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Preview: Zen of Writing

Zen of Writing

...and other things

Updated: 2018-03-15T10:10:49.350-04:00


A Writer's (Narrow) Space


Writer Etgar Keret's tiny studio space is only four feet wide. My first thought was, of course, where does he keep his books?? But, I guess if he wants to have books near to hand, it's ebooks all the way with this space. Click the link for interior pics.

A 'vivid' tale of underage lust


that won its author, Junot Diaz, £30,000, or $45,696 at the current exchange rate. We love Junot Diaz and we love his books, but WOW, that is a lotta money for a story. Here is Diaz on the story:
The author called "Miss Lora" a "challenging" story to write. "We tend, as a culture, to think of boys having underage sex quite differently to how we think of girls. I find that quite disturbing, and wanted to question the logic of that," he said. "If a boy has sex with his teacher, people under their breath are kind of high-fiving the kid. If a 16- or 15-year-old girl has sex with an older teacher – forget about it. No one's celebrating. That seemed really strange."
And here is the story. Miss Lora, at the New Yorker. Story of the prize at the Guardian. If the Brits take short stories more seriously than we do, well, jolly good show.

The people we used to be


“We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.” "Only the very young and the very old may recount their dreams at breakfast, dwell upon self, interrupt with memories of beach picnics and favorite Liberty lawn dresses and the rainbow trout in a creek near Colorado Springs. The rest of us are expected, rightly, to affect absorption in other people’s favorite dresses, other people’s trout."
Joan Didion, from Of course, along with the very old and very young, writers also dwell upon the self and interrupt with memories of beach picnics. It's interesting, Didion holding onto the self via keeping a notebook, preserving memory, seeing her past as a source of inspiration. Many writers find inspiration in their own lives. Others feel trapped in themselves, and sometimes write about that. This blog is called Zen of Writing, though I seldom mention Zen. It seems like a good time, since we are talking about the self. At best, the self in Zen is a kind of vehicle. At worst, it is a prison. To utilize the self, its memories and talents, but not to be confined by it is a Zen concept. Here is a favorite quote from Joyce Carol Oates, which I've probably blogged about before:
"What a folie-a-deux, our engagement with ourselves, and our wish to believe that this engagement is worth the lifelong effort it requires, as if, assigned at birth to a specific 'self,' we must gamely maintain, through the years, an abiding faith in it: like vendors pushing carts, heaped with the spoils of 'ego,' each obliged to promote his/her own goods, in a bazaar teeming with mostly indifferent strangers, a few potential customers, and too many rival vendors!"
Writers can attest to the few customers and the over-abundance of rival vendors. The task is, how to push the cart around without losing perspective. It seems to us that it's a harder marketplace than pushing one's cart around a steady job, e.g., but it depends on what you've got in the cart -- your habits, your likes and dislikes, your baggage, your karma. I'll give the last word to Surya Das, author of Letting Go of the Person You Used to Be:

“Other people can’t cause us to be impatient unless we let them do so. In other words, others don’t make us impatient. We make ourselves impatient, through our expectations and demands, fixated attachments and stuckness.” ― Lama Surya Das

You can substitute just about any quality for "impatient." Other people don't cause us to be insecure or vain or over-sensitive or persistent. We do it ourselves, because of what we put in the cart. Comfort or unease with the self results -- and so does the decision to turn to Zen, to put down the cart entirely. Which is a subject for another post.

Girls like Murakami


From The Paris Review: “There’s a difference,” remarked one colleague, “between getting a girl to think you’re smart, and getting a girl to WANT to talk to you. The following are books that will make girls want to talk to you.

—Greatest pick-up book of all time is Just Kids by Patti Smith, because every girl has read it and they ALL want to talk about it.
—Any book ever written by Haruki Murakami
—The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
—White Album by Joan Didion
—What We Talk About, When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver
—The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. (Don’t question it. Just trust.)”

