Taking Time

I don’t often make or take time to read fiction. Not because I don’t like it, quite the contrary. I do like it, but it’s not work, and being something of a workaholic, time allocations for “reading for pleasure” are sparse. Most often I indulge when travelling. Last week I mentioned The Time Traveler’s Wife. I read about a third of it and enjoyed the writing, but was bored. I never felt compelled to ask “and then what happened?” If you are a long-time DevraDoWrite reader you may be shocked, as I have written that once started, I found it hard to not force myself to finish a book — that was then, I seem to have surmounted that difficulty now.

For my plane ride home I started reading The Wife by Meg Wolitzer. Here’s the opening:

The moment I decided to leave him, the moment I thought, enough, we were thirty-give thousand feet above the ocean, hurtling forward but giving the illusion of stillness and tranquility. Just like our marriage, I could have said, but why ruin everything now? Here we were in first-class splendor, tentatively separated from anxiety; there was no turbulence and the sky was bright, and somewhere among us, possibly, sat an air marshal in dull traveler’s disguise, perhaps picking at a little dish of oily nuts or captivated by the zombie prose of the in-flight magazine. Drinks had already been served before takeoff, and we were both frankly bombed, our mouths half open, our heads tipped back. Women in uniform carried baskets up and down the aisles like a sexualized fleet of Red Riding Hoods.

“Will you have some cookies, Mr. Castleman? a brunette asked him, leaning over with a pair of tongs, and as her breasts slid forward and then withdrew, I could see the ancient mechanism of arousal start to whir like a knife sharpener inside him, a sight I’ve witnessed thousands of times over all these decades. “Mrs Castleman?” the woman asked me then, in afterthought, but I declined. I didn’t want her cookies, or anything else.

We were on our way to the end of the marriage…

Publishers Weekly said “A tale of witty disillusionment…a devestating message about the price of love and fame.” And a blurb from Katha Pollitt says “…witty, deft, hilarious sentences that add up to so much tragic understanding of life…”

According the the back cover copy, Mr. Castleman “is one of America’s preeminent novelists, about to receive a prestigious international award” and Mrs. Castleman “who has spent forty years subjugating her own literary talents to fan the flames of his career, has finally decided to stop.” I’m likely to finish reading this one. It’s a slender volume, won’t take up too much time…

Time Traveller

I just started reading The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. The story is bizarre but the writing is lovely. In the prologue the premise is explained: this guy comes and goes from the present quite suddenly and without will, travelling in time, while his wife leads a normal linear life. When I read the last two sentences of the prologue, however, I thought perhaps they might have been uttered by an artist who lives so much in and for his or her art that other people are often excluded. Here are the two sentences:

I hate to be where she is not, when she is not. And yet, I am always going, and she cannot follow.

On a much less poetic note, actually more political, it seems that we are all going backwards in time to an era of censorship and fear. The thought police are visible today. The AP Wire reports

The FCC said an episode of the CBS crime drama ”Without a Trace” that aired in December 2004 was indecent, citing the graphic depiction of ”teenage boys and girls participating in a sexual orgy.”

CBS objected, saying the program ”featured an important and socially relevant storyline warning parents to exercise greater supervision of their teenage children.”

Some perspective is provided in a related NY Times article

Many complaints are lodged in large numbers by organized groups and not by independent viewers

Keeping Up

With too little time and too much info to process, we create ways to filter the input. When it comes to the newspaper, some read headlines, some check out only certain sections. I do not like the feel of newsprint, or the dirty fingertips it leaves me with. I also don’t like the size of the page, although I do remember how my grandfather taught me to fold the paper in vertical quarters and then in horizontal half, making it possible to handle and turn pages without creating a total mess. My solution is to peruse The New York Times online, top three headlines in Top Stories, National, and Business, plus all headlines in Arts.

Today a headline caught my eye Violinist With an Air of Vulnerability — I clicked and at the top was a photo with this caption: “Christian Tetzlaff’s playing emphasizes subtlety over pyrotechnics and volume.” Christian who? If I had been paying attention to the classical music world, I might have known that Christian Tetzlaff was named “Instrumentalist of the Year” by Musical America in 2005, and is “internationally recognized as one of the most important violinists of his generation”

I never heard of him, but DevraDoWrite followers will correctly assume that the photo caption (specifically the words “subtlety over pyrotechnics and volume”) was more than enough to intrigue me.

