My Writing Process Blog Tour

These thoughts are brought to you by Georgia Bellas (aka @mrbearstumpy) for inviting me to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour and–more importantly–for being sure I followed through. She’s a charming thing with a wide imagination and a deep heart, and her website, including a killer literary/musical podcast are here. A shout-out is also due to the lovely Amanda Miska, because I told her I’d do this months ago and didn’t. Next up will be Kate Gehan, whose whimsical stories and sharp wit can be found on her blog here.

1. What am I working on?

When I walked in to tour what would become my new apartment, I thought, “That’s weird. There’s a teal-painted fireplace in the house where I will finish my novel.” So, in addition to finding my way around a new city and learning the ropes at a new day job, I’m fine-tuning a novel I’ve been taking apart and putting back together for about five years. It follows a young curator trying to open an art gallery in a small city in Kentucky. After a tornado knocks out her showroom windows weeks before opening, she’s struggling to fill the space until pulling strings and favors yields the chance to show the last works of an internationally-renowned artist come home to die. I’m compelled by the different lenses of art, architecture, and unrequited love, and a host of convoluted questions on representation and essence, the function of art within commerce, and what—if anything—is sacred.

But I was a poet first, and, occasionally, I’m working on poems about a bitchy mermaid, and the ocean I left behind in South Carolina, about the interplay between landscape and constructs of the feminine. What a mermaid might do stuck in the middle of a cornfield. The freedom to oscillate between two projects that both manage to hold my fascination long-term, and that are blessedly in different genre forms, offers a breath of fresh air when some aspect of one or the other is getting stymied. When I’m too bogged down in plot logistics, I can give myself permission to revel in language as I draft a new poem, and I don’t have to feel like I’m wasting time.

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?

This is the question that scared me into a journalism school for two years thinking I didn’t have anything to write about, so I better focus on reporting instead, before I realized that’s a very narrow view of narrative, before I admitted my faith in voice and perspective.

In poetry, particularly, there’s a strong tradition of identity-based work and of confessional work, and these both plagued me for a long time, too. My older poems are largely narrative, about the particularities of the artifacts of my Southern childhood. But I notice more and more that it’s the particularities that fascinate; in the dirt in my back yard last night, I noticed a pair of wire cutters, rusted and embedded in the mud like a dinosaur fossil. That’s not a backyard standard, but half-exposed histories and detritus? That’s how we’ve examined culture for centuries.

My work differs because it’s ultimately a string of somethings I’ve thought about somethings I’ve seen or felt, and I’m compelled at once to contextualize them and to conceptualize them. What the world is and how the world could be. Ask Aristotle about that one.

3. Why do I write what I do?

It’s more fun than playing Solitaire? I know what books I’ve fallen in love with, and I think this has guided my tastes and interests, along with my understanding of what literature is for. I know, too, the world I live in, what’s beautiful about it and what’s horrifying. I’m interested in writing as a cultural record, where history informs the society we build. I think I write, generally, because I like to write, and I love to edit. The plot or the metaphor is nebulous, squishy, and it’s the language that makes it precise—whether lovely or disgusting. It’s the poetry in me, maybe, that loves rearranging syntax and word choice, saying something more succinctly or more with more clarity. The ideas come from curiosity, when a very general idea I’m pondering starts taking on layers of specificity, or I start obsessing like a schoolgirl over a character I’ve invented and then fallen in love with.

But in a broader sense there is, to my mind, a deep importance to literature, to the knowledge share and community building and idea transfer that happen on the page somewhere between a writer and a reader, a sort of transcendent intimacy, and I write toward that, too. It’s a lofty thing to say, and people take strong stances on either side—write for the self and no one else, or write for everyone. I dream of a reader who might know how much I hope for us.

4. How does my writing process work?

Two parts whimsy, three parts pragmatism.

And after battling through these debilitating questions about identity and experience and their relative relevance/irrelevance to making good work, and reading lots of Rachel Kushner (her Telex from Cuba website itself is a well-researched work of art), I’m recently discovering the joys of research. The creepy threat and tragic origin story of Slavic Rusalkas, a kind of water nymph (via Cate Fricke, the fairytale genius). That Clara Bow swam in tubs of salt water, sloshing fabulously across America on trains. When sliced bread was popularized and whether they sold the ubiquitous hotdogs at baseball games and what baseball player a kid’s likely to have idolized in Kentucky in the 30s (thanks to Tim Walker and Michael Nye for that one). How long it would take him to get to Italy by boat during that brief window between the wars. How easy it is to break a showroom window. How hard it is to talk discernably about visual art.

