Welcome to National Novel Writing Month; a challenge where over 400,000 writers try to write a 50,000-word novel during the month of November. My entry, Celebrity Cast, while not written in 30 days—actually I’ve been wrestling with it for close to six years—will be available soon. Here’s a peek at the cover. What’s it about? Time will tell!
I’ve touched on “genre” and the murky definition of “literary fiction” before. Here’s how Andre Dubus III, author of the novel Gone So Long, attempts to explain both: “This whole notion of ‘genre’ is more of a marketing category for publishers than anything else; a well written book is a well-written book…I tend to gravitate toward what we call literary fiction, which may simply mean character-driven stories, ones where we sense the writer has worked really hard on his or her sentences, and, of course, it has to be the kind of work that seems to be trying to illuminate truth in some way, no matter how ugly it is.”
Orhan Pamuk once wrote: “The writer must have the artistry to tell his own stories as if they were other people’s stories, and to tell other people’s stories as if they were his own.” So true. So true, in fact, that my novel in progress, Celebrity Cast, is based on this concept. Stay tuned.
As I approach yet another birthday I can’t help but be sobered by the comments Philip Roth made shortly before his death earlier this year: “…by 2010 I had a strong suspicion that I’d done my best work and anything more would be inferior. I was by this time no longer in possession of the mental vitality or the verbal energy or the physical fitness needed to mount and sustain a large creative attack of any duration on a complex structure as demanding as a novel…” Well, I hope there’s still some salt in this old shaker…
Recently I came across this from John Cheever, and with stories about kisses—wanted and unwanted—flooding the media I couldn’t resist Cheever’s very different slant:
“I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss—you can’t do it alone.”
As the poet Muriel Rukeyser famously wrote: “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” Maybe you’ll find a story in your stocking tomorrow morning. I certainly hope so, and wish you all the happiest of holidays.
Two looks at one of writers’ many dilemmas. Katie Kitamura, author of A Separation, starts the discussion with this: “I think every fiction writer I know would say you don’t want to start out writing something if you think you can do it…If you know you can write it, it’s not worth writing …” But Colson Whitehead, author of The Underground Railroad, takes a slightly different point of view: “I always have these ideas and think, ‘That would be really good; if I was a better writer, I could pull it off.’ And then I try to become a better writer to do it justice.”
The bottom line: the process challenges more than just your writing skills.
WORLD SERIES TIME.
Jack Spicer (American poet, 1925-1965):
“Poets think they’re pitchers when they’re really catchers.”
And Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:
“Love and grace bat last.”
Something for all of us to remember? Now more than ever?
According to The New York Times, John McPhee thinks there are only two kinds of writers in the world: the overtly insecure and the covertly insecure. In his new collection of essays on craft, Draft No. 4, McPhee addresses “the insecurity, dread, shame, envy, magical thinking, pointless rituals, financial instability, self-hatred—the whole ‘masochistic elf-inflicted paralysis of a writer’s normal routine. And then the queasy desire to do it all over again.”
Overtly and covertly I admit to all of the above and honestly wonder why I do it over and over again. Doesn’t that capture at least one definition of insanity?
I wrote this poem as a commentary on my recent birthday. It’s titled SHOVEL READY:
Once they were men with beach ball-bellies
and uneven stubble,
many with tobacco-stained teeth.
But today a leggy young woman
wearing yellow work boots, jeans, and an inviting halter top,
her brilliant smile as white as her shiny hard hat,
brings traffic to a standstill spinning SLOW and then STOP
as though she’s amused by her mastery of our fates.
I hope she’ll ask me to pause for a moment when I reach her
for I’m convinced she’ll be glad she did—
although I haven’t the slightest idea why.
As the gap between the rusted-out pickup in front of me widens
she beckons as if she’s pleading with me to join her.
My heart skips a beat before she waves me on,
whispering as I crawl past,
“Let’s go, old timer, I haven’t got all day.”
Words of wisdom from John Steinbeck in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “The writer is delegated to declare and celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit—for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and emulation. I hold that a writer who does not believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.”
Here Steinbeck raises the bar for all writers. I, for one, tell stories that I hope meet this demanding standard (but it ain’t easy).
A reflection about being a writer, or any stripe of artist, from The Art Spirit by Robert Henri: “I am interested in art as a means of living life; not as a means of making a living. The artist is the person who leaves the crowd and goes pioneering. When the artist is alive in any person he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressive creature. He becomes interesting to other people. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and opens ways for better understanding. Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, the artist opens it and shows there are still more pages possible.”
