It is a rigidly controlled book. It came at a time in my life when I’d been in therapy and analysis for years and just beating at the whole thing. I wanted to know what my culpability was. I literally had this fantasy of a pie graph of all the players involved, and this much is your fault, this much is your fault. I wanted that. I wanted to know exactly how bad I should feel. At some point, God bless my analyst, I hit the wall. I realized that all of this cerebral going around and around and around was not only failing to produce the desired effect, but was preventing me from approaching my own history. There was one moment, where I thought, there’s only one thing I can do with this, and that’s to tell the story. I know how it happened.

From a Days of Yore interview with Kathryn Harrison, author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, The Kiss. In the quote above, she’s talking about the process of writing that book, which is about her incestuous relationship with her father. It’s a daring book to say the least. I guess at some point, she had to just tell her story in book form instead of talking around the issue in circles. There is no neat resolution to one’s own past, no solid answers that can wash away a trauma.

The interview was conducted by my friend and former classmate Kassi Underwood, herself a talented writer.

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From an op-ed by singer/songwriter/author Alina Simone in the Wall Street Journal:

But as recent headlines make clear, we still haven’t managed to outrun some of our Cold War-era habits. There is an I-told-you-so kind of glee in U.S. reporting of the Russian protests over mishandling of the elections, the same glee that’s reflected in coverage of the “Occupy” movement by Russian news outlets. “Mass arrests in the United States” a nightly news report on Channel 1 bleated. Thirty-one protestors had been taken into custody in Washington D.C. — hardly a revolution, but such is the distorted glimpse we tend to get of one another’s politics.

I witnessed the same thing when I first visited Moscow, Russia in 1994. From an essay I wrote about that trip:

That first time in Russia, I couldn’t figure people out. They had a strange air of contradiction in their essence. Architecture was torn between modernism and an attachment to classical forms, Greek-style columns painted over with awful pastel greens or yellows that were now flaking off. The youth were torn between making jokes at the expense of Americans and between a strong desire to imitate American culture. Life was torn between glamorous fashion magazines and crumbling Khrushchev-era apartments.

I first heard about Alina from this silly article in The New York Times Style Magazine about a new wave of Russian literati and media makers. Can I have in, please?

I’m most interested in the book which is completely un-sellable on the basis of a proposal or contract. One of the reasons so many nonfiction books are so boring is because what they’ve done, very diligently, is fulfill the terms of their proposals—they’ve written up their proposal, long-form, and often what this does is then set up a sort of serial deal, where the whole book can essentially be reduced back to the size of the original proposal! What I really like about this book is that the proposal would be turned down instantly: there’s nothing to propose. Nicholson Baker talks about the way in which the most successful nonfiction books are those that can be boiled down into an argument so that everybody can wade in with an opinion without having to undergo the inconvenience of having to read the book itself. The more you can condense it, the better. Malcolm Gladwell is the supreme exponent of this: Blink—oh yeah, I get it! “Blink.” That’s all you need to know.

Quote from an interview at Guernica.

This sounds a lot like advice I got from my favorite former professor Paul Elie. Elie actually just quit his full-time job as an editor at Farrar Straus and Giroux to finish a book about J.S. Bach. He’d always tell us about authors who would just take their book proposal synopsis and turn that into the prologue or first chapter. Don’t give it all away!, he’d say.

I think that most first books or projects that are more ambitious than magazine articles tend to be about the writer himself. The writer is trying to discover what he sounds like after many years of apprenticeship, imitation, and so on. There are two things going on in my book. One is the ostensible subject, which is listening to a particular kind of feminine presence that doesn’t usually have a voice in the world, and the issue of me trying to let them speak without too much control. And then there’s also the simultaneous issue of my trying to learn how to speak, not just for other people, as in my reporting or memoir-type writing, but learning to speak for myself.

 From BOMB Magazine (via Philip Eil).

Here’s a snippet from a recent “Brevity” blog post by Anna Vodicka that really resonated with me:

The poetry class did not make me a poet. I wrote a lot of bad poems. But it did turn my attention to the short form—the art of economy and responsibility. With Kinnell’s poem and Wrigley’s words in mind, I thought, “Yes. Prose, it is.”

I plucked a few lines from their stanzas, let them settle responsibly into the new space of a paragraph, and cautiously let prose in. That’s when I heard the sound. It went, “click.”

I am currently working on an experimental essay all about how poetry and literary translation has affected my nonfiction prose writing and pushed me in a, well, experimental direction.

Can’t wait to finish it and (hopefully) find a published home for it. Then I’ll share it here!

“The essay is a meditative form in which the author’s personality is revealed not but what she has done but what what she has thought.”

— Patrick Madden, “In Praise of the Essay” symposium.

“The great thing about teaching writing is that you remind yourself of things you already knew.”

From Robert Root, nonfiction writer, editor, and teacher, co-author of The Fourth Genre. From talk given at the recent “In Praise of the Essay” symposium.