How to Write Posthumously

December 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

At The New Yorker’s Page Turner blog, the transcript of an address by Jeffrey Eugenides delivered to the recipients of the 2012 Whiting Award. By writing posthumously, of course, he means writing without the natural inclination to compromise one’s writing when people start paying too much attention to it. (Hasn’t been a problem for me, so far. But I wholly understand it.)

Your audience, as it grows, your need for a teaching job, the fact of being taken seriously and reviewed by people—all these things might lead you to over-analyze your words and censor them. As Adrienne Rich put it, “Lying is done with words and also with silence.”

To die your whole life. Despite the morbidity, I can’t think of a better definition of the writing life. There’s something about writing that demands a leave-taking, an abandonment of the world, paradoxically, in order to see it clearly. … The same constraints to writing well are also constraints to living fully. Not to be a slave to fashion or commerce, not to succumb to arid self-censorship, not to bow to popular opinion—what is all that but a description of the educated, enlightened life?

Coming shortly after this year’s ALCS, Eugenides repeats the words of a Detroit Tigers pitcher, Doug Fister: “Stay within yourself.” In other words, do not change your game in response to the expectations of an opponent, or the marketplace.

One of my problems is that I keep looking up at the top of the hole, where the daylight is, when I know the only way to get where I want to be is to keep digging.


The Parking Lot Problem

July 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

While writing today I noticed that an inordinate number of the stories I’ve written (both published and not) have final scenes that take place in parking lots.

That includes both of my print publications, and, barring revision, the story I’m working on now. An early version of my unpublished story “Grand Fury” ended the same way, until I cut that scene out.

There might be a simple explanation: a story builds up to a confrontation, upon the conclusion of which the protagonist makes an exit, either for dramatic effect or the first moments of isolated reflection, and of course, outside most buildings are parking lots. The hero heads home, moves on, ideally a more complete figure than when the story began.

But part of me wonders if there’s an “A & P” influence at work, knowing that a) Updike is perhaps my favorite writer, and b) my first encounter with the story was in an undergrad creative writing course at Merrimack. Perhaps it set the model, in my mind, for narrative endings. Sammy stands up to his boss by defending Queenie and her friends, quits his job, ditches his bow tie, and makes his exit, thinking he’s changed the world with this act of courage, but then the girls are gone and he looks back through the windows to see Lendel in his old slot, ringing customers through:

His face was dark gray and his back stiff, as if he’d just had an injection of iron, and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.

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