,” I don’t mean the pro-forma copyright page Acknowledgments in which the author lists, for instance, the magazines where the book’s stories or some pieces of the novel have previously been published; I’m referring only to the non-pro-forma thanks a writer extends to friends, institutions, editors, etc.) I’ve seen Acknowledgments pages in the novels and story collections of contemporary writers that are longer than the mock-epic list of partygoers in THE GREAT GATSBY. Fitzgerald didn’t write Acknowledgments pages. Neither did Faulkner or Hemingway or hardly any other writer of that generation or of the succeeding generation, the one that included Bellow and Updike and Flannery O’Connor and Grace Paley and John Cheever. The Acknowledgments page seems not to have blossomed until the last decade of the twentieth century.

In general, the Acknowledgments written by authors of literary fiction fall into two categories–quite short and not so short. The writers of the quite short Acknowledgments page (or fraction of a page) tend to be the more illustrious among us. They might thank a famous foundation and a famous literary colony and perhaps a couple of illustrious friends or an esteemed book editor and an agent, and be done with it. Sometimes the truly minimalist Acknowledgments will be buried in the fine print of the copyright page, there to be found only by readers who read copyright pages partly for the purpose of seeing if the author has permitted his birth year to be included in the Library of Congress information. (It is rare to find this piece of information, by the way. It is a fact that the great majority of contemporary writers are hardly out of their twenties, even though many have managed to publish six or seven or nineteen books.) And sometimes, of course, the celebrated writer follows in the tradition of Fitzgerald and Bellow and writes no Acknowledgments at all.

I don’t mean to suggest that vanity or self-importance is the motive, or only motive, behind the quite short Acknowledgments. All books of fiction are, after all, written by solitary individuals, who only incidentally receive editorial or financial or moral help from editors and foundations and friends. And the fact that the more celebrated (and commercially successful) writers of literary fiction tend to feel, if their Acknowledgments pages are any evidence, no need to publicly thank any more than a handful of supporters–not usually including Mom or Dad, or a spouse or a coffeehouse pal, or an old school friend who wrote the adulatory email out of the blue, or a high school English teacher who lit a fire under the writer’s sorry ass, or a person who told the writer a pretty good anecdote that got transmuted into fictional gold, or even a shrink–doesn’t necessarily mean that the writer is graceless or not thankful.

Now might be the moment to tell a joke. Q.: Why don’t Southern women like group sex? A.: Too many thank-you notes to write.

One assumption in this joke is that Southern men don’t–or didn’t, back in the day, when people did such things–write thank-you notes. Allan Gurganus, a North Carolinian, suggests that this is inaccurate, and I think he’s right: thank-yous cross gender lines, at least south of the Ohio River. I was raised in the mid-South, and I had to write my Christmas thank-you notes before I could go outdoors and shoot baskets.

But what is it that makes some writers, Southerners and otherwise, want, or feel obliged, to thank so many people?

Though there are exceptions, it seems generally true that the not so short Acknowledgments pages are written by writers making their debuts (writers full of hope, that is, and also, in most cases, full of gratitude at being in print) as well as by so-called seasoned writers whose second or third books are unlikely to make much of a splash. (Writers who don’t make some sort of splash after three books–or is it only two now?–stand little chance of finding a publisher for that fourth one.) This may be saying no more than that we writers who labor at the margins may over-compensate for our tenuous positions in the literary world by filling a page or two of paper with the names of people who have been nice to us.

It may also be true that we writers of the not so short Acknowledgments pages want readers to understand that we are not actually terrible people, even if we are often selfish, glum, standoffish, a little vulture-like when it comes to incorporating the actual world into our fiction, and even if we are also not above some brown-nosing with regard to that magazine editor whom we thank for going out on a limb for our early work.

It may be true, too, that the effusive Acknowledgments page is a way for some of us to promote our humility. Or our good manners.

On the other hand, one should allow for the possibility that there may be no ulterior motive in the not so short Acknowledgments page. It may actually be what it seems to be: a big wet sloppy innocent thanks.

And it may be true as well that since we know that what we have written is, really, only (and not just geologically speaking) ephemera, since we know that it won’t last more than a few years (if that long, in paper form) and that it surely won’t survive us (except as some data in the Googlesphere), we feel an urgency, a necessity, to give thanks to all those who have, in whatever minor way, helped us to make the little disappearing thing called a book.

(A pause here to consider contemporary poets’ Acknowledgments: a cursory inspection of some books of contemporary poetry on my shelves suggests that poets, whose chances of commercial success are close to nil, whose work is highly unlikely to receive any attention from the mainstream reviewing press, tend to be spare when it comes to spreading gratitude around. Of course, it’s also true that poets are, compared with fiction writers, people of few words. One tries to imagine Walt Whitman publishing his poems in 2011. Would his expansiveness have spilled over onto the Acknowledgments page, or would he have decided to save a few trees?)

In the Acknowledgments page to the new edition of my first book, THE GREEN SUIT, I say, not quite facetiously, that, were the University of Wisconsin Press not under budgetary constraints imposed by the right-wing government of the state I live in, I would name every friend or acquaintance who had ever said a kind or encouraging word to me about my writing. I say this even though the book is a reprint (with one new story) and even though I have had two other occasions, in the Algonquin (2000) and Plume (2001) editions, to thank those people who gave me moral or editorial or strategic or financial help during the writing of the book.

Thanking people is a favorite vice of mine, too–not to say a neurosis. And I have every reason to thank those who, over the last three or four years, when my first two books went out of print and when my third did worse in the marketplace than the first two did and when rejections from magazines and grant-givers have arrived at an alarming rate, encouraged me, in one way or another, to go on. The existence of these people, their faith in me, seemed at least one reason for going on. Among them are writing friends, family, childhood friends, college and graduate school friends, teachers from long ago with whom I’ve kept in touch, a few newspaper scribes, a handful of magazine editors, tennis pals, people who work for the University of Wisconsin Press, and some people who have done no more than ask in passing how my writing is going. It gives me pleasure to write their names, and to hope that in their own working lives–in the work itself, that is–they have had or will have as much joy as I have had in doing my work. Some of the people I thank on the Acknowledgments page of the new edition of THE GREEN SUIT I thank again here:

Richard Sacks, Judy Goldman, Allyn Roberts, Betsy Amster, Agate Nesaule, Dale Kushner, Lisa Ruffolo, Ann Shaffer, Lisa Hunter, Jean Feraca, Sarah Gorham, Jeff Skinner, Allen Bush, Rose Cooper Bush, Robert Davenport, Robin Muir, Katy Christopherson, Walter & Catherine Christopherson, Hal Burgiss, Catherine Davidson, Farrell & Karen Smith, Mike Pearce, Maya Page, Mark Dintenfass, the late Bert Goldgar, David McGlynn, Merritt Ringer, Jan Daniels Quinlan, Dana Sachs, Adolf Gundersen, Andy Waclawik, Bozena Waclawik, Andy Mayhall, Sandy & Jim Christensen, Alan Attie, Scott Brandt, Ron Johnson, Jim & Kathryn Leide, Brian Seliger & Jennifer Spence, Roger Goodwin, John & Kathy Wendt, Ron Shaw, Cary Lahr, Gil Jevne, Ben Birkett, Patrick Irwin, Rob Spence, John Hess, Dave Winter, Tom Bround, Peter Pearce, Philip Clark, David Dameron, Alex Gaynor, my wife Michele Gassman, my children George and Nora Allen, my sister Angela Allen, my mother Betty Anne Allen, my nephew Charlie Stanford, my mother-in-law Barbara Gassman, my sister-and-brother-in-law Jolene & Stefan Thoenes, my niece Kira Thoenes, my brother-and-sister-in-law Steve & Suzanne Gassman, my brother-and-sister-in-law Rich & Tina Gassman, my father-in-law Rick Gassman, Willow Harth, Margaret George, Michelle Huneven, Steven Carter, Paul Mandelbaum, Paul Griner, Diana Abu-Jaber, Tom Boyle, Jamie Baldwin, Hunt Helm, Tyler Fairleigh, Connie Brothers, Carolyn Courtney, Julie Ardery, Alex Brown, Becky Shaw, Jesse Lee Kercheval, Ron Kuka, Judith Mitchell, Judy Cooper, Scott Johnson (my dentist, who before looking at my teeth–I still have the original set–always asks me about my writing), Bob Carmany, Linda Endlich, David Thigpen, Jim Jaffe, Char Luchterbrand, Randy Brown, Lyle Schaefer, George Hesselberg, Doug Moe, Dave Daley, Carolyn Kuebler, the late Jeanne Leiby, Michael Koch, Evelyn Somers Rogers, Stephen Corey, Squire Babcock, Geeta Sharma Jensen, Ann Imig, Bernadette Murphy, Dean Bakopoulos, Keith Runyon, Bob Curry, John Galligan, Micaela Sullivan Fowler & Pete Fowler, Jessica Doyle, Michael Schuler, Mark & Lisa Danielson, Sam Atlee, Roberta Gamble, Alison Jones Chaim, Mark Singer, David Green, Liz Macklin, Mary Norris, Peter Canby, Jon Moyer, Elisabeth Scharlatt, Maggie Kingsbury, Nora Robertson, Doug Pearson, Richard Young, Ling Ling Ho, Tom Parrett, Mike Kelsay, Rex Henderson, Marion Beam, Richard Hopkins, Michael Chaim, Sheila Leary, Adam Mehring, Chris Caldwell, Raphael Kadushin, Andrea Christofferson, Fred Lauing, Carla Marolt, Kirt Murray, Bill Christofferson, Patty Lucas, Whitney & Nancy O’Bannon, Anne & Phil Ardery, Sam Miller, Tom Matthews, Nate Olson, Bruce Noble, Peggy Turbin (my daughter’s pre-school teacher), Hal Steinkopf, Char Boland, Heather Lee Schroeder, Jason Smith, Rosemary Zurlo-Cuva, Michael Pietsch, Bob Wake, Eric Freydenlund, C.J. Hribal, Bill Pike, Betsy Wilmerding, Henry Bromell, Melissa Bernstrom, Ann Michalski, Tom Creeron, Michael Thom, Tim & Kimberly Mueller, Bill Coan, Maureen Ellsworth.

