Monthly Archives: August 2013

Cat’s Table and Gold Fish

I’ve just finished Michael Ondaatje’s latest, The Cat’s Table. I didn’t get the ecstatic high from this novel that I did from The English Patient. His new one is too easy to put down and walk away from, not even a novel, really, so much as a collection of vignettes clustered around a character/narrator in whom I never really invested.

But look on the bright side—I’ve stumbled on something that feels like a perfect blog topic, something that stopped me in my tracks. Here’s what I found on page 208:

Recently I sat in on a master class given by the filmmaker Luc Dardenne. He spoke of how viewers of his films should not assume they understood everything about the characters. As members of an audience we should never feel ourselves wiser than they; we do not have more knowledge than the characters have about themselves. We should not feel assured or certain about their motives, or lookdown on them. I believe this. I recognize this as a first principle of art, although I have the suspicion that many would not.

I had to read this passage twice when I stumbled across it, slipped in almost off-handedly, near the end of the book, where the narrator speaks to us as an adult, years after his experience at the eponymous dining table of ne’er do wells aboard a ship from Ceylon to England. Even now, when I read it, I feel my writerly hackles rise. (I’m not sure where my hackles are, exactly, but I know they’re stiff with indignation.) I am not so naïve as to assume what I’ve quoted is necessarily Ondaatje’s position, rather than the narrator’s, but there’s nothing in his rambling, uncertain novel to suggest it isn’t, either. In any case, the philosophy here is surely the one that governs the work of the real-life film director/ writer/teacher mentioned in this paragraph. But to take the democratic impulse that sparked the Dardenne brothers’ early documentary films about working class life in Belgium, and elevate it to a “first principle of art,” feels like a mistake, whether Ondaatje’s or his character’s.

By proposing as a moral and aesthetic mandate that readers should not have the upper hand, but should remain as mystified as our characters, as uncertain and ill at ease in the world –no wiser, no more confident than when they opened the book, Ondaatje’s narrator dismisses most of what I’ve always felt, written and taught about “empowering the reader.” His injunction also flies in the face of how powerful and moving I find many stories in which the author has deliberately contrived that the reader know more than the characters. This is especially the case with “unreliable narrators” like the butler, Stevens, in Ishiguro’s brilliant novel, Remains of the Day; or with omniscient narrators and multiple view points in the great novels of the 19th century—it’s because we watch Jane Austen’s characters part and come together in kaleidoscopic patterns only we are aware of, that we can see them as tender, flawed. It’s because we know more than Thomas Hardy’s Tess that we love her. An empowered reader, it seems to me, is the basis of much fine literature, just as a privileged observer (who sees, for instance, an echo of the playful dance and eyes of Matisse’s “Goldfish” in the nodding heads of the flowers above them) is the basis of much great art.


Does this broader perspective, this “advantage,” make us feel scornful of characters, as Ondaatje suggests? Do we feel smug because we know what their future holds? Or how their past is shaping them? No more, I think, than the author who wrote them into being looks down on or dismisses them. No more than the artist scorns goldfish or lilies when he paints them to say something about the world.

The English Patient ranks as one of the most emotionally excruciating novels I’ve read. A large part of its profound effect, I think, can be attributed to the way in which Ondaatje makes us privy to the feelings of all five major characters. (In The Cat’s Table, he essentially limits us to the perspective of his narrator.) Unlike these characters, then, we can weave a tapestry from all their individual sensitivities and passions, making something deeper, more profound than any of them could forge on their own. Playing God this way doesn’t make writers or readers smaller of heart, but larger. By knowing more than our cherished characters, we can be both a tender mother bird with her wing around the world, and her nestling snuggled into the warm feathers of creation.

When he pairs empowerment with condescension in the passage above, Ondaatje sets up a straw man, and begs the important issue of a reader’s relationship to the fictional world, a relationship I don’t think has to mirror her relationship to the real one. I’m a reader, you see, who’s frustrated by a lack of resolution, by an aimless story that, like a painting which resolutely and faithfully portrays every pore and hair follicle with photographic fidelity, gives us a “slice of life,” not its juice. I don’t confuse reality with fiction. And I don’t want to: while our chaotic existence may inspire paintings or books, their art is born from the courage to give it meaning and grace.


