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“We Have To Take What We Do Seriously, Or Who Will?”

From: Nellie Hermann To: Joshua Henkin Re: Writing About Writing Hi Josh, So many meaty thoughts to chew on. I have read Crossing to Safety– though it has been a long time, and I probably should revisit it. I loved … Read More

By / January 9, 2008

From: Nellie Hermann To: Joshua Henkin

Re: Writing About Writing Hi Josh, So many meaty thoughts to chew on. I have read Crossing to Safety– though it has been a long time, and I probably should revisit it. I loved it when I read it, and now I can see the inspiration for Matrimony, for sure. I am always interested in how writers use models for their work. I know people who look directly to the texts they've loved, copying structures exactly, and others who just owe a debt to a book because it inspired them so. But finding models is such a crucial part of the whole process, and certainly of pulling yourself back when you're feeling like you have no idea what you're doing. Which, I'm happy to hear you say, is so much of the time! It’s heartening to hear that other writers feel that sense of floundering. Philip Roth came to a grad school class I was in once and said that he never is more depressed than when he’s in between books. He didn't say that he necessarily ever feels like he doesn't know how to write another one (I mean this is Philip Roth we're talking about) but at least he has some version of that too. And I like the idea that maybe this is part of the process for novel writing precisely because novels are such beasts, in the sense that every one is (or should be) unique, and every one calls for a completely different set of rules and a different approach and attack, and the key is to have the patience to figure out the right tools for the next one. Hard, because change is always hard, and patience is always hard, and because you can never be sure you're on the right track. But isn't that always the way. I found what you said about the present moment (vs. flashbacks) so interesting. It particularly hit home for me because in an earlier draft of my novel I had the narrative leaping back and forth between a present tense narrative and long past tense sections. One of my first readers (and an important teacher of mine) made the (very key) point that structuring the book in this way served to devalue the past tense sections, as the reader was always waiting to get back to the present and see what happened next, and therefore disengaged from the direct emotion of the past sections. This led me to a complete restructuring, so that now the book goes chronologically, and the present tense part only comes at the end. It's so fascinating to me how important these structural changes are, in a novel, and how much these leaps of time (that, yes, as you point out, seem to a reader to be so effortless) affect the way the book is read, and processed, and understood. One of the greatest pieces of advice I got about writing a novel — which is exactly what you say you eventually did in your book — was from a teacher who said that the key to novel writing was trusting that you could jump in time, and that actually the more gaps you have that you don't fill in, the better. You you don't have to say "and then she worked in a restaurant for 4 years," you can just skip to four years later. Sounds easy, but it's so hard to take that leap of faith, trusting your readers to fill things in. I agree with you, too, on the "writers writing about writing". The distinction you draw strikes me as the right one: there's a difference between dropping a random reference to writing a short story, and embodying a character who happens to be a writer. I think, really, that that aforementioned teacher would probably even agree with that. If your character is a writer, and if you take him seriously as such, then it becomes another occupation, and it really comes down to the quality of mind that you apply to the treatment of it. I think your point about tentativeness is especially key, and is one I take to heart. I have been feeling like apologizing a lot lately…mostly for writing an autobiographical novel, which for some reason makes me feel some kind of shame, or need for apology…and it comes down to the same point. Never apologize! Tentativeness is death! We have to take what we do seriously, or who will? It's the same thing with finding time in your life to do the work…if you succumb to the phone ringing or to someone asking you to have a coffee during your writing hours it's tantamount to the same kind of apology, to devaluing the job as not as important (I am particularly guilty of this right now, too). Also, about sentiment: I truly don't understand books without it. It is always the writers who are straightforward about feeling and truth that I most admire. Have you read Stoner, by John Williams, by the way? Most people haven't, and I'm on a personal crusade of getting people to read it. It skyrocketed to my top five pretty much immediately. There are few books that are this clear on sentiment, without becoming necessarily sentimental. But I think, finally, what I found most enlightening about the sentiment in the Mia/Cancer part of Matrimony was the way that you took on her fear. I think fear is rare for fiction. It struck me while I was reading about Mia's fear that it’s rare for a character's fear to be so boldly portrayed.

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