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Viewing Blog: The Friday Book Report: Tony Abbott's Blog, Most Recent at Top
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Tony Abbott's blog about reading, writing, and publishing children's books, and a little bit of everything else, too.
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1. FBR 123: Father : Christmas: A Bibliographic Memoir . . .

OF ALL THE EARLY Decembers of my childhood, one of the things I remember most is a single, silent ritual by which my father announced the coming of Christmas. Some frosty morning not long after Thanksgiving, but never before December had started, he would pull down from a bookshelf in his study a small battered slipcase, remove a little brown book with a gold holly wreath stamped on its cover, settle into his easy chair, kick up the foot rest, and begin to read to himself.

As I watched his eyes scanning the pages, I could tell that very soon he was not in the room with me anymore. He was in London. It was Christmas Eve. And the year was 1843.

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is, in any form, a well-known and well-published seasonal treat. We all know how the old frost-bitten miser Ebenezer Scrooge, “hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire,” is visited by the remorseful ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley. With the aid of a trio of time-traveling spirits, Jacob offers him “a chance and hope of escaping my fate,” whereupon Scrooge, wanting no more than a good night’s sleep, reluctantly journeys through Christmases past, present, and future on his way to spiritual redemption. By the end of the fable, he has become Uncle Ebenezer, “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew.”

The Carol is a story full of what Dickens termed the “glorious pageant” of London life, a tale about Scrooge’s poor but contented employee Bob Cratchit, Bob’s hobbled son Tiny Tim, young Scrooge’s kindly old employer Fezziwig, the wretched and wolfish (though decidedly human) creatures Ignorance and Want, fellowship, charity, forbearance, reclamation, and plump, steaming, holly-sprigged plum pudding.

To my father, Dickens’s story was everything that Christmas was about. More to the point, this little brown book was everything that Christmas was about.

While he owned several nicely illustrated editions of Dickens’s fable, including two or three from the early decades of the last century, he never paid much attention to them. They were carefully preserved, unused, on a farther shelf in his library. No. Year after year, he lovingly unsheathed only this one, a drab miniature volume produced sixty years ago by Columbia University Press. And the reason he did was simple.

It was a facsimile of the 1843 first edition.

Although he is rarely given much credit for it, among Dickens’s gargantuan talents was a studied sense of what makes an elegant book. A spat with his publishers Chapman & Hall involving the slumping sales of Martin Chuzzlewit in the fall of 1843 (in a scene lovingly and comically imagined in Calhoun and Heaney’s Dickens’ Christmas Carol After a Hundred Years: A Study in Bibliographic Evidence) caused the author to propose that his new book be published on commission: he would write a short seasonal story, pay all the costs for its production himself, and reap what he felt would be a handy profit, all without incurring further his publishers’ bad feeling. After all, Dickens’s reputation as England’s most popular living novelist ensured a brisk and profitable sale for such a unique holiday item.

So off he went, writing his “little scheme” in October and November. Once done, he supervised the design and printing in early and mid December, including commissioning a set of color plates from the up and coming Punch illustrator John Leech.

The resulting little volume is a bibliographer’s delight. Bound variously in salmon-colored, brown, or cinammon vertically ribbed cloth with gold and blind stamping on the covers and spine, the early editions of the book measured a pocket-sized four and a quarter by six and three quarter inches. The pages were gilt edged all round. Carrying on the metaphor of the carol, the story’s five chapters were named “staves.” With four black and white wood engravings and four hand-colored steel engravings by Leech, this “neat book” sold exceptionally well at newsstands and bookshops throughout London, by various reports selling out its first printing of 6000 copies within days of publication on December 19.

My father’s facsimile was true to most points of the first public issue of that edition. From the red and blue title page, to the tenderly colored engravings, to the quaint “Works of Mr. Charles Dickens” advertisement at the end (which shows us the master in mid-career — it touts only the books from Nickelby up to the thirteenth of twenty projected installments of Chuzzlewit): my father cherished this little book. He knew that the only true way to read Scrooge’s story was as the author designed it to be read.

The lines of text and ornament on the charming two-color title page are not quite parallel. Inside, the handset type, the occasional jerky lines, the misspellings, blobs of ink, alternating lightness and heaviness of impression, spotiness, cracked letters, missing punctuation, broken hyphens: all these imperfections speak not of detatched mechanization and the assembly line, but of inkers and binders and colorers in gaslit printer’s rooms, rushing to get those first six thousand copies to the booksellers, of ink-stained fingers in cold rooms heated only by the toil of workers, and everything suffused with the odor of paint and oil and ink and sweat.

This book is all about a thing made, and in it my father saw what the facsimile publishers over the years must have seen: that a reader of this edition would be ineluctably drawn back through the intervening decades to the Christmas of 1843 — its penetrating foggy air, the icy, wheel-rutted streets and narrow courts of the great black-bricked, black-skied city — to the ghost story Dickens wrote, and finally to Dickens himself. Through the type and the engravings, you become as close to each character “as I am to you,” writes Dickens, “and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow.”

When I open the book to the first page, I learn what my father learned when he purchased the book in 1956: that the full effect of the facsimile begins with Dickens’s very first line.


Marley was dead : to begin with.


No matter how often you read it, the oddness of the line’s punctuation cannot fail to stop you in your tracks. Read silently or aloud, the effect is stunning, even quickening, in a dead sort of way.

Modern editions, many of them, change that colon to a comma, as if to imply that Dickens really didn’t know what he was doing. My father knew, and taught me to know, that by altering that one simple thing, you already begin to lose the essence of the book; modern minds — so certain of their intelligence — begin to pull you into their time and away from Dickens’s.


Year after year, my father brought out this book. Year after year, I was intrigued by it. I remember asking him more than once for permission to read  it. “Only if you promise to be careful,” he said. I did. I was. I like to think my early interest caused him to search for a copy of my own. Sadly, the 1956 Columbia was by then out of print, so he bought me instead a sort of “training” facsimile. Inexpensive, though handsome, it was a bright-red copy produced by the J. G. Ferguson Publishing Company of Chicago.

After my father died, eleven years ago this past January, my mother asked if I wanted any of his books. It’s the way with all of us, I suspect: sorrow mingling with greed that rises at such a statement. Yes, of course. I wanted the Carol.

I little imagined when I pulled the little brown book from his shelf and took it home with me that something quite private and different would begin to work on me.

Apart from the usual scent of all old books, over the seasons and years that it was landlocked in my father’s study, the book’s pages had soaked up the smell of his pipe smoke and the room’s aura of claustrophobia and must, until it was imbued with its own distinctively sweet, intoxicating fragrance. Like the cooped-up air that I imagine pours from the genie’s bottle when you invoke it, this aroma enveloped my senses. Eleven years after the last pipe was smoked, the smell still permeates the pages and haunts me in an almost physical way. It resets the parameters of my present world, and it moves me into the London of 1843, with Scrooge, with Marley, with Bob, and with Dickens.

And also with my father. It’s no irony for me that the book is about reanimating the dead.


Reviewers at the time, many of them, cited the story’s ability to soften the reader to a greater appreciation of the world’s poor and needy, falling in with Scrooge’s nephew’s testament about Christmastide: “though it has never put a scrap of gold and silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, ‘God bless it!’”

Despite all the “good” being tossed around the season, my father loved the unreconstructed Scrooge best. He made no secret of it; telling us, my mother, brother, and I, that the miser, the growler, the skinflint, the threatener of small carolers — he was the hero of this story. The congealed, facetious old man was hands down far more interesting before the spirits changed him and made him more or less normal. If the earlier Scrooge is cruel, misanthropic, heartless (attributes doubtless admired by certain mid-century fathers), he is also energetic, purposed, and fun as only a nasty creature can be. Maybe my father saw in the raw Scrooge a sense of possibility: after all, the potential of perfection can only exist in an imperfect thing. Maybe he just liked bad Scrooge’s sense of mischief.