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The Company We Keep

This is a little bit like entering a new playground and being asked to play in the sandbox right away. I was always one of those kids who preferred swings, slides, and monkey bars. However, here I am surprisingly anxious to play.

Teaching always causes me to reflect on the books or authors who turned us toward writing fiction. The Proust scholar/literary critic/eminent man of letters André Aciman says it took reading a spy novel by Robert Ludlum before embarking on writing fiction. Of course, he says it in a much more elegant and vaguely pretentious way.

Jonathan Franzen cites Harriet The Spy, but a lot of people claim Ulysses.  When I meet people like that I know they are either lying or just super boring.

Both Mary Poppins and The Age of Innocence made me want to write, but the books that whispered We will sit with you while you fail to do this were by E.M. Forster.  His writing sparkles but never shows off.  He is kind to his characters, but not sentimental.  He is wise, but not pompous.

The first thing I ask new students to do is to tell me about their favorite books, the one they hated the most, and the last one they read for pleasure.  In this way, I get to know who whispers to them and then I can gauge the best way for me to join in.  If you have ventured into the sandbox’s corner where I am sitting with an eye on the slides, treat yourself to either Forster’s Maurice or A Room With A View.  Or just ask, who whispers to me?  Who keeps me company while I write?  For bliss and beauty’s sake, I leave you with this.  .  


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Perfectionism by A.M. Jenkins

Apropos of nothing, I would like to share this quote I loved (and saved) after reading an article Linda Washington directed me to.

“Depending on the form it takes, perfectionism is not necessarily a block to creativity. A growing body of research in psychology has revealed that there are two forms of perfectionism: healthy or unhealthy. Characteristics of what psychologists view as healthy perfectionism include striving for excellence and holding others to similar standards, planning ahead, and strong organizational skills. Healthy perfectionism is internally driven in the sense that it’s motivated by strong personal values. Conversely, unhealthy perfectionism is externally driven. External concerns show up over perceived parental pressures, needing approval, a tendency to ruminate over past performances, or an intense worry about making mistakes. Healthy perfectionists exhibit a low concern for these outside factors.”
—Peter Sims

You can read the full article at:


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A rat on the roof of a story, trying to find the way in

3 ratWhat’s your writing process?

Someone asked me that in an interview recently, and my brain drifted to my annual writer retreat.  For several retreat years, my author friends and I drank coffee and wrote and talked in a house next door to that giant rat.  Other years, we’ve been in other spots.  We’ve had the chance–over many years–to watch a bunch of picture books and middle grade and YA novels take shape in a lot of interesting and sometimes confusing ways.  Some process-ey bits pop up over and over, year after year.  At some point along the line, mess happens.  Despair happens.  Plans happen and re-happen.

I doubt most writers would say they have A writing process.

Last weekend I was at an Ethiopia Culture and Heritage camp near Washington DC, and I was talking with someone who said she’s good at academic writing because she grasps structure but not creativity.  I told her that good fiction has to have a deep underlying structure–and I also said that finding the structure that works for any work of fiction isn’t simple and straightforward  but is mysterious to me and, in fact, can cause the aforementioned despair.

I’m thinking about all of this tonight because I’m starting a new novel.  Thanks to VCFA conversations, I’m trying to think hard about structure and scenes before I dig into the narrative–which is NOT my usual process at all.  But as authors talk and listen to each other (with or without the involvement of rats) we see new possibilities that might never have occurred to us.  Like rats on a roof, we wobble and totter and look out to sea, always hopeful that a vision will appear.

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Wee and Free


This is our neighborhood little free library.


  I built it, with help and from a kit, after getting home from the July residency.  After all that intensive thinking, talking and listening I sometimes feel the need to get my hands on some non-metaphorical tools.

In the two weeks since its gala opening the collection has turned over almost 100%, on the” take one leave one” circulation principle. It is now multimedia (there are a couple of dvd’s) and multilingual (there’s a French book).   I think that’s a mark of success, as are the conversations that I overhear from my study window as passersby discover it.

 The librarian pleasures of this project are obvious.  I get to be architect, contractor, CEO, collections librarian, head of the friends of the library and janitor.  The writerly pleasure is a reminder of the durability of printed books.  Long after our books are off the radar, out of print even, they live on, in the secret underground world of used books. They have stopped appearing on our royalty statements but they are still, as Martine put it in the previous post, one soul speaking to another. 