A Few Things I Did and Didn’t Do at Iowa

June 24th, 2011

I wrote the piece below for an anthology of essays by University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop alumni about their experiences at the school. The anthology, called WORD BY WORD, was published this summer by the University of Iowa in connection with the Workshop’s seventy-fifth anniversary. The piece here is somewhat longer than what appears in the anthology.

I wrote one story during my two years at the Workshop. My so-called master’s thesis consisted of that story and a couple of pieces of fiction recycled from my undergraduate days. I don’t blame the Workshop for my failure to be productive. I received nothing but encouragement from teachers and staff. My first year, I was given a plum job at The Iowa Review. (I had little to do as the assistant to T. Coraghessan Boyle, who was the assistant to the fiction editor, Robert Coover. What I remember best about the office is the smell of chlorine that came in the door with Tom, who burned off some of his prodigious energy by swimming.) My second year, I was invited to teach undergraduates (fiction writing, of all things). But these forms of encouragement seemed to only deepen my self-consciousness. I had thoroughgoing case of it; it was oppressive, like some sort of chronic illness. I spent my so-called writing time at my off-campus desk studying the clean sheet of premium bond I’d rolled into my Smith-Corona. Sometimes on that clean sheet I’d retype an opening sentence I’d already typed seven or eight or thirteen times; more often I typed nothing at all. But I was allowed to graduate–after all, I did get A’s in Intensive Italian Grammar and a comp lit course called Dante & Romance Poetry.

Sometimes, during my second year at Iowa, when I was sitting at my off-campus desk that shook almost inspirationally whenever a freight train rolled down the tracks twenty yards to the south, I would think of the fellow Workshop student who had killed himself in the parking lot of the Coralville Fire Department, a student who had written a long story that reminded some of us of Salinger, a student who was a close friend of a college friend of mine (who at parties–or, to be more accurate, gatherings of the stoned–liked to take his pistol out of his saxophone case and moon over it until somebody told him to put it away), a student known to my college friend as Whaleman. Despite my troubles, despite being a washout as a writer, I didn’t think too long about doing what Whaleman had done. I had a girlfriend, I was reading Dante and Proust and Welty, I enjoyed my first morning cigarette and some of those that followed.

I didn’t tell the whole truth when I said that, despite my failure to write anything, I’d received “nothing but” encouragement from my teachers at the Workshop. The exception was a teacher whose fiction I greatly admired and whose approval I sought and to whom I showed the story referred to above and who, on the basis of that story, found little reason to encourage me. He said that my writing was “cute,” the equivalent of Mitzi Gaynor twinkling her pretty nose. (I happened to know who Mitzi Gaynor was; still, she was, even back in 1976, kind of an obscure point of reference, at least for a writing professor.) At the end of his note to me, this teacher wrote, “Do you really want to be a writer?” My sense was that he believed I stood little chance.

Some years later, it occurred to me that the best teachers at Iowa were not those with agendas, not those with outsize classroom egos, not those whose talent for eviscerating the weak often went hand-in-hand (to paraphrase Nabokov) with a fancy prose style. But it may also be true that the teacher who ripped my writing (which had obvious weaknesses, including a tropism for cuteness) lit a kind of fire in me, one of those smoldering dump fires that burn for years. Clearly, it wasn’t the sort of fire that drove me to go back to my desk in my apartment by the railroad tracks and write pages and pages of whatever. I didn’t have any confidence. I was so stuck that I couldn’t even figure out how to get self-pity on the page.

But I did go back to my desk, repeatedly. In fact, one night I skipped a reading by Raymond Carver (whose first book, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, had just come out) in order to sit at my desk and write nothing. I loved those early Carver stories, and I had a hunch even then that not going to hear him was a mistake, if a well-intentioned one. I made a number of mistakes while at Iowa. I got really drunk at what I believe was the first annual Writers’ Workshop Prom (held at a grange post, out in the countryside) and I shouted an obscenity at Vance Bourjaily, a teacher and writer I liked and respected, who (if memory serves) was playing clarinet in the Prom band. I attempted to drive home from this event, but was finally persuaded by my three passengers, two of whom would later write scripts for The Sopranos, to get the fuck out of the driver’s seat. I didn’t attend Whaleman’s funeral or write anybody in his family to say that I thought his Salinger-esque story was very good. I went to a Halloween party (I have some recollection that it was given by Jane Smiley, who had somehow turned herself into a philodendron, but I may be making this up) dressed, if that’s the right term, as a flasher–that is, as an exhibitionist (the same person who was afraid to speak in Workshop classes for fear of exposing his ignorance or general lack of intellectual heft). I wore a raincoat and a hat and sneakers and. . . basketball shorts. I was a fake flasher, an exhibitionist without portfolio, a joke without a punch line.

It was my feeling that a high percentage of the students at the Workshop in the mid-seventies–even some of those who wrote prolifically and with self-assurance–were miserable a lot of the time. This, despite the fact that we were reading good books and having sex with each other and hunting for morels on Vance Bourjaily’s farm and raising pigs. (My classmate, Michelle Huneven, kept pigs on her potter boyfriend’s place in Ely. One night, I was served a part of one named Joey. This didn’t put me off pork, though it did, I admit, focus my attention on what I was eating–a pig whose nose I had petted not long before. What almost did put me off pork–and I realize I am digressing here–were the stories I heard from another Iowa friend, one of those two people who would end up writing scripts for The Sopranos, about his work in a Cedar Rapids meatpacking plant.) Most of us were in our mid-twenties, and we were vain, thin-skinned, competitive, ignorant about life, prone to miseries fantastical and simple. All of us were trying to figure out how to be adults and writers at the same time, not an easy combination to pull off. The fact that the Workshop gave us space (and money and time) to begin to learn how to do that is to its credit.

–Dwight Allen

The Wisconsin Labor Protests

March 23rd, 2011

In 1972, I joined a union. Or, rather, I got a job at a lumber mill in Louisville, Kentucky, that entailed my joining a union. I can’t remember if somebody at the mill suggested that I join the union or if I was automatically enrolled. It must have been the former, but I was a twenty-one-year old college dropout and I wasn’t paying close attention to such things.

I had the lowliest job at the plant–catching boards of varying lengths that came off a planer and stacking them in carts–and I got paid accordingly. The union took a few dollars out of my paycheck, which might have come to a hundred and fifty dollars a week, before taxes. (This was back in the day when a pack of cigarettes cost thirty or forty cents and a case of bad beer cost three or four dollars–at least such things did in Kentucky, where vices were virtually free, or tax-free, anyway.) I didn’t feel strongly one way or the other about the union. (This was also back in the day when union workers tended to be Nixon voters. I was a long-haired hippie, not on the face of it union material.) I was a short-termer, and I didn’t really need the job, even though my father had told me that if I was going to live at home, I had to have some sort of job. But just about everybody else working in the lumber mill did need their jobs, and their union no doubt made their days and nights somewhat better than they might have been without a union.

When I left the mill, I was told by my boss, a portly guy named Orville who drove around the grounds in a golf cart, that I was a good worker and that I could have a job there anytime, if I should ever decide to return. I liked Orville, and I admired the resilience and good humor of the people I worked with, but I couldn’t imagine having to do mill work for long. It was backbreaking and dangerous and also boring. And the pay, even at several grades above where I’d been, was, almost needless to say, quite modest.

I went back to college and then to graduate school, where I got a master’s degree.

In the late seventies, I got a job at a New York publishing house as an editorial assistant. The pay was less than what I’d received at the lumber mill. (My starting annual salary at Scribner’s was $5,500, or around a hundred dollars a week, and there were no benefits. I did get a raise not too long after starting.) But I was a fresh-out-of-graduate-school English/creative writing major, and I was supposed to be happy to be employed at all, not to mention in a building where Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Wharton and Wolfe had lingered.