It’s about working when I’m excited to be, and reading when I’m not. A brilliant book can almost always light my fire.

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Draft Three

I’ve been writing a novel since 2008. I’ve been writing this novel since 2009. I’ve been writing this novel since last summer.

In the scheme of things, that’s not such a long time. Consider Gladwell’s popular theory (in Outliers) that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to reach expertise. If that’s the case, I’d have had to write five hours a day for each of the 2190 days since I came up with this idea. Needless to say, I haven’t. I don’t.

Draft one was my first real attempt at a novel. It was practice, a scavenger hunt, the frantic medic’s search for a pulse.

Draft two was a refocusing, and a deepening. A total redo. A new narrator, a flip of the previous main- with a sub-plot. A sinking into the style my thus-far practice has earned me, as into a bubble bath with a glass of wine and a wax-sealed envelope posted from the other side of the Atlantic (which is to say, it’s a warm and sumptuous easing, not a drowning kind of sinking).

Draft three is a mess, but it’s also the most self-aware work I’ve done. This would’ve killed my Draft one, but it’s the essential bridge to the final. Draft three asks the hard questions, stemming from this one: What’s the difference between good and great? Which leads me to, “Okay, yeah. How do I do that?”

  • How do I broaden and deepen the narrative?
  • How do I avoid blow-by-blow first person narration?
  • How do I allow a first-person narrative a wider perspective?
  • How do I layer in a narrative from which the narrator is absent?
  • How do I sprinkle in nonessential images/scenes without implying significance?
  • How do I make backstory both present and relevant?
  • How do I write thoughts, feelings, impressions as truths? How do I write uncertainty?
  • How do I demonstrate sexism without writing weak females who perpetuate the problem?
  • How do I seamlessly include diverse perspectives within a cultural setting that’s all too obviously whitewashed?
  • How do I ensure pivotal moments of conflict provoke substantial consequences?

Needless to say, I’m not sure yet. But the best revision tool I’ve found so far (besides books, books, books) is a list of specific questions driven by insecurities.

 

In defense of anonymous work

Or, why I’m OK with trading my name for 20 bucks.

Two main factors motivate us young writers to publish: the pursuit of clips or bylines, and the pursuit of payment. We know getting both at the same time is a real long shot, left for the very best of best case scenarios.

I was reading a small press’s blog post about its successes over the last year—new titles and awards and nominations and fancy blurbs and good reviews—and there it was, a pull quote from a review I’d written for a big deal reviewer. I loved the book in question, and I spent some real time and thought crafting what I hoped (nay, dreamed!) would be the blurbable part of the review, and presto. They pulled my favorite part of a review I’d been especially proud of, and they were using it to blurb the book, just as I’d hoped they would. But my name wasn’t on it, because it was an anonymous review I’d sold to the publication.

Reviewing is a weird game, rife with debate over the merits and uses of negative reviews. Blurbing is a weird game, too, an avalanching domino effect of pulling favors and pulling favors.

Anyone who’s ever published in 90% of lit mags knows the deal: you don’t get paid, but you get read. Getting read=exposure. Exposure gets you taken more seriously. Being taken seriously gets you more exposure, which maybe gets you more publications, which maybe gets you more exposure, which maybe gets you taken more seriously… which maybe, but not always, gets you noticed in the way we all want to be noticed. The way of book deals and NEA grants and fellowships.

It’s the same principle at work in internships, that the experience you gain equals or outweighs the value of your time or the work you produce. That it evens out to a fair deal in the end. The counterargument says: if you continue working for free, no one will pay you. See: episode one of Girls; when Hannah sucks it up and says she won’t work for free anymore, the problem is that someone else will, and her boss says so long and thanks for all the fish.

So, internships are slave labor, and I’m making money on my writing. Something I thought might be a categorical impossibility (like disgusting chocolate chip cookies). And now I’m bummed my name’s not on it. Because I want the recognition for having written such a GOOD blurb (trust me, it’s good). But I know what I really want is the pre-recognition that comes from being ASKED to blurb something. Not only because the asker knows the blurb will be good, but because my name will carry the sway that currently comes from The Famous Review Mag’s Name.