A formula for all of us?
The Best of Families is the 2017 IndieReader Discovery Award winner for popular fiction. Here’s the IRDA verdict: “Hero Fran Delafield is a compelling narrator—and, even better, an engaging storyteller in this tale of a Quebec-Pennsylvania love match. Set originally in the 1950s and moving through subsequent decades with historical events as a backdrop (the Vietnam War, for one), Fran experiences joy and loss through a series of serendipitous circumstances: a marriage. Divorce, combat injuries, children, parental relations, death, and a new beginning. Like life itself.”
FOR THOSE WHO KNOW ME WELL, here’s what the St. Paul’s School’s Alumni Horae said about The Best of Families in its recent featured review: With The Best of Families, Harry Groome has written a classic coming-of-age novel…In his search for authenticity against all odds, Fran Delafield becomes a hero for the 21st century…”
Just think what they might have said if I’d graduated!
Here are some colorful suggestions from Moses Hadas (American teacher, classical scholar and translator) on how to respond when authors like me give you a copy of their most recent book for comment or review:
“Thank you for sending me a copy of your book—I’ll waste no time in reading it.
This book fills a much-needed gap.
I have read your book and much like it.”
Forewarned is forearmed!
P.S. Please excuse the chaotic, irrational use of photos on my page; I simply don’t have the Facebook skills to make them behave!
Please read what John Irving has to say about writing novels. I think it pretty much says it all! “I don’t enjoy novels that are boring exercises in show-off writing with no narrative, no characters, no information—novels that are just an intellectually discursive text with lots of style…These are not novels. These are the works of people who want to call themselves writers but haven’t a recognizable form to work in. Their subject is their technique. And their vision? They have no vision…The broadest novelists never cared for that kind of original language. Dickens, Hardy, Tolstoy, Hawthorne, Melville: to such novelists, originality with language is mere fashion; it will pass. The larger, plainer things they are preoccupied with, their obsessions—these will last: the story, the characters, the laughter and the tears.”
Here’s Laurie Frankel on her novel This Is How It Always Is. “The nice thing about my life is that it’s pretty boring, which is how you want your life to be—but not how you want your novel to be. So in fact, this really is…very, very made up.”
Because many have asked, the love stories in The Best of Families are also very, very made up. Happy reading and happy Valentine’s Day.
Back to my promise to share some thoughts on what it’s like to actually write a book. I started with Philip Roth and moved on to Leslie Jamison. Now, here’s a quote from Zadie Smith, the author of Swing Time, that I hope will bring a smile to your face: “I read a lot of essays and articles from journals. It stops me from feeling stupid. Writing novels can make you very stupid—just writing about something that doesn’t exist for three or four years.”
But, for some reason, we just keep on, keeping on!
From Ian Frazier, a staff writer at The New Yorker:
“Greetings friends! It’s Christmastime,
When once again we mangle rhyme
And meter just to broadcast blessing,
All good will and joy confessing,
To those we like and those we don’t,
The ones we’ll hug and those we won’t.
Peace to all. Thank God we’re here.
A grand transcendence drawing near
Reminds us to Love One Another;
Everybody’s (gulp) our brother
And sister, too—a saying true,
Though easier to say than do.
Look to the star, keep spirits high.
Good times are coming by and by.
Do not let yourselves get down;
Faith’s more a verb than it’s a noun.”
With warm wishes to all,
A THANKSGIVING OFFERING. Your continued interest in my writing is what keeps me plugging away at my computer. To thank you and show my appreciation, for every paperback of Thirty Below or The Best of Families that you buy this #GIVING TUESDAY, I’ll donate my royalties to the American Red Cross. To quote a dirtier Harry, “Go ahead. Make my day.” And have a happy, peaceful thanksgiving.
No matter how you’re feeling this morning, consider what Anne Lamott–author of one of my favorite books, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life—wrote recently:
“…LOVE AND GRACE BAT LAST.”
Something for all of us to remember? To live by? Now more than ever?