In January of 1981, right around the time Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president, I started a job at The New Yorker as a fact checker. Not long before I arrived, the editorial employees had made an effort to unionize. This had failed. Management–in effect, William Shawn, the editor-in-chief at the time, and his lawyer; the owners of the magazine steered clear of editorial (and editorial employment) issues–refused to deal with a union. Shawn and his lawyer did agree, however, to have periodic chats with a “committee” of editorial employees about salaries and related matters. Most people on the staff served on this committee at one time or another. We would go to great lengths to show Shawn and his consigliere just how expensive it was to live in New York and how a minimal raise in wages would not cover increases in the cost of living. Sometimes we would note that the wages of editorial employees with similar job descriptions at other magazines were higher than our own, but this tactic caused Shawn’s face to redden in a way that may have scared some of us into not pursuing the subject in depth. The New Yorker was sui generis, supposedly, and if our pockets weren’t exactly full of money, we did at least smell of cachet.

Shawn and the lawyer listened dutifully, and then they gave us the very modest raises they probably would have given us had they not listened to us. Which is not to say that salaries for fact checkers and copy editors and proofreaders and messengers were anywhere near as dismal as those for editorial assistants at old-line, blue-blood New York publishing houses. The editorial employees of The New Yorker–which around that time was billing itself as “The World’s Greatest Magazine”–were paid wages that low-self-esteem English/creative writing majors like myself considered at least not terrible. (When I started, in 1981, my salary was around $17,000, and five and a half years later, when I left the fact checking department for another job at the magazine, I was making $30,000.) And it should be pointed out that The New Yorker did provide medical benefits to its employees; there was even a separate psychiatric benefit, which many people took advantage of.

Over the past twenty or so years, I’ve earned about $80,000 as a writer and occasional editor. (If you’re doing the math, this means I’ve earned $4,000 a year. Needless to say, it hasn’t supported me or my family.) A fifth of this income came from two grants from the state of Wisconsin–from an agency that the governor of Wisconsin, a college dropout, has recently proposed eliminating–and the rest from book advances, royalties, fiction sold to literary magazines, assorted journalism, fees for judging writing contests, and free-lance editing jobs. For some of this work–book reviews for a Gannett-owned newspaper, for instance–I was paid the equivalent of about a dollar-fifty per hour. For my first book, I received $20,000 (minus my agent’s portion), which seemed like an enormous sum, though of course it had taken me six or seven years to write the stories in the book.

Writers are supposed to be above caring about money, while also being grateful for being published at all. Strangely enough, or perhaps not strangely enough, you sometimes hear this comment from other writers (as well as editors). I am grateful to those who publish my work, but I’m not above caring about the pay for my work. (Some writing–not just these website posts–I do for free, of course. But see my Musing of February, 2010, about what writers receive in exchange for “free content.”) I once got into an argument with an editor at an independent newspaper that had paid me a niggling sum (something like $234.50) for a feature article that required a good forty hours of reporting and researching and writing. It had seemed to me that the paper could have paid me a little more or at least rounded up that fifty cents. The editor was offended that I would complain about such pay, which, after all, was above minimum wage.

Over the past two or three years, during the recession that predatory, run-amok capitalists and their anti-regulatory enablers (mostly but not only Republicans) bestowed on us, I have tried to find a job that pays somewhat better than minimum wage. Almost all of the forty or fifty jobs I applied for were for teaching or writing positions at college and universities. I scored exactly one interview, and was offered a job teaching a ten-week online fiction writing course for the adult education branch of a west coast university. The pay would’ve been $1800, or, as I calculated it, given the many hours of off-line preparation and reading that the job would entail, not much more per hour than minimum wage. I decided not to take that job, thinking I could surely earn $1800 in some other way. So far, I’ve been wrong.

All these many paragraphs about my checkered employment history are here not to suggest I’m poor–I’m not, and I’m lucky I’m not–though you could draw the conclusion that writing is a profession you might want to avoid if you plan to make subsistence-level income. The paragraphs above are here, in part, to suggest something about the nature of economic power in America (workers have little) and as a prelude to the larger subject of this piece: the growing inequality in this country and the efforts by those on the extreme right wing (to name one, Scott Walker, the Republican/Tea Party governor of Wisconsin) to insure that those who might vote (or speak out) against inequality are stripped of any power they might have (through their unions, for instance) to alter the status quo. (The Tea Party legislation in Wisconsin that deprives state employees of bargaining rights also reduces their take-home pay by about eight percent. Which is a fair chunk of change if you make thirty or forty thousand dollars a year, as many state workers do.) As the late Tony Judt, who taught history at New York University, wrote in a brilliant little book called ILL FARES THE LAND, “Inequality is corrosive. It rots societies from within.”

Margaret Thatcher (Ronald Reagan’s ideological sister across the pond) did not believe in something called “society.” She famously said, “There is no such thing as society, there are only individuals and families.” There may be little logic to this–there is no such thing as a bee hive, there are only bees?–but her point was that government has no responsibility to its weakest citizens, that government should disappear and let the free market distribute and disburse in its supposedly scientific ways. The Tea Party version of this notion is: “Government is always the problem.” Unless of course the government in power is owned by the right wing, or unless the so-called free market needs to be bailed out by government.

During the past few weeks, I’ve spent a fair amount of time with other protesters in and around the Capitol building in Madison. The protesters have included school teachers, nurses, prison guards, off-duty policemen (who wear “Cops for Labor” shirts), off-duty firefighters, librarians, farmers (some of whom came to the huge March 12th rally with their tractors, many of whom carried placards that said “Farmers Know a Load of Crap,” at least one of whom pulled a wagon full of crap), university staff (among them, my wife, a non-unionized state employee), students, pharmacists (who carried “Pharmacists for Labor” placards), ministers, physicians, workers from state agencies, children, belly dancers (I saw one, anyway; her placard said: “Belly Dancers for Labor”), iron workers, Teamsters, a guy in an Uncle Sam suit on stilts, two jokers in banana suits (I didn’t get the joke), an elderly woman pushing a walker (”At least this walker is helpful”), and many thousands of other people who didn’t advertise (by way of placards) their affiliations (but many of whom may be presumed to work–or to have once worked–in the private sector). While I was standing with all these people, it seemed to me that I was in a society, that world that such political heirs of Reagan and Thatcher as the governor of Wisconsin would like to legislate out of existence (if doing it by fiat proves untenable).

I recently had a “discussion” on Facebook with a guy who owns a roofing company in Iowa. I had met him on several occasions, and he seemed perfectly pleasant. On Facebook, he turned out to be quite unpleasant. In his very brief opening comments, in response to a post about Scott Walker’s union-busting bill by a mild-mannered seventy-year-old retired nurse, he concluded by saying that the Wisconsin protesters had it good, so they should just stop complaining and shut up. (This may remind veterans of the sixties and seventies of a favorite right wing slogan: “America: Love It or Leave It.” There was then–and there is now, seemingly–no room for discussion.) As the so-called discussion went on, he became increasingly angry, saying that we liberals could all kiss his ass if we thought we were going to take his money from him. And so on. The most demoralizing aspect of all this was his rudeness and apparent belief that civility didn’t matter and that basically there was nothing to discuss anyway. He ended by telling me what I believed, after much careful probing of my mind.

It is a tactic of political extremists not to listen to the other side, to shout so loudly that nothing from the other side can be heard anyway. (The Tea Party often reminds me of the most extreme fringes of the left wing during the Vietnam War, people who would blame “the system” for everything in exactly the way the Tea Partiers blame “the government” for everything. A significant difference is that Tea Party politicians actually have political power. The left wing–its more moderate elements, chiefly–may have driven Lyndon Johnson out of office because of the war, but his replacement turned out to be Richard Nixon.) In fact, right wing extremists seem to consider it a sign of weakness to listen to the other side. After all, that’s the sort of thing you do in a society (and a democracy)–listen, talk to the other side, negotiate.

A Madison friend said to me the other day, “If only our governor would step out of his office and look at the people who are protesting, look at all those many different faces. . . ” But it seems pretty clear by now that in the case of the governor of Wisconsin, ideology trumps humanity. Scott Walker doesn’t seem to have even the humanity of a dark soul like Richard Nixon, who left the White House late one night in 1970, in the company of only his valet, to talk to Vietnam War protesters camped out at the Lincoln Memorial. (Some historians believe that Nixon didn’t really go to the Lincoln Memorial to listen to the other side, and according to some accounts, he didn’t even discuss the war with the protesters.)

But allow me to fantasize for a moment and imagine that Scott Walker would leave the Capitol building to mingle with protesters and that somehow he and I end up standing together, right across the street, on the steps of the Episcopal church, an old yellow limestone edifice whose newer wings include a soup kitchen. What would I say to him? How do you talk to somebody who has never had a doubt about his policies or the assumptions on which those policies rest?

Allyn Roberts, a Madison psychologist I know, once told me a story about a schizophrenic woman he treated for some years in a state mental health institution. (Does it complicate matters too much to add that the woman was a Catholic nun?) Allyn described his patient as quite smart and more than a little crafty, as well as someone with whom he’d made little progress. In 1960, the American Academy of Psychotherapists held its annual meeting in Madison, and Allyn invited several of these therapists, including Albert Ellis and Fritz Perls, to his workplace in order to have a go at talking with his patient. It turned out that the least successful approach was that of Albert Ellis, one of the founders of cognitive-behavioral therapy, who believed that you could nudge an irrational and disturbed person toward sanity by reasoning with her and exposing her irrationality. The woman had responded to Ellis by becoming ever more defensive, never giving an inch. When Allyn asked her if she had any interest in seeing Ellis again, she said no, though she also said that she had enjoyed sparring with him. The most successful approach was that of Carl Rogers, who believed that if you talked to the patient on her own terms, in a non-judgmental way, if you somehow suggested to her that you didn’t find her craziness crazy (at least by her own definition of that word), you could gradually lead her toward a less delusional and less defensive state of mind. Allyn’s patient told him that she might be willing to see Rogers again.