I was surprised to see Murakami on the list, tho he is one of my favorites. Just Kids, sure -- it *is* fun to talk about. The question was what books would make girls think a guy is hot. Probably, most books, but judging from the last entry, we're talking about college-aged readers or just after. I have no idea what books make women in their 30s and 40s think men are hot. Murakami would still be interesting, but hotness is so variable by then that even Patti Smith might not do it. Denis Johnson? Gustave Flaubert? Neil Gaiman? Margaret Atwood? They all work for me.

RIP: Ray Bradbury


Space ships are not miracles of technology, but psychic conveyances, serving the same purpose as Dorothy's whirlwind-borne house in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, or the trance of the traditional shaman: they get you to the Otherworld. Margaret Atwood, in The Guardian.

Atwood's article on Bradbury also includes this amazing story:
At the age of 12 – as he tells us on his website – he had a definitive encounter with a stage magician called Mr Electrico. This was in the age of travelling circuses and the like, and Mr Electrico had a unique act: he sat in an electrified chair, thus in turn electrifying a sword he held, with which he in turn electrified the spectators, making their hair stand on end and sparks come out of their ears. He electrified young Bradbury in this manner, while shouting, "Live Forever!" The child had to go to a funeral the next day, a close encounter with death that led him to seek out Mr Electrico once more to find out how this living forever thing was to be done. The old carney showed him around what used to be called the freak show – complete with a tattooed man who was later to morph into the Illustrated Man – and then told him that he, Ray, contained the soul of Mr Electrico's best friend, who had died in the first world war.

The NY Times gives us Bradbury at dinner, drawing a martian in his spilled wine and presenting the tablecloth to the waiter, who gave it to the owner. Who framed it.

I love these anecdotes. I read Bradbury a lot when I was younger, and chiefly remember Fahrenheit 451 from those days. I remember being outraged that a fireman would burn books! I might have been ten the first time I read it.

Amazon planning to stick ads in Kindles


First, let me say I love the Melville House Books site (see sidebar), and many of their titles.

Here they report on Amazon's plan to stick advertising in your Kindle experience -- perhaps on the welcome screen, and perhaps even after you have paid for and been using a non-ad-infiltrated Kindle for years.

Interesting that an ad exec gets it that people won't like that, but I wonder if Bezos knows better. Of course we won't *want* to pay and then have to look at ads. Yet... cable TV gets away with it. At first, "pay TV" promised no ads, too. Now, the no ads channels are premium and even though we pay monthly for cable, we have to watch ads on most channels. Maybe Amazon is onto something akin to the frog in hot water thing -- if they introduce the ads gradually enough, they will slip by us. I don't own a Kindle, but I use the PC app. I'd uninstall it if it came to that, tho.

Men's Fiction=Not About Women?


Esquire plans to publish men's fiction ebooks:

His [David Granger, editor in chief of Esquire] definition of men’s fiction? Work that is “plot-driven and exciting, where one thing happens after another,” he sa “And also at the same time, dealing with passages in a man’s life that seem common.” At The NY Times blogs.

And scarcely feature real women, or women's lives? Remember the Little Rascals' He-Man Woman Haters Club? Why is it that men will not read fiction by and about women, while women have no such compunction about fiction by/about men? Do men spend their whole lives separating from mom? Defining themselves as "not women"? Curious. Or is most of what we call literature just not interesting to most men for some other reason?

The Agony of Writing


I hate to write. I have to force myself every day to sit down and begin. This is the first thing that I always tell students, who have absorbed the peculiar modern notion that if you are practiced at something you must find it effortless and pleasurable. Sometimes they ask how I continue, and I reply, glibly, "Because of contractual obligation." But I only manage because I live a humdrum life, in which the drama takes place mainly on the page.
Anna Quindlen at the Wall St. Journal.
You don't know what it is to stay a whole day with your head in your hands trying to squeeze your unfortunate brain so as to find a word. Ideas come very easily to you, incessantly, like a stream. With me it is a tiny thread of water.... Ah, I certainly know the agonies of style.
Gustave Flaubert to George Sand, from The George Sand-Gustave Flaubert Letters, p. 29. The book can be read in its entirety there. Is writing always an agony? Are any writers crowing about how easy it all is? I haven't found them. I wonder. Maybe we love to hear and read stories because then the work is done for us, and we love them in direct relation to how much work we have not had to do. It would explain the love of "doorstop" books. So much harder to tell or write stories ourselves, and the longer they are, the harder it is.

