Hold It All

Category: Writing

Reading Roth on Writing and Reading

George Searles, editor, Conversations with Philip Roth
Literary Conversation Series
University Press of Mississippi
1992

I settled in this morning with a collection of interviews with Philip Roth, from the bright beginning of his career in  1960 t0 1991, just before he produced a steady stream of powerful books (e.g., Operation Shylock, for one), many of which I read with appreciation throughout the 90s. What follows are passages that reveal his reflections on the art of fiction and the practice of readers.

 

My work does not offer answers. I am trying to represent the experience, the confusion and toughness of certain moral problems. People always ask what’s the message. I think the worst books are the ones with messages. My fiction is about people in trouble.  2

For me, one of the strongest motives for continuing to write fiction is an increasing distrust of “positions,” my own included.  60

For everything in my fiction that connects to something I’ve known personally, there are a hundred things that have no connection, or connections of only the roughest and vaguest sort.  103

You should read my books as fiction, demanding the pleasures that fiction can yield. I have nothing to confess and no one I want to confess to. 121

My job in a work of fiction is not to offer consolation to Jewish sufferers or to mount an attack upon their persecutors or to make the Jewish case to the undecided. 129 

The difficulties  of telling a Jewish story—How should it be told? In what tone? To whom should it be told? To what end? Should it be told at all?  183 

Novels provide readers with something to read. At their best writers change the way readers read.  That seems to me the only realistic expectation. It also seems to me quite enough. Reading novels is a deep and singular pleasure, a gripping and mysterious human activity that does not require any more moral or political justification than sex.  186 Read the rest of this entry »

“If Not You, Who?”

Having recently read Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism and Deep Work, I thought of Marcel Proust’s Time Regained, volume 7 in his In Search of Lost Time.

1.

As for the inner book of unknown symbols… if I tried to read them no one could help me with any rules, for to read them was an act of creation in which no one can do our work for us or even collaborate with us.  How many for this reason turn aside from writing!  What tasks do men not take upon themselves in order to evade this task!  Every public event, be it the Dreyfus case, be it the war, furnishes the writer with a fresh excuse for not attempting to decipher this book:  he wants to insure the triumph of justice, he wants to restore the moral unity of the nation, he has no time to think of literature.  But these are mere excuses, the truth being that he has not or no longer has genius, that is to say instinct.  For instinct dictates our duty and the intellect supplies us with  pretexts for evading it. But excuses have no place in art and intentions count for nothing:  at every moment the artist has to listen to his instinct, and it is this that makes art the most real of all things, the most austere school of life, the true last judgment.

2.

So that the essential, the only true book, though in the ordinary sense of the word it does not have to be ‘“invented” by a great writer — for it exists already in each one of us — has to be translated by him.  The function and the task of a writer are those of a translator.

3.

The artist who gives up an hour of work for an hour of conversation with a friend knows that he is sacrificing a reality for something which does not exist (our friends being friends only  in the light of an agreeable folly which travels with us through life and to which we readily accommodate ourselves, but which at the bottom of our hearts we know to be no more reasonable than the delusion of the man who talks to the furniture because he believes that it is alive)…   Read the rest of this entry »

Gratitude/909

I spent the afternoon in Benton Park with exuberant Penny Smith  who, last night, pulled out one of her notebooks, opened to a random page and found this advice she’d scribbled down during one of our tête-à-têtes at Northwest Coffee two plus years ago– “Don’t read books by Dostoevsky; read your own journal! — Mark Chmiel”

 

“Scribbled Secret Notebooks, and Wild Typewritten Pages, for Yr Own Joy”

Inspired by Diana Raab, Writers and Their Notebooks

I read Raab’s book right about the end of my time at SLU. Moving on to Maryville University, I found a way to assign Natalie Goldberg’s Bones book in my Humanities classes—mandatory composition (wide-ruled) notebooks. I also started teaching my own classes off-campus, typically with a writing (hence, notebook) theme.

