Posted in Writing

When Everything Comes Together: Zadie Smith on the Writing Process

Zadie Smith / Dominique Nabokov

Thursday night when Zadie Smith spoke at Lenoir-Rhyne, she said that one of the inspirations for her novel Swing Time was an encounter at a birthday party, one where she witnessed a girl repeatedly interrupting her daughter, Katherine (Kit), to ask her questions about herself. Listening to Smith speak of the girl’s intense interest in her daughter reminded me of the novel’s first description of the narrator and her friend Tracey:

There were many other girls present but for obvious reasons we noticed each other, the similarities and differences, as girls will. Our shade of brown was exactly the same–as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both–and our freckles gathered in the same areas, we were of the same height. But my face was ponderous and melancholy, with a long serious nose, and my eyes turned down, as did my mouth. (9)

Friday morning when Smith and her husband–the poet and novelist Nick Laird–spoke to a smaller group, mostly students and faculty, she talked more about her writing process. That thing that people call drafts is what I do with every paragraph, every day, she said, unlike her husband who “writes through.”

Halfway through she freaks out and throws it in the bin, he added, and I take it out and tell her it works.

When an audience member asked Smith what she hasn’t written that she still aspires to, Smith said that she would like to write a one-hundred and ten-page novel and noted her admiration for Penelope Fitzgerald’s novella The Blue Flower. But I know that I probably won’t write one  because I write long, but “I hold it out as a sort of fantasy.”

As a novelist, Smith remarked, I am using language to convey the reality of human experience, but the language of our shared experience–social media and television, for example–is surreal to me. “What’s that show about the scientists?” she asked, turning to her husband.

The Big Bang Theory,” Laird answered.

“Yes, The Big Bang Theory,” she said. That seems very surreal to me because the way they talk isn’t really the way people talk to one another.

Prose is so wide open, Smith said. With piano, for instance, there’s a certain level of competency. You know that when you sit down, you’ll be able to play. But every time you start to write, the page is completely blank. That’s what makes it so stressful. When it works, it’s the best version of yourself on that day. There’s a period of intensity when everything comes together.

Now as I find myself revising an essay on Smith’s novel Swing Time, I am invigorated by her reflections on craft and her candor about her own idiosyncrasies as a writer.  And I hope that my students who heard her speak will return to their own drafts, as I have, with a renewed faith in the process–the belief that we will reach that period of intensity when everything will come together.

Smith, Zadie. Swing Time. 2016. Penguin, 2017.

Smith, Zadie and Nick Laird. “An Evening with Zadie Smith and Nick Laird.” LR Visiting Writers Series. 22 Mar. 2018, P.E. Monroe Auditorium, Lenoir Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.

—. Q&A. LR Visiting Writers Series. 23 Mar. 2018, Belk Centrum, Lenoir Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.


Posted in Reading, Writing

Colson Whitehead’s “MacArthur Park”

Colson Whitehead / Madeline Whitehead

Colson Whitehead grew up listening to the Donna Summer version. Others of you know the Richard Harris version, he said, and some of you have no idea what I’m talking about. And then for anyone in the audience who belonged to the last group—who may have said, “Huh?” when he started talking about “MacArthur Park”—he held his tablet up to the mic so everyone in P.E. Monroe auditorium could hear the Disco Queen sing: “MacArthur’s Park is melting in the dark/ All the sweet, green icing flowing down/ Someone left the cake out in the rain/ I don’t think that I can take it’ ‘Cause it took so long to bake it/ And I’ll never have that recipe again.”

And then as Donna Summer, began to cry, “Oh no!,” Whitehead joined in, losing himself for a moment in song. He had the audience then, at “Oh no!,” if his self-effacing humor hadn’t already won them over. What’s not to love about a writer who says, “I usually spend my Thursday nights in my apartment weeping over my regrets, so this is a nice change of pace”?