Women's Literary Fiction


After recently having a frustrating "discussion" with a male friend who insisted that "women don't write big books," this NY Times article from Meg Wolitzer points out not only that we do, but are not taken seriously, but that when men write "women's," they are taken much more seriously than women. Here she is on The Marriage Plot: 'If "The Marriage Plot," by Jeffrey Eugenides, had been written by a woman yet still had the same title and wedding ring on its cover, would it have received a great deal of serious literary attention? Or would this novel (which I loved) have been relegated to “Women’s Fiction,” that close-quartered lower shelf where books emphasizing relationships and the interior lives of women are often relegated? Certainly “The Marriage Plot,” Eugenides’s first novel since his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Middlesex,” was poised to receive tremendous literary interest regardless of subject matter, but the presence of a female protagonist, the gracefulness, the sometimes nostalgic tone and the relationship-heavy nature of the book only highlight the fact that many first-rate books by women and about women’s lives never find a way to escape “Women’s Fiction” and make the leap onto the upper shelf where certain books, most of them written by men (and, yes, some women — more about them later), are prominently displayed and admired.'Later, on the subject of big-in-size books: 'My sense is that like most men, most women are writing at the length they want to write — but they’re not always getting the same reward. Men like Ian ­Mc­Ewan and Julian Barnes have written very short, highly regarded and widely read books in recent years. Yet if a woman writes something short these days, particularly if it’s about a woman, it risks being considered minor. (“Spare” is the oft-used word of faint praise.) Yet if, on the other hand, a woman writes a doorstop filled with free associations about life and love and childbirth and war, and jokes and recipes and maybe even a novel-within-a-novel, and anything else that will fit inside an endlessly elastic membrane, she risks being labeled undisciplined and self-indulgent.'And on the timing:'It seems no coincidence that some of the most esteemed women writing today — Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Marilynne Robinson — came to prominence at an unusual moment in time when the women’s movement could be felt everywhere. Stories, long and short, and often about women’s lives, suddenly mattered to the cultural conversation. This period, the 1970s and to an extent the early ’80s, initially appeared to create an entirely different and permanent reality for female fiction writers. Men were actively interested in reading about the inner lives of women (or maybe some just pretended they were) and received moral kudos for doing so. Whereas before that a lone woman might be allowed on the so-called men’s team, literary women began achieving critical mass and becoming more than anomalies. But though this wave of prominent authors helped the women who followed, as time passed it seemed harder for literary women to go the distance. As Katha Pollitt, the poet and literary critic, says: “I think there’s always space for a Toni Morrison or a Mary McCarthy, but only one of them at a time. For every one woman, there’s room for three men.”'Jane Smiley, on this phenomenon:'Jane Smiley, who won a Pulitzer in 1992 for “A Thousand Acres,” said: “When I think about my own work, I think that it maybe falls between two stools, and sometimes this is good and sometimes it’s bad — not making the money that Jodi Picoult is making, not achieving the status of Franzen or Wallace. Nevertheless, one of the great things for our g[...]

Writers' Bedrooms?


Some of these are kind of predictable, Emily Dickinson's New England bedroom, e.g. Truman Capote's looks a bit austere until you realize it's just his room in his beach house. Anyway, I thought they were fun, even if we should be reading instead. Pictured is Henry David Thoreau's bedroom at Walden. It's also his living room and work room.

Urban book swap, next chapter: Phone booth libraries



The ubiquity of phone booths is interesting because they are completely obsolete, unevenly distributed in outlying neighborhoods and they carry a strong sense of nostalgia with me. They've already evolved from their original function as person-to-person communication technology into their second iteration as pedestrian-scaled billboards. I wanted to see if there is a third option in that, yes, they get our eyes for advertising dollars, but they can also give value back to a neighborhood. I was most interested in turning what is perceived as an urban liability into an opportunity.

