Excerpts from a reading journal, 2007
Alice Munro, Selected Stories (1997), Dance of the Happy Shades (1974)
Alice Munro is famous in her stories for having an all-knowing, usually adult, narrator who is trying to make sense of the world. Often her stories work in flashback, with the mature, grown-up, more perceptive, adult voice guiding us through the story. It’s a mark of her style for a character to experience a revelation that sheds light on, and gives meaning to, an event. Munro sometimes even addresses the reader directly — so the act of the telling of the story is made completely clear. Like in ‘An Ounce of Cure’ where she repeatedly addresses the reader.
There is a point in the telling of the story ‘An Ounce of Cure’ where the narrator actually corrects herself in the telling of the story. It’s as though the narrator has slipped back into the state of being the young girl — thinking what the young girl might have thought, or have liked to have thought post-event, but then she’s caught herself as the adult, and corrected herself. It’s this process of editing the story, this self-editing by the narrator as the story is being told that I really like.
Munro has the most amazing way of shifting from a conversation or observation that appears banal, into something where a depth of emotion or something significant about a character is revealed. It really just blows me away how she manages to shift the story around an emotional landscape with such ease, and this also applies to the navigation of physical and time space as well. For example in the story ‘Memorial’:
And then towards the end of the text, she manages to use the same conversation or observation to discuss the character or idea on another level again.
The story remembers itself and uses itself up entirely — so that the early conversation has more than one part to play in the story. The difference here between a writer like Munro and a writer like Carver is that the narrator or characters in Munro’s stories make an effort to understand their situation — their life and their actions. This doesn’t necessarily mean they have understood. They’ve just made an effort to. Carver and his Dirty Realist pals don’t quite make that same effort. I see them more as just shrugging, in an ‘Oh well, that was weird or shitty or hell I don’t know what to think about that’ kind of way. And Lydia Davis sits somewhere else again, between these two poles. I think this idea of knowing and/or not-knowing within a narrator or character, and the treatment of this information (or lack of), is something I’m really interested in. I use it a lot for the momentum of my stories — it’s something I’m particularly interested in, in relation to first person narratives. Which for some reason makes me get to thinking about Barry Hannah.
Barbara Anderson, I think we should go into the jungle (1989)
I find myself not so much talking about a collection of stories as a whole, but rather selecting a story or two from the collection to do the talking for me. I really love this writing. I felt like I was continuously surprised by these pieces. But anyhow I got to thinking about form a lot. ‘Up the River with Mrs Gallant’ interests me not so much because I’m interested in form, but entirely because of its form and because it makes me want to be more interested in form — in experimenting with form. If that makes sense. Most of my stories are written out in straightforward story manner. I think with my own writing it’s something I don’t feel ready to tackle yet — to push or experiment with. It’s like trying to a make a pie with too many ingredients or something. And for a beginner chef it’s better to perfect, or at least get a better grasp on those few ingredients that work well together to begin with before going crazy and throwing anything else into the mix. That is one terrible analogy, I know, in fact so terrible it doesn’t really make sense, because surely if you’re making a pie and you can deal with a few ingredients you can deal with a lot of ingredients because a pie can contain anything. Shit.
Digression: my friends and I made a pie before the Bob Dylan concert. In the pastry on top I stencilled DYLAN, except I didn’t stencil DYLAN because I’d had too much whisky to drink. So I stencilled DYLAL. And when my friend was like, ‘Ahh what letter is that?’ while I was cutting out the last L, I was like, ‘It’s an N, an N for Dylan.’ And she was like, ‘Dude that’s not an N.’ And it wasn’t until I stepped back from the pie and focused on the name as a whole could I see what a stupid mistake I’d made. And in fact I hadn’t even had that much whisky to drink because that was early on in the night. Fortunately a bit of egg white and quick thinking solved the problem.
Maybe actually that’s a better analogy there. Something about being able to stand back from an image or an idea — a piece as a whole — before being able to see it as a whole. No, that’s a different idea entirely; an analogy for a different day. Maybe I should just get to the point of what I’m trying to say. I was thinking about the story, with the Gallants, and the boat trip and how not much happens in the story really, and what makes the story so good, so funny, is that form of it. It starts:
The space that is created around each character’s response/dialogue, through the placement of their name first, somehow lifts the text into the realm of comedy. I think if the story was written in much more conventional manner, it wouldn’t be nearly as funny. It’s almost theatrical I’d say. Especially when the dialogue gets really banal but still there’s this space — this announcement of each piece of dialogue. It shows how people actually relate to one another — sort of pushed to the extreme. All the characters in this story want to have something to say about the situation, a situation which is never really at any time going to turn into disaster, but it is the characters and how they contribute to the scene that gives the story its movement — that gives the story its tension.
Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (Collection of essays, first published 1968, although some essays are dated back to the early 1960s)
Almost everyone I know has something to say about Joan Didion. Someone told me she got married wearing sunglasses. Someone else told me she did a writing class where everyone else there was much older and more experienced than her, and she was scared, but look at her now! Or if they have not this sort of information to share, they like to share their belief in her cool. Didion makes me think of rock’n’roll in that sense. Sometimes its hard to talk about a particular band without considering the social context, the kind of audience it draws, its position within the context of ‘popular music’, no matter how good or bad they are. And sometimes all those other things have everything to do with the actual output of the band, and sometimes those things have absolutely nothing to do with it all. But once the output exists in that context you can’t ignore it, entirely. Of course Didion just did her thing, and she’s so famous because she’s so good. So maybe this is a stupid conversation to have at this point, about her, and maybe I should have thought about this in relation to someone else who was a lot less good. But anyhow...
I think I read this collection of essays, and the first few essays in the collection of essays that follows it, The White Album (first published 1979), because it just seemed like something I needed to do, not because I was thinking about how this work would influence my writing practice. Like when I was about eighteen I went out and bought a copy of Pet Sounds because there was a hole in my record collection where Pet Sounds ought to be, a hole that I thought people might start to notice — at the time I thought that’s how a record collection worked — when my friends and I would acquire ‘important’ albums one after the other. The first essay of Didion’s I ever read is called ‘Bureaucrats’, and it’s from The White Album collection. I think what got to me most was, first of all, how come she got to be in these bizarre situations where she had this information to write about these things. And second of all, how come she knows so much? And then, how come she managed to get herself there in these situations — I thought about this again. And then that the writing itself is magnificent, so witty, so obscure in its attention to detail, and its interest in the absurd of the everyday. And that’s definitely where I start thinking about the kind of writing I am interested in, those last few points. It’s her ability to take a situation, that could be an everyday situation, or a slightly odd situation, or a very odd situation, but that nonetheless exists as a situation within the world, and somehow extract some kind of meaning from it, that both sits within that space, but in a space of its own as well — but always in relation to the world.
I like how this sort of writing lends itself to bold statements. Does the fact it’s not a statement made in a fictional world make it more or less true? I don’t know. Maybe that’s not a good question, maybe the interesting question is, is it a more or less bold statement if it is made in fiction or in non-fiction? Not that any of my fiction really goes around making bold statements, outright or hidden away within the text.
From On Keeping a Notebook (1966): ‘Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.’ That’s what Joan said — which is completely unrelated to anything I’ve just been talking about but something I thought I ought to consider.
Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981)
From ‘Viewfinder’: ‘I looked a little closer and saw my head, my head, in there inside the kitchen window. It made me think, seeing myself like that. I can tell you, it makes a man think.’
The motivation for this story comes from, ‘I wanted to see how he would hold a cup,’ which is what the narrator thinks about the guy with hooks for hands. He invites him inside, with this as his only motivation. Anyhow, I like how Carver does this (re: excerpt at top), how he lets the characters think something, something that is meaningful, that exudes meaning, without us, as the readers, ever getting to see what that thought is. The meaning comes in the witnessing of the character being affected, although we don’t actually get any real insight into that state. It’s like he leads us to a little window into the character’s mind and/or emotional state, but the window is a little too high off the ground for us to get a proper look in — even standing on tiptoes, or using a chair to gain some height. We know there’s something else there and at that point we just have to be satisfied with that. We have to trust the author that it’s all the information we need. It’s a pressure point in the story, a point the story needs, depends on to stop it from becoming absurd and trivial. It grounds it in a life that is real, where the character feels and thinks and acts according to those thoughts and feelings. ...
At the end of ‘Viewfinder’ the ‘I’ character is on the roof of his house hurtling rocks off, with the man with hooks for hands taking polaroids of him below. This image stands in as the emotional weight of the story. We are left with this image as the meaning for the story. Or not the meaning, but just the thing we are left with, the core that the rest of the emotional experience orbits around. The story up until this point has both built us up to this image and not really bothered to prepare us for it as well. It’s both oblique and completely right and meaningful. I think here, surprise is something I think about, the element of surprise. I enjoy the potential of a story to move itself in a way that is completely unexpected. I like having the sense, while reading a story, that it’s discovering itself along the way. Not that this is necessarily something I get from Carver, but I think sometimes when a story is really neat, when it does reach that point where it is finished, rounded off, like a lot of Munro stories I guess, I like to not feel like the story has known that’s where it was going to end up. I like a bit of messiness, a bit of uncertainty, a feeling of incompleteness, or dissatisfaction — something like that.
