WORD SEARCH with Adair Jones

Writers on Writing: Joyce Carol Oates

Posted in Fundamentals by Adair Jones on October 20, 2015

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1 Don’t try to anticipate an “ideal reader” – there may be one, but he/she is reading someone else.

2 Don’t try to anticipate an “ideal reader” – except for yourself perhaps, sometime in the future.

3 Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!

4 Unless you are writing something very avant-garde – all gnarled, snarled and “obscure” – be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.

5 Unless you are writing something very post-modernist – self-conscious, self-reflexive and “provocative” – be alert for possibilities of using plain familiar words in place of polysyllabic “big” words.

6 Keep in mind Oscar Wilde: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”

7 Keep a light, hopeful heart. But expect the worst.

 

from The Guardian

Lost in a blue cupboard

Posted in Musings..., Rediscovered by Adair Jones on November 8, 2011

Luck of the draw

Last week, my review of Sharell Cook’s Henna for the Broken-Hearted ran in The Courier-Mail and I reposted it here, mentioning that it may be the worst review I’ve ever written.  I’ve thought about it all week and felt it deserved further explanation. I’ve also thought quite a bit about the contemporary memoir and how the everyday world functions in it.

I’m not back-pedaling, now, when I say that it was a bit of bad luck for Cook that her book was sent to me when it was.  I stand by my review.  However, I also feel I must acknowledge the obvious: the reviewer’s background, preferences, attitudes, and opinions—even current circumstances—are built into the process of reviewing.

I respect writers and writing and the dedication it takes to produce a book—even a bad one.  When I’m sent a book for review, I remind myself that someone has spent hours crafting it and that, even if it’s not a genre I care for or a style I admire, the book must still be considered on its own merits.  If I’d had more space in my review of Henna for the Broken-Hearted, I might have been more nuanced; however, nothing changes my opinion that this particular memoir should not have been published.

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The contemporary memoir

I enjoy the genre in spite of the current flood.  It’s interesting to read about of the lives of others.  I’ve reviewed my fair share too: Joyce Carol Oates’ touching evocation of grief and loss in A Widow’s Story; Alice Pung’s bright light on the immigrant experience in Unpolished Gem; Kai Bird’s recollections of a childhood in the Middle East in Crossing Mandelbaum’s Gate.  Having liked The Year of Magical Thinking, I’m looking forward to reading Joan Didion’s Blue Nights.  Then, there’s Perfection by Julie Metz and Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen and, of course, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, which are all similar to Henna for the Broken-Hearted in subject matter and approach.

While I was thinking about all of this, it struck me that there are two kinds of memoir.  The first type offers a window onto remarkable events—growing up in the 1950s and 60s as the son of a US ambassador in the Middle East, for example, or being kidnapped (and freed) by Somali soldiers. The context for these stories makes the writing easier. The writer can let the facts speak for themselves.  The second type of memoir is just the opposite.  Instead of the remarkable, this kind of memoir deals precisely with the unremarkable, the everyday lives of ordinary people, something any of us might experience.  It therefore requires something ‘special’ in the telling.

All of us grow up and each of our lives unfolds uniquely.  And yet we all have many things in common.  Most of us will know what it means to have a broken heart. One day, each of us will experience devastating grief at the loss of a loved one. The question becomes: Why should we be more interested in one of these ordinary stories than in any of the other millions just like it?

We care about Oates’ memoir of sudden widowhood because she’s an incredible stylist.  Didion’s book on the same subject offers profound insights into marriage, parenthood, grief and loss.  Pung and Janzen treat the collision between how they were raised and the grown-up world they’ve chosen with humour, tenderness, and a deep appreciation for their origins.

When I read Henna for the Broken-Hearted, I was looking for that ‘special’ ingredient.  Instead, the memoir reads like a chronological recitation, and it feels patched together.  When I learned that Cook authors a blog about her life in India, things began to make sense.  The book had just the feel of blog posts only rearranged into a timeline.  While I read it, I kept wondering why I should care for this particular romance, if there was anything about the events she recounted that shed light on the human experience.

