A line I remember

Upon reading these lines in “The Entities,” a story in Margaret Atwood’s collection Moral Disorder, I had to lay the book on my lap, words down, and exhale carefully in order to collect myself:

Lillie had come to the real-estate business late in life. Long ago she’d been a young girl, and then she’d married, a fine man, and then she’d had a baby; all of that was in another time, on another side of the ocean. But after that came the Nazis, and she’d been put into a camp, and her husband had been put into another one, and the baby was lost and never found again.”

The baby was lost and never found again.

Those words took my breath away – I haven’t lost a baby, but the grief hit me in the heart — and the line is still running through my head as I try to figure how something so small and simple works so powerfully.*

Do other readers remember lines like that, little ones – almost asides — that leap as if out of nowhere and leave you stunned? Read more »

The right wing war on the arts

Okay, so spending cuts are coming. And no one’s pet projects are safe. This, I think, is fact. Not even the man with the veto power can afford to keep safe a certain set of things out of pure preference or sentimentality, or just because politically they’re dyed blue (or, perhaps purple, as his recent move toward bipartisanship might have it). But lately, Republicans have been releasing budget proposals left and right, and they seem to want to cut spending pretty much solely by asking for yet more sacrifice from the less-well off in our nation. (As a fun aside, the top 1% in our country now hold over 25% of the wealth, which is more than is held by the bottom 50% of our country combined. Seriously. Google wealth distribution in the U.S. If anything, my numbers are low. Also, as a general rule, I give more money to the IRS than, for example, Exxon Mobile does.)

But anyway, here’s a selection of programs designated for elimination under Rand Paul’s budget cuts proposal:

  • Commission of Fine Arts (over 100 years old, advises the gov’t on matters pertaining to the arts, specifically the architectural development in Washington. Includes monument, sculpture, medal, and currency design, as well as historic preservation.)
  • The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (over 40 years old, but let’s be honest, they’ve been after NPR ever since Juan Williams got fired, and getting rid of all public broadcasting gets rid of NPR unless it finds outside funding. PBS would also be affected.)
  • National Endowment for the Arts (over 45 years old, awards grants to projects—individual and community—that support and promote the arts. See their website for a list of recent projects that have been awarded grants.)
  • National Endowment for the Humanities (same as above, except this organization supports “research, education, preservation, and public programs in the humanities.”)

But in reality, framing this as a right-wing left-wing divide is twisting the facts somewhat. I listened to the entire State of the Union speech, for example, and I didn’t hear one mention of the arts, of English, or of a well-rounded education (though I did hear the tired old rhetoric—ironic, by the way, that it’s rhetoric that gets us here—that science and technology education will be what improve our students and turn our country around). So my question is—who fights for us? Who fights for our interests? And what can we do to fight for ourselves?

Long Lost Loves

When I was in middle school, I used to go to Christian rock concerts.  Lots of them.  I learned to skank while listening to a band called Godrocket, and practiced at home to the Supertones.  Switchfoot played regular gigs in my church’s sanctuary before going mainstream.  But one of my favorite bands was Thee Spivies (“Thee” so “the” would never be pronounced with a schwa), whose album was sold under a Christian label, but who never said a word about God.  They were one of the peppiest bands, reminiscent of 60s surf rock, with some 50s puppy love thrown in.  They were proud geeks, with song lyrics like:

I’m a square but I guess that you like me.  Duly note, I’m probably not a square in the strictest sense of the word but you know what I mean.

They were popular among the youth-groupers, but not so popular as bands like the Supertones and Five Iron Frenzy, who were impossible to book for small concerts and Christian music festivals.  So when they played at Lollapaloma, the Christian version of Lollapalooza, held at Point Loma Nazarene University’s Greek Amphitheater, they were a big deal. (I would direct you to the Lollapaloma website, but apparently it doesn’t exist anymore.)

Here’s where things get a little Footloose.  You see, dancing was not allowed at Point Loma Nazarene.  Read more »

A Slam of Memoir in Today’s NYTBR

Neil Genzlinger has a few things to say about “the problem with memoirs” in this week’s NYTBR. Like this:

So in a possibly futile effort to restore some standards to this absurdly bloated genre, here are a few guidelines for would-be memoirists, arrived at after reading four new memoirs. Three of the four did not need to be written, a ratio that probably applies to all memoirs published over the last two decades. Sorry to be so harsh, but this flood just has to be stopped.”

And this:

If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it. Instead hit the delete key, and then go congratulate yourself for having lived a perfectly good, undistinguished life. There’s no shame in that.”

And other things, too.

Don’t Stop Beliebing!

The other day during a discussion of nonfiction-related things, someone mentioned that they don’t get the animosity some people seem to have about writers’ success, which animosity seems particularly worse when an “undeserving” author gets accolades.  She said she just couldn’t understand how people could get so worked up about a book they didn’t like being a bestseller (or winning a prize, or being lauded, or any kind of “fame”).  Like it, don’t like it, whatever, but don’t hate because someone else likes it.  It sort of goes along with the idea of genre fiction, like sci-fi or “chick lit,” as less than (which is bullcrap).