Whitehead’s remarks began with a false start, as writing often does. But his false introduction was intentional: “I was born a poor black child. I remember the days, sittin’ on the porch with my family, singin’ and dancin’ down in Mississippi,” riffing on Steve Martin’s opening scene of The Jerk. After that, Whitehead turned to the real beginning.

I wasn’t one of those writers who spent time indoors because I was a sickly child, he said. (Marcel Proust comes to mind.) He was just a kid who liked to stay inside and watch The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits and read comic books. I wanted to be a writer because you didn’t have to go out, he said. As a teenager he wanted to write the black Salem’s Lot or the black The Stand. He wanted to write the black-anything Stephen King, he said, until later he read literary fiction and was drawn to the stylings of the modernists, noting in particular the magic realism of Gabriel García Márquez.

After college, while working as a TV writer for The Village Voice, Whitehead penned his first novel: the later-in-life adventures of a former child star, a Gary Colemanesque character. That novel was never published. He received rejection after rejection, which brought him back to “MacArthur Park.”

The song was an enigma, he said, until he realized that it was an investigation of the author’s journey. Why, he asked, did you leave my cake out in the rain, Alfred A. Knopf? Why did you leave my cake out in the rain, Houghton Mifflin? “I don’t think that I can take it/ ‘Cause it took so long to bake it/ And I’ll never have that recipe again.”

Rejection after rejection—or layer after layer of soggy cake—led Whitehead to rethink his decision to become a writer. He considered other professions, but he didn’t seemed well-suited to any of them—surgeon, for instance. Surgeries can last for more than twenty hours. What if you have to go to the bathroom? he asked.

And then there was the matter of the minuscule audience. A literary novel might sell 5,000 copies, and if there’s ten readers for each copy, that’s still only 50,000 readers in a world with a population of over seven billion. So if you’re a writer of literary fiction, “you aren’t the gnat in the butt of the elephant,” he said. “You’re a microbe in the gnat in the butt of the elephant.” Colson Whitehead kept writing anyway, realizing that he had no choice—that’s who he was—so he started over.

Seventeen years ago, he got the idea to create a fictional antebellum America where the Underground Railroad wasn’t a metaphor, but the literal railroad he imagined as a child. He didn’t think that he was up to the task then, but three years ago he decided to give it a try.  That try became The Underground Railroad, which has now received the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Carnegie Medal for Fiction, the heartland Prize, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Though he’s become one of the most celebrated novelists of his generation, as a writer Whitehead still finds himself filled with uncertainty.

Near the end of the Q&A session that followed his talk, a woman asked what is was like for him, that stay-inside, work-at-home guy, to be the public figure that he has now become. He answered that it’s very different from being a writer and having all these doubts . . . is this paragraph too long? It’s a very lovely thing.

Whitehead, Colson. “An Evening with Colson Whitehead.” LR Visiting Writers Series. 14 Sept. 2017, P.E. Monroe Auditorium, Lenoir Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

An Unfinished Portrait

What distinguishes historical fiction from creative nonfiction about historical events? I’ve been thinking about that question since Katherine Howe’s recent talk at Lenoir-Rhyne. In her February 12 presentation, Howe–L-R’s current writer-in-residence and one of the featured authors in the university’s Visiting Writers Series–spoke about her historical novels and the seemingly contrarian nature of the form:

Historical fiction seems to embody a contradiction. If we want to know what happened, we can consult an archive. If we want a transcendent experience, we read fiction.

As a writer of historical fiction, Howe does both, conducting research for accuracy and crafting fictional worlds that breathe life into the past. When Howe mentioned the question of whether the chandelier in her forthcoming novel burns gas or whale oil—a question her research hasn’t answered yet—I was reminded of Janet Burroway’s reflections on her novel Cutting Stone, set during the Mexican revolution:

In the only historical novel I have ever written, I decided that I could put an ice house in a rural Arizona town several years before there was actually such a thing, but that I could not blow off the arm of a famous Mexican general two years before, historically, it happened (240).

