"The book I'm looking for,' says the blurred figure, who holds out a volume similar to yours, 'is the one that gives the sense of the world after the end of the world, the sense that the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world."
- Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Writing Life and Brief Interviews

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

I would read a book where Annie Dillard describes folding laundry. A book about a life spent writing is not too far off that extreme. I read this book on a train ride from Portland to Seattle, and the slim volume was kind of perfect for the short trip.

If you've never read anything by Dillard, you should. You should go read a book she wrote called  A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, for which she won a Pulitzer. I think of her as a nature writer, though probably she would resent it. She's written memoir, mostly, and some essays, and a couple of novels. She's very poetic, and deeply connected to both the line on the page and to the natural environment. I realize that isn't very descriptive. Mostly, her books are nonfiction narratives about the sense of wonder &c that can come from nature and from life.

This is a very good book! Like all her books, it reminds me of a book of poems in that it begs to be revisited and is worth taking time to really chew on the lines. Here is a quote that might easily have become the rally cry of this blog (I did know it before I actually read the book) if it were as easy to turn into a title as Calvino's line:

“There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading -- that is a good life.” 
I've read a handful of books about writing. This is probably my fav. Dillard is poetic, but also frank about the boring, un-glamorous and un-romantic daily reality of working on a craft. Thumbs up! Very like!

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace

Literary young men my age all have a major crush on David Foster Wallace. Dude is just so smart! Also painfully self aware and kind of generous with himself. Go watch this interview with him and Charlie Rose. I'm very slowly making my way through his monstrous Infinite Jest, and when I finish it and make a post several months from now, I'll maybe talk more about DFW's (as his homies call him) appeal as a figure.

But this book is a collection of short stories. Or if not "stories" exactly, it's a collection of formal exercises: several fictional interviews with hideous men, a series of eight narratives framed as pop quizzes, a few stories called "Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders," page-long footnotes, and very few paragraph breaks.

A quick browse might put a reader off of this book. It's too clever, too formally experimental, too concerned with the way that people ramble in everyday speech. But Wallace is a very good writer, and I doubt that anyone is as aware of his ability to push the boundaries of obnoxiousness as he was. The stories and the writing remind me of the bounds that a novice writer imagines pushing ("What if I wrote a story that was kind of just, like, you know, an interview, but without the questions--just the way that people really talk, you know?") but abandons. Sometimes this makes the stories seem almost childish? But it's usually pretty nice to read.

And taking the time to parse the difficult language reveals a very human writer. Some of the pieces are really brilliant, some are very opaque, lots are in between. They're gloomy and dark, but moving. Worthwhile. You can listen to Wallace read several of the stories on YouTube.

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