In a field that’s so, at its heart, performative, the success of a piece is fairly dependent on its reception. In an industry that’s so networky, the success of a writer is also fairly dependent on her reception. We talk about literary citizenship. About buying people’s books, in hardback, on the day they come out. About going to readings, subscribing to journals. We blurb each other. We review each other. We publish each other. We promote each other. In an industry full of starving artists, we pay each other in hype.

And into this world of self-consciousness, self-awareness, and the relentless press to self-promote, I introduce to you the review without a byline. The copyedit sans acknowledgment. The thankless proofread the author never even sees.  This is the world I’m dealing in, in my dayjob and on the side. This is the work that pays.

My freelance paychecks bought my plane ticket to Seattle to attend AWP. So I can listen. So I can buy and learn and shake hands and pay compliments and be a literary citizen. And while working to support this trip that will support my writing, my freelance jobs sucked up the time I’d meant to spend finishing draft three.

Not that twenty bucks is nothing, but if money were the motivator, I’d have found a more lucrative profession. If I were only in it for the plane ticket, I’d hand the red pens back now that it’s bought.

What I’m writing about is the something else I’m getting from the anonymous work that makes it worth doing.  which is, I think, that it forces a level of professionalism and quality for professionalism and quality’s sake. It’s money, and it’s experience, and it’s free books, and it’s a line on the resume.

Before I go much further, I will say that if you’re getting neither byline nor money nor new experience nor practice, the questions to ask yourself include:  is this worth the time it’s taking away from my writing, and what am I learning, and am I underestimating the worth of my work?

But what’s so good for me about it is the opportunity to be one of the professional faceless cogs in the literary machine.

I spend a lot of time crafting a voice—not only within my own creative work, but within my critical work, as a student and teacher and always-learner, and as a reader and commenter. What do I want to share with the people who listen to me? How do I want to talk about the things I want to share? What dialogue is interesting, productive, thought provoking? What vocabulary encourages precision of praise over blanket good vibes? What filter can insist on honesty and righteousness without a de facto posture of indignation?

There’s something honest and solid in the transaction of having writing a review I know is true and beautiful and may help sell a book, and getting nothing out of it besides my twenty dollar bill. The writer won’t know; she won’t owe me a blurb. The press won’t know; it won’t make them take my chapbook more seriously. It’s not a way to build a career, nor really a way to pay bills. But for me, it’s a way to keep my head on straight, a good balance of practicality and ambition. A brief reprieve from promotion and self-absorption, where  the beauty is that anonymity within the machine is freedom from the machine.

Top Ten of Twenty Thirteen

It’s almost 2014, and there are so many things I wanted to read this year that I haven’t read yet. As I’m making my to-read list (trying to figure out how to spend my Christmas money,) I’m looking back, too, letting what I loved rise to the top. My social sphere of writers and readers is absolutely inundated with year-end looks at the best things we all read in 2013– see Matt Bell’s list over at the Millions, Leesa Cross-Smith in Specter, and Eric Shonkwiler on his own flashy new website, to cite a few favorites. Despite this rash of lists, or maybe because of it, I’ve brewed up my own top ten, restricted to books published in 2013 (which one exception*). In no particular order, and without further ado:

1. Tenth of December
by George Saunders

I said no particular order, but this one’s first, because it’s the first book I loved this year. It’s not news to anyone that the stories are masterful, as the collection gained praise and nominations left and right. Saunders has set the precedent for satire, but what I find so compelling in his stories is their ability to extrapolate, to see all the darkest corners of society to their inevitable grim ends. He’s a crystal ball gypsy, and these stories are as unnerving as the Death card in your tarot reading, but they’re unnerving in a way that feels necessary, smart, and insightful. The stories hold the sort of terrifically specific details often lost in the wash of cultural landscape, until Saunders illuminates them, and you start seeing them everywhere (geodes, rusty car bumpers, clotheslines).

I listened to the audiobook, driving back and forth across the state of South Carolina. Saunders read it himself, and I doubt anyone could’ve done it better. He carries each story, gives unique voice to each character, no matter how unsettling the character, he doesn’t caricature them–either on the page, or with his reading.

(fun fact: shaking hands with George Saunders & Matt Bell in the same ten minutes at AWP 13 was one of the literary highlights of my year!)

