How I ended up applying some twenty-year-old writing advice to everyday life

Sometimes writing advice works just as well for living your everyday life. Twenty years ago a grad school friend and brilliant novelist named Eric Miles Williamson read a troubled short story of mine and made a suggestion. I remember the night well because it was the first time, despite plenty of workshops, that someone took a craftsman’s eye to my writing. I was used to hearing feedback on themes, vague theories about why stories did or didn’t work, but what my fellow students struggled to give were solutions. Not Eric. He could diagnose faults in a piece of fiction the way a carpenter judges the quality of a building’s construction. He knew how to fix things because he did the work very well himself.

The plot of my story doesn’t matter. Here’s all you need to know: it was a spare, blow-by-blow narrative of a traumatic experience, each scene linked to the next like carriages on a train. Only the train, though moving, wasn’t going anywhere. I couldn’t figure out what the problem was. Eric read the piece and said, “Here’s what you should do.” Into my tight chain of events, I needed a moment that stepped outside of the narrative. This went against everything I understood about the ‘single effect’ for which a short story should strive, but I did it anyway, inserting a short scene in which the protagonist found himself parked alone on a bridge, entranced by the night sky. That handful of paragraphs, despite not moving the plot forward, was so resonant, so full of the story’s themes, that it became my favorite passage.

Writing fiction, according to Walker Percy, has more in common with good carpentry than good journalism. Eric had once worked construction and, as a writer, I guess he still did. From that night on, I became fascinated not just with the art but  the craft of fiction.

I recalled the episode last week when, during the course of running a list of tightly scheduled errands, I found myself unexpectedly in a place I hadn’t planned to go, and decided to linger. Like the protagonist of my old story, I was outside the narrative, no longer pushing the plot of my day forward. And like my hero, I found the moment resonant. Stepping away from my life’s plot put me back in touch with its theme.

Good advice probably has a universal component. There’s a way to apply it to more situations than originally intended. All you have to do is find out how, or at least be open to  the way finding you.

I replaced my red Filson briefcase, and I’m going to tell you why.

The 72 Hour Briefcase in olive tin cloth, a waxed cotton fabric similar to a Barbour jacket.

The 72 Hour Briefcase in olive tin cloth, a waxed cotton fabric similar to a Barbour jacket.

It wasn’t easy replacing my beloved red Filson 257 briefcase with one of their new 72 Hour Briefcases in olive tin cloth, but I had to do it. The 257′s pocket configuration wasn’t working for me. For years Filson has offered two basic briefcase styles, the svelte original 256 and the wider 257. (For an in-depth comparison of the two, go to Filson Fan.) The 72 Hour Briefcase is basically the thinner 256 with large zippered pockets on the front. For me, it’s the best of both worlds.

Inside, the 257 looks like this:

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The large inner compartment is subdivided extensively, which eats up a lot of the usable space. Since I didn’t use the interior pockets as designed, carrying the 257 resulted in an unfavorable ratio of content to bulk. While the 72 Hour Briefcase features the 256′s smaller internal compartment (and steals some of that for a padded laptop compartment), the amount of usable space is the same.

The real selling point: the external pockets. I had a waxed cotton bag with similar pockets (the Tommy Work Bag, photographed for Flickr summers ago) and really loved being able to reach for pens and paper without having to undo any flaps. Those pockets weren’t large enough for my purposes, though. The 72 Hour Briefcase’s are perfect. Plus, I love the look of the tin cloth.

Here are some photos along with a few observations about the 72 Hour Briefcase’s features:

Although leather briefcases are my first love, the rugged Filson bags fill a useful niche. They’re tough, they carry a lot, and in a casual environment they don’t stand out as much as a traditional leather briefcase would. Not to mention, they develop a lovely patina with use––not the same character as leather, but interesting in its own right. Laurie has already commandeered the red 257, so it’s gone to a good home.

The book as a fetish object

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Here’s something I’m proud of: I once begged an employee of Anthropologie to sell me a Penguin edition of The Great Gatsby from the store’s “book art” display, an aesthetic travesty in which perfectly good novels were defaced in the service of retail design — and once she absolutely refused, I considered stealing (that is, liberating) the book. As far as I was concerned, they might as well have piled the books up and burned them. Fear is a kind of reverence, after all, whereas bending and gluing pages into the form of butterflies and flowers is just Eloi indifference.

Not that I haven’t profited over the years from depraved notions about books. Almost twenty years ago in London my wife and I discovered one of those fabled shops that sells antiquarian books by the foot to interior decorators. (Such ventures are on the rise, it seems.) “Is it all right if I choose the books?” I asked, and the junior assistant relented. After an hour in the basement, I could hear the senior staff clucking over this violation of the rules. Ordinarily I’m a bit of a rule-keeper, but in the cause of books all bets are off. Abuse a book and a switch flips in my mind. You’ve forfeited ownership rights. The books are mine.

While visiting a university that shall remain nameless, the administrator giving the tour pointed out a wall of books at the library entrance. Like bricks they had been piled on top of each other in staggered formation, most of them modern hardbacks shorn of their dust jackets (in the mistaken belief they look fancier that way). Even though most of the titles were recent bestsellers off the remainder stacks, books less likely to hold my interest than an ingredients label or mattress tag, I heard the voice of Ronald Reagan in my head: “Tear down this wall!”