I’ve uncovered some diverse thoughts on what it’s like to actually write a novel or a non-fiction book and thought I’d share them with you over the next several weeks. They’re from Philip Roth, Cory Booker, Leslie Jamison, Ayana Mathis and William Faulkner. I’ll start with Philip Roth’s candid (and somewhat depressing) thoughts: “Beginning a book is unpleasant. I type out beginnings and they’re awful, more of an unconscious parody of my previous book than the breakaway from it that I want. I need something driving down the center of a book, a magnet to draw everything to it…I often have to write a hundred pages or more before there’s a paragraph that’s alive. Okay, I say to myself, that’s your beginning, start there…After the awful beginning come the months of freewheeling play, and after the play come the crises, turning against your material and hating the book.”
An oddly inspiring note from Norman Mailer: “A writer, no matter how great, is never altogether great; a small part of him is seriously flawed. A writer is recognized as great when his work is done, but while he is writing, he rarely feels great. As he writes he is reshaping his character. He is a better man and he is worse, once he has finished a book. He has made choices on his route and the choices have shaped him. By this understanding, a genius is a man of large talent who has made many good choices and a few outstanding ones. Yet no matter how large his genius, we can be certain of one thing—he could have been even greater.”
Here are differing views that may be of interest to writers and readers alike. In his excellent book Writing the Blockbuster Novel, Albert Zuckerman says, in his way-too-long chapter on the outline process: “…there are authors who commence a novel without first working up and outline. Outlines, they say, cramp their creativity…take the joy out of writing…deny them the possibility of making wonderful discoveries that come to them only while they’re setting down the novel itself. My surmise is that few writers who talk this way ever see their books on the bestseller list.”
But Jonathan Franzen sees it differently: “If you try to outline the whole thing in advance, it’s just dead…Above all, you have to be willing to listen when the pages are telling you that what you are planning to do is simply not working.”
This may well be a personality test rather than a writing process. Me? I’m in the Franzen school.
In a recent column David Brooks wrote following: “We work hard to cram our lives into legible narratives. But we live in a fog of reality. Whether you have survived a trauma or not, the psyche is still a dark forest of scars and tender spots. Each relationship is intricacy piled upon intricacy, fertile ground for misunderstanding and mistreatment.”
This observation is the basis for my latest novel, THE BEST OF FAMILIES, a revelatory midlife memoir of a Philadelphia socialite, Francis Hopkinson Delafield. Uncomfortable with the mores of one of the city’s oldest families, Fran begins his story the summer after he graduates from prep school, when he dutifully marries his pregnant French Canadian girlfriend only to have her disappear within months of their marriage. Disillusioned and angry at the whole world, Fran quits college and enlists in the army. He is badly wounded in a war that no one seems to know or care about, and upon returning home from Vietnam, he is confronted with navigating the roiled waters of a second marriage while both his parents and his wives hold secrets that alter his life forever. Here’s what Rebecca Pepper Sinkler, the former Editor of the New York Times Book Review, says about it: “With wit and compassion, THE BEST OF FAMILIES captures perfectly the floundering of WASP society at mid-20th century. Trapped in the empty rituals of an upper crust that is well past its sell-by date, young Fran Delafield struggles to free himself from family and tradition. Love, the war in Vietnam and fatherhood turn out to be his path to an authentic life, and his salvation. Harry Groome interweaves romance and tragedy in this lively, evocative novel.”
If you’d like to learn more, please go to harrygroome.com.
Seeing that my new book, The Best of Families, is slowly making its way into print, I’ve been thinking a lot about novels lately. But every time I do, I can’t help but hear Somerset Maugham’s oft repeated, “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.”
Well, to fill Maugham’s critical and emotional void, here are three rules that you may want to consider:
1. Not everyone’s going to like your book.
2. Many friends will be convinced that one of your characters was modeled after them.
3. The next one might be better. (Let’s hope!)
A departure from my usual brief comments by well-known writers on writing. As someone who’s relatively new to writing fiction I’m amazed (and frequently embarrassed) by how much I don’t know about this pursuit. Readers are a case in point. I’ve always known there were many types of writers but it never occurred to me that there would be as many varied types of readers until my novel Thirty Below appeared in print. In many ways the readers who are the most fun to discuss a book with are those who prove to be closest readers of the story and ask lots of questions and here I’ll attempt to answer one of their questions about a pivotal point in Thirty Below that applies to other fictional works as well, and don’t worry, you don’t have to have read Thirty Below to follow this thread.
The question is: would Bart really have shot the dogs?
The answer is: he might have…
First, let’s look at what I call the pivotal points of two other novels—the events without which there is no story—and how they underline this concept of he might have.