If immersing himself in the Carol each year was for my father something of a retreat from the world (and no doubt he loved this little book for that), in a larger sense the story is Dickens’s most eloquent and natural call to embrace the world. The author wants us to search all around, voraciously, for poverty, homelessness, anger, ignorance, want, and greed, and he wants us to do something about them.

This little book still has the power to change, and to change fundamentally. I know, because it has changed me.

The November after my father died, someone I knew was in a severe financial situation. It’s barely an exaggeration to say that it was a matter of life and liberty, but it was compounded by moral issues as severe as the need. Day and night I was tormented about how to deal with it. Reading this little book was like conversing with Dickens. In the absence of my father it gave me, at least, his answer.

Near the end of Stave I, Marley floats “out upon the bleak, dark night” to join his fellow phantoms crying “piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a doorstep.” Among the spirits is an old ghost with “a monstrous iron safe attached to its ancle [for ankle; a quaint, old spelling not modernized during Dickens’s lifetime].” The more I read this scene and saw the tortured phantom in Leech’s engraving, the more I felt the weight of that heavy safe on my own ankle. Could this spirit, chained to the cashbox, impotent to help in death what it might have helped in life, be myself?  Would I learn “that no space of regret can make amends for one’s life’s opportunities misused”?

Adding to the terror and frustration of Dickens’s original scene is that, given the severity of street life in London at the time, it’s fairly likely that either or both the wretched woman and her infant would soon die, perhaps that very night, Christmas Eve. In fact, the harsh potential remains. For when the book ends neither Scrooge nor anyone else has sought out and helped that woman and child. This has always bothered me. It seemed a loose end in a tale so masterfully absent of them.

I’ve come to believe, though, that this incompleteness is part of Dickens’s mastery of his subject. Squeamishness is what he precisely wants us to feel here. Leaving the scene open-ended, leaving the loose end loose, he forces the reader to come away from the story with a sense of something still to be done. Ever after, we look, or should look, for chances to rectify injustices like this one, to exercise pity, to become less ghostly and more substantially human. And because Dickens is more present in the pages he designed, the message of the Carol is more potent. I had my answer; I knew what to do.

Money was paid and liberty achieved.


According to bibliographers, buyers of the Carol’s fourteenth edition issued in 1860 got essentially the same book as the first buyers seventeen years earlier — though with some forty-odd typographical errors corrected (and others introduced). When it had been so painfully determined that the hand-colored illustrations had severely limited his profit, (Dickens expected L1000 income but netted by various estimates only L130 to L230)  you might say that any of the thirteen subsequent editions past the first that still carried the expensive colored engravings and the two-color title page were actually the first in a long train of  facsimiles.

In 1870, the year of Dickens’ death, Chapman & Hall finally reset the book in a different form, but reverence for its original look surfaced a scant three years later, when all five of his Christmas Books were reissued in “stereotype” editions, creating the first acknowledged facsimiles. Another appeared in 1890 or so. From then on, it was never very long before another more or less faithful imitation was produced on both sides of the Atlantic. H. S. Nichols (New York) published one in 1914, which was followed in 1920 by The Atlantic Monthly Press/Little Brown & Co. (Boston), in 1922 by Cecil Palmer (London), in 1924 by Charles E. Lauriat (Boston), in 1956 by Columbia University Press, sometime in the 1970s by J. G. Ferguson of Chicago, and finally one from Bradbury & Evans and another from Nottingham Court Press, both in 1987. A few of these (certainly the Ferguson and the 1922 Palmer) actually reproduced later corrected editions. Some facsimiles have doubtless eluded me, but as far as I can tell, there are none in print now; a shame.


Nearly every book about Dickens or the Carol repeats one story until it has entered legend: when the daughter of an apple seller in Drury Lane heard the news of the great author’s death in 1870, she asked, “Then will Father Christmas die too?”

The answer, of course, is no.

In part what Dickens himself did with this small book — creating nearly singlehandedly what we have come to view as the modern Christmas — has helped ensure that the traditional familial holiday and all its secular trappings continues to this day. Because of that, neither Father Christmas nor Dickens will die.

And, in a very particular sense, neither can my father. At this time “in the long calender of the year” he visits me again like Marley. Scrooge was saved from the weary journeys of the damned by his old partner’s intervention. For me, opening my father’s little gold-stamped book and rediscovering its clotted, wobbly type and engravings are also a kind of redemption, not least for the particular fragance of its pages.

No doubt, sometime soon — next year, or the year after that, or five years from now — when I open the book and turn its pages once more, I’ll be shocked to find how little of my father’s aura remains. The pages will have taken on more of the blander smell of my study. Soon the perfume of his life will be gone entirely.

But if that happens, if, in my reading, he will become an ever more intellectual presence rather than an emotional one, the book itself will be our connection.

Dickens knew how to wrench tears and laughter in quick succession from his reader. Like last year, like twenty years ago, and twenty years from now, I’ll feel that tug of wonder and joy from the story’s very first line, and know again my father’s Christmas legacy to me: when I open this book, he is there as close to me as Dickens himself is, standing right there in the spirit at my elbow.


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2. FBR 122: Random Hemingway . . .

I buy a lot of books, probably a hundred a year. I suppose I am building a library, though I don’t have nearly enough room, so in addition to a couple of hundred feet of built-in shelves I economize table, floor, and desk by stacking books in piles. Though the piles  rarely go higher than two feet, a footprint of 6 x 9 inches can accommodate as many as twenty books. Not a bad tradeoff for the danger of these towers near my head.

All of which is to say that when selecting the next book to read, I have a large collection within reach, and if I want a war story or a comedy or a biography, all I have to do is slip it out of its stack, and I’m on my way. Sometimes I’m not sure what I want to read, or read about. Maybe it’s a setting. Maybe it’s a genre. Maybe it’s a biography of an artist. Or a collection of essays. So I pore over the stacks and slip one out and “test” it, by flipping it to a random page, reading a few paragraphs, and if I find what I’m looking for, it becomes my next or one of my next reads.

Setting lately has been a purchase incentive. Cuba, Key West, the islands — these wafted across my brain recently, and I bought or dug out some volumes: Thomas McGuane’s Ninety-two in the Shade, Hotchner’s Papa Hemingway, Walker Evans’s Cuba photographs (see below), and Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not and Islands in the Stream.

While these yens for particular books come and go with alarming frequency, I did get into the last four of that list. Islands in the Stream is not considered vintage Hemingway by many, a posthumous publication  (1970) written in the early 1950s (as recounted by Hotchner), but it does contain some good material, here and there. I’m not deep in the book by any means, but there occurred a couple of really strong paragraphs that I want to call out. They occur on page 144 of the Scribner paperback. This is Thomas Hudson, the protagonist, rendered in third person and, annoyingly, always called “Thomas Hudson” rather than one or the other of his names, an odd effect. Nevertheless . . .

What a miserable, selfish way to be thinking about people that you love, he thought. Why don’t you remember the day and not analyze it and tear it to pieces? Go to bed now, he told himself, and make yourself sleep. The hell with anything else. And pick up the rhythm of your life in the morning. You don’t have the boys for much longer. See how happy a time you can make for them. I’ve tried, he said to himself. I’ve tried truly and for Roger, too. And you have been very happy yourself, he told himself. Yes, of course. But something about today frightened me. Then he told himself: truly, there is something about every day to frighten you. Go on to bed and maybe you’ll sleep well. Remember you want them to be happy tomorrow. 

What I find astonishing here is how Hemingway renders this self-conversation in first, second, and third person, with such strength and simplicity, and how its crisscrossing patterns of speech and thought mimic the mind’s bedtime rush. You can almost hear the final settling breath as the guy tries to leave it all behind.