I was sorely tempted.

While I have resigned myself to the idea of the book as a fetish object, as one who has both written and designed books, I think even the totem role is better served by books that remain functional. Do what you like. As for me, I can’t bring myself to deface books for any cause, whether ideological or aesthetic. As a culture we would be better off forgetting about books than teaching ourselves to recycle or repurpose them, just as past generations served us better by abandoning ancient buildings to ruin rather than pulling them apart to make shanties.

I wrote my novel on the couch

20140429-122654.jpgLast year, picking up my work in progress, I had a dream of writing away from my desk. I have as much good-natured contempt for coffee shop poseurs as the next man, yet something about working in public captured my imagination — maybe it was just the thought of actually seeing fellow human beings during the months-long writing process. A ready supply of good coffee never hurts, either.

Well, best laid plans and all that. I ended up setting the work in progress aside to work on something “fun,” which turned into Cartago. My coffee shop forays resulted in little creative progress, but I did come close to clearing out my e-mail inbox for a brief shining moment. Project Writing in Public failed utterly. Still, I didn’t write Cartago at my desk. I wrote the entire manuscript, more or less, while sitting on the couch.

This was always a tentative stop-gap, never intended to persist as habit. Once I began, though, I couldn’t tear myself away. Perched on the edge of the couch, my laptop computer teetering on my actual lap, stacks of notes scattered at my feet, I turned out chapter after chapter while telling myself each day, “Tomorrow will be different. Tomorrow I’ll go to my desk. Tomorrow I’ll venture outside.” And then I was done, no tomorrows left to plan.

Whether writing on the couch is a step forward or back, I can’t say. To me it has the feel of progress. After all, I seem to have written my best book that way.

If you want to be good, start by being interesting

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Ira Glass says his goal in creating This American Life was to make a public radio show people listened to because they enjoyed it, not because it was good for them. It’s all very well to edify, but you must also entertain (or perhaps a better word is engage). This is a lesson for art, and for the classroom, too. Only moralists think enjoyment is the opposite of edification. You must be interesting if you don’t want to be ignored.

Interesting doesn’t have to be over the top. You don’t need to yell and wave your hands in the air––in fact it helps if you don’t. You’ll get my attention, sure, but at the cost of losing my interest. To be interesting you have to tell stories. You have to flesh out your abstractions, to embody them, act them out. Being interesting doesn’t mean you have to give up on edifying. It means understanding that if you want to edify, you first have to earn the right.

Enjoyment must be earned, as well. Some entertainment blunts our faculty for remaining interested. If you’re accustomed to people shouting in your ear, you might have trouble following whispered conversations. The fault lies not in the whisper but in your hearing. It helps to be choosy about what you take an interest in so you don’t lose your capacity for subtler pleasures.

“I devoured your book and it was so sweet!”: Inside the surprise party for my new novel Cartago

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The title of my new novel is Cartago, and to celebrate its completion my wife Laurie threw a surprise party. She organized everything right under my very nose. It wasn’t until the bunting went up that it dawned on me something was going on. Knowing my love of vintage Penguins, she made a stack of tiny Cartagos to string along the colonnade and a bunch more to post on skewers. She even asked baking wizard extraordinaire Ginny Cook to make Cartago cookies, resulting in the most unexpected review of my work ever: “I devoured your new book and it was so sweet!”

Laurie, who’s always been supportive, was especially so during the writing of Cartago — in many ways my most personal book — and this party was the crowning gesture. I’d confessed during one of those moments of depression that seem to go hand-in-hand with creative risks that I always wanted a surprise party. And now I’ve had one, and it was magnificent. My thanks to Laurie for the thought and planning (and for making so many tiny books!), and to Ginny for the beautiful bookies (book + cookie!), and to the lovely, creative people who celebrated with us.

Here’s hoping Cartago gives us more reason to celebrate shortly.

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Please do not touch the works of art

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Don’t touch the art. If you’ve grown up like I did in a place so bereft of history or art that random detritus of the past was cordoned off for whispered reverence, such warnings are unnecessary. Manufactured sanctities may have little value in themselves, but they are wonderful instructors in the disciplines of awe. The people who need the warnings, I suppose, are those who grew up with no sanctities at all, or the ones surrounded by so many they quickly learned you can’t give everything the reverence it is due.

I once saw tourists piled atop the Rosetta Stone for a snap and like Jesus I was tempted to fashion a scourge and drive them out. The guards at the British Museum felt otherwise. When your biggest challenge is figuring out where to crate and store your superfluous antiquities, you see matters in a different light. The last thing on their minds, I suppose, was how to flay the customers. That stone is more than a treasure, it’s a draw.

Creative people face a similar dilemma. We crave reverence for the work of our hands. We want it up on pedestals, an object of veneration to be approached with awe. At the same time, if you want to keep creating, you need some tourists to climb aboard your Rosetta Stone. This too, you come to realize, is an expression of awe, and perhaps a better one. Reserve worship for the things that truly deserve it, and let your work be put to good use.

Don’t touch the art, the museum admonishes, because touching may do damage. But some things stand up to the touch, and even invite it. And it isn’t true — noli me tangere notwithstanding — that there can be no reverence in touch. Taste and see. Put your hand in the wounds. Touch can be the highest form of reverence for the highest form of things worthy to receive reverence.