So I got up and went to the window. A big moon was laid over the mountains that went around the city. It was a white moon and covered with scars. Any damn fool could imagine a face there... I let myself out and went along the walk. It felt funny walking around outside in my night-gown and my robe. I thought to myself that I should try to remember this, walking around outside like this.
(from ‘I Could See the Smallest Things’)
Something about a thought I had earlier functions very similarly to the piece extracted above — something about the significance that is placed on a particular action or thought the character is witnessing, experiencing, or thinking. It isn’t disclosed to us completely how or why this thing is so important to the character, only that it is. Yet, it does not work on any kind of ‘mysterious’ level, because somehow, taking note of something like walking around outside in the dark wearing pyjamas, makes utter sense (at least to me anyhow). It works to redirect the actual emotional origin of the piece to something more tangible, more everyday. Emotions, relationships are complicated, and it’s hard to talk about them directly, and I think it’s less interesting too — what’s the point of that, right? Where’s the literature in that? And if you can just be direct about something surely you would just be direct about it. (See: Faulkner point as made some other time.) When the narrator goes back to bed, and her husband is lying there asleep and something dribbles out of his mouth and she thinks of the slugs on her next-door neighbour’s lawn, it says more about their relationship than if she said, my husband’s an alcoholic slob, or whatever. The image, like the image of the guy standing on his roof throwing rocks, stands in for the emotional weight of the piece. It sort of means nothing and everything. Gosh, that sounds ridiculous, I know. But the pieces are like that, they’re so delicate in terms of the emotional temperature... everything just kind of simmers away in a way that it’s not entirely clear or explicit where you’re supposed to look for the meaning of the piece, or what is the origin or point of this, until it just sort of reveals itself, in a slight turn of phrase, or through one image.
Carver himself said, ‘(it’s possible) to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language and endow these things — a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring — with immense, even startling power.’ Which I think is what I’m trying to think about out loud in the previous page of rant — but in a lot less words.
Donald Barthelme, Sixty Stories (1982)
Sometimes I find it hard to make a connection with Barthelme’s characters. Usually this feeling arrives at the second or third reading of a piece. There’s something about the pieces being so smarty-pants, so academic and far-out clever, that puts a distance between them and us (well, me). And when I say this, some people agree, and others say but yeah, he’s so funny though, so funny. Which is true. Damien included a great essay by Barthelme in his reading programme, ‘Not Knowing’. It was published in 1999 and apparently was written in response to criticism of his own work. Maybe the kind of criticism (if you can call that criticism and not just a small bad rant) I wrote above. The essay is a discussion based around the idea its title puts forth, ‘It is appropriate to pause and say that the writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.’ While I think about it, there is an essay by Grace Paley that I’m reminded of here, ‘The Value of Not Understanding Everything’, and was published mid-1960s. In the essay Paley talks about how when she first started writing she wrote about things she didn’t know about, things she didn’t understand, and that writing was a way for her to work these things out.
The first line of the essay reads: ‘The difference between writers and critics is that in order to function in their trade, writers must live in the world, and critics, to survive in the world, must live in literature.’ Then she further down the page says, ‘You can lunge off into an interesting and true career as a writer even if you’ve read nothing but the Holy Bible and the New York Daily News, but that is an absolute minimum (read them slowly).’
Oops, I’m digressing here. I just wanted to write that down because I think it’s a nice observation, or thought, rather. Anyhow the point she gets at with the essay, further along, is that for example, when you think about her stories, (I’m assuming she’s talking about ‘The Little Disturbances of Man’ here or ‘Enormous Changes at the Last Minute’) they are based around several themes, at least half of which are Jewish. That, she said, was a lot to do with the fact that she was an outsider in her particular neighbourhood, in her childhood — at least she thought she was, she says. In order to better understand this feeling that ‘an entire world was whispering in the other room’, in order to get to the core of it, she made fiction. She then goes on to say how it took her a long time, but finally she understands that part of her life — she is inside it, she could write an article about life in the thirties and forties in Jewish New York, but the tension and mystery and questions are gone: ‘The writer is not some kind of phony historian who runs around answering everyone’s questions with made-up characters tying up loose ends. She is nothing but a questioner.’
Another nice line from the essay: Now, one of the reasons writers are so much more interested in life than others who just go on living all the time is that what the writer doesn’t understand the first thing about is just what he acts like such a specialist about — and that is life. And the reason he writes is to explain it all to himself, and the less he understands to begin with, the more he probably writes... In other words, the poor writer — presumable in an intellectual profession — really oughtn’t to know what he’s talking about.