Reading the article was a double surprise discovery – first of a wonderful violinist new to my ears, and second, the writing of Jeremy Eichler, a word artist. Here’s the opening graf:

Christian Tetzlaff’s recital with Lars Vogt here in October could have been just another pleasant night of violin and piano at the Kimmel Center. But when Mr. Tetzlaff eased into the autumnal first movement of Brahms’s G major Sonata, the hall shrunk by half. Building up from a stage whisper, he spun one long sinuous line after another, perfectly distilling the wistfulness at the heart of this music, its careful blending of honey and rue.

With the first sentence arousing a nibble of curiosity (if it wasn’t just another pleasant night, what was it?), the second sentence drawing me in (what does he mean by “the hall shrunk by half?), by the end of the third sentence I was hooked by Eichler’s own sinuous line of carefully blended words. Here’s one more taste of Eichler’s homage to Tetzlaff:

… his playing possesses qualities that are rarer and more radical: a poignant sense of inner life and emotional authenticity, a technique of exquisite subtlety and an interpretive freedom that is grounded in the score yet at the same time wildly imaginative. He may not have the stomach or the swagger to become a high-wattage star in today’s image-conscious classical music world, but his playing is a bracing example of substance over packaging, and a humble reminder of the richness that a simple unadorned recital can still deliver.

Clearly Tetzlaff deserves a listen, and my reading list will include Eichler’s articles from now on.

Mia Culpa

I remember vividly the day I got caught. It was during my first residency for my MFA in Creative Nonfiction. There I was, in my dorm room at Goucher College, arguing the finer points of narrative arcs and story complications and turning points, when my girlfriend, no doubt looking for a fine example to make her point, reached over, picked up a paperback book from the floor near my bed, and shrieked: “How could you?!” My deep dark secret had been discovered – I liked to fall asleep reading “junk,” a/k/a dime-store novels or what some might call trashy novels, certainly nothing that qualifies as Literature and therefore not something that requires I pay much attention or recollect anything when I’m done. In fact, I remembered so little of these “quick reads” that too-often I purchased one only to find after the first chapter that I’d read it before.

OK, maybe I’m taking a little Frey-sian license here, as my memory of this event is not all that vivid – I do not remember which book she discovered, or even who the author was (maybe Nora Roberts? I know it wan’t Danielle Steele). I’m not even sure that she shrieked, although I am positive that she never let me forget about it…even to this day.

So what brings on this memory this morning? It’s Janet Maslin’s review in The New York Times, juxtaposing new books by Joann Harris (“Gentlemen & Players”) and Jackie Collins (“Lovers & Players). “In Playgrounds Tweedy or Seedy, It’s All in the Game” (the article’s title) Maslin says “gamesmanship may be sexier than any of the above”, where any of the above refers to such things as booty, politicking and name-dropping.

I read one of Harris’ books, “Chocolat,” and liked it (I also liked the movie), so I may well read this new one. I stopped reading Collins awhile back, so I’ll pass on her latest. But don’t get the wrong idea about me. I’m no more high-brow today than I was back then, it’s just that I traded in the bed-time paperbacks for one-hour tv-dramas, feeding my current addiction with CSI, Law & Order, Criminal Minds, Numbers, and, on the lighter side, Grey’s Anatomy.

I Just Bought Yet Another Book

DevraDoWrite devotees know that writer Walt Harrington is one of my gods (if you did not know that go here and here and here and here). I recently learned that his new anthology, The Beholder’s Eye: A Collection of America’s Finest Personal Journalism, is now available from Grove Press. With this collection Walt celebrates what he calls the “oft-belittled personal journalism form.” Amazon’s Book Description portrays the collection’s contributors as “reporters who were willing to reveal themselves in order to bring readers insights that were deeper than supposedly objective third-person stories.” This is the type of writing to which I aspire.

