Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Tom Chiarella

There's been a steady stream of writers at Butler recently. Tom Chiarella held an intimate talk with us MFA's a few weeks ago. Chiarella's penned a few books but is probably most famous for his magazine writing: Esquire, The New Yorker, O: The Oprah Magazine and more. He's done a lot of golf writing, and was sited by Sports as "the best golf writer you never heard of."
Chiarella's talk was titled something like "MFA Stands for Mother F@cking Artist," which provocative enough to pull me out of my house on a Wednesday night in February. Chiarella's funny, honest, forthright, stream of consciousness speaking took us on a wild ride, as he recounted the path he took to become a writer, and the role of MFA programs in the newly upturned writing world. There was the gem of a story about how Anne Beattie advised him to submit to The New Yorker. He did, although it took him 23 tries to get a piece accepted there. And how Margaret Atwood put down all writing efforts but fiction. Still, Chiarella continued writing essays and publishing in magazines.
Chiarella, nothing if not earnest, ended with a semi-question, wondering out loud if his words gave us something of value. The message I walked away with was that today's writing world blurs boundaries and genres and eschews labels. And that if one wants to have his or her work read, and have others respond to it -- which was what Chiarella decided he wanted many years ago -- one must be dogged, be prepared to struggle, persevere and do whatever it takes.
There's something to be learned by anyone willing to share their own experiences. Tom's talk could be summed up as "write what you love, get your work out in the world any way you can, and never give up," and that's a valuable lesson, if ever there was one. But I'd never want to condense Tom's talk to those few points. The sweet and hilarious journey that Tom took us on to get to this advise stays with me still.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell

When I picked up David Mitchell's "Black Swan Green" I had no idea what to expect. Discerning readers raved about this author, but I hadn't read Mitchell's previous buzz-worthy offering, "Cloud Atlas," or anything else he'd written.

"Black Swan Green" is the story of Jason Taylor, a 13-year-old boy in a small village in England who navigates his adolescence while dealing with the burdens of a stammer and warring parents. I liked Jason. The problem I had with him is that most adults I know aren't able to articulate their feelings nearly as well as Mitchell's character. Although I believed a character like Jason would have felt the emotions Mitchell describes, I didn't believe for a minute he would be able to articulate those feelings. Because Jason tells his story with such an uncanny, supernatural level of self-knowledge the book lost its ability to completely engage me. I couldn't fully suspend disbelief. Ironically, Jason's unself-conscious, casual narration, full of 13-year-old boy colloquialisms, came off sounding self-conscious. I enjoyed Jason's story, and the lyrical voice he employed in telling it, but, in the end, did I buy it? No.

The other aspect of "Black Swan Green" that threw me had to do with structure. Perhaps if I was more of a short story fan and less of a novel or memoir fan, Mitchell's compilation of 13 separate, yet linked, stories would have satisfied, But I'm not. I know this about my "reading self" -- I need the author to hold my hand, to guide me through the narrative. The threads of the previous stories need to shine through the fabric of all that follows. If a story is presented as chopped up pieces of a whole I inevitably feel a disconnect, like I've been pushed to the periphery.

Novels are such multi-layered works of art. Despite the ways "Black Swan Green" didn't satisfy, there were components of the story that stayed with me. Like Emma Donoghue's "Room," in "Black Swan Green" Mitchell captures an engaging, compelling (if not fully authentic) young voice. I particularly enjoyed how Jason labeled the shadowy, negative speaking parts of his own personality "Unborn Twin," and "Hangman."

Books are way too complicated for a thumbs up, thumbs down rating system, don't you think?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Bob Hicok

When I was offered a place at Hicok's lunch table, I was psyched. Lunch with a poet! That's how I found myself, with 3 Butler poets, at Cafe Patachou, sitting across the table from Bob Hicok. I felt like I was inhabiting an alternative universe!
The great part about having lunch with Hicok is that I got the chance to ask him every little thing that entered my mind. And I'm a curious person, so I had a lot of questions. I had recently read his newest offering, "Words for Empty, Words for Full," and among other things was curious about his writing process and, specifically, the poem that spoke about the BRCA gene. I was also curious about Hicok's skepticism about traditional writing workshops, which I read in one of his interviews. I have to admit, though, that in the end, the lunch was a little mixed for me. First, because this was a lunch and not a class or an interview, I didn't feel comfortable taking notes. So although Hicok radiated intelligence and thoughtfulness, I can't remember any of his brilliant comments. Second, there's the matter of carbs. As in carbohydrates. Have I mentioned this, how I fall asleep when I consume them? I know this about myself (the first step is admitting you have a problem), and that's why I ordered an omelet for lunch. And it would have been a genius choice, if only I had not munched the toast that came with it. I didn't want to eat it, but the toast and I had a face-off and, in the end the toast won. Like an addict finally getting a fix, I scarfed down every last crumb. Sure enough, the toast kicked in just after lunch, just in time for Hicok's formal Q&A at Butler. Just when I had my pen and paper out, ready to take notes, my brain shut down, as if the waitress had spiked my water with a Rophy.
Despite this I managed to jot down a few coherent notes. Hicok was asked how he comes up with the ideas for his poems, and he remarked that he doesn't have an agenda when he sits down to write. The ideas arise on their own. He doesn't try to force them, and this makes his poems personal and keeps them from becoming preachy. When I asked him what he does when he is faced with a problem in his writing, he answered that he tries to relinquish control, that poems are served best when the focus is not on the result. (This is the comment that spoke to me the loudest.) When asked about the process of revision, Hicok answered that he often gets rid of entire poems, but that if a piece is not working it's often a matter of trying to find a new angle of entry into the poem.
Hicok said a poem is a facet of something that, for the writer, is ongoing. As a writer he keeps writing about the same thing over and over. (I think this is something prose and poetry have in common.)
When asked how he knows when a poem is finished, he said he writes a poem to follow something that interests him, and when he arrives at this point of interest, the poem is finished.
At this point, though, I was the one who was finished. The toast had toasted me and I was struggling to keep my eyes open. Nothing more embarrassing than fighting the head nod in front of the generous and thoughtful poet you just had lunch with!
Bob Hicok is not a fan of blogs. (In one of his interviews he called them "bogs.") He'll never see this, so he'll never know I was nodding off because of two slices of whole wheat. Still, I hope he is aware of the mark he left on Butler, and on me.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Alicia Erian