The Barthleme essay is getting at a slightly different point, that, ‘The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.’
It’s a different idea, but a very similar idea. Yes, that’s right. That is, the questions as talked about in the Paley piece are more substituted by an empty page or something — which could be a bit like a question. It’s all getting at a very similar point though. That fully understanding something, fully knowing where it’s going to end up, is not what making art (the A word used in the loosest possible sense) is about. ‘Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, but because it wishes to be art. However much the writer might long to be, in his work, simple, honest, and straightforward, these virtues are no longer available to him. He discovers that in being simple, honest, and straightforward, nothing much happens: he speaks the speakable, whereas what we are looking for is the as-yet unspeakable, the as-yet unspoken.’
Barthelme uses Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘Monogram’ to illustrate a point here. ‘Each work of art depends upon a complex series of interdependences.’ That the ways in which the art piece can be read is inexhaustible. The number of times I have studied this piece, from high school to art school — oh man. It’s a great piece of art for a young art-history student to write about for these reason, because while there are interesting and important historical and formalist points to be made, the ways of interpreting the ‘meaning’ of the piece are sort of never-ending. It can’t be boiled down to a single interpretation or line of words that sum it up. ‘What is magical about the object is that it at once invites and resists interpretation. Its artistic worth is measurable by the degree to which it remains, after interpretation, vital — no interpretation or cardiopulmonary push-pull can exhaust or empty it.’
I guess this is how Barthelme’s pieces, at their best, work as well. But you know, sometimes you just want an in. You want to see some light shed on the situation — even just a bit of an answer, although I don’t think the pieces always remain as distant, as immeasurable as he likes to pretend as well. I think there is a human element there. For I don’t think you can have real humour without considering the human. But anyhow, I think something can remain vital, can resist interpretation in sort of a final sense, while still allowing the reader to move around the space it has drawn for itself. It makes me think about a video artist I know, he’s a good artist in that he’s a smart artist, he’s very well read and practised, he understands too well the language of contemporary art. His videos just scream this. But they scream this in that they position themselves well above any audience, they force the audience out before they’re even allowed to find a way in. The works remain cold and distant. Whereas, I think in order to be successful, in order to position themselves better as texts, the videos needed to find a way to first allow the audience in before showing them the door. You got to give a little I think. These videos are meant to be intellectual, and complex and difficult, but they’re none of these things at the distance they remain in — they’re just confusing and distant. Heck, does that make sense? Sometimes I feel that with Barthelme. Like he’s just too smart for the rest of us and he wants us to know that. But his best pieces I think are the ones that allow us in and then kick us out, that show us something we can understand before putting us in the frightening position where we don’t understand, but already we are enough invested in the piece to want to try and understand. Which only just makes us (okay, when I say us I do really mean me) feel more stupid, if not stupid, then just conscious of processing, trying to work something out. And what I said earlier about the humour, I think that’s the in.
There was a New Zealand production of Uncle Vanya at the Circa theatre. A few of us went along — the Chekhov fans among us. I get very excited about theatre. I even tried to write a play once, but writing drama is hard. At least I was no good at it then, so not much happened which made it not so much a Beckettian absurdist text but just really dull. If I thought about it some more, I think I’d be tempted to say that theatre is much harder to write than fiction — there are so many more elements to consider. Because you have all the complications of literature, but with things like space, real humans standing on a stage and moving about, an audience sitting and watching. There is a lot less control there. And you’ve got to rely on how others interpret your text, to get the point across best. Whereas literature is its own mouthpiece, it stands on its own, has to stand on its own.
I asked a question in class, a question which now, very obviously, occurs to me as being a very stupid question, about whether literature is dependent on literary criticism for its existence. I was asking this from the point of view of an artist, because art making is so utterly reliant on criticism, on critical dialogue and literature for not just its appreciation but its existence. Of course the answer was, NO, literature doesn’t need any of that. It can stand on its own. In many ways, has to stand on its own.