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Being lost

It was partly Cook’s misfortune that I’d just finished re-reading a very different kind of memoir, The War by Marguerite Duras, when I was sent her book for review.  Henna for the Broken-Hearted recounts Cook’s recent courtship and plods heavily through the terrain of the everyday.  In contrast, The War covers the weeks Duras awaited the return of her husband from Belsen immediately after the camp was liberated in 1945.  The memoir was published in 1986, more than forty years after the events, when Duras and the rest of us had the benefit of knowing what really happened in German concentration camps.  At the time she wrote it, of course, news was sporadic, uncertain, beset by rumours and misinformation.  Duras preserves this uncertainty, choosing not to provide commentary or offer insight gained over the intervening years.  The War is a raw document of history, a powerful testament to the experience of so many others who similarly awaited news of loved ones displaced through war.  And, although it’s written as a diary, filled with “various comings and goings”, the everyday melts away, transformed into the universal.

It begins like this:

I found this diary in a couple of exercise books in the blue cupboards at Neauphle-le-Château.
I have no recollection of having written it.
I know I did.  I know it was I who wrote it.  I recognize my own handwriting and the details of the story.  I can see the place, the Gare d’Orsay, and the various comings and goings.  But I can’t see myself writing the diary.  When would I have done so, in what year, at what times of day, in what house?  I can’t remember.
One thing is certain: it is inconceivable to me that I could have written it while I was actually awaiting Robert L.’s return.
How could I have written this thing I still can’t put a name to, and that appalls me when I reread it?  And how could I have left it lying for years in a house in the country that’s regularly flooded in winter?
The first time I thought about it was when the magazine Sorcières asked me for a text I’d written when I was young.
The War is one of the most important things in my life.  It can’t be called “writing”.  I found myself looking at pages regularly filled with small, calm, extraordinarily even handwriting.  I found myself confronted with a tremendous chaos of thought and feeling that I couldn’t bring myself to tamper with, and beside which literature was something of which I felt ashamed.

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It’s true that the book may have had less force if it had been published in the late 1940s when the world was tired of war stories. Duras had already published two not very good books by the war’s end (Les Impudents, 1943, and La Vie Tranquille, 1944), but she was known more for her activities in the Resistance than for her writing.  Had the memoir been published before Duras attained such a huge presence in literary and intellectual spheres, it might have made barely a ripple—who knows?

Then, there is something devastating about the fact that the diary remained unremembered for so long.  Remarkable that it was hidden in a couple of exercise books, stashed away in the blue cupboards in a house that regularly flooded.  The exercise books might have been washed away, destroyed, tossed out, turned to dust, burned in a fire, or forever forgotten about.  The fact that none of these things happened is astonishing enough, but that the story is so wrenching and immediate, so important, on top of being so very nearly lost, strains our nerves.  What else has been lost?  What other treasures have been forgotten, carelessly destroyed?

The fact that The War was discovered in time and finally published is a gift.

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The problem with blogging

In the 1940s, it was exercise books.  Today, it’s blogs.

With the same ease as purchasing a notebook, we can sign up with WordPress, pick out a design template, and expound two cents’ worth on any subject.  The difference between the old exercise books and today’s medium of choice is that it’s all so public and so right now.  This is a big problem.  Cook’s story might have been more interesting if it had been lost for a number of years.  Perhaps certain events will occur to make her romance representative or poignant or of historical worth.

If everyone has a voice and feels the need to broadcast it, what we end up with is a lot of noise.  And if all we’re writing about is our ambivalence toward parenthood, our annoyance with traffic jams and nosy neighbours, what we ate for breakfast, and how to get that stain out of our best shirt, we’re not commenting on anything really, we’re only perpetuating our own drudgery for others.

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A challenge 

It isn’t every day that one waits for a loved one to return from a concentration camp.  Duras’ wait was filled with days and the days with commonplace events—eating and not eating, sleeping and not sleeping, waiting by the phone.  The War connects us to a heightened experience of the everyday and to a deeper sense of our common humanity—just what a potent and worthy memoir should do.  My fear is that with so much self-profiling going on, with all that noise, the remarkable is being swept away on the riptide of the ordinary.  Sadly, we will be less for it.

I challenge everyone who writes to think carefully about what they put out there.  Could your story withstand being lost for four decades?  Would it be made better?

Review: A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates

Posted in review by Adair Jones on April 18, 2011

Joyce Carol Oates and Raymond Smith in 1972



A Widow’s Story is no ordinary exploration of grief. For one, it’s written by Joyce Carol Oates, one of the world’s greatest living writers, in her signature galloping, highly articulate style. Oates writes about the sudden death of her husband Ray, to whom she was married for more than forty-seven years, and of the paralyzing months spent coming to terms with this terrible loss. Throughout that time, she was pursued by a “beady-eyed basilisk lizard thing” hovering at the edge of her consciousness—her term for the lure of suicide, something she actively resisted.