Like schizophrenics, extremist politicians are generally not open to appeals of reason. The only thing that seems to get their attention (besides losing an election) is if you agree with them. So, here is what I might say to Scott Walker:

“Yes, sure, Wisconsin will be a better place to live if, after teachers and other state workers have consented to taking home considerably smaller paychecks every week, we do away with their right (which many Republican members of the legislature stupidly assented to in 1959 and again in 1967) to negotiate wages and benefits and other incidental matters. All those people should just suck it up, because don’t all the non-union people in the private sector who have low-paying jobs (and no benefits) just suck it up, too? Wisconsin will surely be a better place to live if the state drastically reduces (as proposed in your budget) the funds it gives school districts, because this way we can also save some dollars by laying off teachers and zeroing-out wasteful school programs and maybe eventually even discourage kids from going to school and young people who make it to college from considering the teaching profession, because who wants to spend twenty years teaching only to find by the end of those twenty years that she’s making fifty thousand dollars (plus, of course, those excessive health care benefits)? And why should kids be educated anyway? Look at yourself–you dropped out of college and you’re the dang governor of Wisconsin! Anyway, if society doesn’t exist, why should we suppose we have any need to educate our children to be members of a non-existent society? And, you know, after eighth or ninth grade, they can go get jobs at McDonald’s and maybe find summer employment up in the Dells. (The wealthy few will be canceling their trips to Nantucket and spending their discretionary income at water parks like the Dells, right?) Yes, sure, Wisconsin will be a better place to live if we can reduce the arts budget by seventy-three percent and roll whatever funds are left for the arts into the Marketing sector of the Department of Tourism, because, well, who gives a shit about the arts except a handful of elitists who probably have college degrees and are probably sissies to boot? And, yes, Wisconsin (speaking of manure and all that) will be a better place to live if farmers will stop complaining that the only health insurance they can get is the last-ditch catastrophic insurance known as Badger Care, and, anyway, aren’t you going to cut whatever the state is currently, for some reason, contributing to Badger Care? Wisconsin will surely be a better place to live if we privatize everything that can be privatized, including maybe some of our nicer state parks and maybe some of our state universities, which are full of students and whiny liberal professors and state workers and a few highly ‘compensated’ but clearly deserving athletic department people whose pay we won’t dock, will we?”

But the governor of Wisconsin (in this fantasy) has already walked away. He has heard it all before.

Throwing Books

March 10th, 2011

My daughter, Nora, who will be four in a couple of months, has been known to throw a book–out of a desire to push the envelope behavior-wise, out of exuberance, out of (who knows?) a scientific interest in the aeronautical properties of THE AMAZING BONE or TEN FINGERS, TEN TOES. Nora’s mother and I tell her that books are not to be thrown–balls and oven mitts and, if it comes to that, cats, may be thrown, but not books–and we try to be good role models in this matter. In the evening, books may drop from our hands onto the floor while we nod off, but we do not throw them.

A college professor of mine, the late Bertrand Goldgar, who taught British literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries at Lawrence University, once said that he’d thrown a certain book across the room because it had offended him. Bert was a droll man who took literature seriously, not only because it was his job to do so. I don’t remember what the book was that he threw, but it’s my guess that it was by a writer of the Romantic or anti-Augustan persuasion–maybe some revolutionary sentimentalist like Wordsworth. Bert was a literary conservative–wit and concision were his touchstones–but he was far from being a hidebound one. (In fact, he was full of surprises. To take one example: his favorite book, I recently learned from his daughter, was THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, a novel that might be described as more baggy and romantic than concise and classical.) When Bert threw a book, he didn’t do it lightly.

I like to think that I can read pretty much any piece of literary fiction without getting worked up to the point that I throw the book across the room. In the case of a badly written book, I rarely get far enough into it to do anything other than lay it aside and feel buyer’s remorse (assuming I’ve actually paid for it). Anyway, badly written books don’t lead me to do violence to them. (This brings me to the subject of e-book readers: if you’ve paid two or three hundred dollars for one of those devices, you are probably not going to consider defenestrating the thing that “contains” the book that is driving you mad.) No, the books that get under one’s skin are almost always by our talented contemporaries, writers in their prime who have gone off the rails for the moment, whose admirers may have encouraged them to take themselves too seriously, whose charms (as exemplified in their previous books) have turned into tics or shticks. It’s harder to get really pissed off at dead writers, because, well, their work is finished (more or less: there is posthumous stuff TK) and they can’t cause much more trouble. Though I can imagine that there are readers, perhaps not only undergraduates, who have flung Hemingway or Faulkner or Mailer across the room. Only good writers, as I said, are likely to arouse that sort of passion in us.

I don’t buy badly written books on purpose, nor, for that matter, do I seek out books that might incite me to do what I ask my daughter not to do. I always open a book by a writer whom I know to be good (or whom reliable informants–reviewers, in some cases–assure me is good) in the belief that I am about to have several hours or days or perhaps weeks of pleasure. (I am a slow reader and will sometimes fall asleep over a book–even a good one–at an hour when some of my contemporaries are still awake and perhaps even doing the boogaloo.)

Last summer I read a wonderful novel by David Mitchell called BLACK SWAN GREEN, as good a book about adolescence as I’d read in a long time. (The narrator of Mitchell’s novel is a thirteen-year-old British boy growing up in Margaret Thatcher’s early-eighties England, though Thatcherism is the least of his problems.) I liked BLACK SWAN GREEN so much that for Christmas I asked for (and received) Mitchell’s new novel, THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB VAN ZOET. This book (479 long pages) is set in late eighteenth-century Japan, and concerns the lives of some Dutch shipping merchants on an island off Nagasaki. The book is exquisitely written; the language is rich and surprising, and the historical details aren’t so much inserted as invisibly threaded through, like wholly organic bits in some gorgeous tapestry. But the book is tedious, too. I had the sense that what I was reading was a brilliant writer’s performance, a show that kept me at a distance; the characters lacked the emotional complexity of the characters in BLACK SWAN GREEN. I didn’t feel the impulse to throw the book, however. If the novel was a failure, it was an ambitious failure, not an irritating one; it hadn’t gotten under my skin.

So I put THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS aside and picked up Keith Richards’ LIFE–candy, good, artisan-quality candy (a dark chocolate, say, flavored with a little sea salt and a touch of pharmaceutical-grade blow), just the sort of antidote for a case of aesthetic overload. Of course, the bar is lower when it comes to memoirs by celebrity rock-and-rollers, but still. Richards wrote, or dictated to a ghostwriter, a candid, smart book, mostly free of celebrity inanity.

After inhaling Richards, I read Virginia Woolf’s MRS. DALLOWAY. I first read this book thirty-five years ago, when I was a graduate student. I’m not quite sure why I decided to reread it, except that lately I’ve been rereading writers who gave me so much pleasure when I was young. And I had always loved the opening of the book, with Clarissa Dalloway going out into the London morning (”fresh as if issued to children on a beach”) to buy flowers. The opening pages are still beautiful. The rest of the novel seemed uneven, brilliant at times, dull at others, depending on which of the characters Woolf chose to focus (or not focus clearly enough) on.

There is some Virginia Woolf in Lorrie Moore, whose most recent book, A GATE AT THE STAIRS, I just finished. Like Woolf, Moore writes about the everyday world (the weather, flowers, a pet goldfish, the look of a city at dusk, a toddler in a snowsuit) with a poet’s intensity, though her observations tend to be somewhat darker than Woolf’s. Moore is basically a satirist in lyrical realist clothes, and with her satirist’s needle she both punctures conventional romantic habits of seeing things and tries to get us to see those things anew. (Bert Goldgar, my old professor–who, incidentally, considered Moore to be among our best contemporary writers–once said that he preferred a good painting of a sunset to an actual sunset. Art beats nature, in other words, though it’s a fact that some of the best paintings of sunsets are by romantics, which Bert no doubt knew.) The problems in Moore’s writing arise when all that withering wit gets between us and the people on the page. Cleverness doesn’t kill this novel, but at times it undermines it.

The opening passage of A GATE AT THE STAIRS–about, among other things, the presence and then disappearance of songbirds during the winter of 2001-02 in a cosmopolitan Wisconsin university town called Troy–is exemplary Moore. Her prose is sharp, vivid, cool, no more clever than is useful. Time is effortlessly compressed, and a certain mood, a kind of ironic dolor, is established. The birds–or their survivors–will reappear three hundred pages later, when the book is up to its ears in dolor.

