The Art of Subtext by Charles Baxter

the-art-of-subtextCharles Baxter is the editor of Graywolf Press’s The Art of series as well as the author of this installment. This is the second in the series that I’ve read (see The Art of History), and I’ll be reading two more this semester (Donald Revell’s The Art of Attention and Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir).

The first thing to note about this book of writing craft advice is that it is strongly geared toward fiction. Where the others tend to cross genres (well, I suppose the Memoir one won’t), Baxter refers to fiction throughout, and takes his examples from the fiction of Dostoyevsky, Melville, Edward P. Jones and others. While this made for interesting reading, it did not suit my personal needs as a nonfiction writer very well. (I was disappointed, especially as excerpts from Baxter-edited The Business of Memory have appealed to me.) I was drawn to the topic of subtext because I aim for subtext, or subtle themes, in my own writing. Subtext means something a little different to Baxter in this book.

He calls it in his introduction “the unspoken soul-matter,” and divides his thoughts into 6 sections. “Staging” refers to dramatic placement of characters in scene (as in stage directions). “The subterranean” refers to the difference between what characters truly want, and what they say they want. This is an interesting concept to ponder for characters in nonfiction as well, although all of Baxter’s examples come from fiction. “Unheard melodies” inspects how fictional characters fail to pay attention: think about short attention spans and the way we “uh-huh” each other without really listening. This kind of ignored dialog, he argues, is a great place for subtext. “Inflections” and tonal shifts mark a movement from the literal to the suggestive; and he makes the point here that tone is sometimes everything. Example: the phrase “you’re really something” could be spoken in disgust or adulation. On the page, the reader needs tonal cues.

“Creating a scene” refers to the way that phrase is used in everyday life and not by writers: that is, not writing “a scene” (action taking place in time and space) but in the sense that arguing in public is called “making a scene.” Baxter asserts that fiction writers must have their characters make scenes in order to get their conflicts out into the open, or in other words, to pose the central conflict of their plot. Finally, he writes about “loss of face,” or the use (or choice not to use) characters’ literal faces to communicate through gesture or appearance. He makes a curious argument that the description of faces has fallen away in modern fiction writing, which is another interesting claim to investigate, although not one I’m particularly invested in at this time. (Please report back.)

My single favorite line of this book, and one I can easily take into my own work:

In truly wonderful writing, the author pays close attention to inattentiveness, in all its forms.

That one I will carry forward and ponder. Within it there may be an opportunity to ponder the differences (for craft purposes) between fiction and nonfiction in general.

In short, an involving little book of lit crit focusing on fiction, and thus not outside my interests; but not terribly useful for my own writing. Your mileage may vary.


Rating: 6 Chekhov stories.

MFA readings: a selection

Perhaps predictably, my rate of reading & writing for school threatens to outpace my work on this blog; and school is my priority, of course. Here I thought I’d just offer a quick rundown of what I’ve been reading lately and how it struck me. (Titles are bolded.) There may be more selection or digest-style posts to come.

My program director, Jessie Van Eerden (a most impressive woman & writer), put together a packet of portrait essays for a seminar she’s taught in the past, and shared this packet & her notes with me. I had a variety of reactions to these essays, which is totally okay: some will be more useful to my studies than others, and these reactions are all subjective.

I was most intrigued by

  • “Tracks and Ties” by Andre Dubus III;
  • “A Mickey Mantle Koan” by David James Duncan;
  • “Interstellar” by Rebecca McClanahan;
  • “The Passions of Lalla” by Michael Ondaatje; and
  • “A Good Day” by Jessie van Eerden,

and did some close readings especially of “A Good Day” and “Interstellar,” two profiles of the authors’ mother and sister respectively that include some autobiographical detail as well, and take certain organizing principles to help them tell the story of a whole person or a whole life in just a few pages: what a skill. I feel like maybe I’ve read “A Mickey Mantle Koan” before. It examines a beloved brother through a single object, one he never held in his hands, and integrates the language of both baseball and Buddhism, and lets the author do some more existential musing as well: ambitious, but executed. “Tracks and Ties” is another hyper-compressed profile, and “The Passions of Lalla” is especially interesting because it tells the life story of a person the author (apparently) never knew, through research, family mythologies and speculation. I hope to find time to go back to that one.

Of “Bessie Harvey’s Visions” by Will Woolfitt, Jessie writes, “Technically, this is a poem, but Woolfitt first wrote it as a lyric essay (same material sans line breaks).” I enjoyed reading it, and found the imagery and atmosphere involving, but I couldn’t see so clearly how to make this experience useful to my own writing.