This is a must read…and so grows my reading list.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Did you read Charles R. Cross’ review of Peter Guralnick’s new book in last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times? It sounds like Guralnick was between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

“Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke” must be considered the authoritative rendering of the singer’s short life. Ten years in the making, filled with both minutiae and a sweeping backstory, “Dream Boogie” is a testament to Guralnick’s skill as a researcher, even if at times that very strength diminishes the story’s narrative arc.

Narrative arc is a crucial structural element in good storytelling, and it requires a sharp editorial knife to excise all that is not relevant to THE story, whatever that is defined to be. It seems that the best memoirs and biographies — best meaning most readable and engaging for the average person — are those that focus on a theme or particular revelation/transformation. Those weighty soup-to-nuts tomes, even when well-written, are likely to be lauded only by academicians and aficionados; they’re a hard ad heavy read for John and Joanne Doe.

Not that I’m agreeing with Cross — I haven’t read the book yet.

Cross also wrote:

The biggest problem with “Dream Boogie” is not one of Guralnick’s making: The more we learn about Sam Cooke, the less we like him and, correspondingly, the less we care about his music.”

If that’s true, it is sad, because Guralnick cared enough to spend ten years writing the book and, as Cross points out, “Cooke was a truly groundbreaking artist…” But nobody wants to hear a story about someone they don’t care about — audiences need to identify with, love and cheer for, or love to hate the main character — indifference is fatal.

There’s another fine line to be walked; it’s the line between straight reporting and explaining, the latter of which may include value judgments. In Cross’ opinion, Guralnick may have cared too much. Cross writes:

Much as he did when writing about Elvis, Guralnick relies on a straightforward style of narration that leaves no room for judgment or explanation of Cooke’s life. But whereas Guralnick had enough distance from Elvis to give readers a fly-on-the-wall feel, here he seems at times affected by a biographical Stockholm syndrome — so in love with his subject that he can excuse any character flaw. Guralnick is clearly enthralled with Cooke…

So what’s a writer to do? Should we stick to the facts and let readers draw their own impressions? What if the guy/gal is not so likeable, but is important and interesting if the story can be told — should we then offer more explanation? If we do, will readers and critics say “who made you judge and jury, or protector?” And going back to the beginning dilemma, if we sift through a life to bring you THE story as we see it, will we not be pilloried for insufficient research and leaving out facts?

Delicious dilemmas or hellacious headaches for the narrative biographer.

Fact or Fiction? Go Write A Novel

Okay, I’m at least twelve hours late. I intended to post a quick entry this morning about Capote, the movie, which I saw and liked very much, but along the path to posting I got waylaid thinking about the fact versus fiction argument that springs eternal, especially when Capote’s name is mentioned. Before I lead you through my own digression, let me say that the acting in the three main roles — Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, Catherine Keener as Nelle Harper Lee, and Clifton Collins Jr. as Perry Smith — was outstanding. Their characterizations were incredibly understated and immensely powerful, no small feat, especially for the role of Truman Capote.

The movie is based on the book Capote by Gerald Clarke, which I have not read. Actually, I had not even planned to read it, but after reading Capote: A Biographer’s Story, a two-page essay in the Sony Pictures press kit (pages 5 and 6) in which Gerald Clarke explains how he came to write the book, with Capote’s cooperation, I think I will read the biography. In a process that lasted more than thirteen years, Clarke personally met and got to know all the main characters, except of course the two killers who were executed so he based his knowledge of them on the lengthy letters they wrote to Truman.

Clarke reports that he worked closely with screenwriter Dan Futterman, allowing him to use the letters to create dialog for the movie. Bennett Miller, the film’s director, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Truman, peppered him with questions about Truman’s habits and gestures, and Hoffman studied audio tapes of his conversations with Capote to recreate Truman’s voice patterns and inflections. Clarke believes that Hoffman “has done more than impersonate Truman. For the length of the movie he has resurrected him.”

That’s a ringing endorsement if I ever heard one, so I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the movie or the book…unless I choose to question Clarke’s ability to ferret real fact from Truman Capote’s self-serving, ego-aggrandizing reflections and recollections, or wonder if Clarke’s relationship with Capote was fraught with the same quality of duplicity that permeated Capote’s relationship with Perry.