Such blending of fiction and fact differs from creative nonfiction about historical events, not because creative nonfiction doesn’t include a mix—it does, sometimes—but rather because creative nonfiction doesn’t place us in the past.

Holocaust Girls (2002) /
Holocaust Girls (2002) /

Take for example “Margot’s Diary,” (one of the essays in Burroway’s chapter on creative nonfiction in Imaginative Writing), in which writer S. L. Wisenberg speculates about the life of the Frank sister who is unknown to us because her diary didn’t survive, as Anne’s did. Wisenberg writes an un-diary of sorts, an essay in nine sections, the last titled “At Bergen-Belsen, Winter 1945.” But Wisenberg doesn’t place the readers at the concentration camp where Margot died, nor does she place us in the Frank houses in Frankfurt, Germany and Amsterdam in the earlier sections. Instead, Wisenberg imagines what Margot may have written before she “ran out of language” (255). Her aim is not is not to return us to the past, as Howe does, but to leave us with an unfinished portrait that conveys a profound sense of loss.

Wisenberg, S. L. “Margot’s Diary.” Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway. 3rd ed. Boston: Pearson/Longman, 2011. Print. 252-55.



Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

An Inkling of Character

Conversion (2014) /
Conversion (2014) /

In Janet Burroway’s chapter on character in Imaginative Writing, she observes that “one of the ways we understand people is by assessing, partly instinctively and partly through experience, what they express voluntarily and involuntarily” (92). I thought of those lines of Burroway’s when I read the prelude to Katherine Howe’s novel Conversion (2014), which my students and I studied as our own prelude to Howe’s upcoming presentation as one of the featured writers in the Lenoir-Rhyne Visiting Writers Series.

Howe’s Prelude: “Salem, Massachusetts, May 30, 1706,” chronicles the first minutes of the narrator’s visit with Reverend Green, an encounter that will apparently end with her confession. (“I’ve come to Reverend Green to make my confession,” she tells us.)

Though Howe doesn’t initially reveal the name of the first-person narrator, Reverend Green calls her Ann, and a later reference to the Putnam family leads readers familiar with the Salem Witch trials to conclude that the narrator is Ann Putnam, one of the key witnesses who publicly apologized in 1706 for her role in the trials.

It isn’t that history, though, that lingers in my mind. Instead it’s what Reverend Green expresses involuntarily when Ann first sees him in his study:

His tongue creeps out the corner of his mouth while he writes, the tip of it black with ink, the blacking in his gums staining his teeth. He looks like he’s got a mouthful of tar. I’ve been waiting for some time, but Reverend Green’s still writing. His quill runs across the paper, scratching like mouse paws. Scratch scratch, dip, scratch, lick, scratch.

Why does Howe present the image of the minister’s mouth blackened by ink intended for the page? What greater discrepancy might that image suggest?

 Writing Ideas Torn from the Prelude of Conversion

1. A portrait of a character based on what he or she reveals involuntarily.

2. A narrative that juxtaposes historical and contemporary characters and events.

Burroway, Janet. Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. 3rd ed. Boston, Longman, 2011.

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

Reading Greedily: Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones

In Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft, Janet Burroway notes the importance of becoming a reader of a “writerly sort”:

reading greedily, not just for entertainment but also focusing on the craft, the choices and techniques of the author; ‘reading the greats,’ in novelist Alan Cheuse’s words, ‘in that peculiar way that writer’s read, attentive to the peculiarities of the language . . . soaking up numerous narrative strategies and studying various approaches to that cave in the deep woods where the human heart hibernates’ (3).

Salvage the Bones (2011) /
Salvage the Bones (2011) /

Along with reading greedily, my students and I will listen greedily this semester to the observations on craft and technique offered by the writers featured in Lenoir-Rhyne’s Visiting Writers Series, beginning with National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward, who will read and discuss her work on Monday, January 19. As an introduction to Ward’s fiction, my students and I read the opening pages of her novel Salvage the Bones (2011), which depict a pit bull struggling to give birth. While China, the pit bull, serves as the focus, the beginning of Ward’s novel offers far more than the details of the dog’s labor.