I was thinking (another digression to follow) how I found it so surprising at the beginning of the year when I met the scriptwriters for the first time, and when I found out that only one of the ten of them was writing a play, the rest were writing films. I was thinking how so much of the interpretation of a film script is left up to the director (more so than in theatre I think — because of the nature of the medium, the processes it has to go through, and the way the audience is positioned) and maybe these scriptwriters really wanted to be directors instead, otherwise, if they wanted to ‘write’ surely they could gain the same learning experience out of writing a play, and more people that have been through the course get their plays shown, whereas NO screenwriters (from memory) have yet had their screenplays filmed. Film has such an aura about it. At the moment it’s like the cool older brother of theatre. I’m sure there was a point to this digression... wouldn’t you just go to film school? I actually even asked a few people that. They looked very suspicious of me, and then they got very defensive. I guess I just felt like standing up for theatre. Anyhow, the production of Uncle Vanya was amazing. The best thing about theatre, I think, for me, is that it’s such a risk. My experience with theatre is that it’s either very good, or very bad. I get so nervous before seeing a play. Maybe that’s why I can’t watch stand-up comedy — that same sense of nervousness, not just for the performer, but for myself, worried about what I might have to experience — because it is so THERE. Hardly anyone except me and Pip laughed at Uncle Vanya though. That’s another thing about theatre — the timing. With film the timing can be manipulated, experience heightened through music, lighting, camera angle, whatever, but theatre is just there — people and words. And it makes me think how in class when we read from each other’s manuscripts, how different the experience can be. Like pieces/stories that didn’t seem even a little bit funny before, when I was reading them in my head on my own, suddenly, with a voice behind them, revealed themselves to be very funny indeed. Anyhow with the plays, the writing has to be very good, and the acting has to be very good, otherwise it’s just not going to work. There are no real shortcuts or tricks. Maybe that’s what I was trying to get at about the scriptwriters — surely if you can write a play, you can write a screenplay? But maybe not the other way around? And maybe I’m talking a load of garbage too.
Eliot Weinberger — public lecture and masterclass 19 May
Weinberger sees translation as a re-negotiation of material. A similar idea could apply to his essays — a ‘disturbing of function’, a shifting of information.
I wrote this down in my notebook, and I can’t figure out whether I was writing it in relation to Weinberger’s essays, or in relation to the student essays we wrote and then read for the masterclass. Anyhow this is what I wrote: with the essays, because there is a subject, or an idea etc. that the essay works around, I get a strong, although admittedly abstract sense, of the very large versus the very small (a big picture vs. the minute). Most of these essays, and maybe it is only to do with this particular kind of writing, either start their meditation on something specific, something small, and move out to explain how this meditation is relative to life, the universe and everything, or they start big, with a feeling, and move in to specifics. And then I scrawled something down about factors and products...and tried to turn that thought into a mathematical equation which entirely doesn’t make sense.
We talked about poetry for a bit, about the traditional role of a writer being that of a ‘collective memory’ — what a culture knows about itself. Poetry was a documentation of a culture. It seems to me that he’s really interested in writers having a social consciousness, a social role, and the essay form is a space to do that. The essay is still stuck in its eighteenth century model of the personal essay, still stuck in the first person narrative. The essay never had, or rather, hasn’t yet had, its Avant Garde.
There’s something about the way Weinberger speaks that makes you want to believe everything he says, at least, that made me want to believe him. It’s a casual arrogance or something — which is really I suppose just a total belief in what is? beliefs (if that makes sense). I found him utterly convincing in a way that made me take far too many notes and think I was having a life-changing experience. Maybe I was.
He has nice glasses — two pairs almost completely identical — one for reading, one for just sitting. I spent a lot of time wondering where on earth you can get glasses like that now because I’d really like a pair myself. My prescription glasses are more than five years old now and hell I think I’m about ready for an identity change. See — life-changing.
Talking about US creative writing programmes: ‘They don’t read, it’s all about this self-expression thing, it’s like group therapy.’ Weinberger has quite a reputation when it comes to his opinions on creative writing programmes. Apparently more than just a few students have dropped out of programmes after hearing him speak. He emphasised how different American writing programmes are to the IIML for example. Something to do with undergraduate students, studying creative writing straight from school, and then moving straight on to an MFA, without any kind of life experience in their back pockets. He talked about how writers before like the 1970s couldn’t just be Writers (capital W), they had to earn a living somehow, their writing happened in their spare time. But how now that’s changed, how it’s much easier to be a full-time writer. But when you have to go out into the world and do something (money wise) it feeds the writing. I think it’s an interesting and valid point. It makes me think about music actually. About how, as a young student you can spend years and years perfecting your technique so you can play your instrument well, but the music side of the music-making, that is the musicality, the feeling, emotion, the weight of a piece, that’s not something that can be learnt. It’s something that has to be felt, and that grows. So you can be a virtuoso in terms of your technique and not be a great musician at all. I think writing is similar and maybe that’s the point he’s trying to make? That writing is a craft and there are things to learn, but without any life in you, what could you possibly have to say?