Thursday, September 30, 2010

An Interview with Lydia Davis

I am delighted to get to pass on this link to my interview with Lydia Davis for the Writers at Cornell podcast. Davis is in town for a reading, but she was kind enough to talk with me about the complexities of translating Proust and Flaubert, using economic language to convey strong emotion, the evolution of her literary style, and the value of self-limitation.

Davis's Collected Stories has just come out in paperback, and her new translation of Madame Bovary in hardcover; snap them up after you've had a listen. (And thanks to Gallagher for the question about constraints.)

Monday, September 27, 2010

Every single day. Also, questions for Lydia Davis

There's another aspect of my current novel revision that I didn't mention in the previous post, but which has come to seem very important to me over the past ten (bloggingless) days. In the past, especially when I have been teaching, I have tended to revise in four-hour blocks of time only on days when I could set four hours aside. This generally equated to three days a week of rather fast-paced work, which I accomplished in the service of some deadline (usually arbitrary) that I imposed upon myself.

This time around, I have changed two things. One, I have no deadline ("sometime next year" is all I have told anyone) for finishing. And two, I am working every single day. This includes, say, Tuesdays, when I have, ideally, six hours to make real progress, as well as Wednesdays, when I get up at 5 and have perhaps a single hour.

What I am finding is that the one-hour sessions might well be as important as the six-hour ones--sometimes more so, even if very little (or even no) writing gets done. The key seems to be to do something every day, to keep my mind from straying too far from the book. I've written here before about the difficulty of holding an entire novel in one's head at once--it is possible for some people, and I feel I've been able to do it every now and then. But it is hard, and the more time you spend away from the thing, the more you need to recover when you return.

This method--work daily, even if it's only time enough to stare at the screen and think--is quite revalatory. I feel more connected to the book, even when I'm not really accomplishing anything substantive. We shall see if it pans out in the end.

Finally, the great Lydia Davis is coming to Cornell this week, and I will be posting my podcast interview with her here on Thursday. If there's anything you're dying to ask her, post it in the comments, and I will try to throw it into my interview.

photo: raccoons watching me work the other day.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

How do you revise?

I had an interesting talk with my graduate seminar yesterday on this topic--how different writers approach the task of revision. My own feelings about revision have evolved over the years, and far from having arrived at some kind of tried-and-true method, I have come to find that I am less certain about the process than ever, and feel more lost in it than at any time in my entire life.

I think (read, "hope") that this is a good thing. A couple of days ago I started revising the novel I drafted earlier this year, based on the notes I took during a couple of editorial meetings with Rhian. This is a very sketchy draft, composed in haste, and it probably needs more work than any first draft of anything I've written. But there is something exciting about the uncertainty, the possibility, that the situation has provided.

Early in my career--as I have written here before--I was a big novel outliner, and my first drafts generally bore a close resemblance to what they would eventually become. Over the years, my outlines have gotten shorter and shorter, my first drafts more uncertain. This novel, I didn't outline at all. I didn't make character sketches, or do research, or even think about any ideas I'd cooked up for more than a day or two. I just wrote it. Quickly and sloppily. It's about parenthood, and has a science-fictional conceit, and I'm only now beginning to figure out what it's about and what I ought to do with it. I find it intimidating, actually--I am a little afraid of it. And a lot of that fear comes from not having enough solid first-draft material to know how to revise.

At the moment, I am just adding stuff--going through my notes, looking for things I know are missing, and patching them in, roughly. I will probably spend a month or two on this, just spackling the thing. Then I'll go back in and start sanding and painting--trying to make it feel less like an awkward patchwork of crap. I will probably have to rip stuff out along the way and replace it. Certain characters will serve new purposes, be de-emphasized or eliminated, or get bulked up and foregrounded. I can already feel characters' fundamental motivations changing, their relationships with other characters changing.

Maybe this is familiar to most of you, but it's kind of new to me. I have always been fond of telling students that, if you know what you're doing, then don't bother doing it. But like a lot of my favorite advice, I find it hard to accept in my own work. I like to think I'm always doing something original, but it's likely that, all too often, I am secretly dressing up the familiar in vestments of the new, to trick myself into thinking I'm setting new challenges. When what I'm really doing is making myself comfortable.

I'm curious how people approach their revisions--how much of your first drafts actually make it into your final drafts, how much time is spent revising (compared to the time spent composing), how many drafts you go through, how attached you are to the permanence of a day's work. And how your thoughts about these things have changed over time.

Photo from here

Monday, September 6, 2010

Who are we writing for?

Last week, a good discussion almost broke out in my graduate seminar (it would have, if we weren't already deep in another one) when a student used the word "elitist" to describe a novel's frame of reference. The book, he felt, was too insular--the product of intellectual squirreliness, an egghead speaking in code to the ivory tower.

He has a point, and so we're going to throw this topic on the floor in the coming week's class: why are we doing this? And who is it for? I have a ready answer for the second question, which I sent to the students as part of a little epistolary manifesto (manifistle?) which I hope will serve as a jumping-off point for class:

We are writing for other smart people. Now, it may be that the vast majority of these smart people are, in fact, formally educated. But I know from experience that many, many of them aren't. The people I meet on book tours and at university readings continue to surprise me. They are all over the map.

However, the thing is, I don't give a rat's ass. The reason is that I don't consider one "class" of reader to be of greater value than any other. Nor do I value one kind of human experience over another. The suffering of a university dean is no less real than the suffering of a starving child thousands of miles from here. The latter may suffer more, but his suffering is not more legitimate as a human experience. The pleasure of a cold beer on a summer afternoon is not more legitimate than the pleasure of solving a tricky equation. A good writer can communicate all kinds of human experience to all kinds of people--should be able to show an intelligent but uneducated reader what it feels like to solve that equation, to be that dean.

The trouble with thinking about audience is that literary writers are usually wrong about who their audience is. Or, as Rhian put it to me, channeling a mentor of hers, "It's none of our goddam business."

As for the first question, I think I know less now about why I write than I did when I started. Because I can't stop? Because I need it to feel alive? Because I want people to love me? (If all I wanted was to be loved, I could have picked a more lovable genre, I suppose.) The one thing I do know is that it's dangerous to connect the first question to the second. To assume you know who you're writing is for, and to write it for them. Because before you know it you're writing down to them. If you need to feel you have a specific audience, do what one writer once told me to do if I was nervous at a reading: pick somebody at random from the audience and read the whole thing to them. My random audience members are Rhian and Skoog, still today. Will this amuse them? Move them? Occasionally I have written something, shown it to one of the two, then shelved it. And that was enough for me.

Anyway, the questions of purpose and audience always get tangled up in discussions of class and privilege. That's as it should be. A novel, say, can't contain the whole universe: you need to assume your reader knows certain things. And so it is inherently for insiders. With every word you choose, you choose to include or eliminate somebody from the people who will "get it."

Can we know who we're including and who we're not? Not really. But we can go into our work with honesty and openness and do our best to be inclusive without alienating the already initiated. For my part, I try to err on the side of inclusion: when push comes to shove, the initiated can suck it.

But readers, I find, will give you more space than you think. They'll forgive you for explaining too much, or for talking over your head, if you give them a way to feel comfortable and interested. A compelling voice. Moral complexity. Good characters.

As for my seminar, well...this is quite the can of worms. If you don't hear from my students and me after Wednesday, know that we sacrificed ourselves for a good cause.

Photo: our son found that button on the street!