It would be an easier existence if things could simply be right or wrong, true or false, fact or fiction, but like water is to earth, 70-75% of life seems to fall within the gray area, neither black nor white, fish nor fowl.

Mr. CultureSpace says

I don’t know how accurate Capote is, and, to a certain extent, it doesn’t matter. A film, I have always believed, must work within its own parameters; its faithfulness to its source material is secondary, if it matters at all….

To which Terry Teachout replies

O.K., I take the point—but what if the “source material” is the historical record? Does it “matter” if an artfully made docudrama contains significant distortions that large numbers of ordinary folk come to regard as the whole truth and nothing but?
Just asking.

I draw a line between the fictive nature of one’s memory and the conscious manipulation of information. I also draw a line at lying to one’s readers. I was outraged when I learned that Capote had created a fictional ending for In Cold Blood, but Edmund Morris’ use of a fictional character in Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, did not bother me because he not only disclosed, but explained the use of this literary license up front, describing it as ” a literary embodiment of the biographer’s own persona.” In the case of John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, I was disappointed to read his admission, at the very end, that he had “taken certain storytelling liberties, particularly having to do with the timing of events.” At least he did not keep it secret. His rationale? “Where the narrative strays from strict nonfiction, my intention has been to remain faithful to the characters and to the essential drift of events as they really happened.”

When writers say things like that, or use phrases like “the greater truth,” I have to wonder what a writer can possible do to make the truth greater than it really is. Some writers talk about the narrative needs, good storytelling forms and conventions, to which I say, if you can’t tell a story the way it really happened, go write a novel.

Yes, I know that’s my simplistic side talking, the one who sees only right and wrong. So when in doubt, I consult the masters of my craft, people such as Roy Peter Clark and Lee Gutkind.

Clark is a Senior Scholar at Poynter Institute, a non-degree school for journalists in Florida. In his piece titled The Line Between Fact and Fiction he wrote:

Hersey [author of Hiroshima] draws an important distinction, a crucial one for our purposes. He admits that subjectivity and selectivity are necessary and inevitable in journalism. If you gather 10 facts but wind up using nine, subjectivity sets in. This process of subtraction can lead to distortion. Context can drop out, or history, or nuance, or qualification or alternative perspectives.

While subtraction may distort the reality the journalist is trying to represent, the result is still nonfiction, is still journalism. The addition of invented material, however, changes the nature of the beast. When we add a scene that did not occur or a quote that was never uttered, we cross the line into fiction. And we deceive the reader.

This distinction leads us to two cornerstone principles: Do not add. Do not deceive.

Gutkind, despite being derisively dubbed the “Godfather of Creative Nonfiction” by James Wolcott in a Vanity Fair article a few years back, is a much respected author and teacher – actually the first to teach a creative nonfiction writing course at the university level. In The Creative Nonfiction Police, a December 2001 article in AWP (Associated Writing Programs), Gutkind asks:

Are we more deceived by Truman Capote, who did not take notes and relied on memory to retell the horrible story of the murder of the Clutter family in In Cold Blood, or Michael Chabon who disguised real characters and situations in his novel, Wonder Boys?

Maybe the issues are cloudy and the answers gray, but Gutkind does have a prescription for creative nonfiction writers:

First, strive for the truth.

Second, recognize the important distinction between recollected conversation and fabricated dialogue.

Third, don’t round corners—or compress situations or characters—unnecessarily.

Fourth, one way to protect the characters in your book, article, or essay is to allow them to defend themselves—or at least to read what you have written about them.

His conclusion:

Wherever you draw the line between fiction and nonfiction remember the basic rules of good citizenship: Do not recreate incidents and characters who never existed; do not write to do harm to innocent victims; do not forget your own story, but while considering your struggle and the heights of your achievements, think repeatedly about how your story will impact on and relate to your reader. Over and above the creation of a seamless narrative, you are seeking to touch and affect someone else’s life—which is the goal creative nonfiction writers share with novelists and poets. We all want to connect with another human being—as many people as possible—in such a way that they will remember us and share our legacy with others.

My conclusion:

Amen, and have a great weekend.