Moore’s narrator is a college student named Tassie Keltjin, the daughter of an eccentric Wisconsin farmer and his equally eccentric wife. Tassie’s chief role in the novel is to serve as a part-time nanny for the adopted bi-racial daughter of a white Troy couple (she owns a high-end restaurant, he’s a scientist of some sort). Tassie is an extremely bright young woman, whose frames of reference and wisdom and relentless witticisms bring to mind certain attributes of her more experienced creator. If one is willing to overlook this “believability” (or authenticity) issue most of the time, it is because Moore gets deeply enough inside Tassie to show us aspects of her that wouldn’t distinguish her from her peers.

Moore is good with many of her younger characters, perhaps because, as she sees it, they haven’t become fixed; they are still in the process of making themselves, and there may even be hope for them, though the chances are good that the world (or the idiot grown-ups who run it) will fuck these children up. Moore is less good with–less sympathetic to–the so-called grown-ups in the novel. Tassie’s parents are likable in their oddball ways–not that likability is necessarily a quality indicating depth–but they don’t become significant characters until the end of the novel, by which time the novel has, as it were, changed subjects. (It’s no longer about Mary-Emma, the adopted child Tassie cares for, but about Tassie’s brother, who joins the Army after high school, with hardly a peep of an objection from any of his very smart family members.)

The two main adults in the novel, the couple who adopt Mary-Emma, amount to the sums of clever things they say and some pieces of information about their lines of work. Whatever inner lives Sarah and Edward might have once had seem to have been buried; they seem especially unsuited (money aside) to being the parents of an adopted child. We learn virtually nothing about their pasts–Tassie doesn’t seem all that interested–until two-thirds of the way through, when Moore drops a bomb. (The only justification for withholding this rather crucial piece of information–which even a semi-diligent adoption agency would’ve dug up, surely–is that our narrator doesn’t come upon it until late in the game. But this isn’t much of a defense. After all, the novel is written in the past tense, after Tassie has had some time to absorb events.) After Moore drops the bomb, the couple and the child disappear from the novel, though the jerk husband does make one final appearance (or crank phone call) at the end.

When Moore unloaded this information, I was tempted to toss the novel, but I was in my mother’s house and she was sleeping and I didn’t want to wake her even though she probably wasn’t wearing her hearing aid and wouldn’t have noticed the sound of a paperback hitting the floor. And it is also true that while the timing of the delivery of the information seems like a trick, the information itself is harrowing, and Moore makes fine melodrama out of it.

There’d been other moments when I might have thrown the novel, such as the scene when a mohawked kid (a stereotype who makes no further appearances) drives into the picture in order to use the N-word to two-year-old Mary-Emma. The problem here is not that such a thing couldn’t happen in Moore’s Troy, whose many p.c. inhabitants Moore has much fun with, but that she doesn’t convince us that this incident happens as she describes it–it seems like stock footage.

I might have thrown the novel, too, during the second of the long (and mercilessly clever) discussions of race (and related matters) conducted by Mary-Emma’s parents and other adults, which Tassie supposedly overhears while tending to Mary-Emma and a handful of other children–but I’d already made my peace with the novel.

A GATE AT THE STAIRS doesn’t have the icy hard bright winter’s day clarity of the stories in Moore’s previous book, BIRDS OF AMERICA. It loses its way more than once. Perhaps the longer form threw Moore off stride, as it has other first-rate short story writers. A GATE AT THE STAIRS is a lesser work–confused and yet compelling–by one of our most talented writers.

Reader, this novel got under my skin, but I did not throw it. Nor did it slip from my hands as I lay in bed reading it.

Writers as Sandwich Boards

February 3rd, 2010

Every so often I ask myself: Was it simply vanity that led me to build a website in which I promote myself and my books? Why do we writers feel obliged to climb aboard the neon podium that is the Internet and plead with passersby to read our books? Why, instead of, say, reading a good book or trying to write a better one of our own, do we spend hours and hours working on those exquisite sandwich board advertisements for ourselves that are our websites (or blogs)? How much of our souls do we sell in this transaction?

Here is one answer, taken from a book called YOU ARE NOT A GADGET (Knopf, 2010), by the computer scientist Jaron Lanier: “If you want to know what’s really going on in a society or ideology, follow the money. If money is flowing to advertising instead of to musicians, journalists, and artists, then a society is more concerned with manipulation than with truth or beauty. If content is worthless [if, among other things, there is no remuneration for it], then people will start to become empty-headed and contentless. The combination of hive mind and advertising has resulted in a new kind of social contract. The basic idea of the contract is that authors, journalists, musicians, and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind. Reciprocity takes the form of self-promotion. Culture is to become precisely nothing but advertising.”

–Dwight Allen

Typing vs. Writing

November 23rd, 2009

In my basement gathering dust are the three typewriters that I used between 1968 and 2000. The newest one is a Panasonic R320 electronic typewriter, a high-maintenance gizmo acquired circa 1988, on which I typed some of the stories in THE GREEN SUIT. My favorite typewriter was my first, a pale green Smith-Corona portable manual that I used during high school and college and graduate school and also occasionally during the post-grad years, whenever the Olivetti electric crashed and burned. (The Olivetti, a sleek but not entirely reliable machine, sometimes emitted smoke while the motor ran and ran as it waited for me to type the next word. I was a medium-slow typist and an even slower thinker.) The Smith-Corona has a dent in the housing that surrounds the key basket, where I slugged it one night in frustration. I can’t remember exactly why I was frustrated, but if I had to guess, it probably had something to do with wishing I were one of the writers I admired instead of the writer I actually was.

In the fall of 2000, my publisher at the time, Algonquin, sent me to a book festival in Nashville. THE GREEN SUIT had just come out. The festival is called The Southern Festival of Books, and almost all the writers who were there in 2000 were Southerners (or Southerners living in exile in some godforsaken northern place). I was on a panel with William Gay and Clyde Edgerton, both of whom still lived in the South. Gay, a Tennessean, wrote about rural Southern life (and some of its more violent citizens) somewhat in the manner of Faulkner; his prose is rich and beautiful and full of dark humor. Edgerton, a North Carolinian, wrote comedies in a lighter vein. He also wrote music, and at one point during our panel session, he fulfilled an audience request–he had a large following, heavily female–and sang a song that he’d written for one of his novels. He brought the house down. When Edgerton was done, Gay, a quiet man, said to me, “Glad we don’t have to follow him.”

Among the questions we got from the audience was how each of us composed our work. By that time, I’d pretty much abandoned my electronic typewriter. So in answer to the question, I said that I used a computer, and that I found it liberating to be able to revise a story without having to retype the whole damn thing or mar a clean piece of paper with White-Out. I recall also saying that I’d found I censored myself less often on the computer, that I would allow myself to write sloppily some days in order to simply get from Point A to Point B, because on the computer it was easy to go back and edit drivel. Edgerton, a former Air Force pilot who gave the impression of having never slouched in his life, said that he wrote on a typewriter and that the best way to revise was to make yourself retype the whole damn thing. He suggested that I might want to reconsider my approach, that maybe I ended up with a lesser thing by not retyping the story from beginning to end over and over.

I had the feeling that Edgerton was trying to put me in my place, but what he said makes sense. If you are retyping a manuscript on a typewriter, you are forced to examine every sentence one more time, and fewer bad ones are likely to escape your eye. On a computer it’s easy enough to fix a clunky sentence, but if you don’t retype the pages surrounding that sentence, you will probably miss (in part because words on a screen don’t ever look bad) other sentences or even paragraphs or pages that could use some rethinking. It’s easy to cut yourself slack on the computer; the computer is a slacker’s paradise. It’s easy to persuade yourself that by making a bunch of minor changes on the screen, you’ve actually revised something. Computers enable superficial rather than deep revision.

One of the biggest downsides of computer technology and the Internet is that they have made people impatient, or more impatient than we might be if we were still using typewriters and rotary phones. So much in American culture now is about speed–speed being the virtual equivalent of money, not only the grease that greases the acquisition of it. (See the investment banking industry, for instance, where it is possible to make a few extra million dollars in a matter of seconds for no other reason than you happen to own the fastest software in the land.)

One of the effects on writing of the worship of speed is that it makes us ever more anxious, ever more quick to pull the trigger, every more quick to email that story off to a publication, and ever more slow to edit. It is often said that the commercial publishing houses no longer employ editors who do much editing, and though there are all sorts of reasons for this–one is that mainstream book publishing is mostly no longer about writing, it’s almost entirely about money–a minor reason is that the computer allows an editor to, literally, keep his hands off a manuscript. One result of this hands-off approach is that it seems to encourage some good writers to write bad, or badly bloated, books. In an age when publishing was a more methodical (indeed, snail-like) process, an editor would have asked a writer to revise his manuscript–or, to paraphrase Edgerton, to rewrite the whole damn thing–and the writer would have been thankful for the request.

All that being said, I don’t plan to get my Smith-Corona out of the basement. I’m not sure I could even find a ribbon for it anymore. Which brings to mind a conversation I recently had with the comic book writer Harvey Pekar. I asked him where I could find a needle for my turntable. (If you saw the movie AMERICAN SPLENDOR, in which Paul Giamatti plays Harvey, you will recall that Harvey collected LPs.) He said he knew of a store in Cleveland, where he has lived all of his life, which sells phonographic equipment. “You could get a needle there–if you ever happened to be in Cleveland.” He sort of laughed, as if he thought I probably wouldn’t ever be in Cleveland.