Following this is just a lovely description of the world around Hudson’s bed:

A big southwest wind came up in the night and by daylight it was slowing with almost the force of a gale. The palms were bent with it and shutters slammed and papers blew and a surf was piling on the beach. 

Here I love the combining of inside and outside sounds in the second part of the second sentence, how he went from papers to the beach so effortlessly.

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3. FBR 121: Words and Pictures . . .

We’ve been talking lately about a program in which student writers and illustrators can feed off each other’s work in mutually beneficial ways. The obvious form of the collaboration in children’s literature is the illustration of a (mostly) pre-written text, resulting in a picture book or a story book. There are examples of books for older readers that work along these same lines, and some experimentation with other collaborative or self-collaborative works, like those of Brian Selznick and Clive Barker.

What has interested me for a very long time is that form of writing which results from contemplation of previously existing art of all kinds, particularly photography. Catalog copy is, say, the basic example of this, but there are huge variations in creativity among that large segment of writing, from a sort of photographic word-painting of the object to a kind of poetic riffing inspired by images. An example of the latter reaching high art is Remains of Elmet, with poems by Ted Hughes on an assortment of Fay Godwin’s photos of the north country.

I have just finished reading — if “reading” is the right word — Walker Evans’ photographs of Cuba from 1933. These were taken in assignment to illustrate a topical book about the injustices of contemporary Cuban politics by a fellow named Carlton Beals, a book all but forgotten except among historians. The photos survive as do all of Evans’ work because of the brilliance and depth of his vision. A handsome 2001 reissue of his photos by the Getty Museum, which holds many of the original prints, includes a new introductory essay by Andrei Codrescu. It’s the sort of creative text that I love that is all too rarely commissioned. Art critics I suppose get to do this thing all the time. A friend of mine, the poet Michael Coffey, was once paired with an installation artist and their collaboration produced a unique object, more than the art alone, more than the text alone. Something new.

There should be a path for writers to explore this kind of multi-art collaboration. I’ve just begun to look at the reissue of Evans’ American Photographs, the 75th anniversary edition of the catalog of his MOMA exhibition from 1938, a book that, if you knew it before, was often very expensive and hard to find. It carries, in nearly facsimile style, a very similar typography to the original publication, and Lincoln Kirstein’s essay on Walker’s place in the history of American photography. What’s lovely is that his text survives as an afterword the photographs; it’s been honored as an essay 75 years after its publication, too. So, just a roundabout way of saying that introductory essays, critical essays, poetic essays of art are so infrequently asked for but can allow for the creation of a beautiful, unique, and lasting text.





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4. FBR 119: Simply one of our best . . .

I don’t know how many of you watched the American Masters episode about Harper Lee this past week, but I am deeply bothered by its snide rendering of Truman Capote — to my mind a far smarter and better writer than Lee — and the all-too-common portrayal of the “sad last years” of his life, as if they in any way expunged his literary achievement.

To my mind, Capote is simply one of this country’s finest novelists and essayists, at a time of many first-class writers. He was a keen, comical observer and a meticulous craftsman who produced a lengthy shelf of literary masterpieces: Other Voices, Other Rooms, The Grass Harp, “The Diamond Guitar,” “House of Flowers,” In Cold Blood, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s, to say nothing of his sparkling travel essays, interviews, and letters.

When Lee’s older sister trots out the odorous canard that Capote broke with Lee because she won a Pulitzer and he didn’t, I wretched. As if grand old age has now canonized the slight. From all accounts, including his own, Truman’s childhood was a fairly wretched affair, salvaged only by his cousin, Souk Faulk. He rose to literary esteem quickly and was undoubtedly seduced by its accompanying fame, but in no way should that fact be confused with or diminish the beauty and insight of his broad and long bibliography.

It’s almost as if American Masters — and its Capote-belittling commentators — want us to make a choice between Lee and Capote as exemplars, respectively, of “job well done” and “sad decline.” Fine. To Kill a Mockingbird is a good book, but I would sacrifice it in an instant, no question, to keep Capote’s voice in my ears and his books on my shelf.

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5. FBR 118: Wastage as never before . . .

Well, a grand allusion to an insignificant issue, certainly, and my apologies to Pound and the myriad, but sometimes you arrive at conclusions so very long after being presented with mountains of evidence that you gasp and choke back a kind of disbelief (while all around you shift pencils) and strike the board and cry, “No more!” — bolting up from the table, storming room to room around the house, wondering for how long you have been ill-used and hoping that not too many have grasped it before you (but knowing that they have, mountains of them), until you understand that making stories out of nothing is not nothing and should not be seen as nothing and finally say, “Enough! I will not waste myself on silence!”

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6. FBR 117: On Bartok, the willfully difficult, and reclusionisme . . .

My memory is getting worse. In Exit Ghost the narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, talks in loving terms about his secluded house in the Berkshires somewhere near Lenox, and describes himself — to himself and others — as a recluse. Among its other benefits, Zuckerman claims that reclusivity is particularly good for listening to willfully difficult music with something like the proper attention; he mentions by way of example (and here is where memory cannot confirm the exact page), a Bartok quartet.

A couple of times a week I go down the mountain into Athena, eight miles away, to shop for groceries, to get my clothes cleaned, occasionally to eat a meal or buy a pair of socks or pick up a bottle of wine or use the Athena College library. Tanglewood isn’t far away, and I drive over to a concert there some ten times during the summer. I don’t give readings or lectures or teach at a college or appear on TV. When my books are published, I keep to myself. I write every day of the week—otherwise I’m silent. I am tempted by the thought of not publishing at all—isn’t work all I need, the work and the working?

The farther along life’s road I am, the more I find myself looking up to the hills, wondering whether the retreat is some kind of — perhaps the only kind of — victory. A place and time when we will finally be able to listen to Bartok’s quartets without the background noise of life, buzzing and hashing and whining its way into our ears.

I remember in an interview a few years back Maurice Sendak mentioning that he was becoming more and more of a recluse, adding that the desire to retreat was increasing as he got older. He said this is a tendency usual to recluses. Several parts of this were comforting. That it’s all right for writers for young people to want to get the heck away from the world. That there are tendencies usual to recluses, as if it is a state that can be . . . studied. We joke, my wife and I, that I am less a recluse than a reclusionist — a practitioner of reclusionism. What’s comforting about this is that practice might make perfect. Or perhaps it’s reclusionisme. The practice does have a vaguely Continental sensibility, an allure of Gallic superiority.

All of this on the eve of a book release. Actually two books. On Tuesday, the first two volumes of a new series, Goofballs, are released, both raucously hilarious and both as far from silent hilltops as I can imagine. I will go out and booster them on streetcorners, at railway stations, in bars and restaurants, because I love the books so.

There’s more to say, but right now I have to practice.


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7. FBR 116: A New Hope . . .

After an execrable showing — one entry these past two months — we’re getting our sea legs once again. The title above refers to a question I was asked just yesterday by a young reader: “ . . . themes in one or more of your adventure stories appear reminiscent of scenic and/or structural elements in the Star Wars films; are you an appreciator?”

I responded that, yes, I am, though I can profess familiarity with only the best of the films, by which I mean the first three, beginning in 1977, when I was twenty-one, with “Episode IV: A New Hope.” I must have seen that movie, oh, three or four times while it was still in the theaters. From the parking lot afterwards, my Plymouth dipped on its squishy tires not unlike the Millennian Falcon, at least until the first traffic light. But the title resonates with any old number of things we envision for the coming year; thus, a new hope on many fronts.

I read a nifty bit in Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature that I want to share. It’s in his introduction to discussion of Bleak House, which comes in the book as it must have come in his lecture sequence, just after his analysis of Mansfield Park, about whose author he has just admitted, “I am sure that some readers have a better ear for Miss Austen than I have.” He is much more in his element with Dickens. “In our dealings with Jane Austen we had to make a certain effort in order to join the ladies in the drawing room. In the case of Dickens we remain at table with our tawny port.”