Similarly, I was engaged by three longer profile essays –

  • “Present Waking Life: Becoming John Ashbery” by Larissa MacFarquhar;
  • “Notes on Pierre Bonnard and My Mother’s Ninetieth Birthday” by Mary Gordon; and
  • “Fuller” by Albert Goldbarth,

at least two of which have in common that they conflate or compare/contrast two very different subjects: Gordon swims between the art of Pierre Bonnard and her mother, as Goldbarth floats between Marie Curie and the dancer Loie Fuller. MacFarquhar more subtly lets her own character (herself) enter her examination of the poet John Ashbery. These again are worthy of study but didn’t feel right for my uses at this time.

By contrast, there were two essays in this packet that I just failed to enter at all. “The Shape of a Pocket” by John Berger and “Decreation: How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil Tell God” by Anne Carson felt too cerebral, too much work to wade through. This is not where I’m interested in going. In the latter case, the problem may be that I’m not drawn to the question of how these women “tell God”: and is Carson’s failure to bring me in despite my feelings about the subject matter her shortcoming, or a simple, blameless lack of connection? I may not be the right person to answer that last one.


up-in-the-old-hotelAs a separate project, I read essays from Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel, a big fat book I’ve had on my shelf for years. Saint Mazie and Joe Gould’s Teeth both refer to Mitchell’s work. He is famous for his decades of work for The New Yorker, and his portrait essays in particular.

I enjoyed every word I read–including the Mazie portrait, which I recognized from its reflection in Attenberg’s novel–but I settled on the title essay, “Up in the Old Hotel,” for my craft annotation. All of the essays I read showcased a seemingly neutral and nearly invisible narrator, and let the subjects portray themselves by use of dialog and speech, as well as physical descriptions, anecdotes and settings. The “Old Hotel” was remarkable because it told a lot more story than some of the straight portraits did; and its subject is not a person (although the central character Louie is very central) but a building, the old hotel. I focused in particular on the middle 12 pages of the piece, which offer a nearly uninterrupted monologue given by Louie, with minimal paragraph breaks and a wildly digressive style. Writers are warned against such techniques; but they work beautifully here. I think that’s because Louie’s voice is so strong and engaging; his style is so conversational that the reader buys into the delivery method completely; and because of Mitchell’s few but very strategic interruptions (Louie stops to make change, answer a customer’s question).

I recommend reading Mitchell if you get a chance.


the-situation-and-the-story
Finally, for craft, I read Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. This one didn’t work for me: in a word I’d say her succinct introduction and conclusion do the work her book wants to do, while the fatty middle part (two sections, on the essay and the memoir) read to me like wandering lit crit, and had little to offer me in thinking about my own work. Gornick has received plenty of positive response for this book, but my reaction was tepid. Her analysis of a number of essays and memoirs would have been more interesting to me if we had more reading in common, of course. But I am reminded of Christopher Bram’s The Art of History, which spent a lot of time giving negative or positive reviews that I did not always agree with, and which seemed so subjective that I was a little turned off. Yes, I see the irony as I give this negative, subjective review. But note that I am not here to sell you writing advice. By this point in the lifetime of pagesofjulia, I figure my readers know what we’re doing here together. (Thanks for sticking around.) If you loved The Situation and the Story or found it very useful for your writing, I’d love to hear your explanation of that experience. Not to argue, but to learn.

That’s my long post for today–now back to the program!

On Writing by Stephen King

on-writingThis book is required reading for all Stephen King fans, whether they aspire to be writers or no.

On Writing takes an interesting format. This is a “craft” book – instruction for writers – and the first of that category that I’m reading for the semester (though not the first I’ve read). But it’s not all craft; or at least not explicitly. Mine is a 2010 edition of a 2000 book, and it contains sections: first the First, Second, and Third Forewords; then a C.V., which is a sort of memoir but only about the writing or storytelling parts of King’s life. This spans some 80 pages and includes some writing advice along the way (including a little bit of marked-up early work). Next, “What Writing Is” (“telepathy, of course”) and “Toolbox” (as in, the writer’s, but with a nice metaphor referring to a real one). Now we get to the section called “On Writing,” which begins on page 141.

King’s rules are relatively simple: things like “read a lot, write a lot,” and some thoughts on how to separate writing from editing (get it all down on paper as quickly as possible, then leave it alone for a while til you can come back with an objective eye). He despises adverbs as much as the next wise reader/writer, especially when tied to speech tags. He touches on dialog and theme. Language is very important to King: this book is dedicated to Amy Tan, who told him it was okay to concentrate on that aspect of craft. (Some of us are thinking, duh.)