Both Harvey and I are basically brick-and-mortar-type people, and the thought of scouring the Internet for a typewriter ribbon or phonograph needle might not occur to either of us right away. I have a feeling it wouldn’t occur to Harvey, ever.

There is a typewriter repair shop in Madison where in years past I took my Panasonic for retooling or cleaning. The proprietor, who is not the model for Oliver Poole, the owner of The Typewriter Poole in THE TYPEWRITER SATYR, could probably, with his connections, get me a ribbon for my forty-year-old manual. But a ribbon for my typewriter is less of a priority than is a needle for my twenty-five-year-old Swedish-made turntable, on which I’d like to play some of the LPs that I collected prior to the CD revolution.

I’d like the option of being able to listen to one of those old LPs while writing (or revising) a story on my two-year-old iMac. Though I have my doubts that listening to music, whether it is delivered via LP or CD or by Rosanne Cash standing outside my window, would make me a better (or slower or more careful or more revision-prone) writer. How is it possible, really, to listen to Muddy Waters or Blossom Dearie or Charles Mingus or Rosanne Cash and also write a good (or better) sentence? I suppose there must be a few writers who are able to do this–I know that T.C. Boyle has written with a thousand decibels of The Blasters or whomever blasting in his ears–but I’m guessing that they are only half-hearing the music.

It is often said that what matters most in writing is the “how,” not the “what.” Another way of saying this is that what makes a book good or bad is the writer, not the subject. Something similar could be said about the computer-versus-typewriter issue: it’s how a writer uses one or the other that matters, not which of the two she uses. A computer may in fact enable sloppiness, but if you care about what you write, if you are honest with yourself about as much on the page (or screen) as it is possible to be honest about, if you can tamp down all the impatience and insecurity that American digital culture engenders, you can use a computer as if it were a typewriter–and also save paper, until it comes time to print the manuscript out, which you should do (reading it on paper lets you see it afresh) before letting go of the damn thing.

–Dwight Allen

Competitive Writers

October 17th, 2009

By Dwight Allen

In an appreciation of John Updike that appeared in the New York Times not long after his death last January, Lorrie Moore (BIRDS OF AMERICA, A GATE AT THE STAIRS) wrote that “literature, of course, is not a contest.” She made this seemingly self-evident claim while noting that the Nobel Prize had eluded Updike–who won every other prize there is to win–and suggesting that if life were fair, he would’ve won that one, too, and that Updike (who regarded himself as–and who in fact behaved like–a hard-working lower-case writer rather than a big-deal upper-case one) surely would’ve been pleased with the honor himself. In a piece about Updike that ran in The New Yorker a week after Moore’s Times essay, Roger Angell, who had been Updike’s editor for three decades, said that he could get Updike’s juices going by telling him that he ought to read a certain sharp young writer whose work was soon to appear in the magazine. And it wouldn’t be long before Angell would receive in the mail a manila envelope containing a new Updike story. In other words, Updike was competitive (if not in a bared-teeth kind of way) and apparently did to some degree regard literature as a contest.

One reads of a major American male fiction writer (generation of Boyle and Moore and Wolff and Smiley) putting a bullet hole through another writer’s book–or perhaps it was merely the bound galleys–because the other writer had the audacity to give one of the gunman’s books a less than favorable review. (Apparently, the major writer’s wife put a bullet hole through another copy of the reviewer’s book first, perhaps in order to show her husband how it was done.) One reads, too, alas, of the same gunman-novelist spitting on another writer at a literary gathering a couple of years after the younger writer gave the gunman a harsh review in the New York Times.

And one reads of an outraged female novelist (same generation) twittering her followers about a negative review that appeared in the Boston Globe, a tweet that included the reviewer’s home phone number in case any of the twitterer’s followers wished to complain personally to the reviewer.

Of course there are also writers who are generous and gracious, unobsessed with their status in the literary world. To take an example (from Canada): Alice Munro, who asked that her new book of stories be pulled from consideration for a $45,000 prize that she has already won (twice), so that other writers’ books might have a better chance at it.

Literature (or whatever it is that most of us write) may not be a competition when we are in the process of writing it, but once it is out in the world, it becomes something that competes with thousands of other pieces for space in magazines big and little, for praise, for money from book publishers, for reviews, for prizes. It becomes something that will either help or not help its author get a grant or a paying job or entree into certain editors’ In boxes or an invitation to a book festival. It becomes something that will either get or not get the attention of book page editors–and if the book has money behind it, even a modest sum, it is more likely than a book with little or no money behind it to get the attention of a book page editor–and then perhaps a review that your mother can tape to her refrigerator.

A poet friend has referred to the world in which we striving writers–not to mention much of the rest of humanity–do our work in as “the cesspool of late-capitalist society.” Which brings to mind a scene in the 1970 Peter Sellers movie THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN, in which people dive into vats of shit for the dollar bills that have been set adrift there. On the other hand, most writers, absent financial remuneration, will settle for attention of one sort or another.

And yet, when we are writing our stories or novels, we don’t care about what anybody (mentor, editor, father, fellow writer) might think about what we’re typing, do we? We don’t care–do we?–that when we are four years into writing a novel, one of our least favorite fellow writers (but admittedly a talented one) is on the verge of publishing something that will make our prose look like drivel, if drivel can be said to look like anything?

When I am writing my fiction, I don’t care what other writers are doing or how my writing will stack up when it’s done. (I do, to be honest, sometimes imagine, during the editing process, what my ideal reader–a composite, made up of friends and a couple of ornery critics–might make of a word, a sentence, a scene, the whole damn thing.) I know that I can do what only I can do, and that, if it’s any good, it will at least be somewhat different from what anybody else does–different not necessarily in the “what” but in the “how.” I know, too, that there are a lot of living writers who are smarter than I am, more clever than I am, wiser than I am–in short, I know that there are many writers who are better than I am. When I was younger, the knowledge of my limitations bothered me to the extent that I often asked myself why I bothered to hover above my typewriter like some obsessive talking bird saying the same sentence over and over. But I continued to bother. I wrote, in part, to get better, to write sentences (or paragraphs or stories) that I didn’t know I could write.

It is only when my writing goes out into the world that I feel competitive–a point at which, it could be noted, the game is already over. In fact, it seems almost unremarkable that a writer would feel competitive (or, if things go badly, driven to jealousy or spite) as his or her work jostles for a little space in the so-called literary marketplace with hundreds of other (good, not so good, brilliant, boring, overpraised, faintly praised) books. But not many writers admit–publicly–to having those sorts of feelings. It’s as if the feelings are beneath us, dignified, humble servants of art that we are. Now and then a writer will come clean, as Pete Dexter, the author of the estimable and prize-winning PARIS TROUT, did the other day in the New York Times, when he said to a reporter, regarding competition with other writers, “Jealousy’s the wrong word for what I usually feel. It’s closer to hoping they get hit by a car.”

Writers are, broadly speaking, ordinary creatures who have the usual array of emotions and whose egos are no grander (or any more modest, for that matter) than those of other people in better-paying lines of work. It’s not clear that the egos of those of us writers who work (for lack of a better term) at the margins are any less demanding than the egos of those celebrated authors who put bullet holes through other writers’ books. We all have our needs and hopes, ridiculous as they sometimes are. Praise (or a good review) is the one compensation that we all probably hope for, and when it doesn’t happen, we sometimes lose our minds and throw a hissy fit or drink too much of the Pisco that our son brought us from Chile for occasions celebratory and otherwise. And then, after we go through our period of anger and despair and grief, and after we give thanks to our mothers and sons and spouses and siblings and friends and others who have have taken the time to read our stuff, we go back to writing, though not necessarily because we feel competitive with each other.

Reading and Mindlessness

October 5th, 2009

The other afternoon, a blustery Sunday at the end of September, I mowed our lawn for what I trust will be the last time this year. Though I shouldn’t give the impression that I consider mowing the lawn always to be a chore. It is a mostly mindless activity, and mindlessness, like sleep, is a state that I sometimes seek out.

On recent occasions while mowing the lawn, I’ve noticed, in my more mindful moments, iridescent bugs and tawny baby toads hopping in the grass ahead of the mower, trying to escape the whirling blades. They weren’t there earlier in the summer, and I don’t know what their presence means, exactly. The end of things? I don’t think I have the blood of any toads on my hands, but I must have slaughtered hundreds of those bugs, whatever they are.

On Sunday, when I looked up from the grass, I saw my daughter on the porch, waving to me in a kind of tentative way. Nora is two and she has a healthy fear of lawn mowers, learned in part from watching a movie about an aardvark named Arthur whose little dog, Pal, is nearly run over by somebody riding a mower the size of a tank. I waved back, and Nora returned to whatever she was doing at her toy kitchen set. She may have been making a pie. Or she may have been ruminating, the way small children must do every so often, in order to get a grip on the mystery of existence.

Sometimes when I am mowing the lawn and my mind is relatively active–when I’m unable to achieve that mindless emptiness that is sort of like the buzzing in your bones you get before falling into the valley of sleep–I let my mind think its obsessive thoughts. Or I test my memory, by trying to recite the lineup of the 1961 Cincinnati Reds or the names and dates of all the dachshunds that my parents ever owned. Or I make lists.