 What I’d really like to tackle now is a treehouse but I suppose there would be liability issues.  I guess I’ll stick to libraries.


For more information on the little free library movement see:



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the P-word

We don’t talk about publishing much at VCFA. Sometimes that is interpreted as a kind of snobbery about the crass and commercial considerations of it all. I’ve met students who are a little ashamed that they badly want to be published.  

 But faculty know publishing is a big part of the art puzzle. There’s you. And there’s the one you’re writing for, painting for, singing for, acting for, dancing for. Is not art the ultimate form of communication? The way one soul speaks to another? How can a story be art if it isn’t told to someone?

 For over 43 years Henry Darger lived in the same one-room apartment in Chicago. He never married, had no family, and no one in the hospital where he worked as a janitor knew much about him. But every day when he went home, his room was transformed into another world, a world of his own creation.

That world is expressed in a 15,000 page epic fantasy he called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. He illustrated the work with hundreds of beautiful watercolor paintings and collages. He also wrote a second volume titled Crazy House: Further Adventures in Chicago. Nowadays his paintings hang in the Smithsonian and his apartment has been turned into a museum. But the only people who read his story are psychologists.

People like to hold Darger up as an ideal, the noble outside artist who is above publishing, a study in misunderstood genius. Certainly there’s some truth in that. But it seems clear to me that Darger was a maladaptive daydreamer, a disorder in which someone becomes obsessed with an imaginary world to the point that he is not able to function normally. Unlike most maladaptive daydreamers, Darger wrote his down, but he never attempted to make his work palatable or publishable or even readable for anyone other than himself. His imagination lost context.

 Just before he died in 1973, his landlord, who was himself an artist of sorts, discovered Henry’s work.

 “Is it any good?” Henry asked from his bed.

 “It’s very good,” his landlord said.

“Too late,” Henry said.

 I pondered: too late for what? What did he mean? It could be many things, but in those words I hear great regret. He neglected one important part: the part where you share.

 So dearly beloveds, do not, I say, do not be squeamish about wanting to publish your book. Of course you want to publish your book! Away you go.


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Going Home

A few days ago I was at the Lowell Folk Festival, which has been running  for the last 26 years.  Lowell is an old mill town on the Merrimac River in Massachusetts and for a long time has attracted sizable immigrant populations.  The festival itself reflects some of the international quality of Lowell, with performers who emigrated to the U.S.   from various parts of the world. Besides the wonderful music (and the food and crafts), the festival is in many ways a celebration of diversity — and, for each ethnic group, a celebration of their original home country.

While listening to a Portugese fado singer, I began thinking about this whole notion of home, and of the desire to return to it through artistic creation, particularly through writing and, more particularly, through the writing of children’s literature.

“There’s no place like home,” says Dorothy. There aren’t all that many statements that most of us remember, but this is one of them. There must be a reason for that. As for Dorothy, all of her adventures, as fabulous as they are, take place in order for her to return home.


Home, where she first started, is the final destination of her journey, as it probably is for many of our journeys.  Of course, once she returns, there is a difference, a shadow of the world of Oz, a memory and recognition of the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, the core of identity in the ordinary people around her.  It’s not exactly a circle that takes us back home but a spiral.  We return, but on a somewhat different level.

I thought a little about my own writing.  I haven’t lived in New York City for thirty years, and in Brooklyn for longer than that, but most of my books take place there.  Why?

Surely the place which appears in my writing isn’t the “real” Brooklyn or New York City.  At least in most ways it’s not.  Brooklyn for me is colored by the blue tint of nostalgia. I know that.  It’s an ideal place, a place of yearning.


Before Brooklyn, at least certain sections of it, became hip, it was less sparkly.  In fact, it was a bit of an outsider, if you can call a place that.  Maurice Sendak talks about Brooklyn being just across the bridge from the real place, Manhattan, the city of bright lights, where the movie palaces, the snazzy restaurants and the fancy stores could be found. For me, Brooklyn is a place of longing, of possibility, a place where unexpected and magical things can happen, perhaps because it lives in my memory from a time when I saw the world that way.  But there’s grit there too, and particularity of color and taste and odor — all those things that make remembered places worth visiting again.