This is not the quote I want to share, but it’s probably good to pause here and reflect for a moment on the writer’s approach to literature, because it is very much summed up in the structural imagery he gives us. There is a physical delight, a geographical reality to the joy, that great literature gives us. There is the comfort of our haunches remaining in the chairs about the table where Mr. Dickens sits, telling us his story. Nabokov famously dismissed “great ideas” from his analysis of great novels. Ideas come and go, are timebound, anachronistic, ephemeral, inelegantly voiced by even the best artist. What remains when you take the nonsense away is the artistry of structure, the structure of artistry. And that is a physiological truth, as he explains in the bit I do want to share.

“All we have to do when reading Bleak House is to relax and let our spines take over. Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle. Let us be proud of our being vertebrates, for we are vertebrates tipped at the head with a divine flame. The brain only continues the spine: the wick really goes through the whole length of the candle. If we are not capable of enjoying that shiver, if we cannot enjoy literature, then let us give up the whole thing and concentrate on our comics, our videos, our books-of-the-week. But I think Dickens will prove stronger.”

We often approach Nabokov, and certainly we do as students when we first are introduced to him, as cryptographers, bloodlessly connecting the dots of his plots and characters in order to “understand” the text. This was his game, to craft a surface shiny and exotic, a well-built box, which all too often as students we might decide was all there was to be discovered. He was a master at that. And may have been as cold a man himself as a box would be, though a box resounding with great humor.

But here, in his appreciation of writers’ masterworks, he folds himself into a burnished chair at the old table. He listens, objects, stares, laughs, and passes the port, hour upon hour, as his spine

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8. FBR 115: The December Dip . . .

This is the week that Fall 2011 evaluations of my MFA students’ work are due, and three of the four have been written and dispatched. It’s also the week teachers receive manuscripts to be workshopped at the residency that kicks off the Spring 2012 semester. Breathe out, breathe in. The “dip” between semesters, after one ends and before the next begins, has amounted to little more than an hour or two, and that’s fine. You wouldn’t want too much time to lapse between semesters, students, and teaching, even given all the other stuff that’s got to be attended to.

But this hour of peace — in the season of peace — does prompt me to look at the end of my first year of teaching and question and wonder.

Do I like teaching? I love teaching. There’s so much that satisfies. . . .

The ongoing task of gathering what I’ve learned — and what I feel — about language and writing. I find it makes me accountable to my own knowledge of craft. It’s a constant test and question of myself.

There’s the reading of so many texts, a focused, deeper reading than I may have attended to before, all in the service of helping to shape craft knowledge into a form deliverable to someone else.

There’s that flutter in the chest when I come across something really fine in a student’s work; you know what it is: it makes you want to jump up and walk around the room before sitting down to read more

No small part of teaching is the talk that surrounds and extends and argues it.

There’s the talk about work as if work is the only thing there is.

Am I good at teaching? Ffft! Not yet. I feel like a diviner in a room of scientists. Good writing too often seems to me to be unexplainable, a fact I notice when I try to explain it. It’s like describing air. The best teaching that I can do is probably to simply point at someone’s story and say, “There. Do you see it?”

In a seminar I gave last semester there was the embarrassing moment when I read a piece of Agee to the class and my commentary was a stifled choke. What good is that to a student? Still, I’m likely to do the same thing this time. I’m a rube in the city of learning but I do love it, and I can’t wait for it all to start up.

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9. FBR 114: Reading Log(jam) . . .

Why can’t I ever read one book at a time? Start, read, finish, and put away? Is it like this for everyone? On my desk are at some thirty-five new books that I am at least two chapters in to, some far more, but I do not seem to want to finish any of them. Somehow, knowing that they are undone keeps them alive and still in the process of deep communion. Once the cover is closed and all the words have been read, there is a death.

I’m reminded that John Irving’s intense passion for Dickens includes an unread book. I don’t know if it’s still true, but I recall him saying that he’s saving Our Mutual Friend, the last completed novel, until his deathbed. Irving wants Dickens to ever be an ongoing pleasure, one that’s never quite finished, a hunger never completely satisfied.

I’ve recently gotten the new Van Gogh: The Life, along with the Penguin edition of his letters. After recently visiting the house north of Paris where he died, I couldn’t resist the gargantuan and acclaimed study. And, well, his letters are among his prized leavings.

I collect short books, but they are apparently no easier to finish. Train Dreams by Denis Johnson and Brooklyn Is by James Agee, both beautiful little hardcover volumes of 116 and 50 pages, respectively, have been sampled, more than sampled, yet I know that when I finish them and so would be free to remove them from the pile of the “living” to a shelf behind me, a loss will inhabit the desk. So I refuse to do it, and have learned to read books paragraph by paragraph while the piles get taller.

As if I needed to add anything else to a work table straining under the weight, I picked up at a local bookshop on a recent trip to Ohio, Philip Roth’s Nemesis, his novel about a fictitious polio epidemic in Newark in the summer of 1944. I remember polio victims. There are was a girl in my class in Cleveland when I was growing up a decade after Roth’s story. He is a writer I find extremely easy to read. His narratives flow like rivers, and you find yourself twenty, thirty, sixty pages in before you come up for air. This book I will probably finish, just because he rarely lets you do otherwise.

Recently — why him? why now? — I’ve begun to read Malamud again after decades. His biography by Philp Davis, an excellent work that did something, but apparently not enough, to raise the novelist to his former stature, is riveting and supremely intelligent. Now I find that I can’t help but dredge out the novels and stories I read so long ago. They are dense. No hope to skim them away. They’re now taking up yet more real estate on my desk.

The Civil War, anything on the Civil War! The Great Rebellion, the War Between the States, was far more my war than Korea, under which I was born; I was eight at its centennial, and my brother and I played Civil War in our backyard, in the woods across the road, in our shared bedroom, in our minds. And to truly know the war one must know what led to it, so now . . . The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War 1848-1861 has taken its place in the stack — right between Hemingway’s Boat and Thomas W. Nason: New England Virtues Aged in Wood, a monograph on the woodcut artist by Charles Price, published by the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Ct, a place I was happy to visit a couple of weeks ago.

And it never ends. Which I guess is how I prefer it.

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10. FBR 113: Not Now, Bobby . . .


It was the word under my high school yearbook picture. Well. Because apparently that’s what people remembered me saying a lot. So much so, in fact, that “well” must have become universally recognized as my calling card. I objected to a yearbook writer by saying, “Well, how could you write that? Isn’t there something else about me? Well, isn’t there?”

The editor said, “Not now, Bobby.”

I’m at the tail end of a barnstorming tour of Ohio, having taken in Cleveland, Hudson, Delaware, and Wooster, zigzagging across the state, visiting as many as three cities a day. Gosh, if I only played baseball in 1936. The ostensible purpose of my “tour,” as opposed to a one- or two-day school visit, was to talk about the new book, the one that revolves around a family living in Cleveland. In practice, however, the book didn’t get all that much play because the presentations I did were attended by mostly younger children. I snuck in as much as I could say about it before launching into a survey of my more popular younger writing.

Uh . . . what else? There is now a classroom guide to the book, written by Cliff Wohl. Soon, I’ll be back home, where it looks like we’ll be taking in a second dog as soon as Monday. The book has my initials blind-stamped on the hardcover, the first time that has ever happened. You can’t help but run your thumb over the stamping. I am as proud of that as of anything. Our old, ailing apple tree finally went down in the recent snowstorm. Greg Call painted a lovely cover; someone thought they recognized the bus station, but it’s not a bus station in Ohio, it’s in Atlanta. It’s clear here in Wooster and warm, a day before the outstanding Buckeye Book Fair that takes place all day tomorrow. Hudson Library and Historical Society, where I was last night, has, not that I was able to view it on this trip, an outstanding collection of material relating to John Brown; Brown lived in Hudson from the time he was five to his sixteenth year, when he moved to Massachusetts, then Connecticut, to study for the ministry. I’m deeply happy that I wrote the story and on Wednesday happened to meet a middle school student in Delaware, who presented a school report on it. Houses on either side of my home in Cleveland are empty blank little boxes.