On the day in question, I tried to list all the books I’d read recently, and then, because this was also a test of my short-term memory that I knew I wasn’t going to ace, I made a list of the books I’d recently read and also immensely enjoyed. (”Recently” is a flexible word that becomes more flexible the older you get. In this case it means “within the last year or so.”)

Here is the list:

Michelle Huneven’s BLAME (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is a gripping and beautifully made novel about guilt and responsibility and love, about needy, complicated people trying to do the right thing. The lead character is an alcoholic history professor in southern California who–not to give away too much of the plot–lands on the wrong side of the law. There is a scene toward the end of the novel that takes place in, of all places, a gas station bathroom and that is among the great scenes in contemporary literature. Huneven (full disclosure: she is a friend from way back) takes a generous, Chekhovian view of character, refusing to condemn the lost and the selfish (which describes all of us some of the time), but she doesn’t ever sentimentalize her characters, either. She is both unsparingly honest and good-hearted. The same generosity animates her prose, which is always precise and as gorgeously fresh as the world may in fact be.

The stories collected in Donald Ray Pollock’s first book, KNOCKEMSTIFF (Anchor paperback), initially appeared in little literary magazines you aren’t likely to heard of unless you are a writer trying to get published in little magazines. The stories are set in an impoverished southern Ohio hollow called Knockemstiff–a real place where the author, who is in his mid-fifties, grew up–and they are hilarious, sad, dark, horrifying, and brilliantly told. (So, why didn’t they first appear in less obscure little literary magazines or even in fancy slick ones?) Just about every cruel or stupid or politically incorrect act you can imagine humanity (and particularly adolescents or arrested adolescents) engaging in (short of genocidal murder) is engaged in in Pollock’s hollow. But the demons that get hold of Pollock’s characters aren’t all that different from the demons that make villagers in folk tales do crazy things, and they aren’t all that different from what drives respectable, educated bourgeois people to extremes. Pollock, who has some Cormac McCarthy in him, writes about humanity at its near-worst. He trains a satirical eye on his characters, but he isn’t dismissive of them; they aren’t mean little creatures meant simply to be gawked at or laughed at. Their troubles are ours.

I hadn’t read much of Antonya Nelson–she has written eight books–until I read a new collection of stories called NOTHING RIGHT (Bloomsbury). In these eleven stories, Nelson writes about infidelity, deceit, families held together with spit and cell phones, children trying to figure out how to negotiate the messes their parents have made for them. A number of the stories are set in places like Wichita and Houston, red-state hubs. (And yet, in a wonderful story about an extended family, Nelson notes this about the biggest city in Kansas, home to a thrice-divorced psychiatrist and his diverse offspring: “Wichita was just that size, big enough for lesbians and psychoanalysis, small enough for impractical, coincidental cross-pollination.”) The dysfunction in some of Nelson’s families seems somehow both extreme and entirely normal. Nelson writes about it all with a disarming wit, even with a sort of cheerful relish. But she doesn’t let characters consumed by their appetites off the hook, either. See the story called “DWI” and in particular the passage toward the end, in which a young mother (whose lover has just died) has to decide, when leaving the house for a vacation, whether to take along her son’s pet toads. “She cannot be bothered by toads. She can replace toads. She will do what the others have done, forgotten their existence, then later come home blameless as everyone else in their death.”

Last February, when I was hunting for a Valentine’s Day gift for my daughter, I came upon Jules Feiffer’s BARK, GEORGE (HarperCollins), first published in 1999. George is a small pup of undetermined breed (Feiffer’s squiggly drawings suggest a dog in the formative stage, wobbly, error-prone), and his problem (or, rather, his mother’s problem) is that he won’t bark like a dog. The sounds of other animals (pig, cow, cat) he enthusiastically does, almost as if they inhabit him, almost as if he strongly identifies with them. So, of course, George’s mother takes her contrarian child to the doctor. The mystery is resolved, but George’s compulsion (a desire to fit in? an existential protest?) doesn’t go away when he returns to the street. When my daughter and I read this book, as we regularly do, she seems both elated and baffled by what the doctor pulls from George’s insides. But Nora seems to mostly side with the mother: a dog should be a dog. Toddlers tend to be conservative, tolerant of only so much variance from the way things should be, though of course they are also at the same time only about an inch away from throwing an anarchist’s bomb.

Agate Nesaule’s IN LOVE WITH JERZY KOSINSKI (University of Wisconsin Press) is a kind of follow-up to her wrenching and beautifully told memoir, A WOMAN IN AMBER, about a childhood spent in Displaced Persons’ camps in Germany during the Second World War and then, after the war, in the Latvian immigrant community in Indianapolis. (Full disclosure: Agate and I are friends, and we also share a publisher.) In her new book, a novel, Nesaule writes about a Latvian exile named Anna now living in Wisconsin whose marriage is on the rocks, who falls for a too-good-to-be-true driving instructor and ecology student named Andrej, who wrestles with her memories of the war and the anger and despair those memories engender, and who regards the Polish-born novelist Jerzy Kosinski (at least until revelations about his fabrications surface) as her hero. When Anna hears the news of Kosinski’s suicide on the radio while sitting in a traffic jam, she thinks, “She was finally beyond doing everything he or another man might demand. She would not lie for Jerzy. She would not collude with him, the way his mother had, to uphold a false version of his childhood. She would not write his books. She would not give him her story. She would write it herself.”

By the time I’d finished cutting the grass, Nora had gone inside to watch cartoons (some vintage “Casper the Friendly Ghost” shorts from the fifties) and then she and her mother had retired to the bedroom to take a nap. I sat on the porch with Thomas Pynchon’s latest, INHERENT VICE (Penguin), a book funny enough to lift a person out of a depression, and the best Pynchon I’d read since V. (Full disclosure: I never finished GRAVITY’S RAINBOW, despite inhaling lots of dope and absorbing some peer pressure, and his later books I have taken only half-hearted stabs at.) INHERENT VICE put me in mind of Robert Altman’s 1973 reimagining of THE LONG GOODBYE. (There’s more than a touch of Elliott Gould, who played Altman’s version of Chandler’s detective, in Doc Sportello, Pynchon’s P.I.) Pynchon’s novel gives the sort of pleasure that Elmore Leonard whips up in his noir entertainments, and there is also an extravagance of period detail and much fine, seemingly loosey-goosey writing like this: “Doc took the freeway out. The eastbound lanes teemed with VW buses in jittering paisleys, primer-coated street hemis, woodies of authentic Dearborn pine, TV-star-piloted Porsches, Cadillacs carrying dentists to extramarital trysts, windowless vans with lurid teen dramas in progress inside, pickups with mattresses full of country cousins from the San Joaquin, all wheeling along together down into these great horizonless fields of housing . . . under a sky like watered milk, and the white bombardment of a sun smogged into only a smear of probability, out in whose light you began to wonder if anything you could call psychedelic could ever happen, or if–bummer!–all this time it had really been going on up north.” There are many suggestions in INHERENT VICE that things didn’t improve when hippie culture gave way to what we’ve been stuck with in America ever since: a culture devoted to money.

I thought I could easily spend the rest of the afternoon reading INHERENT VICE, but the fact was that I was myself due for a nap, and the skies were darkening in a way that suggested some bad weather coming, and almost before I knew it, I was half-asleep in my porch chair, listening to myself snore.

Dwight Allen

Postscript: When writing the above, I didn’t take into account the likelihood that global warming would (not for the first time) extend the grass-cutting season to beyond what used to be normal. Or, to put it another way, I forgot to foresee that one of the side-effects of global warming is that, even as far north as Madison, Wisconsin, the grass (not to mention the day lilies) will think November is April and start growing again. So, on a mid-sixtyish November Sunday, I cut the grass one more time, in part because there were a lot of leaves scattered around the yard and if I mulched them I could pretend they were too small to rake. While cutting the grass, I thought of another book I’d read recently that you shouldn’t pass up.

THE END OF THE STRAIGHT AND NARROW (Southern Methodist University Press) is David McGlynn’s first book, a collection of stories. (Full disclosure: David is a friend; he teaches at Lawrence University, in Appleton, Wisconsin, where I was a student back in the early seventies, when Pynchon and Nabokov and Barthelme and Barth and Borges were the names we were all on fire with.) McGlynn’s stories are set in southern California and the Southwest; the second half of the book is a cycle of stories about a Houston family, no less singularly peculiar (or engaging) than any of Antonya Nelson’s urban Texas families. Religion (a stand-up-and-testify Protestant variety) animates a number of McGlynn’s characters. “He waits by the trunk while Rhonda shares Christ with the skycaps” is the first line of the book, and it signals not only McGlynn’s preoccupation with believers but his quiet wit and his refusal to take sides. When, a few lines later, he shows us the proselytizing Rhonda’s teeth–they aren’t quite straight and she likes to wet them with her tongue before speaking–McGlynn isn’t suggesting that Rhonda is a fraud or simply lascivious, though it later becomes clear that in Rhonda’s mind a religious impulse, the need to fill a hole in oneself, isn’t so far removed from a sexual one. In “Testimony,” one of the stories about the Houston family, the father, a neurobiologist whose wife has gone blind and who has had a long-running affair with his wife’s in-house caretaker, finds Jesus near the end of his life. “Jesus drowned my father in an inflatable pool,” the young narrator writes, “killed him dead, and brought to the surface a different man, a believer. This is the story my father tells. It is his testimony.” But the father’s story, as the son points out, is not entirely reliable. “In Christ’s mercy our sins are forgotten, but so is the person who committed them.” The narrator sees it as his duty to give us the truth that his father would like to suppress. What McGlynn, with his steady, unflinching, generous-hearted gaze, gives us throughout this collection of stories are people we look at every day but don’t often clearly see.