 I agreed with this person, who will remain nameless in case I’ve misconstrued something she said.  I would also extend this to music.  I’m not hip.  When folks post Facebook statuses about music that’s killer or sucky, or whatever, I almost never have any idea who the person/group is, or any desire to figure it out.  If it’s not playing on the radio when I drive my kids to and from school, I probably don’t know it, at least when it comes to current music.  A lot of folks seem bent to be down on whatever is popular.  Owl City makes their ears bleed.  They want to smash Justin Bieber’s face.  I don’t get it.  Here’s what I listen to: Read more »

Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the exclamation mark!

Two ways to write an electronic thank-you note.


Hey Dan,

I received X.




Hey Dan,

I received X.



I’ve shied away from exclamation marks, not to mention emoticons and other abuses of the English language.  But in a recent discussion of proper electronic communication during the return leg of a weekend road trip,  a few friends made a persuasive argument that writing “thanks” without an exclamation mark, fails to denote actual thanks.  Rather, the writer is expressing that he expected whatever was done for him and is merely following social convention by thanking that person.  Adding an exclamation mark would show that the writer is actually grateful for the service rendered.

In the last few days I’ve tried adding exclamation marks to text messages:

Sounds good.  See you soon!

And while it does seem  a little teenage-y, I do come off as friendlier.  What do you guys think?  Are there other new style rules?

p.s. I kind of like the winky smile emoticon ;)

p.p.s. lol is not going to happen, though.

p.p.p.s. that text message was real.

p.p.p.p.s. those emails were not.

How I Discovered My Internship Is Illegal

I am writing this blog entry for those of you who will be graduating soon and may be considering internships as a viable path into the publishing business or advertising or whatever, for those you who will still be students for a while and are currently looking at internships, and for those readers who might  need the training an internship provides to change careers.

First, a little background information about my situation: I’ve been unemployed since June 2010. Read more »

Nabokov Was Even a Good Scientist:

Based on nothing but the disassembled genitalia of some butterflies in his collection, he postulated that five waves of butterflies came across the Bering Strait and he was actually right. This goes under the pros column for whether or not Nabokov was a timetraveler.  Read the Times article:  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/01/science/01butterfly.html?src=me&ref=general

I’m so Lucky Nobody Wants to Publish My Book!

I have a few writer friends who are very successful and have been churning out at least a book a year for a while now. They often tell me to enjoy the pre-published phase of my career because I’ll never again have the luxury of spending time on each creative project. I usually smile pleasantly and say “thank you” or make a comment about how much I enjoy the creative process. On the inside though, I’m green with envy and seething with thoughts like “easy for you to say, you’re getting paid for your prose.”

Sure, sure, I understand that demanding deadlines and endless galley proofing are the pits. I also completely understand about needing to vent when you’ve moved a comma around for a month and your editor still wants you to find a better place for it. But aren’t those things we have to put up with if we want to make a living as a writer? And, don’t we all just suffer through rejection after rejection because we hope we’ll someday be able to quit our day jobs? Hopefully someday soon?

I know I do, or at least I used to be mostly focused on the part of my career that’s going to happen after my book appears in stores. You know, the day my publisher sends me out on an all expenses paid book tour and I get wined and dined by bookstore owners and fawned over by adoring fans. Yeah, I know—-DREAM ON!—-but seriously, publishing a book is a major career goal for me.

Last week though, I completely changed my mindset from looking at the pre-published phase as something I have to suffer through until I can reap the benefits (if there are any) from calling myself “author.” I finally understood what my more successful friends have been trying to tell me. Read more »

Dan Chaon: The landscape, then the road

Dan Chaon

Dan Chaon’s stories and novels are brilliant maps of mood and mystery, longing and secrecy. They are also beautifully written, vividly depicted, and moving, in more than one sense – they are emotionally affecting, but they also move, sometimes with a steady, dreamlike pull and sometimes with an addictive speed. His most recent novel, Await Your Reply, was published last year in paperback, and it’s a knockout – an atmospheric and dramatic story woven from three gradually constricting, and connecting, narratives.

Chaon has published two collections of short stories, Fitting Ends in 1996 and Among the Missing in 2001. The latter was a finalist for the National Book Award. He has also published two novels, Await Your Reply and You Remind Me of Me (2004). His stories have been published everywhere, anthologized and honored widely. He teaches creative writing at Oberlin College.

Your work often plunges into the nature of identity — how we construct personae, the malleable nature of who we “are.” Do you set out to write about that subject or do you find it arising in a less intentional way?

The question of “intention” in fiction is always suspect, I think, because it works with image and narrative rather than argument and rhetoric. So there’s always a degree of Rorschach, an element of the unconscious in the “themes” that emerge. I don’t think that most writers get to choose their themes, so much as the themes choose them.

Read more »

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