The first is Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Robbie Turner is desperate to be accepted by Cecilia Tallis and types her a letter admitting that he becomes lightheaded and foolish in her presence. Dissatisfied with his first attempt, he types a second and in frustration ends it with a lewd comment on the sex act he’d like to perform on her. He pulls this draft from the typewriter and writes her a gentle note in long hand, “confident that the personal touch fitted the occasion.” He places a note in an envelope and asks Briony, Cecilia’s younger sister, to deliver it to her. As Briony disappears with the envelope Robbie realizes that he has sent Cecilia the wrong note with this explanation:
The handwritten letter he had rested on the open copy of Gray’s Anatomy, Splanchnology section, page 1546, the vagina. The typed page, left by him near the typewriter, was the one he had taken and folded into the envelope. No need for Freudian smart-aleckry—the explanation was simple and mechanical—the innocuous letter was lying across figure 1236, with its bold spread and rakish crown of pubic hair, while his obscene draft was on the table, within easy reach.
Would Robbie have been so careless with such an inflammatory letter, a letter that he’d labored over and that meant so much to him, one typed rather than written in long hand? The answer is he might have, and all else that follows in the novel turns on Briony’s reading of the letter and the revenge she seeks.
The second incident takes place in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men when Llewelyn Moss comes across a gangland style execution in the desert in which several men are riddled with bullets but one man is still alive and pleads for agua. As Moss flees the scene he comes across a leather document case containing $2.4 million dollars in small bills: “His whole life was sitting there in front of him. Day after day from dawn till dark until he was dead.”
Moss goes home and hides the money but that night he wakes wondering if the lone survivor is still alive and fills a gallon jug with water when his wife asks him where he’s going.
Somethin I forgot to do. I’ll be back….I’m fixin to go do somethin dumbern hell but I’m goin anyways. If I don’t come back tell Mother I love her.
His wife says she doesn’t want him to go, to which Moss replies:
Well darling we’re eye to eye on that cause I don’t want to go neither.
But Moss goes anyway. Would a man who’d just found his life’s fortune at a horrendous crime scene return to that scene to give a dying stranger some water when he knows it may get him killed? Well, he might have, and Moss did and in doing so created the pivotal point of the story for his return alerts the criminals to who has their money and begins their relentless, deadly search for Moss.
In Thirty Below, when Carrie—now unable to escape the wilderness until the spring thaw—calls Bart a killer and says the dogs hadn’t done anything wrong, he defends his action this way:
“Nor did I,” Bart said quietly. “There’s no way we could feed them the whole winter.” He shifted his weight from boot to boot like a schoolboy in front of his teacher. “I did it for us and for them. If we’d kept them all they’d have starved and we would have, too. It’s a difficult lesson to accept but an important one: there are certain things you and I must do to stay alive.”
There’s a lesson here for us as readers and writers alike: we’re not Bart (nor Robbie nor Moss). Maybe those that pose this question are really asking if they themselves would have shot the dogs. Regardless, the answer is that Bart, with all his experience of previous winters spent in the wilderness, might have. The fact that he did provided the pivotal point of the novel for if he hadn’t, Carrie could have headed back home to her boring life in southern California and there wouldn’t have been a story, at least not this story.
I’d love to know what you think.
With TV becoming more and more a chronicle of the absurd, here are a couple of thoughts that remind us of the importance of novels. First, David Shields, author of Reality Hunger: “The best books are a bridge across the abyss of human loneliness…and according to Samuel Johnson, a book should either allow us to escape existence or teach us how to endure it.” While Ralph Ellison, the author of Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award in 1953 wrote: “The American novel is in a sense a conquest of the frontier; as it describes our experience, it creates it.”
Food for thought. Keep on reading.
For everybody who’s trying to write or has a child, grandchild or friend doing the same, here’s a Christmas gift from 95 year-old writer Roger Angell: “Writing is hard for everybody, and I mistrust writers who find it easy. And it’s still hard for me after all these years, but that’s probably a good sign that it is.”
TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES? Here’s E.L Doctorow’s summary: “Ours is a world made for liars and novelists are born liars. But we are to be trusted because ours is the only profession forced to admit that it lies—and that bestows upon us the mantle of honesty.”