Early on this semester I volunteered to introduce author Alicia Erian when she came to Butler as part of the Vivian Delbrook Visiting Writers Series. I thought it would be interesting to mix it up, and have the Jew (me) introduce the Arab (her). (Actually, she's only half-Arab. Her father is Egyptian.) This was one of my more ridiculous ideas, as my knowledge of Middle East politics is sketchy, at best. What did I expect -- to debate her on the current unrest in the Arab world?
It wasn't until a few weeks later when I read her novel, "Towelhead," and watched the movie adaptation with the same name, that I realized Erian's overriding personal theme, wasn't ethnicity, but sex, which is a lot more interesting than politics, anyway.
I learned a lot from Erian, so much that it's hard to put it all into neat sentences, so I'll just share some of the highlights of my time with her. I first met her when she made surprise appearance at my Visiting Writers class. She leaned back in her chair and proved herself worthy of holding her own next to our instructor, Dan. Dan's a devoted teacher, but he's not known for his subtlety or demure nature. Next I trailed Erian to an undergraduate writing workshop. Here again she engaged fully in the discussion. She came to the class prepared, having read the student's work that was being discussed. Then I got the chance to join the group that was taking her to lunch, and it was there that her warmth really shined. She shared her life experiences and asked about ours.
I also had the privilege of joining her family (boyfriend and two young and delicious boys) for dinner that evening! Despite the busy day Erian remained engaged and gracious. Then came the very best part: her reading. Turns out Erian has switched tracks. She's no longer writing fiction, but is deep into a memoir (my favorite genre). We got a small taste of it that night and, let me tell you, it was fabulous. It had everything you want in a memoir: an engaging, personal voice, a lot of truth-telling (Erian is NOT shy!) and a compelling story.
And there's more! As if all this wasn't enough, I got to spend another hour with Erian the next day, interviewing her for Booth, Butler's literary magazine. In the interview I discovered how devoted Erian is to helping her students achieve their potential. I reflected back to her that she seems to have strong opinions about how her students should learn. She agreed, saying, "When they're with me they should do it my way. When they're with the next teacher, they should do it his way. In the end, they can see what works best for them." Makes sense to me.
Erian epitomizes the best qualities of a visiting writer, a writing teacher and a writer. She's a clear thinker, and is fearless in speaking the truth, whether in regard to her own life or the world around her. She's engaging, open-hearted, curious and generous. My only complaint is that I have to wait for the publication of her memoir.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, by David Sedaris

David Sedaris's essays are magic. His unflinchingly honest tales of his personal misadventures shine a light on the human condition. We can all see ourselves in Sedaris's stories of obsession and humiliation.
In "Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk" we get none of the Sedaris magic. There's not a human in sight. Vignettes are populated solely by animals and, unlike Sedaris's previous books, that resonate with readers by prompting us to think, or ponder life's vagaries, these stories have the feel of etudes -- whimsical exercises in creative writing with no deeper meaning attached. Both in content, and in the way the book failed for me, "Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk" reminds me of "Blue Beyond Blue," the most recent offering by another of my favorite authors, Lauren Slater. In Slater's earlier work she connected with readers through lightening sharp writing about her fraught relationship with her mother, her mental illness and her work as a psychologist. In "Blue Beyond Blue," though, Slater moves to something new -- a book of her own fairy tales and, in doing so, loses her personal connection with the reader.
"Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk" is a collection of fable-like animal stories. The animals are anthropomorphized. They gossip, cheat and misbehave like humans. But within the artifice of these stories something vital is lost; they don't do what Sedaris does best, connect. I love David Sedaris. I'll always love David Sedaris. But I look forward to his next book...which will hopefully be peopled with people.