And what more can you say about books? They're the greatest things ever, and everyone should have more.
-- John Locke, Department of Urban Betterment

Of course, there have been a few glitches:

So far only two booths have been converted. There will absolutely be more. Each iteration has to be judged to see what works, both in terms of siting and how to engage the public. For instance, the first test was in a more remote block. The books were neither marked, nor were any instructions given. After a few days the books were gone. I added more, and those too were removed within a few days. After another two weeks, the shelves disappeared.

I find this story appealing, but why phonebooths? In case the person you call puts you on endless hold? Or is a boring conversationalist? I thought laundromats were the swap libraries of choice these days.

No E-Books for You


Melville House reports that Penguin has stopped selling e-books to libraries, in the fear that borrowing them will become too "frictionless" and will cut into book sales.

"That means four out of the Big Six publishers — Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, Hachette, and now Penguin — have made their ebooks unavailable to libraries. HarperCollins makes its books available, but in a deal that restricts each ebook to 26 circulations — a deal that has been angrily criticized by librarians. Only Random House, with its own announcement last week, allows libraries unrestricted circulation of its ebooks."

I know the intent is to keep people buying actual books made of paper, but what will the effect be? With fewer bookstores, independent or otherwise, to introduce people to books, and with libraries unable to keep all the physical books in the world on hand for browsing, won't this just mean reduced access to books? Some libraries, like mine, participate in a network-lending system. I can borrow any book in the mid-Hudson system by requesting it, but they still don't have everything, and the books they tend to get rid of are the same older books that nobody is requesting any more. Will it amount to the same thing, sooner or later, or are the librarians putting their heads together to make sure there is at least one volume of each in the system? How much easier would it be to have them all as e-books?

Retailers will boycott Amazon-published books


"Late Friday, just days after the country’s biggest brick-and-mortar chain, Barnes & Noble, announced it would not sell books published by Amazon because its “actions have undermined the industry as a whole” (see our earlier report), two more giant chains announced they were joining the boycott: the 200+ stores of the country’s second biggest bookseller chain, Books-A-Million (BAM), and Canada’s number one book retailer, Chapters Indigo." From Melville House Press.

I can understand why they want to do this, but somehow I doubt they will be successful at getting Amazon to back down. The time to take action is past. Amazon is now big enough to do whatever it wants, including opening retail stores to compete with Barnes and Noble and others. In fact, this boycott may push them to exactly that. We might wind up with ONE major source of books... A scary thought, however well-intentioned Amazon might be.

Drop a Nintendo for Peace


"We should think about terrorism not as a battle between Islam and the West but as a battle within Islam, says author Salman Rushdie. And video games might just be the way to resolve this conflict. 'I often think that the best way to liberate Iran is just to drop Nintendo consoles from the air. And Big Macs,; he tells us."

Maybe he's onto something. Crime has decreased since young men have gotten so involved in video gaming...

"In his Big Think interview, the literary giant tells us about how video games influenced his newest novel 'Luka and the Fire of Life.' As he proves in this and previous novels, fantasy can be a vehicle for writing about truth. That is after all the whole premise of fiction. 'We don’t need to know that Anna Karenina really existed; we need to know who she is and what moves her and what her story tells us about our own lives,' he says. 'Once you accept that stories are not true, then you understand that a flying carpet and Madam Bovary are untrue in the same way, and as a result both of them are ways of arriving at the truth by the road of untruth and so then they can both do it the same way.'"

Voldemort: He who cannot help but be hot?


Apparently. Ralph Fiennes reads erotic fan fiction. I have no idea what Mme LeStrange thinks of this. Fiennes seems to think it's a bit silly...

Happy Books at McDonald's


McDonald's is replacing its Happy Meal toys with books, at least in the UK. The first selection is Michael Morpurgo's Mudpuddle Farm series. Adults will recognize the author of WAR HORSE, recently made into a movie. At Huffpo.

My first reaction to this was, Great! But then I thought, I hope they also replace their Happy Meals food with something nutritious for kids to eat, some real food, not things that can be kept on the shelf for years without going bad... cf. The Burger That Wouldn't Die.