In the first paragraph, Esch, the narrator, says that China “stole all the shoes in the house, all our black tennis shoes Mama bought because they hide dirt and hold up until they’re beaten soft.” With those words, Ward shows how a single sentence can reveal details about more than one character: China, the pit bull that likes to steal “all the shoes,” and Mama, the practical woman, who always bought black tennis shoes “because they hide dirt . . . .”

The second paragraph begins, “What China is doing is nothing like what Mama did when she had my youngest brother, Junior,” introducing Mama’s labor as a point of contrast, providing a transition from the present scene centering on China to the scene seven years earlier of Mama’s own labor and the birth of Junior, who “came out purple and blue as a hydrangea: Mama’s last flower.” Ward doesn’t choose between simile and metaphor; she uses both. Junior is like a hydrangea, and he is a flower, Mama’s last one.

Writing Ideas Torn from the First Paragraphs of Salvage the Bones

  1. A scene that triggers memories of (and cues a flashback to) an earlier event
  2. A sentence that describes more than one character
  3. A sentence that depicts someone or something with both a simile and a metaphor

Burroway, Janet. Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. 3rd ed. Boston: Pearson/Longman, 2011. Print.

Posted in Reading, Writing

The Sentences of Courtroom Drama. . .

. . . and Jean Stafford, or How Writing about Defending Jacob (the July Coffee Talk Book Club selection) isn’t Really Writing about Defending Jacob 

Since I don’t read legal thrillers, I can’t compare William Landay’s prose with John Grisham’s or Scott Turow’s. But I appreciate Defending Jacob for leading me to contemplate the differences between Landay’s sentences and the ones crafted by Jean Stafford, whose Selected Stories I’m reading now.

In Chapter 3 of Defending Jacob,  the narrator, Andy Barber, catalogs the contents of his son’s room with these lines:

Defending Jacob (2012)
Defending Jacob (2012)

“Jacob’s room was cluttered with huge oafish sneakers, a MacBook covered with stickers, an iPod, schoolbooks, paperback novels, shoe boxes filled with old baseball cards and comic books. In the corner, an Xbox was hooked up to an old TV. The Xbox disks and their cases were piled nearby, mostly combat role-play games. There was dirty laundry, of course, but also two stacks of clean laundry neatly folded and delivered by Laurie, which Jacob had declined to put away in his bureau because it was easier to pluck clean clothes right from the piles. On top of a low bookcase was a group of trophies Jacob had won when he was a kid playing youth soccer. He had not been much of an athlete, but back then every kid got a trophy, and in the years since he had simply never moved them” (23).

Back then every kid got a trophy? Back then? (Unlike now?)

I won’t dwell on the sentence about the trophy; it’s less troublesome than the string of missed opportunities that precede it, where we don’t see anything unexpected: “There was dirty laundry, of course. . . .” And the expected isn’t presented to us in surprising ways:

“. . .but also two stacks of clean laundry neatly folded and delivered by Laurie, which Jacob had declined to put away in his bureau because it was easier to pluck clean clothes right from the piles.”

As a counterpoint, consider this passage from Jean Stafford’s short story “Bad Characters,” which catalogs the contents of a dresser drawer:

“I loved the smell of the lavender she kept in gauze bags among her chamois gloves and linen handkerchiefs and filmy scarves; there was a pink fascinator knitted of something as fine as a spider’s thread, and it made me go quite soft—I wasn’t soft as a rule, I was as hard as nails and I gave my mother a rough time—to think of her wearing it around her head as she waltzed on the ice in the bygone days. We examined stockings, nightgowns, camisoles, strings of beads, and mosaic pins, keepsake buttons from dresses worn on memorial occasions, tortoiseshell combs, and a transformation made from Aunt Joey’s hair when she had racily had it bobbed. Lottie admired particularly a blue cloisonné perfume flask with ferns and peacocks on it. ‘Hey,’ she said, ‘this sure is cute. I like thing-daddies like this here.’ But very abruptly she got bored and said, ‘Let’s talk instead. In the front room’” (104).