This intimate account manages to transcend the personal. For such grief is universal, something all of us have or will experience. In the hands of someone as gifted with words as Oates, a light is cast on a subject not normally spoken about except in hushed voices.  And while A Widow’s Story is harrowing, it is also a comfort; the simple fact of putting pen to paper, naming the thing that threatens to destroy, offers strength.

Oates met Raymond Smith in 1960 in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Both studied English literature and shared a love of poetry, philosophy, ideas.  They went on to found the Ontario Review, which Ray edited for 34 years, and shared a quiet academic life.   A Widow’s Story is not only an examination of loss, but also a celebration of this long, fruitful marriage and a literary memoir of the highest sort.

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A Widow’s Story: A Memoir     

Joyce Carol Oates     

4th Estate     

Review first published in The Courier-Mail in April 2011.

Rules for Writers: Joyce Carol Oates

Posted in Wanderings by Adair Jones on March 13, 2011

1 Don’t try to anticipate an “ideal reader” – there may be one, but he/she is reading someone else.

2 Don’t try to anticipate an “ideal reader” – except for yourself perhaps, sometime in the future.

3 Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!

4 Unless you are writing something very avant-garde – all gnarled, snarled and “obscure” – be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.

5 Unless you are writing something very post-modernist – self-conscious, self-reflexive and “provocative” – be alert for possibilities of using plain familiar words in place of polysyllabic “big” words.

6 Keep in mind Oscar Wilde: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”

7 Keep a light, hopeful heart. But expect the worst.

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From The Guardian.

“Glimpsed from the corner of the eye in passing”

Posted in Musings... by Adair Jones on September 2, 2009

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“a voluntary dream”

“The anecdote, the fond reminiscence, the protracted joke, the pointed recollection are,” according to the writer William Boyd,  “surely the genesis of the short stories we write and read today.”  Boyd has written widely on the subject and shapes his observations on many years as a practitioner, reviewer, and judge of the form.

He’s come up with descriptions of the various types, which is useful to look at in any discussion of the short story genre.

Taxonomy of the short story:

  • Event-plot—in which there is a beginning, middle, and end, neatly tied up at the conclusion.
  • Chekovian—in which randomness, inexplicability, and haphazard elision dominate—the tailored conclusion is abandoned.  There’s a refusal to judge, explain or shape the material (at least that’s the impression).
  • Modernist—in which obscurity dominates.
  • Cryptic/Ludic—in which the meaning to be deciphered lies beneath the apparently straightforward text.
  • Mini-Novel—a variety of the event-plot that tries to do in a few pages what a novel does in hundreds.
  • Poetic/Mythic—in which the story approaches lyric poetry.
  • Biographical—in which the story “flirts with the factual or masquerades as non-fiction” by introducing real people into fiction or describing fictive episodes of real lives.

As soon as I saw this taxonomy, I wanted to do two things: I wanted to find examples of each type and study them for technique; and then, I wanted to write my way through the list.

The event-plot is the most straightforward and most familiar type, since we are taught to write this way as schoolchildren.  It’s the type that appears first historically too.  When short stories began appearing in print in the early 19th century, all were event-plot stories.  That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to learn from this approach, however.  Poe, an early master of the event-plot short story, was one of the first to understand that everything in a short story must be there for more than one reason: “In the whole composition, there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to one pre-established design.  And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction.”

But with Chekhov, often referred to as the greatest of short story writers, the direction shifts.  He has been the most singularly influential writer on the nature and form of the short story.  The writer VS Pritchett says that since Chekhov, “we are less bound by contrived plot, more intent on the theme buried in the heart”.  Every workshop I’ve ever attended on short story writing has emphasized this approach.  We’re taught that stories should surrender to the mystery of the interior; they should not be solved or resolved, but remain true and complex and enigmatic by creating something shimmering that is impossible to describe or explain.  We’re told to withhold judgment and to create something that gives the impression of being unshaped.