This is the Brooklyn I return to in my writing.  Although fabricated, it retains some sense of authenticity.  Like all utopias it actually exists nowhere.  It is a memory place, lit and shadowed by my own desires. A desire to return to family and neighborhood.  A desire to return to my place of origin.  (And what thoughts this brings: the old belief that the soul descended from the heavens to earth and it is our desire to return back to that heavenly origin; of dying and going home in gospel songs; or of my own father’s last words to me — “I want to go home.”)

But back to the fado singer, with her longing for Portugal and her passionate songs of love, generally of the unrequited kind (“I would rather die / Than see you and wish I were dead”).  And then to the next group, Garifuna singers (an ethnic minority from Nicaragua and Belize)  — how wonderful and soulful they were, with their pleading voices and desire to return.  And we were all, strangely enough, returning with them and with the other groups we heard — to Nicaragua, to Portugal, to Ireland, to the Cape Verde Islands.  Through an artistic creation, we may not have been going back specifically to our own home, but we still had a sense of going home, with the richness of that return resounding within us.

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Literary Impressionism

The Iris Garden at Giverny / Claude Monet

The Iris Garden at Giverny / Claude Monet

I saw a video online at the New York Times site today that made me think about Impressionism in the visual arts, and about how much more comfortable people are about allowing art forms like film and painting to be impressionistic, while believing that literary art should be more more solidly linear and narrative (that is, more easily seen, grasped and understood.)  Watch the video, titled “Tunnel Vision” (by Jeff Scher, not to be confused with the Justin Timberlake music video of the same name, in which nudity leaves an impression of a different sort) and see what impressions you get.

Tunnel Vision

It’s obvious in some bits of Scher’s video that what you’re seeing is a subway: lights flash, stations pass,  tunnels and machinery catch the light.  You even see people waiting for trains and – later – sitting on a  train, so in that sense you have some narrative, or the impression of a narrative. But for much of the video/film, you are not quite sure of what you’re seeing. You immediately want to watch it again and let it pour over you again. The music (composed by Shay Lynch) helps form your idea of the “tonal register” of this narrative as it begins – not somber, but playful; in fact, it’s almost flirtatious. (I hear a music box, with layered counterpoints entering in.) Then the counterpoints disappear, and the music-box returns immediately.  Toward the ending, the layers are like sheets of vellum, each layer having a traced image and a musical tenor, each layer playing off another, then another.  So the narrative that this film proposes is like collage. It’s multi-layered, yet no one would call it “difficult” or “gimmicky.” Instead, it’s elegant, as is this painting by French Impressionist Paul Signac:

Paul Signac 1863-1935

Paul Signac 1863-1935

I’m curious about why other art forms can be figuratively and literally more blurred and impressionistic than their literary equivalents.  And I have a  guess or two:

  • Maybe it’s the fact that the viewer enjoys making sense out of random visual impressions, which can happen without much effort. Our brains can process images much more quickly than words.
  • Maybe it’s just the length of the piece – the film is less than five minutes long, and people can put up with fragments for awhile, but not for extended periods. That would explain why fiction has trouble being collage-like and holding all the pieces together — it’s just too long not to be more direct and less fragmentary.
  • Maybe writers haven’t tried, or publishers haven’t been brave enough, and readers have been restricted by their expectations….

But how to explain people’s desire for poetry to be easily understood in one reading, a one-layer phenomena? Poetry is short enough to allow for impressionism – it doesn’t often take more than five minutes to read through a poem. But if a poem does as this film does in the same amount of time – a five-minute read-aloud presenting layered impressions without a solid narrative – bursts of images, but no easy message/story – it’s called “difficult” and “opaque.”  Even fiction gets away with a mosaic-like structure more often than poetry does. In general, readers ask popular poetry (Mary Oliver, Billy Collins)  to have a clear, precise narrative line, announcing its meaning clearly.

Why is that? Why do so many people allow the visual arts to tell a story through impressions, quick brushstrokes and glances (as in the painting by Monet which opens this post?)

Is the same effect allowed in poetry  and fiction?  Usually with fuzzy, impressionistic narrative lines (collaged, multi-layered, fragmentary) a great moan goes up about how obscure it all is. Any theories for what’s behind that? Why do readers want clean edges from poetry yet allow visual art a more complicated line?

[I wonder about these things while I wash the dishes! What would I do without the New York Times to set me wondering each morning…?]

attack of the difficult poems


by | August 1, 2013 · 1:01 am