Reporters & Subjects

January 25, 2011

I had nightmares two nights ago after nearly finishing “Zeitoun” by Dave Eggers: http://store.mcsweeneys.net/index.cfm/fuseaction/catalog.detail/object_id/73d53fd3-b86f-42e7-b8d4-7dd6e3a71d78/Zeitoun.cfm. My extremely elderly mother was reading it for her book club the last time I went up to see her. Because she was so upset, I downloaded the book onto my Kindle at her kitchen table and told her I would read it right away. If I’d ordered it from the McSweeney store, the Zeitoun Foundation would have received more of the proceeds. No matter, at least part of the payment to Amazon will go to the Zeitoun Foundation and be distributed to reputable NGO’s working to rebuild New Orleans.

"Zeitoun" is a masterful work of collaborative nonfiction writing, the subjects and the reporter working together to create an accurate narrative. The narrator/reporter, Dave Eggers, is entirely invisible and the prose is under-stated. It is reminiscent of John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” and just as compelling. “Hiroshima” was published in The New Yorker magazine in August 1946, a year after World War II ended. The article was based on Hersey’s interviews with atomic bomb survivors. Hersey recorded oral histories from the victims and shaped them into readable prose. He gave the victims a voice. Eggers has done the same with a New Orleans family who survived the Katrina disaster. The story of how Eggers found the family and the three-year process of creating the book can be read here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/mar/07/dave-eggers-zeitoun-hurricane-katrina.

I suggest you read the interview with Eggers—or others available on the internet—after you have finished the book as the dramatic tension does not abate until the last section. The reader lives the story with the Zeitouns in real-time as the events unfold again in the telling.

Over the years, Dave Eggers has become a writer of conscience whose work has a socially useful purpose. Such writing can often become simplistic, over-written, stereotyped, or polemical. But the masters of the form--Hersey, Eggers, Norman Mailer, Dillard and many others, avoid these pitfalls with a carefully constructed narrative persona, a reporter who remains in the background yet, ironically, is felt keenly by the reader as an empathic presence.

I remember talking once to Jonathan Kwitny, a Wall Street Journal reporter who wrote a book I was reviewing called "Endless Enemies: Americas Worldwide War Against Its Own Best Interests." Kwitny had served in the Peace Corps in Africa and he returned there as a mature reporter. I asked him why the horrific stories he was telling felt so understated and his reply was—and I paraphrase here—that he wanted to give the reader a chance to breathe and to feel his own emotions. Dave Eggers has done the same.

Do You Mind If I Say Something?

January 19, 2011

Sometimes, when I have a piece published—fiction or nonfiction or poetry—my first instinct is to send everyone I know a link and to sit back and hope they’ll reply instantaneously and acknowledge the brilliance of the prose (or poetry), to acknowledge that I am a wonderful writer (and person), and that there is no other writer they would rather read in the midst of their busy lives, or that what I have written resonated so deeply with their own experience that they are immensely grateful I have written it. I am still surprised when friends and family comment on what I have published in a negative way. Often, they will ask if I mind if they say something—a rhetorical question—though what this something is may be hurtful, insensitive or intrusive. Or they will praise the piece beyond its worth insincerely and then offer an interpretation of the deep subconscious meaning of the story based on what they know of my struggles and biography. This, I find, many people do with relish. Indeed, I do it myself with authors I read and don’t know because I love to read biographies of writers. But I don’t do it with writer friends I know. I leave that analysis to the pundits of future generations.

Recently, when I had a mildly autobiographical short story published in a worthy online magazine, I sent it round to friends and family and sat back and waited for the adoration and adulation I deserve. A few people said they enjoyed the story and that it was well written. Of course, I already knew that; it had been accepted for publication. One or two mentioned a typo or two or a more serious punctuation snafu. These comments were nitpicky and unhelpful. No writer requires correction after a piece has been published. What are people trying to say to me with these nitpicky comments? I am not sure but I think, in some way, I have made them uneasy and the nitpicky comments are a cover. If they have more courage, they will make comments about the underlying unconscious treasure trove from which the story was surely born. Even the literary nonfiction and journalism I write invites such comments. All this, after publication. I never show friends and family a draft in development. Their unfettered editorial voices might stop me cold.

I am always a bit stunned when a student begins a sentence with, “I read this draft to my boyfriend on the phone last night,” or “I showed it to my mother.” Albeit, there are many writing couples who share their work and are able to critique one another’s work—Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer come to mind—but that kind of relationship is rare.

It’s not that the people close to us, people in our lives, can’t be supportive, encouraging and nurturing of our efforts. It’s that they are too close, they are usually not writers, and they cannot help us develop the potential in our work. Or they may be writers but cannot see the work—your work—as separate from your biography. That is why every writer requires readers and, later, editors. And these readers have to be other writers or readers who are not familiar with our biography. The work has to stand on its own so that we can study it and revise it well on our own.

So, when a piece is done and I’ve sent it round, what do I want from my close circle of family friends? What is fair to expect? Truly, I don’t know. Yet, I keep sending my published work to family and friends most of the time. And then sometimes I don’t, for all the reasons iterated above.

I am reminded of an anecdote about Georgia O’Keeffe. Tired of the barrage of analysis about her paintings of flowers—they were often compared to vaginas—she shifted to skulls.


Slowed Down

January 16, 2011

Four months ago, I went on an off-trail hike with my daughter, some friends, and three frisky dogs. My back was hurting before I left but it was gorgeous day—sun shining, leaves turning—and I didn’t want to miss it. We explored fifty-eight acres of untouched wilderness, clambering over glacial rocks, felled trees, and shallow streams. The endorphins kicked in as soon as we descended into the shadows of the old growth forest and I felt no pain. I didn’t know I had injured myself until the next morning and have been recovering ever since. I haven’t stopped exercising—gently—or writing, but I have been slowed down and have only just finished the revision of my new book—a few weeks behind schedule but in plenty of time for the start of the new term. My new students will hear of my writer’s travails, including my inability to sit for long stretches. I’ll be carrying a special chiropractic pillow, standing up as I teach, and bending over during the break.

My chiropractor tells me that our species is not meant to sit for long stretches; our spines prefer the more feral posture of all fours. I tried this as I cleaned my bathroom the other day. It works. But writing is a different challenge. I remember reading about Ernest Hemingway’s stand-up desk—there is a company that has named a desk after him—and also Philip Roth. His latest book, “Nemesis,” is novella length. He either made a decision to keep his projects short or is in between larger books. The book is beautiful, by the way.

I had a friend in a writer’s group years ago who developed RSI (repetitive strain) and couldn’t work at the computer very much. She began to write very short stories. In the past, her prose had been sprawling and self-indulgent but the necessity of writing longhand changed her use of language. It became intense, and riveting. She had never written anything better and began to get published regularly. At the time, I took her experiences as a lesson to reduce my ambitions to manageable, realistic levels. I began to edit and revise in long-hand and I began experimenting with poetry, which distills language, thought, and experience. In other words, I slowed down.





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