Selected Stories of Jean Stafford (1966)
Selected Stories of Jean Stafford (1966)

Stafford’s deft prose conveys far more than Landay’s. His narrator’s inspection of Jacob’s room yields nothing of the father’s character and scarcely more of the son’s. Essentially, he’s a fourteen-year-old from central casting.

In contrast, the passage from “Bad Characters” reveals details about the narrator, her Aunt, and Lottie. The narrator “love[s] the smell of lavender”; she’s a romantic who can also be “hard as nails” and gives her “mother a rough time.” Her Aunt  “racily” had her hair bobbed. (Perhaps she was racier than the narrator’s mother, who wore the transformation fashioned from Joey’s hair.) And Lottie admires “thing-daddies,” like the “blue cloisonné perfume flask,” but she gets bored “very abruptly.”

From the list, we know less of the mother than we know of her sister, her daughter, and her daughter’s partner in crime. But the list  doesn’t need to reveal the mother’s character because it serves another purpose. That’s not the case with Landay’s list. His only substitutes for character; Stafford’s constructs a scaffold for building it.

Landay, William. Defending Jacob. 2012. New York: Dell, 2013.

Stafford, Jean. Selected Stories of Jean Stafford. New York: Signet, 1966.


Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

Appalachian MacBeth

Serena (2008)

As I finished reading Serena last week, my thoughts turned to teaching it. A Southern Gothic novel with the feel, and some of the form, of Elizabethan drama, it’s well-suited for courses in world literature as well as Southern and Appalachian fiction.  It’s a regional novel that’s universal, as all the best “regional” writing is.

In an interview in the journal Grist, Serena’s author, Ron Rash, said: “To me, one of the most interesting aspects of literature is how the most intensely ‘regional’ literature is often the most universal. There’s no better example of this than James Joyce’s Ulysses. The best regional writers are like farmers drilling for water; if they bore deep enough and true enough into that particular place, beyond the surface of local color, they tap into universal correspondences, what Jung called the collective unconscious. Faulkner’s Mississippi, Munro’s Ontario, and Marquez’s Columbia are exotic, and they are also familiar” (5-6).

Rash “consciously evoked MacBeth,” he said in his Grist interview but “see[s] the book more in the tradition of Marlowe’s plays, which are always about the will to power” (8).

September brings the release of the film adaptation, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. Will it evoke Tamburlaine or a mash-up of  MacBeth and Silver Linings Playbook?

The interview with Rash published in the premier issue of Grist is reprinted in Ecco’s paperback edition of the novel.

Graves, Jesse and Randall Wilhelm. “An Interview with Ron Rash.” Serena by Ron Rash. 2008. New York: Ecco, 2009.

Posted in Reading, Writing

“A Good Way of Putting Things”

Early in the novel Mountains of the Moon, Louise Alder recounts how her teacher Miss Connor read Louise’s (Lulu’s) story aloud in class because Miss Connor “reckons I got a good way of putting things” (65).

Mountains of the Moon (2012)

Author I. J. Kay (a pseudonym) has a good way of putting things as well. But that good way of hers makes for no easy read. Though the first American edition of her debut novel appeared last July, it’s no beach book. Kay’s fractured narrative forces us to read carefully for shifts in diction and setting that signal the age and whereabouts of Louise (a.k.a. Kim, Beverley, Jackie, Dawn, and Catherine) through a parade of squalor that ends with her release from prison for a crime she may or may not have committed.

Confusing? Yes, but keep reading. Chances are, you’ll find yourself less confused. And more and more impressed with Kay’s achievement.

