Literary Gut Punch: From Lorrie Moore's How To Be an Other Woman

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Lorrie Moore is a treasure. She's the kind of writer whose stories make me want to write. To try to create something even half as universal and vibrant and potent. 

In How To Be an Other Woman, she puts the reader in the driver's seat by using second-person POV. 

When you were six you thought mistress meant to put your shoes on the wrong feet. Now you are older and know it can mean many things, but essentially it means to put your shoes on the wrong feet. 

"The hard is what makes it great."

My babe's out of town this week, and it's hotter than the 9th circle of hell, so I spent tonight eating popsicles every colour of the rainbow and watching A League of Their Own. (I remember watching it as a girl and being in awe of how beautiful Madonna was.)

Anyway, this has also been a week full of revising, which, for me, means the volumes gets turned up on those bitchy inner voices that love to chime in when you haven't asked them a goddamn thing, you're just sitting at your desk, being a good little writer and they just have to diarrhea all over everything.

There's a scene in A League of Their Own, and I sat up as soon as it started. Tom Hanks is the coach and he's trying to convince his MVP (Geena Davis) not to quit the team. She says, "It just got too hard." His response:

It's supposed to be hard.
If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it.
The hard is what makes it great.

Thank you, Tom Hanks. You're a gentleman, and a scholar.


Literary Gut Punch: From Junot Díaz' Miss Lora

I've read Díaz' collection (This Is How You Lose Her) several times over the years. It doesn't matter how many times I've walked the streets in his stories, I still round a corner and get cold-cocked by a universally stunning coupling of sentences.

You were at the age where you could fall in love with a girl over an expression, a gesture. That's what happened with your girlfriend, Paloma—she stooped to pick up her purse and your heart flew out of you.

This story's got a finger up my nostril and is leading me around

I recently pulled a story out of hibernation (AKA: a folder on my desktop called 'Don't'). I had forced it into a slumber because, like a bad relationship at the very end, everything the story did annoyed the absolute stuffing out of me. (If my relationship with this story had an anthem, it'd be this.) It was crawling around under my skin like some alien insect on The X-Files. I let it go on for far too long, even though I knew better. Even though the healthy part of me was saying, "Drawer this hoser!"

The good news is that when I pulled it out all these months later, I didn't totally hate it. In fact, it started speaking to me, telling me what it needed, and even what it was concerned with trying to say. And me, being the good little minion that I am, got back to work.

Yadda yadda yadda, the story is at it again. Every time I think it's done, it goes and becomes something else. I sent it out to a Dear Writer Friend, whose advice was: "Depopulate!" They used the word 'disoriented'. 

But they also said they like it. A lot. Which gives me those tingles on the top of my head. 

So I'm back to work, where the story's got a finger up my nostril and is leading me around. Even though it's not my favourite thing I've ever written, when it finally settles down, sending it out into the world will actually feel like my biggest achievement yet. 

Literary Gut Punch: From Adam Ehrlich Sachs' The Philosophers

Sachs' story was featured in the February 1st 2016 issue of The New Yorker. I read it sitting in a chair at my hair salon and within the first paragraph, I knew (as much as someone can know a thing), that it was a special kind of sacrilege to keep reading something so beautiful while Ginuwine's "Pony" was being pumped out the speakers. But I couldn't stop.

This story, which is actually a series of vignettes, blew my heart wide open. It reminded me what a story can do. It's been a while since I've encountered a writer who, upon reading a single story of theirs, I want to crawl up inside their mind and play, like a first-grader on a jungle gym.

This entire story is Literary Gut Punch

Soon the madman had talked to everyone worth talking to, seen everything worth seeing, thought about everything worth thinking about, and yet again was left bored and lonely. Even the company of geniuses wasn’t enough; boredom would always be with him, he realized, as long as he had this huge, historic intelligence. Suicide was the only way out. He decided to commit suicide by paradox. He would go back in time and kill his own grandfather—a logical impossibility, as we all know, he said, since killing his grandfather would mean that he himself wouldn’t be born, which would mean that he couldn’t go back in time to kill his grandfather. So this might be interesting, he said. Plus he would get to murder the man who had handed down to him this huge, horrible, historic intelligence.

Literary Gut Punch: From Dana Spiotta's Jelly and Jack

Jelly and Jack was published in The New Yorker in December of 2015. Jelly's consciousness is a painful but enchanting place to be. The story slowly undresses itself, but at the end, it was me left feeling naked. There were many beautiful moments in the story, but when I read this particular passage, I felt all the air hovering at the front of my mouth. I had stopped breathing. So, of course, this is my most recent Literary Gut Punch for the annals. All you need to know is that Jelly is about to listen to a piece of music by Jack. Here it is:


Jelly closed her eyes and leaned back again. She called this body-listening. It was when you surrendered to a piece of music or a story. By reclining and closing your eyes, you could respond without tracking your response. Some people started to speak the second the other person stopped talking, or playing or singing. They were so excited to render their thoughts into speech that they practically overlapped the person. They spent the whole experience formulating their response, because their response was the only thing they valued.