Even this writing-advice section is (perhaps necessarily) filled with details from King’s personal life, and his personal work style. This is why I say this book is an excellent read for anyone who loves King, whether they wish to write or not: it’s filled with the man, and the writer, himself, not to mention his characteristic storytelling style, even when giving advice. He writes characters, and the details of character and scene, so richly it’s almost multimedia; and yet we never realize we’re reading (yawn) exposition.

The next section of the book is “On Living: A Postscript,” and if you are indeed a King fan, you’ll notice that this book’s original pub date in 2000 immediately follows a certain 1999 event, when he was hit by a van while walking the back roads of Maine and nearly died. He relates this incident and his recovery in some detail here, and it makes a riveting story, of course, even though his reader knows the general outcome beforehand (the writer lives to write about it). The point here – though not belabored – is that living is an important part of writing. And, “Writing did not save my life–Dr. David Brown’s skill and my wife’s loving care did that–but it has continued to do what it always has done: it makes my life a brighter and more pleasant place.”

There are three “Furthermore” sections, to match the three forewords that started the book. These appendix-type bits are an example of a story before and after editing; a recommended reading list (totally unscientific, just what King has enjoyed reading), and a second reading list as addendum in this 2010 edition.

I haven’t even mentioned some of the writing advice I found most helpful here; for example, the concept of a piece of work as a found thing, a fossil, which then needs just excavation and polish, is especially applicable I think to nonfiction. (King admittedly concentrates on fiction – his genre – throughout, but that doesn’t mean there’s not plenty here for other writers.) And I loved his reverse of the gun rule:

There’s an old rule of theater that goes, “If there’s a gun on the mantel in Act I, it must go off in Act III.” The reverse is also true; if the main character’s lucky Hawaiian shirt plays a part at the end of a story, it must be introduced early. Otherwise it looks like a deus ex machina (which of course it is).

The best of Stephen King is here, and with some good writing advice to boot. Don’t miss this one.


Rating: 9 Very Important Books.

The Delicacy and Strength of Lace, letters between Leslie Marmon Silko & James Wright, ed. by Anne Wright

the delicacy and strength of laceAs I wrote in my beginning, I enjoyed this book more than I expected to. I struggle with poetry, and the snippets included here out of context (it seemed to me) challenged me. I was not familiar with the protagonists. But quickly their voices and personalities revealed themselves; and the story of James Wright’s death, and the introduction to this book by his wife, add a poignancy. There’s something about knowing the sad ending to a story before you read it.

I found many lovely lines (naturally) and scraps of wisdom here. My instinct is to just begin sharing those with you.

I enjoyed Wright’s lines,

I hope you don’t mind post cards. They are a way of sharing something, some place or other delight, and they can also, when written and sent truly, offer small wavelets, so to speak, to the rhythm of a correspondence.

and perhaps even more, that he wrote so instructively, so consciously of this – that he felt the need, and the meta-quality of explaining one’s correspondence. They were still kind of new to each other, you see.

From Silko,

I always resented Shakespeare’s use of the delayed messenger in Romeo and Juliet, maybe because such things are so ordinary and so possible, and so much can be lost for two people that way.

which is both amusing, and profound, and a little confusing – why resent the use of something ordinary and enormous, and isn’t that what we do as writers? Hm.

And then,

I believe more than ever that it is in sharing the stories of our grief that we somehow can make sense out – no, not make sense out of these things… But through stories from each other we can feel that we are not alone, that we are not the first and the last to confront losses such as these.

and I think of the impulse we all seem to share to tell our stories in response to one another. This can be selfish. One person shares something personal and painful, and the response is “well I…” or “my…” as if to turn it back to the speaker every time. But Silko has a point, that there is a function to this return-to-me, and that in the right setting & relationship it’s how we perform empathy. I think about this in conversation sometimes, the effort to not always “me” everything. But it can be well done.

And very pertinently to nonfiction writers in particular, Silko again –

Memory is tricky – memory for certain facts or details is probably more imaginative than anything, but the important this is to keep the feeling the story has. I never forget that: the feeling one has of the story is what you must strive to bring forth faithfully.

This is the trick, or the puzzle, and the much-discussed central problem, with creative nonfiction or with memoir: the tension between strict “fact” (which is what, exactly?) and the richness of imaginative memory. See also Sejal H. Patel’s “Think Different” in issue 58 of Creative Nonfiction (I reviewed here), where she and other memoirists explore the use of technologies to aid memory.