At thirty-one, after her ten-year prison stint, Louise travels to Uganda to see up close those mountains she first saw as a child in the pages of her book on Africa, a gift from her grandfather.

As a young teenager, she receives another book as a gift from a father figure. “The Velvit Gentleman,” as she calls him, a surreal sugar daddy—Professor Higgins and lover—gives her Lord of the Flies, which she slings across the floor of the psych ward after reading the death of Piggy.

“I wouldn’t have given it to you if I’d thought it would upset you so much,” Anton, “the Velvit Gentleman,” says. “Will you continue with it, though?”

“Seems rude not to,” Lulu answers. “Was a shock how bad I believed it. You said it was fiction, lies, but it int. It int.”

“Good,” Anton says. “That’s the point; stories tell lies in the service of truth” (287).

Kay’s own lies in the service of truth ring truer than those that shock her protagonist. Lulu’s no middle-class kid stuck on an uninhabited island. Donning a Masai’s red cloth and wielding a spear or not, she’s more warrior than any of Golding’s boys.

What makes her a warrior? The mountains (of the title) that dwell in her imagination, the ones she dreams of and writes about on wallpaper “wonky where the pattern is bossed” (87) to counter violence, poverty, and neglect.

Though flawed as all novels are—and undoubtedly some of its shortcomings escaped me—Mountains of the Moon shines with fresh language, Kay’s “good way of putting things,”  that invigorates Louise’s story, reminding us of what novels can achieve but rarely do.

Kay. I. J. Mountains of the Moon. New York: Viking, 2012.

Posted in Reading, Writing

River City Reads: “Ashes to Water”

Ashes to Water (2010)

Last night at the office of Richmond’s Frontier Project, on the corner of East Franklin and 20th Street, writer and actress Irene Ziegler  met with readers to discuss her mystery novel Ashes to Water:  the July-August selection for Richmond’s city-wide book club co-sponsored by Chop Suey Books and River City Reads. Rather than reading a long passage from her work–as many authors do–Ziegler alternated short excerpts from Ashes to Water and Rules of the Lake, its prequel, with reflections on writing and anecdotes from her life growing up in Pre-Disney, Florida.

As an author who is also an actress, Ziegler possesses an awareness of audience that many writers lack. When an author reads an entire chapter, even the best listeners are likely to lose their way. One image captures our interest, we linger with it, and never catch up to the narrative that’s unfolding. Ziegler encouraged the audience to write about what scares us and recounted how Francine Prose offered the same advice to playwright David Lindsay-Abaire. Following her advice,  he wrote Rabbit Hole, which received the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2007.

Read more about Ashes to Water in the blog post for August 9 and on Irene Ziegler’s website.

Posted in Reading, Teaching

“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)

This afternoon, I met with several of my Focused Inquiry colleagues to discuss Phillip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the holiday reading that will bridge UNIV 111 and 112.  Though students won’t read the novel until December or early January, I will address it–at least briefly–when they study Art Spiegelman‘s In the Shadow of No Towers on September 13 and 15, following the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

I have taught In the Shadow of No Towers in the spring semester for the past two years but  thought it would be worthwhile to consider Spiegelman‘s graphic memoir of the days that followed 9/11 on the days that follow the tenth anniversary.

On page 7, Spiegelman writes: “My ‘leaders’ are reading the book of Revelations.  . . .  I’m reading the paranoid science fiction of Phillip K. Dick.” Why does Spiegelman want us to know what he was reading–and what our leaders were reading–in the days following 9/11? What does he want to tell us? Those are a couple of the questions I may pose in class on September 13 or 15–and perhaps again in January when we study “the paranoid science fiction of Phillip K. Dick.”

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is new to me–I have just begun reading it–so I don’t know yet how I will approach it in class. My tentative plans include  incorporating a study of excerpts from the graphic novel adaptation from Boom Studios and concluding the semester with a study of Blade Runner, Ridley Scott‘s film adaptation–or perhaps, more accurately, his re-imagining–of the novel.