I'm afraid of Zadie Smith

I love Zadie Smith. She is precise and direct and not at all precious about her work, or about being a writer. Which also makes me afraid of her. It's a healthy fear though. The kind of fear I also have for the ocean, or a tiger. There's just so much to respect there. Here's what she said when she was asked about her writing routine:

Any small room with no natural light will do. As for when, I have no particular schedules... afternoons are best, but I'm too lethargic for any real regime. When I'm in the flow of something I can do a regular 9 to 5; when I don't know where I'm going with an idea, I'm lucky if I do two hours of productive work. There is nothing more off-putting to a would-be novelist to hear about how so-and-so wakes up at four in the a.m, walks the dog, drinks three liters of black coffee and then writes 3,000 words a day, or that some other asshole only works half an hour every two weeks, does fifty press-ups and stands on his head before and after the "creative moment." I remember reading that kind of stuff in profiles like this and becoming convinced everything I was doing was wrong. What's the American phrase? If it ain't broke... 

I agree, Zadie Smith. But like usual, I could never have said it better than you. 

George Saunders: What stories are "about"

George Saunders was interviewed by Deborah Treisman about his latest New York short story, Mother's Day. The following paragraph resonated with me, about how important it is to not be bullied by intention when starting out with a story.

It’s funny with stories (or, at least, with mine)—they are, of course, going to be “about” something and appear to present certain views re those things, but if I start out with that sort of intention the story never proves interesting enough to finish. What seems to happen is that, while I’m concentrating on the more mundane technical aspects (working on individual lines and the point-to-point logic and velocity and so on), a certain set of meanings will begin to come forward. So I’m dimly aware of those but trying not to be too aware of those, lest the story become only about those, if you see what I mean. It’s really only when the story is done (like, in this case, within the last week or so) that I can do much direct thinking about what themes it might be taking on, and then—weirdly—the thematic stuff seems to have taken care of itself. The story is about something . . . but hopefully more than I planned or could see at the outset.

Literary Gut Punch: From Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated

I've been waltzing down memory lane the past few weeks, first, enjoying my favourite novel— Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close— in an entirely new form, and then, feeling ravenous for all the Safran Foer work that exists, I decided to reread Everything Is Illuminated.

Last night, as my eyes were still reading, my eyelids began doing their sleep dance. And through drifting lashes, my eyes swept across these two sentences, so beautiful that my eyes shot open again. I creased the upper corner of my book and made a note on my heart to add this to my Literary Gut Punch collection as soon as I woke up. Here it is:

He would fall asleep with his heart at the foot of his bed, like some domesticated animal that was no part of him at all. And each morning he would wake with it again in the cupboard of his rib cage, having become a little heavier, a little weaker, but still pumping.


Literary Gut Punch: From Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has been my favourite novel since the day I picked it up. While working as a bookseller at The Bookshelf in Guelph, I remember I sold a record number of copies over one particular holiday season, so enamoured with Oskar that I seized every opportunity — which typically presented itself in the form of an unsure reader wanting to be dazzled by some piece of work, or wanting for a loved one to be dazzled by some piece of work — to send a copy of the book out into the world. 

Recently, I decided to listen to the audiobook, which I had never done before. It was a beautiful way to experience the story. How could I not include the following passage in my ever-expanding collection of Literary Gut Punches

In bed that night I invented a special drain that would be underneath every pillow in New York, and would connect to the reservoir. Whenever people cried themselves to sleep, the tears would all go to the same place, and in the morning the weatherman could report if the water level of the Reservoir of Tears had gone up or down, and you could know if New York is in heavy boots.

My Oma took a nap and decided she'd stay asleep

My Oma, Adelheid (Heidi) Margarethe Tomaszewski, passed away yesterday during her daily afternoon nap. She was not someone that you'd call a pushover in any sense of the word, but much of that can be attributed to the hard shell she built around herself in order to survive. She lived in Germany during the Second World War. After the radios were confiscated by the nazis, her and her mother would take turns each night pulling an old radio out from underneath the floorboards, dusting it off and listening to the news on the BBC, full of horror and fright. When the war ended and my Opa (a prisoner of war) was released, they married quickly, had my Dad, and soon found themselves on Pier 21 in Halifax. New Canadians, with only $10 dollars to their names, they got on the train that would eventually lead them home, to Alberta, a place the three of them would come to love fiercely (hence my namesake). While on the train between Winnipeg and Calgary, my Dad took his first steps.