Finally, and perhaps most centrally to the question of correspondence in general and especially between writers:

With you to write to, I go through the day with a certain attention I might not always have. I look for things you might want to see for yourself, but I can’t seem to get them into a letter.


I enjoyed reading this slim epistolary collection, and I think I got a lot out of it. But what was I supposed to get out of it? Despite a few classes taken early this year, I feel rusty at reading literature with a class in mind, and I am so curious about what the seminar that assigned this book will hold. Most of all, I’m excited. So thank you, school and world, for that.


Rating: 8 roosters.

book beginnings on Friday: The Delicacy and Strength of Lace, letters between Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. Participants share the first line or two of the book we are currently reading and comment on any first impressions inspired by that first line.

And so begins graduate school: with advanced reading to prepare for the winter residency I’ll be attending in West Virginia in just a few weeks. I chose to begin with this collection of letters, which will inform a seminar entitled “Another Voice at the End of the Line: Correspondence Between Writers.”

Here’s a confession: I’ve never read any Silko or Wright before.

the delicacy and strength of laceWe begin:

Misquamicut
Rhode Island
August 28, 1978

Dear Mrs. Silko,
I trust you won’t mind hearing from a stranger.

And so began a strong friendship. I’ve really been enjoying this, actually, although I wasn’t sure at first that there would be enough to grasp onto, between two writers I was not familiar with. I’m also looking forward very much to this seminar, which I think speaks to some of the challenges of being a writer, let alone in a low-residency program; and it is taught by a faculty member I very much enjoyed meeting last summer, Doug Van Gundy. Plenty to go on there.

Happy Friday, friends.

The Art of History: Unlocking the Past in Fiction & Nonfiction by Christopher Bram

A succinct survey of history in both fiction and nonfiction offers advice for writers and readers.

the art of history

Christopher Bram takes on the broad subject of what history has to offer literature–and vice versa–with The Art of History: Unlocking the Past in Fiction & Nonfiction.

Beginning with memories of a high school English teacher, Bram celebrates the interest and value of reading and writing history. His thesis is that history need not be written in dry, textbook form: in both fiction and nonfiction, a talent for storytelling and a keen eye for just the right details, in the right quantity, can render the near and distant past in enthralling fashion. “Details,” he says, “are the raisins in the raisin bread.” He examines works including Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and topics ranging through war, slavery in the United States, comedic perspectives and the blending of lines between fiction and nonfiction. An author in both disciplines, Bram does not claim objectivity: he is clear about his love for Toni Morrison’s Beloved and his disregard for Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, among others.

Books in “The Art of” series inspect craft from a perspective seemingly for writers and critics, and Bram offers good advice: “In both fiction and nonfiction, writing well means knowing what to leave out.” But The Art of History works for readers as well, as in an appendix of Bram’s recommended reading. Exploration, appreciation and instruction combine in this slim, accessible study of literary history and historical literature.


This review originally ran in the July 5, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 details.

The Mindful Writer by Dinty W. Moore

This expanded second edition of the popular title about writing from a Buddhist perspective is a small book with big ideas.

mindful writer

Dinty W. Moore (Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy) is often asked to explain how Buddhism influences his writing practice. In struggling to answer this question articulately, he found himself shaping “The Four Noble Truths of the Writing Life.” From these musings was born 2012’s The Mindful Writer, a slim volume of very short, koan-like chapters offering writing advice and formed from quotations by other writers.

In its expanded second edition, The Mindful Writer offers a new introduction and for the first time includes writing prompts that follow the same concepts and quotations as its chapters. Words of wisdom from William Faulkner, Gustave Flaubert, Dorothy Parker, Stephen King and many more pose opportunities to ruminate on how to see and observe, how to work, how to think and live like a writer. Moore examines the sources of creativity as well as the plain hard work of writing, and “the freedom and importance of lousy first drafts.” Refreshingly, he reminds his reader that his advice “should be taken in the spirit of suggestion, not edict… it is not a good idea to cling too fiercely to the advice of others.” Moore is, as usual, funny but also takes his subject seriously. Its short chapters and encouraging prompts make this a guide to keep close at hand, for regular reference.

Its neatly packaged bits of wisdom mean that writers from beginners to experts equally will find inspiration and new perspectives in Moore’s unassuming manual of writerly mindfulness.


This review originally ran in the June 21, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 moments.
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