2. In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods
by Matt Bell

Matt Bell has long been one of my favorite short story writers, editors, and literary commentators, and I adopted him years ago (technically without his permission) as a long-distance mentor of sorts. I was thrilled for this debut novel. The book itself is beautiful, and the story doesn’t disappoint. It’s mystical and metaphorical, as Bell chronicles a man’s struggle to keep his family intact. Deep in the wilderness, husband and wife have crafted an ethereal home where nothing is impossible—except their ability to grow a family. As wife suffers miscarriage after miscarriage, husband feels a progressive isolation. He carries the weight of their first failed son in his stomach, and when his wife presents a miracle baby, he can only call it “the foundling.” The distance between them continues to grow as the husband spends more time in increasingly violent interactions with the wilderness, while the wife retreats deeper their home, beyond the rooms her husband built into a hidden space she’s created.

As usual, Bell’s prose is inventive, lush in allegory. It’s also creepy, and if you live alone, you may not be in a rush to turn out the lights and face your own self in the dark. It’s a heavily thematic and abstract plot. But while readers in search of a gripping surface narrative may be disappointed, those up for a challenge will find that if this novel’s pace is glacial, then so is its power, as the sharp, heavy prose cuts deeply into the land it’s created to leave no stone unturned.

3. Where’d You Go, Bernadette
by Maria Semple

I have a terrible habit of not taking books seriously if they include questions for book clubs, or if too many of my facebook friends have Instagrammed pictures of them poolside. But I went to the store to buy The Great Lord Bird for a weekend trip to a wedding, I decided it was too heavy (figuratively & literally) for a plane trip and a weekend of celebratory frivolity. Bernadette, on the other hand, was just the ticket. I should’ve known Semple could deliver satire, character, humor, and zany plot structure as soon as I saw she was a writer for Arrested Development. Still, could she sustain it? My answer was yes. She tackles family, career and ambition, and insular communities with a keen eye and sharp wit. The plot explains its own strange structure, in a move that isn’t 100% convincing, but was interesting enough for me. Particularly strong is her parody of corporate speak, which made me laugh out loud, then made me deeply depressed that I’ve gotten myself so far into it that every little joke resonated. And if I’m honest, I’ve been envying that yellow hair scarf on the cover all year.

4. Liliane’s Balcony
by Kelcey Parker

If I were still a bookseller, this is the book I’d have insisted we order so I could do my best to handsell the heck out of it to anyone who walked through the door. I’m not entirely sure who I think its target audience is, beyond anyone who likes language, architecture, history, characters, the ephemeral, the supernatural, experimental forms, or quick, addictive reads. Following the story of the wife of the man who commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, it’s as masterfully cantilevered as its setting. A multi-voiced novella in flash, it kept me up all night, thinking “she can’t do this, can she?” But she can. I gave it a starred review at Publisher’s Weekly.

5. Beautiful Ruins
by Jess Walter

An epic love story that spans generations, Walter’s novel boasts well-developed characters, luscious landscapes, historical research, and well-timed plot twists, in a parallel structure that alternates between a 1960s Italian coastline and contemporary LA boardrooms and bedrooms. At first, I wasn’t sold on this novel (apparently, lots of my favorite novels this year started in resistance). The alternating felt like whiplash, the contemporary storyline cold in comparison to the historical love story, but as the disparate plot lines begin to fold back in on themselves, they trade effects where they intersect, the one becoming cold and still as the other starts to glow. One tangent into Edinborough still sticks out to me as not seamless enough (having come too late in the story to carry as much weight as it does), but I can’t say it wasn’t one of the story’s more memorable plot lines. Still, Walter has set almost all the lynchpins just right, for a balance story that runs the emotional gambit, while offering pretty meaningful commentary on art and legacy.

6. Useless Landscape, or, A Guide for Boys
by DA Powell

I read a lot of poetry, but I don’t always read contemporary, out-this-year poetry. I don’t talk about half as much as a I read. I’m not a good supporter of, not a good advocate for, the genre at the heart of my heart. This is a book for poetry lovers, for landscape lovers, for lovers of boys, lovers of men, lovers of the Midwest, of struggle, of love. Powell maintains an unpretentious elegance across the work– as poems turn crass, turn metaphysical, turn personal, philosophical, natural, cynical. The book turns and turns, and if it’s a guidebook, the poems are Socratic in their instruction. It’s never didactic or reductive, it blasts rules and stereotypes into pieces, or it embraces the expected, shines it to glossy indulgence. The poems are unique in form, each building its own framework for meaning, but the voice is Powell’s throughout– muscular, confident, with a squinting eye for the details you forgot to notice. Anyone can love these poems; everyone should try.

7. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
by Ayana Mathis
*Okay, this one’s a cheat. I just found out it’s from December of 2012. Still, I’m keeping it.

I read it in a day. A long day of travel. But this is maybe the best way to read a dense and cumulative book that sings louder and louder as all its parts start to resonate in harmony. Hattie’s kids are a mess. Her life is a mess. The south is a mess. The north is a mess too, for a poor black family. Mathis plums the depths of racial tensions across generations of a family gone from Georgia to Philadelphia in the Great Migration. It is a heavy book, sad and true, and even happiness has a weight to it. It’s a novel in stories, the stories of each of Hattie’s kids, and it doesn’t work chronologically, nor does it fit together like a puzzle. There are gaps and lacunae, questions left unanswered as the story leaves one character and follows another; these are siblings who don’t resolve each other’s endings, though sometimes they try to. I didn’t love it as much as I love its editor (Jordan Pavlin, be mine!), its press (hello, Knopf!), but it packs the kind of hard punch a debut needs to make waves. It’s dense, expertly woven, warming, and affecting.

8. The Peripatetic Coffin, and Other Stories
by Ethan Rutherford

Not only is the first story set in Charleston, my own home base, but I worked with Ethan during a publishing internship in Minneapolis a few years ago. He’s an absolutely generous and kind guy and a rockstar (legit: check Pennyroyal, particulary “Record Machine) with a quick smile and impeccable taste– in everything from shoes to music to literature. Do I sound like a fan? I’m a fan. I can’t explain the relief of not being disappointed by the book I was ready to love no matter what. (It’s the worst when people you’d claim as friends create work that’s a major letdown.)

The stories are quiet, thoughtful, textured, with unique voices but a unifying mastery of compression and detail. They resonate with and against each other, thematically related; they actually belong together without feeling redundant. Favorite stories include “John, for Christmas,” as a couple waits for their struggling son to arrive home for Christmas, meanwhile finding ways to open new hurts and seek mercy, and the title story, which follows the doomed crew of a Civil War submarine off the coast of the beach where I sat and read the book. (Much more engrossing than the Hunley museum, I guarantee it).

9. Eleanor & Park
by Rainbow Rowell

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. YA books aren’t afraid to get real; they’re afraid not to. It’s almost an expectation of the genre that a solid YA book will tackle an issue, will be a veritable machete for a young reader trying to navigate whatever jungle. This one tackles race, abuse (of all sorts), body image, bullying, shame and sexuality. But that said, Eleanor & Park isn’t really an “issues” book in any way that feels remotely gratuitous. It’s a love story, in a way that makes you ache for first loves and first kisses. It alternates between Eleanor’s and Park’s voices, viewing every challenge from a particular perspective, and it illuminated the spaces between– where there’s grating and friction, where there’s bridging and understanding. Rowell tackles the alternating viewpoint with grace, illuminating different characters and their histories from all angles, and it’s the characters who carry the books. I met Rowell briefly at Charleston’s YALLFest this fall, and while her refusal to rush through her signing line was maddening from an event-coordination standpoint, hat tip to her for valuing those conversations with young readers, for treating their admiration gently and generously (another common YA-writer attitude I think writers-at-large might learn from).

10. The Strangers
by Eugene Lim

This book is weird. It’s a meta, self-reflexive maze, somewhere between a Celtic knot and a Chinese finger trap. The great literary loves of my life have tended to be straightforward, chronological first-person narratives, so it’s an extra delight when something so patently not that steals my heart. I was resistant at first, to the cleverness and stream-of-consciousness-ness, the fact that you can hardly turn a corner without seeing the author at work. Honestly, it’s borderline smug. But the treasure hunt that stems from the search for the through-lines that connect disparate pieces into a breathing body of narrative is absolutely engrossing. I reviewed it for Publisher’s Weekly here.