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11. FBR 112: The Big Ohio Tour . . .

From November 1 – 5, I will be in Ohio (my fair native state), reading and signing LUNCH-BOX DREAM, which appeared from Farrar Straus Giroux this summer. Naturally, I’ll also be talking about other books, but being the setting for the new novel, Ohio has been in my plans for quite a while. I’m happy to be able to visit. Here are the dates:

Tuesday, November 1
Seton Catholic School (Hudson, Ohio), afternoon;
The Hudson Public Library (Hudson), pm.
Books provided at both events by The Learned Owl Book Shop.

Wednesday, November 2
Parkview Elementary School (Wooster), am;
Fundamentals Bookstore (Delaware), 4:30-6pm.

Thursday, November 3
Cleveland Public Library, 10:30 am;
Lincoln Way Elementary (Wooster), 3:30 pm.

Friday, November 4
Wooster Public Library, 10:30 am:

Saturday, November 5
Buckeye Book Fair (Wooster), all day.

The school appearances are usually closed affairs, but the library visits in Cleveland, Hudson, and Wooster are open to the public, as is, of course, the Buckeye Book Fair so . . . I would love to meet  you if you’re able to visit!


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12. FBR 111: Atomic Language . . .

Language is not only the atomic level of substance we use to write — the bricks of the building, as it were — but the hugeness of the building and the reason why the building is there in the first place.

There are some writers who believe that novels are NOTHING BUT language, and it’s frankly hard to argue with them. Creating, or pretending to create life with words is a pretty cheeky undertaking; it’s perfectly comprehensible to believe that a novel is really nothing more, or less, than a structure built of words. It’s no more real, let’s say, than a piece of sheet music.

But let’s set that consideration aside for now and look at a couple aspects of how language is used in fiction

Richard Yates begins REVOLUTIONARY ROAD this way:

The final dying sounds of their dress rehearsal left the Laurel Players with nothing to do but stand there, silent and helpless, blinking out over the footlights of an empty auditorium. They hardly dared to breathe as the short, solemn figure of their director emerged from the naked seats to join them on stage, as he pulled a stepladder raspingly from the wings and climbed halfway up its rungs to turn and tell them, with several clearings of his throat, that they were a damned talented group of people and a wonderful group of people to work with.

I’ll pause here. This paragraph, if you read it aloud, uses perfectly familiar, everyday language, with the exception of the single word “raspingly,” and you understand every word of it. It’s visible, palpable, this late-night scene on the stage. You see the group of players, exhausted, you see the director dragging the ladder out from off stage, you watch him climb — halfway — and you “hear” his remarks to the players.

What else? It’s a melancholy scene, isn’t it. “The final dying sounds . . . ” “silent and helpless” . . . “climbed [only] halfway up” “several clearings of his throat” . . . and so forth. All the vocabulary works toward this end, which prefigures the mood of the novel. People caught silent and helpless, blinking before the footlights, a little man telling them what? Nothing all that great.

The director’s clumsy repetition of “group of people” in the last sentence, which you might easily miss because Yates has been using plain language so far, tells us something, doesn’t it? It tells us that the director, the mind behind the production, the great mind behind the Laurel Players’ upcoming performance isn’t great with language. He uses the same phrase twice because he can’t think of another way to say it. This is damning. The one — the only — person the players look to is a short solemn man with a limited ability to speak and lead. Let’s look at the next paragraphs.

“It hasn’t been an easy job,” he said, his glasses glinting soberly around the stage. “We’ve had a lot of problems here, and quite frankly I’d more or less resigned myself not to expect too much. Well, listen. Maybe this sounds corny, but something happened up here tonight. Sitting out there tonight I suddenly knew, deep down, that you were all putting your hearts into your work for the first time.” He let the fingers of one hand splay out across the pocket of his shirt to show what a simple, physical thing the heart was; then he made the same hand into a fist, which he shook slowly and wordlessly in a long dramatic pause, closing one eye and allowing his moist lower lip to curl out in a grimace of triumph and pride. “Do that again tomorrow night,” he said, “and we’ll have one hell of a show.”

They could have wept with relief. Instead, trembling, they cheered and laughed and shook hands and kissed one another, and somebody went out for a case of beer and they all sang songs around the auditorium piano until the tim

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13. FBR 110: The Music of What Happens . . .

It’s been a noisy week in . . . here.

Item: The tonnage of stuff to do has fairly collapsed my cheap but lovable desk, and there’s been no time to read much of anything, but a book due this coming Monday has received a gentle extension to the following Monday, so I’m able to forestall the coming heart attack for at least that long. Whew!

Item: My stacks of new books have grown a bit taller. I’m trying hard not to think of these precarious skyscrapers as an example of hoarding but as building a vast library on not much real estate.

Item: I can see light at the end of the tunnel. In the next few weeks, that book will be done, pages for another will have been proofed, we’ll have gone to France for a week, and my daughter will be home for four days then back to college, and I will have something like a month and a half to work on a new novel. It’s all worked out — these coming weeks — with the precision of a railroad timetable, with that singular goal: time to write something new. If one element lags, I’m in trouble. But I try not to think about it, so desperately do I covet that time.

So we use weekends. And write short Friday Book Reports.

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14. FBR 109: The Eye of the Funnel . . .

When visiting classrooms, and the question comes up about what part of writing I like best, I often refer to the time spent writing a book as being inside a funnel.

At the beginning of the writing process, you find yourself luxuriating in the large end — the entry end — as if it were a giant pool. A world-sized pool, in fact. Everything is possible. The story can include this, it has room for that, and that other, marvelous episode will find a perfect home here, too. It is a liberating and expansive activity, these first days of writing.

As time moves on, however, you find yourself descending from the wide end toward the narrow end. You begin to understand that this particular story does not have room for all of those wonderful ideas. Well, that’s all right. You’re still able to move around, breathe freely. The story will be great.

And the days press on, weeks go by, and you’re still descending. Now, it’s not as much fun as those carefree days when you first stepped into the funnel. The light has diminished. Now you see the limitations of what you’ve undertaken. Problems creep in. Time wears on you. Didn’t you tell the editor you’d have this by the end of the month? Ooh, that’s coming closer. Still, you can stretch your arms, maybe not all the way, but the blood is still flowing.

And down you move. The sides of the funnel seem much closer now. You can’t quite turn around to see the sun anymore, though you still have light coming down over your shoulder. You have to lean a little closer to the page to read comfortably, but you expected that, didn’t you? Breathing is a bit more of an effort, and the air not as fresh as when you were back up there on the surface. And what day is it? Can I work weekends?

And as the space around your head gets smaller, your breathing shallows. Of course, it does; you don’t really have room to expand your lungs anymore. The characters are breathing more than they did before, too, so there’s less usable air. Plus, did you notice how they’re starting to get in your face now? The one you used to like, his dumb friend with the shaggy hair, that girl. You never realized before what a stinker she could be. But whatever, you said you loved them, thick and thin, and all that. It’s just that you’re all pressed up against one another and it’s dark and hot and you’re going to have to suck in all the air you can for the final push.