Good to start somewhere, tho, as parents will still be taking kids to Mickey D's.

Hijacking your reward circuits


Since 1992, as the technological miracles and wonders have propagated and the political economy has transformed, the world has become radically and profoundly new. (And then there’s the miraculous drop in violent crime in the United States, by half.) Here is what’s odd: during these same 20 years, the appearance of the world (computers, TVs, telephones, and music players aside) has changed hardly at all, less than it did during any 20-year period for at least a century. The past is a foreign country, but the recent past—the 00s, the 90s, even a lot of the 80s—looks almost identical to the present. This is the First Great Paradox of Contemporary Cultural History.
Article in Vanity Fair.

Technology is changing, but fashion, weirdly, is not, and don't forget the drop in violent crime as former bad guys are riveted to their seats playing video games.

Maybe it's Internet Compulsion Disorder. Article in The Atlantic.

The right swipe on the touch screen in Angry Birds delivers an instant hit. The constant updating on Facebook pages with interesting tidbits from friends generates the warm feelings that come from close engagement with the "in" crowd. will link you up with "singles within a few miles from you who can meet you tonight" -- no need to go through eHarmony's tedious process of communicating with someone before a face-to-face meeting.

Yes, everything is getting faster and more addictive, and now even old-fashioned online dating sites are too slow! It's funny to think people are meeting in the same kinds of clothes, tho. Anything new since fleece? Should we all go back to wool sweaters? Tie dye? Big shoulder pads? Reading and writing books instead of quick online articles and blogs? Web surfing is fun, all those quick, little satisfying facts, such as that fashion has not changed very much lately.

Amazon, for $5


“The law has long been clear that stores do not invite the public in for all purposes. A retailer is not expected to serve as a warming station for the homeless or a site for band practice. So it’s worth wondering whether it’s lawful for Amazon to encourage people to enter a store for the purpose of gathering pricing information for Amazon and buying from the Internet giant, rather than the retailer. Lawful or not, it’s an example of Amazon’s bare-knuckles approach.” Scott Turow's reply to Richard Russo. Amazon's Jungle Logic.

By now, everyone has probably heard of Amazon's "promotion" in which we are encouraged to shop in a physical store but then buy the item from Amazon and receive a $5 discount. It seems most people feel that this is not only fighting dirty, but it's an example of the 800-lb gorilla fighting dirty. The authors Russo asked agree, calling it, "scorched-earth capitalism" (Dennis Lehane) and "invasive and unfair" (Stephen King).

Writer and bookstore owner Ann Patchett said, "There is no point in fighting them or explaining to them that we should be able to coexist civilly in the marketplace. I don’t think they care. I do think it’s worthwhile explaining to customers that the lowest price point does not always represent the best deal. If you like going to a bookstore then it’s up to you to support it."

Publishers Weekly... and crime


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My mechanic recently reminded me of that scene in The Graduate when Benjamin is informed that the future is in plastics. I was paying with a different kind of plastic at the time.

The literary future, at least near the top of this list, seems to be in crime fiction:


1. "Explosive Eighteen" by Janet Evanovich (Bantam)

2. "11/22/63" by Stephen King (Scribner)

3. "The Litigators" by John Grisham (Doubleday)

4. "Kill Alex Cross" by James Patterson (Little, Brown)

5. "V Is for Vengeance" by Sue Grafton (Marian Wood)

6. "Micro: A Novel" by Michael Crichton and Richard Preston (Harper)

7. "The Best of Me" by Nicholas Sparks (Grand Central Publishing)

8. "Zero Day" by David Baldacci (Grand Central Publishing)

9. "Devil's Gate" by Clive Cussler and Graham Brown (Putnam Adult)

10. "The Christmas Wedding" by James Patterson, Richard DiLallo (Little, Brown)

11. "IQ84" by Haruki Murakami (Knopf)

12. "The Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes (Knopf)

13. "A Dance with Dragons" by George R.R. Martin (Bantam)

14. "The Snow Angel" by Glenn Beck and Nicole Baart (Threshold Editions)

15. "The Marriage Plot: A Novel" by Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux)

List from HuffPo.