And honorable mention to:

The Book I Almost Loved the Most

The Woman Upstairs
by Claire Messud

Messud grinned off the cover of the Kirkus Review sitting on my desk for the better part of a month before I got myself a copy of The Woman Upstairs. I’ve consciously upped the number of books by women I read this year, trying to figure out how to situate my own identity into the legacy of mostly male favorite writers, and I was interested to see one tackling gender stereotypes in such an overt and self aware way (although, I will say it’s one of those covers they only make for books by women). The no-nonsense narrator borders on bitchy, but at least she’s honest, and her story is compelling, as she edges closer and closer into the family she desires in every possible way a woman could desire a young boy, a woman, and the woman’s husband. Her perspective is sharp and precise, her experience particular despite the universality the book gestures at conveying. But the ending. If, as a reader, I guess at the ending, see it coming, and reject it as not good enough, I’m always going to be disappointed if the author doesn’t come to the same conclusion.

The Book I Loved to Hate

Tampa
by Alissa Nutting

I wanted to love this book. I read so many good reviews by people and publications I respected. I’ve long respected Alissa Nutting herself. I love debuts. I love risky books. This one was risky enough to have a velvet slip cover, and I really wanted to love it, and I did not. It isn’t that I’m such a prude I won’t read or can’t like smut. I do read it (full disclosure: usually for work and against my preference, but my point still stands). Sometimes I do like it. It isn’t that I don’t think aberrant and sexually deviant behaviors and desires in particular have a place in literature. I think they do. Lolita is my favorite book, and the comparisons drawn between the two boil my blood. I didn’t find anything sympathetic or challenging in Tampa, just well-written sentences and a seamless plot that embody all the same things I knew and felt going into it. Still, there was something scandalously exciting about taking it out as my beach read, and I’ll give anyone some respect for debuting with a title that polarizes and mobilizes, straight out of the gate.

Some of this year’s titles still on my to-read list include:
Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings
Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Thomas Pynchon’s The Bleeding Edge
Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries
Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers
Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Colum McCann’s Transatlantic
Jac Jemc’s My Only Wife

And a few things I’m psyched for in 2014:
Mary Miller’s The Last Days of California
Courtney Stevens’s Faking Normal
Jason Porter’s Why Are You So Sad?

What’d I miss?

The Perks of the Borrower’s Debt

(listen to this while you read)

When I was fifteen, I read Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  As many fifteen-year olds who have not yet read Catcher in the Rye (and as some who have), I was affected deeply and profoundly.  I remember the intimacy of the confessions, where the you was me. I was involved and invested. I still dream of attending  Rocky Horror Picture Show and dancing the “Time Warp” in my skivvies. Like some people lent out favorite CDs, I proselytized the book hardcore.  I systematically documented my evangelization: I bought myself a copy and I gave it to my friend. I required my friend to read the book, sign his name on the inside of the front cover, and return it to me. I then gave it to another friend.  I had more than seven less than 10 signatures in it, when it never came home again.  My current copy—a gift from my younger brother who, of course, I forced to read the book—bears the inscription “word, don’t give this one away, okay? Merry Christmas and such, I suppose.”

The Fleet Foxes sing “If to borrow is to take and not return/ I have borrowed all my lonesome life.” Arguably, they’re talking about life itself, or love, or what have you.  Arguably they’re talking about things other than libraries and fines and other forms of petty theft. But in the wake of the recent uproar over an author (he-who-must-not-be-named) decrying libraries, readers everywhere have been taking up arms in the name of book lending, particularly this well-loved institutionalized version of it.

I think there’s a bigger-picture cultural phenomenon at play here, too, in the mass defense of lending.

Hypothesis:

  1.  Book borrowing/lending is actually a subcategory of Recommending.
  2. Recommending is a prominent factor in discovery and taste making, examples of which can be documented throughout social culture from blind dates to wine lists to last.fm and Pandora to goodreads.com and  Amazon’s “People who Bought This also bought.”
  3. The democratization of taste-making is a goal most of the bourgeoisie (guilty as charged) likes to get behind.

Of course, plenty of people love libraries. But I believe plenty of people are fighting the good fight for a more ideological reason: that is, the belief that there’s more to the spirit of writing a book than tracking sales.  Let’s ignore, for a moment, all the self-publishing e-book authors who cling too closely to DRM, which is a monster all its own.  A book should touch something within a reader in a deeply personal way, but a way that resonates with a call to action, to sharing, to discussion and community.

In a pretty insightful article over at The Millions, Janet Potter discusses how she pushed John Green’s TFIOS on her friends, much as I did, with a promise of incurable sadness, which was really just a stand-in for the indescribably profound and changing effect the book had on her—a feeling she’s challenged herself to learn to better articulate.