And there’s still more down to go. Uck, here there’s no movement at all. You can’t see the others now, but you feel them for sure, their hot breath on you. And you’re all but blinded by the dark and the heat, yet you know there must be an opening. All funnels have openings. My gosh, you’ve descended the entire length of the funnel, so there must be a way out! You can’t go back again anyway. A weight presses your head. You can’t really feel your legs anymore. You’ll have to pull yourself forward on your elbows. Yeah, yeah. You can do it. Sure you can . . . but what happened to the light? There is no light anymore. No air, either! So this is what it’s like to die. You gag. Suffocate. And you are suddenly so angry. You barely have anything anymore, but this sick hot anger.

And there is the eye of the funnel. That twinkle in the distance. My god, it’s small! Why would they ever design a funnel like this? With a top so broad and lively and the bottom no wider than the eye of a needle. Can you possibly crawl to it? Your elbows are bloody and have buckled now, so it’s all in the fingers, scraping your body inch by inch. You release your last breath, along with every living molecule of your body, to make yourself as small as possible. Scratch your way to it. Scratch, scratch . . .

And you are out.

You’re out. You gulp air as if you’ve just drowned, except that what you’ve just been through was worse than drowning. You died in there, didn’t you? Didn’t your heart actually stop? Didn’t your brain tremble and sigh and go still? But as your lun

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15. FBR 108: The Roaring Silence . . .

Publication dates for most writers usually don’t mean anything. If your book isn’t fixed with a specific “lay-down” date, before which retailers are barred from selling the book and competing with the publisher’s promotional program, finished books are often available weeks ahead of the date selected by the publisher. They are often in stores before that date, have been noticed by bloggers, and they are usually in distribution online. This takes the sting or joy out of the actual event.

In most cases, prepublication reviews in the half-dozen or so trade journals that review books for young people have, or ideally should have, prepared the breathless community for the great coming.

This coming Tuesday, July 19, is the pub date for a book I’ve been involved in, although I’ve had advance copies for a few weeks. Of the half-dozen prepub journals, only three have weighed in. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of advance reading copies have been distributed for over eight months , but there have been only one or two blogger notices (out of how large a universe?), and no full online reviews. Hmm. All of which reminds me of a lesson I learned with my last book: that what is coming might not just be great. It might be a great silence.

It’s good simply to take note of such a silence when you hear it; and you do hear it. It’s that sudden moment in the bubbling conversation when for different reasons, perhaps, everyone pauses simultaneously to take a breath. In that moment, something falls off the edge and vanishes.

Sure, I know, the grapes that are sour. You’re right. But because the number of books being published is so large, the power of community-wide silence about one of them can be shockingly final. In the era of opening weekend receipts, it’s hard even for the writer not to be swept up in the instant reaction, good or bad, now let’s please move on. In any case, whether or not we pop a cork on Tuesday, I suppose I’ll pause for an instant and listen.

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16. FBR 107: A Matter of Time . . .

Several weeks now since the last issue, and I feel bad. They have been busy weeks, stacked with reading, teaching, writing, and all the other stuff that comes between; life, I suppose you could call it.

First, a catalog of the recent books to appear on the desk. While up at the residency in Cambridge, I found An American Type by Henry Roth, published posthumously last year and now in paper. It’s not at all bad, very good in spots (I’m still at the beginning), and reminds me here and there of, say, Fitzgerald at his breeziest. What is odd and beautiful is that the best of it displays the muscularity and vigor of a much younger writer, if I can generalize in so crude a fashion. It’s like reading the lost novel of a mid-century master. It’s not nearly so good as the greatest of that generation, I’m led to expect by the lackluster review quotes in the opening pages; but if I can stick with it, I’ll likely have my own opinion.

The Sportswriter by Richard Ford was mentioned by a fellow teacher, and so I picked that up as well. Speak, Memory by Nabokov was used in a seminar I sat in on, and while I had not been drawn to it before because there is little about his writing life in the book — it covers his early life — I was taken by the beauty of the passages read aloud and had to bring it into the workshop.

A bunch of craft books: On Writing by Stephen King; Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird; and David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction, which I’d read before and liked. I realized in putting together the study plans for my four new students, I could recommend only one or two craft titles; most being lightweight or lame. So I got hold of these to see if I can broaden my craft shelf. Also Matterhorn, The Eyes of Willie McGee, Claudette Colvin, and Tender is the Night.

But, to the teaching. There’s so much about teaching creative writing that I have to learn. Coming from a practitioner’s background, with so many books behind me, and more on their way, I find that while I may have the knowledge, I don’t have the technique to teach. Yet.

It’s a fascinating and vibrant area of thought and discussion, as all the long-time teachers out there already know. Erika Dreifus, Cathy Day, Stephanie Vanderslice, Mark McGurl — these are people I’m just beginning to read about, all theorizers (perhaps contradictory) about the pedagogy of the MFA system, none of them particularly known or known yet as novelists or creative writers, but with many intelligent things to say that I need to hear and consider.

Certainly, I’d love to someday be in the position of a Robert Frost or William Faulkner, standing frosty-haired in front of a class and simply reading my work, or, at most, answering questions with wit and grace; but until that time, I want to absorb the complicated and worthy art of teaching. Sure, I have to fit it in between all the book deadlines, but I’d like to believe it’s all a matter of, and only a matter of, time.

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17. FBR 106: Voice and the Reading Experience . . .

Now, I have not read nearly widely enough across the author spectrum or deeply enough in the writers I do like, but it struck me today, as it must have struck everyone else long ago, that there are writers whose novels and stories, no matter how different the tone, no matter who their narrators are, come from the same place, off the same typewriter, the same desk — while the “identity” of other writers is far more distant from the reader.

In other words, no matter what you read by certain writers, it is the writer who you are hearing. This is to say that the writer has not submerged himself or herself into the character of another. Think of Faulkner. You can pick up nearly everything from Sanctuary to The Reivers, and across the stories, and Faulkner is speaking to you. He and his voice combine to create a presence in each story. Whether it’s narrated by Quentin Compson or Bayard Sartoris, if you have listened to the audios of him reading, you hear that voice: swift, monotonic, friendly.

Capote is the same way. Even in his creepy early stories — “Miriam,” for example, or “A Tree of Night” — but also in novels as different as The Grass Harp, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Other Voices, Other Rooms, we are on Truman’s porch, listening to him read. Richard Yates is another whose novels and stories come from a pen attached to only his hand.

There are other writers, however, whose voices shift from story to story. For some reason, I read a couple of Grace Paley’s stories lately, and frankly the differing voices point me toward different sources, almost schizophrenically, and the effect is off-putting. Certainly, I haven’t read nearly enough of her, a handful of pages, but there is a frostiness about who Grace really is that I’m not sure I like (or, rather, I like so very much more its opposite, the warm voice of a friend), and it’s probably because there seems to me a screen or construct of “other” in front of her voices.

Tobias Wolff appears to me another of these sorts of writers, though I will instantly bow before a wide reader of his stuff who dissents. In some of Wolff’s stories, his persona, his self, is not immediately clear to me. James Salter is another. Beautiful, though I find myself listening to the stories from Row L, not from the next club chair.

Joyce, no. He is of the first camp. Carson McCullers also in the first camp (if you put to the side the oddly composed Reflections in an Golden Eye).

Philip Roth? Well, even the Zuckerman books are in his voice, so, yes, he’s definitely in the first group. Updike, also. He professed that he didn’t use his biography in the stories. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant here: the voice and diction and sound of his many works are his and no one else’s.

Flannery O’Connor is in the first group. Out of each of her stories and novels, as different as they are, comes a voice with the lilt and tone and humor of only her, as if she’s telling what happened while you follow her around the yard feeding peacocks. Toni Morrison seems to be like her and the others in this feeling that no matter if her books have vastly different narrators, they’re all born and issue from the one mind.

I could be so very wrong about this, however, and don’t want to go on record any more permanent than this; it’s just a little something that occurred to me as a way of defining a very personal reading experience.

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18. FBR 105: The summer session is nearly here . . .