Cultivating Vonnegut


Somehow, I thought he had that hair his whole life. Like Einstein.

"As the publication date drew near for Slaughterhouse-Five, on which Vonnegut had worked, fitfully, for 20 years, he brooded over his author photo. He was clean-cut, clean-shaven, a bit paunchy—in 1969, an unlikely candidate for cultural eminence. He decided “to cultivate the style of an author who was in.” “To meet the expectations of his audience was key,” Mr. Shields writes. “He lost weight, allowed his close-cropped hair to become curly and tousled, and grew a moustache. … He looked like an avant-garde artist and social critic now, not rumpled Dad-in-a-cardigan.” His upper lip would never reappear. Slaughterhouse-Five became a number-one New York Times best-seller, and its tousled (not rumpled) author became an icon of the counterculture."

New bio out, story at NY Observer.

Neil Gaiman on the Simpsons = Awesome


The episode is free on hulu for a few more days. I've linked it from the Huffington Post. The Book Job. I love the way they drew him, and the episode is awesome -- from the keeled over lit majors to the tuna salad and beyond.

Interview with Neil.

“Truthfully, the real-life me almost never hangs around in Barnes & Noble-like bookstores waiting to find a group of local townsfolk who have decided to write a pseudonymous young-adult fantasy series, offering my services — and even if I did, I probably wouldn’t be doing the catering!”

Stephen King and home heating oil - Do they mix?


Apparently. Salon (and others) reports that his charitable foundation is donating $70,000 to help Maine residents pay for heating oil now that state aid is being cut. The foundation will match individual donations to that level.

Zen of Writing is happy to note that 11/22/63, King's latest book, is on our reading list. 11/22/63 has made the year's top books' lists at the New York Times and the Globe and Mail, and no doubt many other best-of lists as well.

Support Independent Bookstores! And Small Presses!


From Salon:

"An independent bookstore brings a lot to a city or a town: a showroom for the latest literary releases, an auditorium where authors share their work and meet their fans, a bookish environment in which to sip coffee and a fun place to browse in the 20 minutes before the movie starts. But what’s less immediately visible is your local bookseller’s expertise and influence when it comes to introducing great books to your community and, ultimately, to the world."

And, I'd like to add, consider books from smaller presses as well as those from big publishers. Lots of fascinating, hard-to-categorize books fall through the cracks because books often need to conform to genre categories or big publishers won't touch them. Smaller presses do a great job of keeping these books alive.

Poets and Writers magazine has a convenient database of small presses.

Books that have come from small presses include:

The Wind-Up Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade Books). I loved this book, set in a sodden, futuristic Bangkok.
Tinkers, by Paul Harding, Pulitzer Prize winner (Bellevue Literary Press).
The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Europa Editions).
Out Stealing Horses (Graywolf Press).

Pasta and Murakami's Tokyo


My theory is that Haruki Murakami loves pasta. First, there's all the spaghetti getting boiled in his books. Now, in 1Q84, Tengo orders seafood linguine at the Nakamuraya cafe with Fuka-Eri, whose book he is going to rewrite.

Unless you are familiar with Japanese cafes, or perhaps with Beard Papa's, the cream puff franchise, you might not picture the cafe correctly. Very bright, bright lights, bright colors, more fast food-looking than a place to eat linguine. That's the coffee shop, anyway, above. There are apparently several eateries under the same roof. Shinjuku Nakamuraya.

I'm a Murakami fan, so I enjoyed the pics at the NY Times. Murakami's Tokyo.

Arsenic and Jane Austen


Interesting theory that the novelist was either murdered with arsenic or, more likely, poisoned accidentally. Arsenic was prescribed for various ailments at the time.

It's a debilitating poison that does not kill that quickly. I remember meeting someone whose spouse tried to kill him that way, but his doctor figured it out in time. Unfortunately, it ruined his health, anyway. Amazing that it was once prescribed as a medicine.