Oma smoked like a chimney for a lot of her life, but she "didn't inhale" so apparently it didn't count. But she still quit all the same and loathed that my Dad smoked. For as long as I had known her, she had been heavy. Walking in the mall once, someone called her fat and I remember she turned to me and said, "So long as you like yourself, that's all that matters." Her weight didn't ever stop her from wearing bathing suits or dancing when she and my Opa went to Cuba, which they did all the time. Due to an iodine deficiency during the war, she had developed a goitre on her neck that was quite large. Doctors were always pressing her to have it removed, but because the surgery came with the small risk of her losing her ability to speak, she always said no. "If it's not bothering me, why should it bother them?" she'd say when people would stare. Oma is one of the only people I've ever known who really seemed to like herself, through and through.

She was also the only person growing up who always encouraged my writing, which is still so strange to me, because she never stopped working a 9-5 job for a day in her life. You would think that to someone like her, the arts were a frivolous pursuit, something that was fine to enjoy but not to build a whole life around. But that wasn't the case. When we'd go out to feed the ducks, as soon as I'd come home she'd encourage me to write a story about it. She loved telling me how many relatives of mine were painters, actors, and musicians. I never heard about the lawyers or doctors or engineers. Only the artists. Maybe she knew that wasn't what I needed to hear? There was always music in the house. In fact, it was not unusual for my Opa to wake me up by playing the accordion. I was playing cribbage as soon as I could add numbers, and it was expected that I contribute to conversations on politics as soon as I was old enough to have a sense of the world around me. So long as I didn't contribute too much. You'd think as a couple of lifelong lefties, we wouldn't have fought about much, instead focusing on the big picture similarities we share. You'd be wrong.

What I'm thankful for: 

  • That I spent time with her this summer, putting up all the pictures in her room at the care facility she had to move to. I know whose faces smiled back at her as she laid down for her last nap.
  • That I wrote her a poem this Christmas, instead of sending her a plant. A plant can't say 'I love you, you tough old thing'.
  • That I found her old apartment in Berlin this summer, and brought back photos and videos to show her. The facade had changed so much she couldn't recognize it, but you should have seen her face when I showed her the courtyard.
  • That I brought back so many little things of hers with me when Dad and I packed up her house. Every night I brush my hair with her brush. We dry our hands on her tea towels ("They don't make them like that here," she'd say.) A coffee mug. Mensch ärgere dich nicht (The best German board game ever.) A glass jar for earrings. A big old German cookie tin that still makes me drool every time I see it. (It's where all the goodies were kept growing up.) I gave some of her costume jewellery to my best friend. I'm so thankful I'll still "see" her everywhere. 
  • That she passed away in her sleep, since she told me she dreams of Opa most nights. She had the same dream all the time: that they were young again, him in a blue suit, and they're back dancing at the Austrian Club that overlooks the Deerfoot highway. 

But why the Austrian Club and not the German Club?
"Because the German Club's food is just crap," she told me when I asked.

Ich liebe dich, Oma.

"I thought of it as espresso"...

I read a great piece in The Atlantic that summarizes a year of writing advice from various writers. Viet Thanh Nguyen shares how he "found a novel with a narrative feel he wanted to emulate". He read a bit of it each morning and this is what happened:

The language itself had some kind of impact on me that was more emotional than intellectual. The book acted as a condensed, compact, extremely powerful substance that woke me up to what I needed to do, each day, as a writer. I thought of it as espresso. It wasn’t coffee—I couldn’t drink it all day long. I could only take small doses, and that was enough. With caffeine, how do you quantify what’s happening with that? You just know you need it. The process was mysterious, and it worked.

What a splendid way to describe reading for influence. I'm doing that right now with Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated

Don't be a competent clone: David Mitchell's writing advice

In a recent interview, Mitchell gave some awesome advice for young writers. He wanted to be a writer in order to "do to other people what [his] favorite authors had done to me."

A few parts really stood out for me:

"Send the thing out and forget it. Quickly get to work on the next thing. Don’t sit by the phone or watch your email. Don’t hope. You’ve done a big thing by finishing something. Spend all the energy on possible despair. Avert that possible despair. Transfer the despair to the next manuscript. Right away, like the next day."
If you don’t want to write a realist novel, that’s not who or what you are. Work out the kind of novel you want to write, that you’re best suited for and do that one instead. It’s likelier to be more interesting. It might be awful but it won’t be a clone. Better to be brilliantly bad with your first novel than competently clone-like.
Things that are your obstacles often turn out not to be. Things you think are stopping you from writing, these distractions, can feed into your work in positive ways. You just may not know it yet. Things you don’t want to discuss—your scars, your shadows, your psychological baggage from childhood. It’s useful. It’s therapeutic to deploy them. You kind of win by using them. You can give them a right to exist but actually give them a job to do as an informant about reality, about language, about the human heart.