This is nothing but a bit of fluff, but it bothers me not to produce something by deadline, so for this Friday, a brief mention about seminars.

For the last two days I’ve been poring over materials for the “cohort” seminar I’m delivering at Lesley at the end of the month, have got a structure, have spent far too many hours getting my readings in pdf format, but am excited about the texts and the questions they should lead us to discuss.

The title is: IN COLD PRINT: THE CROSS-POLLINATION OF FICTION, NONFICTION, AND POETRY. Those attentive folks will know that I’ve talked about the topic before. At the residency, however, the class will be made up of second semester students in all genres — adult fiction, nonfiction, writing for young people, and, I’m told, one poet. About twenty in all.

I do love the mixed group for its angles of vision. As a bonus, it’s such a comfort to know that not everyone wants to write a novel. In a former life, I scribbled a substantial amount of poetry, too, so the three threads should allow for some good conversation. For poetry I’m drawing on Lowell, Bishop, Sexton, and Whitman, and staying away from Heaney, whose work I know perhaps the best, since his writing seems on a plane that doesn’t immediately cross over as easily as the confessional writers. There’s probably a way to do it (the bog man poems?), but my head is a bit clogged right now, so I’m taking the easier path.

Still, I’m reminded that my preparation for the previous semester’s seminar was done in the midst of a ton of end-of-year deadlines, but came out all right in the end. Giving that one again will work out some of its kinks, and doubtless there will be plenty of kinks in the one I’m working up now, too. But the benefit of all of these things is that they are fluid, subject to interruption, clarification, reconsideration, and do-over. I’m told there are writers who lay down the law when they teach. That doesn’t seem right, but I am the definition of a newcomer. Anyway, I hope there will be many more seminars, round tables, panels, and tavern evenings, since there is so much to work on and chat about and argue over.

Till next week then!

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19. FBR 104: The Bowl on Your Head . . .

When I visit classrooms — the last one of the current school year was this past week in Howell, New Jersey — I often find myself responding to the question, “Do you like being an author?” with two statements.

The first is that the word “author” seems too grand a word for what I do and appears to signify something greater than “writer,” which to me is more accurate and a bit humbler. The second response is in the nature of an emphatic “YES!” that it is quite intoxicating (not the word I use in classrooms) to go through life with all your senses open to what is happening, to all the ideas that are in the world for us to encounter and internalize. Imagine, I say, that the top of your head is open and everything is constantly going into it, as if there were a bowl on your head, and the world was always filling it up.

Which may be true for all writers, but seems especially useful to very young writers who haven’t yet learned to tap into the endless stream of ideas. So it was a treat to watch a late interview with John Updike in which he answers an audience question about where he gets the ideas for his short stories. After acknowledging that an idea might come from “something that happens to you,” Updike suggested that as a writer he finds himself in a position to address this or that topic as it interests him. An idea might come from “a news item. Dostoevsky read the newspaper and would then write on [what he found there]. . . . If you’re a practicing writer, you’re open to new ideas wherever they may occur.”

This reminds me of a friend of mine who, having written several novels on autobiographical topics, wrote a moving and quite successful book whose idea originated not with her but with her editor. This happens all the time, of course, but is another example of having that bowl on your head ready and waiting for what happens, always being “open to new ideas,” as Updike puts it.

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20. FBR 103: Deepening the Dish . . .

Since I began teaching at Lesley University’s MFA in Creative Writing, I’ve found a place to put a number of my more serious interests in literature to good use. Constructing seminars, guiding, commenting, teaching, are fulfilling a host of yearnings I have had for years, and I am so grateful for the opportunity this grandly late in my career to share some of what I’ve learned in three decades of writing.

One of the more inspired bits of email I received recently was a note to the faculty to, if they wanted to, write up a brief statement on the order of “Why I Write,” a deep-dish request if there ever was one. These statements would be read aloud during graduation in lieu of a more formal speech. Many members of the faculty have jumped on the idea, one noting (how true) that while it’s easy to say yes to the request, it’s not so easy to come up with a personal mission statement.

I’ve been trying to tackle this over the last week and have come up with 76 words describing Why I Write. But you know these 76 words could so easily have been a different set of 76 words, and as soon as you say, “This says it all,” you realize it doesn’t explain a fraction of something so huge as why you write. That would take, well, the last three decades. And knowing I could massage and tinker for twice that long and still not get it right, I carved this out of the air, polished it up, sent it off, and that’s that.

Tony Abbott, Writing For Young People

Writing is like primitive worship. It’s my attempt to understand the world by naming what I see and feel around me. But there’s a contradiction in articulating reality this way. If words are the fundamental human act, the breath that begins a conversation with the world, they are also artificial. I enjoy working inside this tension and finally believe that fashioning a person out of words can be both insupportably hubristic and an act of reverence.

I was thinking of saying something like:

And because it is silent, written language seems capable of the lightest touch; it can approach the mystery closely without destroying it.

None of which says anything specific about writing for young people, which, I suppose, is also a big part of my mission, and about which I might be tempted to say:

Youth is a powerful and fragile mystery. Seldom in our later years, if we are graced to live them happily, are experiences as defining or memorable as in our youths. I find myself looking back to those years because I want to explore the fragility and power and mystery of the young self.

A couple of other thoughts I had were:

Everyone shares language in a practical way that we do not share art or music; we all use it, and we all own it.


I suppose I believe that written language is purer than spoken language and clearer than thought. The spectrum of written language is huge; it can be as precise as nanosurgery or as vague as fog.

But while I might have I didn’t go any further with these because they didn’t take me anywhere immediately and I don’t have sixty years or thirty years but simply must get back to work. Which is also one of the reasons I write.

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21. FBR 102: T. C. Boyle and the Beauty of the Text . . .

With apologies to my students who will see this in another form . . .

Since the beginning of my fascination with writing I’ve felt a deep attraction to the sound of the text, whether prose or poetry. Certainly, the play of the words on the mind is achieved in many ways. The look of the text on the page is critical: the volleying of dialogue and description, the position and frequency of italicized words, the various ways dialogue may be expressed (in quotes, with leading dashes, as in Joyce, with no marks at all, as in Cormac McCarthy) — all these visual elements are part of the music the mind makes of the text as it’s read. This is to say nothing of the physical design and font used.

But the very basic idea of the sound of the text — as it is read aloud, alone by the author or before groups of people — is, to my mind, a huge part, not only of the compositional process (getting the words on the page), but also of the resultant quality.

So I was happy to find an interview with T. C. Boyle from a couple of years ago, in which he talks fairly extensively and well about the music of the text.

“The language, of course, is the most important part of my literary work. At least to my mind. I always work with music playing. The rhythm is very important to me. You know that I love to go out and perform my work to the public. I read each day to my poor, long suffering wife, just to hear how it sounds aloud, because the rhythm and the beauty of the language is the essential part of the artistry of making something beautiful.

“I don’t really care for genre writing, for the most part, because it sacrifices that sort of thing to just the plot itself. I think, for my money, I like art — literary art, that is — fully integrated, so that you have beautiful language and startling metaphors that seem natural, as well as a powerful story and a thematic level that makes you think and provokes you.”

Boyle holds, in other words, the standard for literary work pretty high. Which is where it should always be. Being an occasional genre writer, I rather like that he takes it to task this way, as being inferior to literary fiction. A work can, of course, overcome genre restrictions to become literary, but there are few models. In any case, I believe a writer is fully aware of when he is writing to plot and when he is writing literature.

“The writers I most admire seem to have a natural rhythm. Everybody’s is somewhat different, but I don’t know if everybody, even editors, are aware of how it has to sound.”