After World War I and through most of the 20th century, the modernist approach dominated.  Pritchett comments, “In a mass society, we have the sense of being anonymous: therefore, we look for the silent moment in which our singularity breaks through, when emotions change without warning and reveal themselves.”  It makes sense, then, that in a more alienated world, the innovations that began with Chekhov would shift.  The writing in short stories became sparer, leaving gaps, ambiguity, deepening mystery.  Not only didn’t modernist writers judge, they carved out a place in the story for the reader to reside.  Like the Chekhovian story, the modernist story is left open.  Characters are left carrying the aftermath of the story into an unknowable future.  Readers, too, puzzle over the ‘what next?’

A good short story shows another way of looking at something that’s familiar or it shows the opposite—what’s strange is suddenly known.  The best stories start with a familiar foundation out of which the unfamiliar rises, like Wagner’s music, where the listener is lulled by well-known motifs and patterns that slowly take on new dimensions, building in force and power until the music, in the end, is something quite unexpected.  To have been thrown into it all at once makes it inaccessible, but to be led there with care and purpose, leaves a sense of transformation.  There is also a complexity to this effect that makes it impossible to analyse.

The masters of what Boyd terms the cryptic/ludic story are Kafka, Nabakov, Calvino and Borges.  Borges says that all artistic creation means surrendering oneself to “a voluntary dream”.  Time and space collapse, collide, collude.  Here the story presents a baffling surface as a kind of challenge to the reader.  There’s a meaning to be discovered and deciphered under an apparently straightforward text.  Approaches to this type of short story may be: 1) a fantastical transformation of everyday life; 2) a tale based on myth; or 3) the creation of an alternate universe.

The mini-novel is a variety of the event-plot story that attempts to do in a few pages what the novel does in several hundred.  Last year, I returned home from a short story weekend, full of Chekhovian ideas and tips about writing like Hemingway, only to find the latest New Yorker waiting for me in the mailbox.  In that edition, there was a story by Annie Proulx called “Tits-up in a Ditch”.  It’s the life story of a young woman, encapsulating her birth, early life, school days, teenage romance, marriage, motherhood and tour of duty in Iraq.  It’s a wonderful story, full of irony, but it was strange to read coming after the workshop I’d just attended.  Of course, “Brokeback Mountain”, another of Proulx’s stories, is also a mini-novel.  I’ve lately read another by Salman Rushdie (“In the South”, again in The New Yorker).  It makes sense that, since Proulx and Rushdie are novelists, they would excel at writing short stories of this type.

Pritchett claims that the short story springs from a spontaneously poetic impulse.  He continues, “A short story is always a disclosure, often an evocation, frequently a celebration of character at the bursting point as it approaches the mythical.”  Those writing short stories of the mytho-poetic type focus on “the character at the bursting point”.  Boyd asserts that this is one of the few successful attempts to escape Chekhov.  He counts DH Lawrence and JG Ballard as writers of this type, who attempt in a story to come as close to lyric poetry as possible.  They seek, in the words of Roland Barthes, “a mythical space, a sacred space, as if outside history,” where they try “to transform the sign back into meaning: its ideal, ultimately, would be to reach not the meaning of words, but the meaning of things themselves”.

The biographical short story deliberately borrows and replicates the properties of non-fiction—of history, of reportage, of memoir. The stories of Borges play with this technique regularly. A love of footnotes and bibliographical annotation in younger contemporary American writers is a similar example of the genre.  Another variation of the biographical story is to introduce real people into fiction or to write fictive episodes of real lives.  Wild Nights! by Joyce Carol Oates is a recent example.  She writes fictional accounts of the last night in the lives of several American authors.  She doesn’t just give us a straightforward fictional account, however.  Being Joyce Carol Oates, brilliant and prolific, she imitates the style of each of the particular authors; not at all an easy task when you consider her subjects are Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway.

Pritchett defined the short story as seizing a fragment of life, a part that stands in for the whole, something ‘glimpsed from the corner of the eye in passing’.  This is often taken to mean that the timeline in a short story is usually short, but I think that in really good short stories, no matter the type or length, there is something glimpsed, something mysterious, hinted at but unexplained, that resonates with us deeply.  They exist whole in the mind, like an unusually clear and well-expressed thought.  Boyd says: “The well-told story seems to answer something very deep in our nature as if, for the duration of the telling, something special has been created, some essence of our experience extrapolated, some temporary sense has been made of our common, turbulent journey towards the grave and oblivion.”

A challenge: I’ve set a goal for myself to write a story of each type by the year’s end.  I encourage you to join in.