Thomas Mallon, author of the recently published “Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years adds this: “If I had been unwilling to deviate from what Gore Vidal used to call ‘the agreed upon facts,’ there wouldn’t have been much point to writing a novel instead of a history. I was trying to get at some larger truth through a particular lie, which is finally what all fiction, historical and otherwise, has to do.”
And Ayana Mathis, author of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie says: “Truth and fact are not the same things. Fiction generates truth independently of fact; it is a repository of meanings and resonances to which the writer does indeed have a great responsibility.”
Here are two views on one’s own writing that made me stop and think: Benjamin Percy, essayist and author of The Dead Lands writes: “When I stand over the podium and crack open my book for an audience I cringe. I suppose I haven’t plateaued yet. You should, as a writer, always be disgusted with your previous work.” I pretty much fit the mold, but I must admit that I’ve written a few pieces that, while I think they could be improved, don’t disgust me.
And Nell Zink, author of Mislaid, asks: “Why bother writing a book that someone else could write? If I’m going to add a book to the endless mass of books out there, then it should be a book that only I can write.” Hopefully the novel I’m working on now, Celebrity Cast, is a book that only I (or a handful of others) could write. Time will tell.
Back to school?
Here are some teachings from a few of the masters:
John Gardner: “The first business of the writer must be to make us see and feel vividly what his characters see and feel…we must be drawn into the character’s world as if we were born to it.”
Ethan Canin: “Nothing is as important as a likeable narrator. Nothing holds a story together better.”
Anne Lamott: “One line of dialogue that rings true reveals character in a way that pages of description can’t.”
Elmore Leonard: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
Final thought on being a writer; this from Benjamin Moser, author of Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector. “Clear expression can come only from clear thinking…The real talent turns out to be sitting down, propelling oneself, day after day, through the self-doubt surrounding our nebulous enterprise, trying to believe, as when we began, that writing is important…We never know if we are doing it right. A writer—independent of publication or readership or ‘career’—is always a writer…Writing, after all, is something one does. A writer is something one is.”
More on what it’s like being a writer. First, this from Dana Stevens, the movie critic at Slate: “Writing has become both my bread and butter and my day-to-day nemesis, my creator and destroyer, the task I am seemingly never not doing and yet somehow never doing enough of (or doing well enough).”
And this killer from James Jones: “Writing is my life; if I couldn’t write I don’t know where the hell I’d be. But writing without publishing is like eating without swallowing.”
I thought I’d devote the next few notes to how some describe what it’s like being a writer. I’ve coupled two short thoughts here, the first from Thomas Mann, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (1929) for Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain and his short stories: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
And from 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner for the novel The Hours, Michael Cunningham: “I’ve come to believe that is more than anything else someone who refuses to stop writing and who can stand the disappointment.”
This week, a quiz. Which writer entered this warning at the beginning of one of his novels?
“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”
a) Larry McMurtry
b) Dave Barry
c) Mark Twain
d) T.C. Boyle
e) Carl Hiaasen
If you answered “c,” you’re a literary genius…for a day. It was Mark Twain, in Huckleberry Finn. I guess he just couldn’t resist.
Here are two pretty good writers on what to leave out (or leave in?):
“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
“It’s not what you leave in that’s important. It’s what you leave out.”
Random thoughts on writing:
“It’s not like you don’t have a choice, because you do—you can either type or kill yourself.” Anonymous.
“…the real payoff is the writing itself…total dedication is the point.” Anne Lamott.
“The hard part is getting to the top of page one.” Tom Stoppard.
“The hardest part of writing a novel is answering the question: what’s your new book about?” Donna Tartt.
“We work in the dark; we do what we can…the rest is the madness of art.” Henry James.
“Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.” Chuck Close.
“There’s nothing easy about the literary life. It’s a punishing profession. Sissies need not apply.” Marie Arana.
I agree with all of the above with special appreciation for Donna Tartt’s comment.
Mohsin Hamid, author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, sagely writes the following: “There’s a reason religions use stories to communicate, and it’s the same reason religions persecute storytellers: Stories are powerful. They are how we make sense of what cannot be known.”
Last week we lost the poet and author Maya Angelou at age 86. She is best known for the autobiography I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS, living up to her beliefs that “If you have a song to sing, who are you not to open your mouth and sing to the world?” And that “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.”
As a footnote, the first line of I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS reads, “What you looking at me for. I didn’t come to stay.” None of us do, but certainly we were all blessed by Dr. Angelou’s visit.