And here’s where I’ll leave the Fleet Foxes.  The borrower’s debt is not a regret of my youth.  On the contrary, borrowing, especially in youth, is one of the great joys of finding, and making, a self. Taking, trying on, returning or keeping—we enter into that short-lived period where we are defined by, live and die by, the things we like and love.  Okay, okay, in some cases it’s not such a brief period (see Rob in Hornsby’s High Fidelity). We curate a taste-based identity  and cloak ourselves in the things we’ve given permission to speak for us.

Have I taken things I haven’t returned? Yes.

Sorry, Doctors Alexander and Monteverde.  I’ve still got your Woody Allen and your Merlin, and if it’s any consolation, I think each time I see them of all I owe to you.

Sorry, Doctor Bennett. I’ve got a few of your craft books, but you’ve got my annotated C.S. Lewis, so I think you got the better end of the deal.

Sorry I’m not sorry, ex-boyfriend, but your book is at a thrift store. I only assume you did me the same favor.

And to you, thief of the original Perks of Being a Wallflower, I hope you give it away ad infinitum.

Synchronicity: What vegetable sexts and George Saunders have in common

(listen to this while reading.)

Text from last weekend: “There’s no way for this not to sound like a phallus joke, but I bought this gigantic carrot and it’s awesome. It looks like a geode inside.”

It was a picture text (of a legitimate carrot! Geez.), and it did look like a geode inside. Remarkable! But that’s not all.

Notably, I don’t hear from the carrot-purchaser regularly. Often enough, but not daily. Apparently, I’m that girl to text when your carrot looks like a geode. So, randomly, this old pal sexts me a carrot. Excellent. The only really creepy part of this scenario is that as I received this text, I was driving, listening to a particularly genius story prominently featuring a geode. Now, my brother is a geologist, so it’s likely I discuss geodes more often than the average bear, but to receive a picture in which the photographer has seen a geode within a carrot while listening to a story in which the writer has seen a geode within the climax…

What are the odds of that? Jung would call this synchronicity, when apparently unrelated events that are unlikely to just randomly occur together are experienced as occurring together in a meaningful way. Good fiction happens like this often. When you take the ending of Oscar Wao as a cosmic sign, and manage your own relationship accordingly. When you read the new Zadie Smith story in the New Yorker and find yourself choking on a marble-shaped icecube that very evening. When stories find details that haunt you, and you can’t help be re-experience them, can’t help but see your life differently for having read them.

Yes, I too am reading the new George Saunders. Or, more precisely, I suppose I’m listening to him read it to me. I respect a guy who does his own audiobooks. (Like when John Green made a version of himself reading The Fault in Our Stars because people might want to hear him, even though he thought, and I agree, that it made more sense to have a girl read since narrator Hazel is a girl, and even though the girl who read did a great job.) Driving I-26 between Charleston and Columbia is not a particularly inspiring activity. To battle the malaise, I most often listen to music, and, occasionally, I listen to an audiobook.

It’s a short drive though, so, Monday morning I was trying to finish up a story on my morning drive to work, when what did I see but the bumper of a car on the side of the road WHILE LISTENING TO A STORY IN WHICH A CAR BUMPER FALLS OFF.

There are tons of cars with missing bumpers. This isn’t quite as remarkable as the carrot-geode. But would I have noticed the car bumper if Saunders had not so deftly planted it in my imagination?

I like to think so. If I’ve got half a prayer of making myself into a decent writer, it’s imperative to find these details and to feel those resonances. It’s a special and privileged position to feel like the universe is sorting itself according to your fictional obsessions. But if I just happen to meet someone born on the Tenth of December, I plan to back away slowly.

For a more serious discussion of this collection that’s made me cry out loud “oh, God, I’ll never be good enough!” and, alternatively, made me feel like secretly, maybe I too am a genius, I’d suggest this Times article by Joel Lovell. It’s not exactly a review, in that it approaches the collection from a place if not of love then at least of awe. Lovell does offer some achingly precise insights and some gracefully drawn connections, and it’s well-written enough to seem that it is deserving of discussing Saunders.

Your craft is a refuge. It is necessary. Out of all that will disappoint you, what you do between the margins matters most of all. It can save you. Treat it kindly. Although you may be tempted many times to forsake it, don’t. Love what you’ve chosen. It is the best expression of who you are.

Lee Martin