1.
How can we imagine a notebook?

Some possibilities—
Warehouse (not a museum)
Treasure chest of thoughts and anecdotes
Place to collect ideas
Place to practice writing
Place to overcome writer’s block
Laboratory
Mirror
Icebreaker
Wailing wall
Junk drawer
Confessional
Postcard to oneself
Playground for mind
Jump-start cable
Memory aid
Archive
Anthology
Snooping device
Role-playing arena
Observation-sharpener
Survival kit
Meditation practice
Witness Stand
Therapist
Spiritual Advisor
Sound-board
Friend Read the rest of this entry »

Aha!

This morning, while writing a letter to one of my favorite poets (who lives in Brooklyn), it dawned on me that I want my next writing/reading class to be on the work and life of Diane di Prima: poet, Buddhist, Italian-American, feminist, pacifist. We could read her two poetry collections, “Revolutionary Letters” and “The Poetry Deal,” as well as her memoir, Recollections of My Life as a Woman —The New York Years.

“Early in November, just a week after Freddie died I began writing a book to him in the form of a long letter/journal. It was the one thing I could think of doing. Most of the time the pain was too much to hold still for, and I went around in a haze from one thing to another. But I knew from doing Zen meditation: one can hold still, hold the mind still, if it is a task. Even better if it is a finite task, has a foreseeable end. So when the loss got to be too much, I would go into my study, light a stick of incense and tell myself I’d type (write) till it had burned away. That particular incense took about forty minutes, and that seemed a possible time span, though not easy. I could always look up and see how much incense was left. It made more sense than a clock. I wrote the book for a year, though not every day, and ended on the anniversary of his death.” –Diane di Prima

Share the Wealth with Linsey Stevens: Iphelia and Editing with the Gift of Feeling

What kind of work would you wake up in a hospital bed eager to do?
And how is editing like being a doula?

The first question is one I answered back in the fall of 2015. That summer, my husband and I had settled into first-time home ownership and I’d “leveled up” professionally, having moved from the Department of Social Services, where I’d been a Family Support caseworker, to Mercy, where I was hired on as a patient benefit and Medicaid advisor. My career seemed to be opening up before me and everything looked good on paper. But I was miserable. I was physically sick every day at work and I was unhappy even when I got home. I felt trapped in my life and was disappointed that I wasn’t shaping up to be the great social servant or public educator I was sure I should be.

I resigned from Mercy and went to work part-part time teaching children’s swim lessons. Like so many creators, I started side hustling: writing and editing for peanuts through a site called Upwork. Amidst the uncertainty, I realized I’d happily wake up in a hospital bed, ask for my laptop, and dive into editing another person’s writing. I’d found a professional passion and was ready to move on from the rescuer narrative that I had to be sacrificing myself in a certain setting to help others or assume my place in the world.

Over the last three years my journey as an editor, creator, and human being has unfolded in sometimes bumpy, but also fantastic ways. As doors have opened (more on that Sunday) so have windows—and my heart and mind. I’ve developed a close working relationship with Erick French, LCSW, author and illustrator of Iphelia: Awakening the Gift of Feeling and have been editing full time for HealthyWay Media, a women’s lifestyle and wellness brand, for over a year. Read the rest of this entry »

Not a River-Like Novel; But a Novel Like Poetry, or Rather, a Narrative Poem, an Epos in Mosaic, a Kind of Arabesque Preoccupation

Over the weekend Lindsey asked me some questions about my writing process (such as, How long did it take you to write Book of Mev? Did you always know what the structure would be? How did you know when you stumbled upon the right form?). Naturally, I thought of Jack Kerouac’s line, “Something that you feel will find its own form.”