Dwight Allen

Doing Readings

September 26th, 2009

I used to get really nervous during the hours before I had to do a reading, and when I actually got up there behind the lectern (if there was a lectern, and I always hoped there’d be something to hide behind), I would get even more nervous. I would shake and sweat, my voice would break, my hand would quiver as I tried to turn a page of my way too long script. “Bear with me,” I would sometimes say, as I watched myself watching myself, the pitiful spectacle of a man trying to turn a page with palsied fingers. I always wrote out an introduction to whatever I was going to read; the last thing I wanted to do was to try to talk off the top of my head. There was no top of my head to talk off the top of, anyway.

I dreaded the Q. & A. that followed the reading from the book. I would sometimes draw a blank when I got the simplest of all standard book reading questions: Who are your favorite writers? I would stutter and stumble when somebody asked me (another inevitable question) how much of my book was autobiographical. I had perfectly good answers to this question and others–I’d written answers down, after all, knew the questions were coming–but hardly anything that could be parsed and even less that was intelligent came out of my mouth.

“Fear of performance,” a friend, meaning to be helpful, said.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m afraid of appearing to be a fraud. Or the opposite of a self-possessed writer who knows his brief.”

My friend gave me a little bottle of something homeopathic and I drank it before a reading and it didn’t keep me from shaking and it didn’t help me remember the answers I’d written down to those questions. Somebody else suggested I smoke some weed prior to a reading, but I’d pretty much given weed up by then, and when I had smoked it, back in my salad days, it had only intensified my self-consciousness.

When I asked my friend Tom Boyle how he, the Dickens of our generation, stood up there and dazzled audiences, he said something self-deprecating. He also said, trying to be encouraging, “You’re a writer, not a carny barker.”

So I went home and wrote.

And I got a little better at readings. But not a whole lot better. When somebody would ask me when, during the day, I did my writing, I would say, authoritatively, “In the morning.” That should have been a sufficient answer, but then I would feel the need, in the wake of the silence that followed my answer, to fill the vacuum with something like, “You know, my brain goes dead around noon–I mean, the creative side of my brain, such as it is, checks out. And when I say that I do my writing in the morning, what I actually mean is that I sometimes do it in between making pots of coffee or doing a load of laundry or going outside to pull weeds. Pulling weeds is good therapy, as well as an avoidance technique. There’s a great Theodore Roethke poem about pulling weeds. The last lines go something like ‘Me down in that fetor of weeds,/ Crawling on all fours,/ Alive, in a slippery grave.’” [I'm sure I would have misquoted these lines; I have set them down here as Roethke wrote them.] “So, yeah, I guess I kind of do my writing in the morning, assuming I’ve had enough coffee and don’t have a migraine and don’t have too many weeds to pull. Or, if it’s winter, too much snow to shovel. I am probably the only person in Wisconsin who doesn’t own a snowblower.”

Three or four times when I went to do a reading at a bookstore–or, in one case at a Senior Citizen Center–it soon became obvious that those five or six rows of empty chairs lined up before the lectern were going to remain empty. Well, I thought, at least I won’t be falling on my face, at least I won’t be pitting out my new button-down shirt. Though the prideful writer in me was a little hurt that nobody had come to see me fall on my face or soil my shirt. (The rational human being in me realized that there were all sorts of reasons that nobody had come to my reading, some of which–the weather, for instance–had nothing to do with me.)

Of course, there were people at the bookstores who were paid to be there for these readings, and in order that they not feel too bad about the situation (presuming that they did), I would propose (ten or fifteen or twenty minutes after the Events person had said, “Let’s wait a few minutes more, in case people are running late”) that we go have a drink. My treat. At a strip mall bookstore in Memphis, Tennessee, after an audience failed to materialize, I said to the two people in charge of the reading, “Maybe I could read to you?” And so the three of us huddled together around a table not far from the cash register, and I read a story from THE GREEN SUIT, the shortest one in the book. For a moment, this almost felt like Story Time at the library, with me, the gray-haired guy in the chinos and button-down shirt, reading to people young enough to be my children. The two booksellers listened politely–I won’t say raptly–even though I read quickly, as if I couldn’t wait to go find a dive to hide in.

In Milwaukee, the young bookseller assigned to my reading took me up on my drink offer. Among the things I learned about him was that he was, to use his term, an “apprentice writer” and that he would type, sentence by sentence, stories by writers he admired. He said that this exercise helped him see things about structure and technique that he might have otherwise missed if he’d simply re-read the story. I wondered if when he typed (to take an example that I don’t recall he used), “Just when I needed important conversation, a sniff of the man-wide world, that is, at least one brainy companion who could translate my friendly language into his tongue of undying carnal love, I was forced to lounge in our neighborhood park, surrounded by children,” he would have felt the excitement of what Grace Paley must have felt when she typed (or hand-wrote) that opening line of her story “Faith in a Tree.”

I had often tried to imagine what it would be like to be inside the skin of a writer working at the height of her powers, even if for only a moment or two. Thinking about this made me want to slug down my beer and go home and sit at my desk and channel Grace Paley or Eudora Welty or Anton Chekhov or Ed McClanahan (a Kentucky writer, one of the late Ken Kesey’s literary sidekicks, whom I’d recently discovered and whom I’d wished I could be as funny as). What a pleasure it would be to be someone else.

By the time my third book came out, six years after my second one, I had lost a little more of my fear of doing readings. Possibly this was due to my years in psychotherapy, and possibly it was also due in part to my sense that I was rapidly growing old and that I might as well speak my mind before I began to unravel in some of the more unsightly ways. The thought of coming off as ignorant and dull didn’t inhibit me as much as it had in the past. But before I tell you how I didn’t tremble at all at a reading I did this spring in Louisville, Kentucky–to which my mother and my son and some of my mother’s friends and my eleventh-grade English teacher and the guy who gave me golf lessons when I was nine and some of my oldest friends came–and that I actually enjoyed doing the reading, I should mention two readings from 2003 that cause me to blush when I recollect them.

At the first, a book festival in Madison, I read some pages from a work in progress rather than from the recently published JUDGE. The pages from the work in progress were crudely (not to say badly) written, but I read from them because I had fallen in love and was not in possession of my critical (or self-critical) faculties. I don’t recall that I trembled much while reading this stuff (which it took me six years to improve), but I know I felt foolish afterward, after I’d blown the opportunity to read from something that had been published and even (mostly kindly) reviewed.

I was still in love a month or so later, when I did a reading at the Kentucky Book Fair, in Frankfort. I read with a novelist and short story writer named Joe Ashby Porter. Mr. Porter–who grew up in southwestern Kentucky, whose father was a coal miner, who went to college at Harvard, who on the day of our reading was dressed in the sort of suit that someone who taught Shakespeare at Duke might wear, whose books were published by offbeat independent publishers such as New Directions and Turtle Point–went first.

I hadn’t read any of Joe Ashby Porter’s fiction, and I am sorry to say that I didn’t pay a lot of attention to what he read that afternoon in that windowless conference room in Frankfort. (I have since read several of his stories. They are sui generis, spookily beautiful and darkly comic. Try those in his 1983 collection, THE KENTUCKY STORIES.) I was nervous about what I was going to read, but I was more nervous about my girlfriend back in Wisconsin, nervous that she didn’t love me anymore or that she loved somebody else or that she didn’t know how much I loved her. I must have talked to her on my cell phone a half dozen times already that day. And then, of course, as Joe Ashby Porter was reading from his new book, my phone went off. As I searched for it–I found it, after several rings, in my satchel–and then struggled to turn the fucking thing off, I felt Mr. Porter giving me the kind of look that I could imagine him giving a Duke undergraduate who had been tin-eared enough to refer to Othello as “that Moor dude.” Had he given me an even more piercing look, he would’ve been well within his rights.

I still have the same cell phone. It looks like something that was made behind the Iron Curtain decades ago. Like a prototype, perhaps. It doesn’t take pictures or convey email or do any other up-to-date thing. My two-year-old daughter has chewed off most of the rubber On/Off button, so that the only way to switch it on or off now is to take a sharp object, such as a pen or a bobby pin, and press down on what remains of the button.

I don’t take my cell phone to readings anymore. Nor do I read from unpublished work.

I still get nervous beforehand (as, I imagine, do most writers who aren’t natural-born performers, people who, like me, had thought that writing was an escape from having to perform in the so-called real world) and I still sweat through my shirt during the reading and Q. & A., but I don’t usually tremble much. There are scarier things.

- Dwight Allen