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I Feel Your Mind

Discovering a new writer is always a surprise, especially as I consider myself well-read. Is this hubris? And how could I have missed Lydia Davis, not heard of her at all until I read the New Yorker profile in late March. She seemed instantly familiar, someone I might have chatted with for hours about her process—how she decides on a story, works just a few hours a day, has raised two boys, been married twice, makes use of the quotidian, makes use of people she knows and their conversations, always has a notebook in her purse to jot bits of dialogue, and so on. “I’m kind of always working in a sense,” she told Dana Goodyear in the New Yorker interview, “sitting and talking to my neighbors, I’m not really working, but I’m always sort of alert to things.”

Her work is not easily categorized, yet she won the 2013 Man Booker for fiction, fiction of just a few sentences, or a paragraph or two. Some have argued that they are prose poems? Are they?

Storytelling is problematic, explains Dave Eggars, who published Davis’ quirky stories in McSweeney’s before anyone. The sentences seem “handmade,” or “unmade,” or a “cool thing from an old junkyard.”

On the level of the words choices and sentences, Davis was admired by other writers before she had a lay audience, and now I know why; I have read a few of her sentences. They are precise, even cold in their precision. And they have an odd cumulative effect—restrained and compelling, restrained and funny. More so when she is reading aloud, as she did at NYU’s Writers House on Thursday night, part of the PEN World Voices Festival. I arrived late and grabbed a seat at the back behind a mirror, no line of sight at all, but a good loudspeaker. And within minutes I was laughing; I had become a fan.

Lydia Davis is an authentic and transparent writer who persists in writing without consideration for what is good for her career. She allows her readers to know her. She allows them to feel her mind. Whether she would have been published had she not been a translator with contacts in publishing, and had a first husband by the name of Paul Auster, is an open question. Somehow, I doubt it. Still, I am more than grateful that she has been published.

Discovering Lydia Davis has been exciting for me. Some years ago, I wrote similar stories and didn’t know what to call them, or what to do with them. A few were published, most are stored in my filing cabinet and on CD’s. Occasionally I add to the collection. Now I’m going to pull them out and have another look, and keep going with titles I’ve scribbled at the back of my journals. There has to be more than one writer like Lydia Davis who deserves to have her unconventional stories published. Maybe one of them is me.
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