I also went back to Jack’s early journals, collected in Windblown World: Journals 1947-1951 (edited by Douglas Brinkley), which I first read a few months after the Mev book came out. Just today, I was revisiting Emerson, who wrote, “For only that book can we read which relates to me something that is already in my mind.” Here are some excerpts from the young Jack, which intrigued me and had illumined some things in my own mind back then and still do, in the present…

_______________________

This means seven months of ascetic gloom and labor—although doubt is no longer my devil, just sadness now. I think I will get this immense work done much sooner this way, to face up to it and finish it. 7

Look at your own work and say, ‘This is a novel after my own heart!’ Because that’s what it is anyway, and that’s the point—it’s worry that must be eliminated for the sake of individual force. 10

I wish I had the mental energy of ten great novelists! Or devise some way to get ‘the most out of myself,’ as Goethe did, without breaking down (as Goethe did) or without excessive asceticism leading to a blurring of impressions. 31

I say to these critics: ‘Don’t be assholes all your life.’ 34 Read the rest of this entry »

Gratitude for Demun Share the Wealth Writing Class

As the summer Share the Wealth Writing Class on Demun winds down, gratitude is, once again, an appropriate theme for meditation (quotations with page number are from Robert A. Emmons, Gratitude Works!).

“A French proverb states that gratitude is the memory of the heart ….Do you want to be a grateful person? Then remember to remember.” x

At the vibrant age of 49, Jenny has countless experiences-to-be-remembered-into poems ahead of her.

“Expect nothing, appreciate everything.” 21

The beauty of paintings and photos, the haimish spaciousness, all the windows, ah, the generosity of Marty and Jerry to open their home to us! Read the rest of this entry »

That Glow, That Yes!

Natalie Goldberg, Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft
30 September 2000

It’s clear to me today, anyway, that my Holy Contour of Life book will be a structure like Natalie’s: short, compressed, easy to read and reread, straightforward. I can continue to play with this. Because having “finished” the new version (how many versions have I had???) in which I fractured chronology, now it seems too disjointed and contrived, so I want to break it up further, maybe chronologically, but just keep it to two pages max.

Commentaries, yes, but creatively done, maybe with lists, found shit, short portions of letters (like mine to Peter Pfersick), journals, and articles. Weave them together. Like on riches and poverty: Set it up, find one quotation from GG interview, then one from Sobrino interview, then add a further comment, then use the photos.

Here in Thunder and Lightning, Natalie is still giving her Zen advice on writing as a spiritual practice … Writing Down the Bones, III (After Wild Mind being Bones II). She’s found what works for her, she’s just giving good advice coming out of her own vulnerable, wise experiences as a writer, a meditator, a slow walker, a Jew, a neurotic. “What if Natalie Goldberg were one of us? Just a shmo like one of us?”

And I read this, quelle surprise, only for insight on how to keep going with Book of Mev, Holy Contour of Life, My Fucking Memoir, whatever it’s to be entitled. And this book moves beyond writing practice to structure, craft, finishing a project. So what I note below may be useful in this process:
Read the rest of this entry »

Something I Had in Common with Philip Roth

As I sat there and watched him struggle to go on living, I tried to focus on what the tumor had done with him already. This wasn’t difficult, given that he looked on that stretcher as though by then he’d been through a hundred rounds with Joe Louis. I thought about the misery that was sure to come, provided he could even be kept alive on a respirator. I saw it all, all, and yet I had to sit there a very long time before I leaned as close to him as I could get and, with my lips to his sunken, ruined face, found it in me finally to whisper, “Dad, I’m going to have to let you go.” He’d been unconscious for several hours and couldn’t hear me, but, shocked, amazed, and weeping, I repeated it to him again and then again, until I believed it myself.

After that, all I could do was to follow his stretcher up to the room where they put him and sit by the bedside. Dying is work and he was a worker. Dying is horrible and my father was dying. I held his hand, which at least still felt like a hand; I stroked his forehead, which at least still looked like his forehead; and I said to him all sorts of things that he could no longer register. Luckily, there wasn’t anything I told him that morning that he didn’t already know.

–Philip Roth, Patrimony