This is critical, and well said. There is only one person who can form the music, though many can hear it once it is formed. And that person is the writer, the composer, the artist. But the artist is not shielded from the world at large. He continues:

“You know, you can’t remove a given syllable from a sentence without it sounding flatfooted, and so you have to substitute another one. Again, it just seems natural to me. I don’t know how to explain it, except that it’s very musical and rhythmic and it has to be. And, again, that’s why I have never written anything without music playing in the background.”

Everyone’s different. I can’t abide noise when I’m writing, the more for me to hear the music of the language coming off the page. But the resulting music is probably the deepest if not most essential element in the text produced. I’ve been pondering these things quite a lot lately and with some excitement as my novel approaches publication, and I prepare for public readings of it.

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22. FBR 101: The Conversation . . .

Two booky events draw near. At the annual meeting of the New England chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (NE-SCBWI), to be held at the Courtyard Marriott in Fitchburg, Mass., May 13 - 15 is a panel my colleagues Nora Raleigh Baskin and Elise Broach and I are giving on surviving in book publishing over the long haul.

The panel is titled “Turning Millstones Into Milestones” and runs Sunday, May 15, from 2:05-3:00 PM. It’s advertised as “a discussion . . . about how to maintain and nourish your writing career beyond the first, second, tenth, or fiftieth book. . . . Specific topics include: choosing the right editor/agent, capitalizing on your specific writing talents in an increasingly trend-oriented industry, ‘brand identity’ and adaptability from book to book and publisher to publisher, the tension between writing books you love vs. books that sell, publisher promotion and/or self promotion, recognizing and nurturing the unexpected turn in your career, and how to build a career that is true to yourself yet also economically sustainable.”

That’s a lot of meat to chew and digest in less than an hour, but we’ll each be taking a part of the discussion and moderator duties, with open questions at the end. These issues, if not always conscious, at least run through our sleeps, I think, the deeper you get into a career.

At 10 AM, that morning I’m presenting a workshop on “The Changing Shape of Series Fiction,” which, after some 85 series books, I’ve had some trench experience in, and, so they tell me, survived to tell the tale.

Later in the month I’m serving on a panel at the Connecticut Book Festival, held May 21 - 22 on the Greater Hartford Campus of the University of Connecticut. My session — “Marked & Purged: Writing the Truth for Teens through Realistic Fiction and Fantasy” — will be on Sunday at 3:30 PM. Nikki Mutch is moderating. The other writers include Sarah Darer Littman, author of Confessions of a Closet Catholic, Life, After, and Purge, and Caragh M. O’ Brien, author of the Birthmarked Trilogy, a dystopian saga whose second volume, Prized, appears this fall. I’ll be talking both about my fantasy work and my novels.

Public convocations are a welcome part of the writer’s business, nearly always conducted in solitude. Reading, of course, is the deepest form of conversation one writer has with another, but a gathering of workers — of all levels — and the spirit that arises, forms, lingers, from an episode of face-to-face communication, and the combination of literary talk and real life, feed us like little else. I look forward to this stuff.

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23. FBR 100: It’s all still there . . .

There are two new books of letters that I yearn to acquire. One includes those between Elizabeth Bishop and her various editors at The New Yorker. The other collects the correspondence between Eudora Welty and William Maxwell, presumably those he wrote in his role as her editor at the magazine, but also outside it. They were friends, as a lot of folks were with him in his years there. I have to have both books, but, as usual with my Amazon carts, I hesitate, I wait, I fill up, empty, tinker with the selection, waffle, then finally muster up enough oomph to checkout.

Before he checked out, Maxwell was interviewed on a public television special about the 1918 flu epidemic. His early memories were outstandingly vivid of that time (he was nine), and he had quite a bit to say of both personal and historical value. He’s also written about these years in memoirs. If I’m remembering correctly, the riveting part of his interview was his claim that everything he ever experienced remained in his mind. “It’s all still there,” he said. He may have said this more than once in different places; if he did I conflate the interviews.

Significantly, he insisted that it was the same for everyone, and I believe him. He said you had to find a way to tap that great store of memory, and there was no denying it was a long way away, but it still resided there. Perhaps it was only our deficiency or the untried and forbidding paths of memory that didn’t invite us to go back among the ghosts of our long past, but those ghosts were there, and we could speak to them.

This has always been a comfort to me: that we contain the enormous store of our previous life, every instant, and that it moves inside us even when the present closes in so tightly we can’t see out. There are times, often in the warm moments between wakefulness and sleep, when I can feel the gray wind across my open backyard when I was five, smell the woody hallway to my bedroom, taste the iron water from the fountain outside my classroom door. And a million other moments. That they are gone as quickly as I recognize them is unimaginably sad; but knowing they still breathe somewhere far away, but not inaccessibly so, is a grace.

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24. FBR 99: Nearly there . . .

This would have been the hundredth issue of the Report, except that last week had a bit more of the nutty than I anticipated.

One of the hundred things that took my time was writing an essay. As you cannot possibly be unaware, the upcoming book deals with a couple of boys in 1959, visiting battle sites from the Great War of Secession. But because the book won’t be let out until July, I was pained to see the 150th anniversary of the war celebrated without me. So my wife and I conceived of an essay that would appear now to herald the future coming of the book.

I first tried to put the whole blasted story into it, describing the novel, the memories that underlie it, how my wife and I visited my Cleveland neighborhood last spring, how we retraced the drive from Ohio to Georgia by way of the original TripTik my mother had saved for five decades. I even included some colorful memories of life in South Euclid, such as the day my brother lost his shoes and the FBI coming to the house and all that. Good stuff. Alas, it proved a stew with too many flavors. My wife, a copyeditor and copywriter for decades, had at it, chopping it with merciless love, reforming, melding, dulling here, punching-up there, and . . . voila! I had a quick “at” at her “had-at,” and a 1500-word essay was born.

My favorite essayists Orwell and Capote were consulted during composition and revision, and I must say, it turned into a nice little piece, something on the order of: “the past that is always with us.” I’ll let you know if and where and when it appears. In the meantime, there’s all that other work to do.

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25. FBR 98: From the heavy to the light . . .

Dots and Dashes again, I’m afraid, since we have had a frantic week, not without some exciting business, however.

First, we received three new books for the bulging library. I’d been toying with bringing Delmore Schwartz to the table for a while, and was pushed over the edge by James Atlas’s Bellow biography. Atlas previously published a life of Schwartz, who died in 1966, and Bellow uses the short life of his friend as the impulse for Humboldt’s Gift, published in 1975. I have picked up both the Bellow novel and In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, the 1938 volume of stories Schwartz published to fairly widespread critical acclaim, as Atlas claims in his introduction to the book. Dreams contains some marvelous stories and a style both spare and lyrical:

It is Sunday afternoon, June 12th, 1909, and my father is walking down the quiet streets of Brooklyn on his way to visit my mother. His clothes are newly pressed and his tie is too tight in his high collar.

Still swimming around Salinger and his stories, I’ve come across a book from 1962, reissued to near silence last year as a Harper Perennial: Salinger, A Critical and Personal Portrait, edited by Henry Anatole Grunwald (and now subtitled The Classic Critical and Personal Portrait, which I suppose is accurate enough). I saw the volume in the biography section of our local Borders, but as the store is closing and mobbed with sudden shoppers panting for the fire-sale discount, I passed on it there, and got it from Amazon (a book-hoarding man in my financial position has a responsibility to purchase books at a discount). The collection contains some twenty-seven appraisals and essays on Salinger’s output to that time, not all of them complimentary, from such novelists and critics as John Updike, Leslie Fielder, Joan Didion, Joseph Blotner, and Granville Hicks. I haven’t scratched the surface, but am excited about getting into it, a night-table volume, if there ever was one.

Neither a Dot nor a Dash, but a genuine delight, I’ve been asked to join the faculty at Lesley University’s MFA program in creative writing for a second semester, meaning that you’d all better call me Professor Tony when you see me, walking down the quiet streets of Brooklyn, or anywhere else.

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