And oh, if you haven’t seen Capote yet, go.

So much to read…so little time

Thank you to Doug Ramsey a/k/a Rifftides, for introducing me (here) to An Overgrown Path . I may be late to the party, but no less appreciative of the fine sensibilities displayed there. I particularly enjoy the way many of the postings end:

If you enjoyed this post take an overgrown path to ____

The Monday October 10th post, Journey with Jack Reilly , led me to Michel Petrucciani. I knew Michel fairly well, wrote his press bio for Blue Note many years ago, hung out with him and his lady at the Grammy Awards one year, and still enjoy listening to his recordings, including a trio album that was not mentioned along the path – Power of Three features Michel, Jim Hall and Wayne Shorter live at the 1986 Montreux Jazz Festival. If memory serves, it made it to #2 on Billboard’s chart of Top Jazz Albums. The CD appears to be out of print (I saw some used ones at amazon.com), but the DVD is available at Tower, still my store of choice (if you do not know why, read this).

And speaking of Wayne Shorter, I really really need to make time to read Footprints, the Shorter biography by Michelle Mercer. It got lots of rave reviews from critics as well as from friends of Wayne. Deep In A Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker by colleague James Gavin is also newly added to my reading pile as it was a birthday gift from drummer Michael Stephans.

Caveat Lector Dictionaria/Encyclopedia

Every once in a while, I share one of the anagrams I found when plugging DevraDoWrite in at the Internet Anagram Server. Derivate Word is one that is appropriate for this post.

In my quest for truth and the proper use and spelling of words and facts, I naturally rely on dictionaries and encyclopedias. Webster’s II New Riverside University Dictionary sits on my desk, a Short Oxford English Dictionary is in my computer (on CD-ROM), Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music is on my bookshelf with other specialized tomes, and links to a number of online resources are bookmarked in my browser.

For fifty years I have trusted completely the entries found therein. (Okay, maybe only forty-four years as I didn’t learn how to use a dictionary until I was six). It never occurred to me to question a single definition…until now. Henry Alford informs us, in the pages of The New Yorker (August 29, 2005, page 32) that a made-up word appears in the New Oxford American Dictionary, and Richard Steins, one of the editors of the New Columbia Encyclopedia says, “It was an old tradition in encyclopedias to put in a fake entry to protect your copyright.”

The fake in New Columbia is Lillian Mountweazel, a photographer who died while on assignment for Combustibles Magazine, and the culprit in Oxford American is esquivalience, purported to mean “the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities.”

Talk about derivated words. I feel betrayed.


The Power of Stories — Whether in print or on the screen, whether real or imagined, stories that entrance also wield influence.

Ours is a culture where videos like “Girls Gone Wild” inspire campus copycats and even serious dramas like “CSI” inspire students to sign up for forensic-science courses in droves. It would not be so bad if “Commander” prompted some young viewers to study foreign affairs or even just buy a map. — From today’s The New York Times Arts section is a tv review of the new series Commander In Chief by Alessandra Stanley

The Power of Reputation — Tracy Kidder has written a memoir of his time in the military during the Vietnam War. I am a huge Kidder fan, having read and loved The Soul of a New Machine, House, Among Schoolchildren” and Mountains Beyond Mountains. I also read alot of memoirs, so of course I plan to read My Detachment — despite the largely negative review by Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times Book Review. Here’s a snippet fro Kakutani:

The format of this volume is similar in some respects to Mr. Kidder’s earlier nonfiction books…This time, however, the product is a lot more disappointing.
In those previous volumes, Mr. Kidder assumed the role of reporter and demonstrated a wonderful ability to capture the vicissitudes of his subjects’ day-to-day lives, doing so with large heapings of carefully observed details and a quiet, nonjudgmental respect for the stresses and strains of his subjects’ vocations. In this case, his memory for events more than three and a half decades ago proves a lot blurrier than his reportorial eye, and his sympathy for others has been replaced by a sour, mocking distaste for his own younger self. The result is a grudging and brittle little book that provides an unsatisfying portrait of the author as a narcissistic, self-dramatizing and oddly passive young man.

For me, the power of Kidder’s reputation outweighs th review. Read the whle thing here.