“What about the baby?” ”
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $ 27
Like all the best books ostensibly on writing and reading, “What About the Baby? Some Thoughts on the Art of Fiction” by novelist Alice McDermott reminds us to attend. Noticing the way words relate is noticing the nuances of communication, that is, noticing the intricacies of human interaction, including what lies between the lines.
In these 16 essays on writing, reading, and exiting the Montauk Freeway to Main Street in East Hampton, Ms. McDermott sheds light on everything from formatting sentences to uses of enchantment between the covers of ‘a book.
How literature can lead us to an awareness that is both new and unearthed is a theme woven throughout the book. In the essay “Story”, after quoting the haunting opening paragraphs of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations”, she reflects on Pip’s fanciful description of the graves of his five little brothers.
“Inundated as we are by history – the history of the Internet and the history of television and gossip and horror and mass murder everywhere – it is this shimmer of magic that remains the preserve from the only fiction writer. A magic that allows us to see, to recognize, what we have never seen before. To marvel at the familiarity of the world invoked even as we glimpse the never-before-seen enchantment of it all . “
Survive the shipwreck
While the essays in this book are not formally related, they are all imbued with Ms. McDermott’s awe for the works she deploys to exemplify the craft and her deep humility. When the successful novelist talks about her own “process”, it is to mention her fits of uncertainty. She compares the scene of the “Robinson Crusoe” shipwreck to what many writers go through halfway through the composition of a novel.
When I work as an editor, even with successful authors, or with studio students in their first creative confident blush (before revision sets in), I notice the self-doubt that regularly plagues a writer. Once you know you have company, it’s easier to get by.
Partly for this reason, I often recommend Elizabeth George’s “Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life”, in which the mystery writer begins her chapters with entries from the diary she keeps for. the creation of each novel. “I am filled with doubts. Why is Steinbeck not filled with doubts? She agonizes in one. Or, “What am I doing pretending to be a writer?”
One can also find solace in the final chapter of “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” by Stephen King, in which he recounts the accident that left him paralyzed and how he – an author who never passed. more than three months on one of his novels – painfully returned to the page: “And the first five hundred words were particularly terrifying – it was as if I had never written anything before them in my life.” .. I went from word to word like a very old man finding his way through a stream on a zigzag of wet stones. “
And how reassuring to hear that Ms. McDermott, author of eight literary novels, no less winner of the National Book Award, herself struggles with doubt. In the essay “What about the baby?” She recounts how a meeting with another mother in the parking lot of an elementary school made her lose confidence in her current novel, although she now has five to her credit.
Hearing Mrs McDermott writing another novel, her friend laughed and asked:
“Is anyone going to die in this one too? All of your novels are about someone dying.”
. . . If only the laity knew what tsunamis of doubt these flippant critiques can unleash in the still waters of our very superficial trust.
When I got home to start my writing day, I decided to never write about death again. Never. Now no one dies. I resolved, in fact, to revive one of the characters in my half-completed novel, which, until then, seemed doomed to die in Vietnam. . . . Walking into the house I was determined to bring the poor kid home alive, maybe even make the ending fun and shock all those sarcastic readers who expect my books to be all Irish and sad all the time. . . .
My desk that day, by the time I got there, was not just covered in invoices, student manuscripts. . . but also a whole sorority of mothers from the carpool line rolling their eyes and asking: “More death? “
I was, as you can imagine, a long time cleaning them all. But once I did, I saw that what I had in front of me was a novel opening up with a family. . . linked to grief. History demanded it. The characters demanded it.
The DIY writing program
“What about the baby?” Brings together a series of talks on the craft that Ms. McDermott, a longtime writing professor, has given at writing seminars at Johns Hopkins and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, among other invitations.
Although I have been teaching writing for almost 30 years, I am a fan of the DIY graduate program. Find or have found a local workshop – the one taught by Marijane Meaker in the attic of Ashawagh Hall in the ’80s was better than any I did in the MFA program at Columbia. And then use “What about the baby?” As the basis of your program, perhaps complemented by the equally brilliant but user-friendly “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life” by George Saunders. In one of the most reassuring ways to read Russian news that is often opaque to me, he asserts: “Criticism is not a mysterious and impenetrable process. every moment, and (2) better and better articulate this response. “
The books Ms. McDermott analyzes can make up the DIY reading list, and the writing exercises flow from her technical advice. In the essay “History”, she reflects on what makes the components of the story compelling. And in “Sentencing” she examines “this elementary collection of words” even more precisely.
And lest you’re not a fiction writer and be tempted to skip that baseball commentary, there’s a lot of philosophy of everyday life here. His warning against using the “would” conjugation, for example, can be read as a reminder to experience life in the present:
“Remember also that the would always be the verbal form involves some withdrawal from the experience as it is lived, and so, if not used judiciously, it can dilute the experience of readers. None of us, when you think about it, live in the would always be; we can only see it from a distance. “
Some books on writing and reading assume familiarity with the texts used as illustrations. Ms McDermott includes the relevant passages – in one case a full story of Mark Helprin – possibly the result of her own experience in a Shakespeare class at SUNY Oswego in which the professor presumptively announced to a newly undergraduate room. arrived, “” We “will reread Henry’s plays.”
Another humanitarian aspect of Ms. McDermott’s approach to literature is the way she defines the larger purpose of fiction, including what she calls a novel’s “moral vision”.
Simply put: we are looking for what the novel says that is true for all of us. We are looking for each other.
Consider the famous ending of “The Great Gatsby”, “And so we went on, boats against the tide, time and time again stepped back into the past.”
Now listen to the difference that the slightest change of pronoun, the slightest change of perspective, can make:
And so he beat, a boat against the current, constantly brought back to his childhood in Saint-Paul.
And, heartwarmingly, she cautions against strenuous efforts to make every sentence a work of art:
“If you find yourself struggling with transitions between soaring lyricism and phrases that tie your character’s laces, if you find yourself writing phrase after phrase that can only be followed by the sacred silence of a spatial pause. .. so maybe your sentences are trying. too hard to look good. “
Ladies at Home, Sweet Home
A bonus for South Fork readers is Ms. McDermott’s reflection of East Hampton, a place she has visited since childhood – and a setting in her novels “Charming Billy” and “Child of My Heart.” In the essay “Things,” on the significance of the objects writers have chosen to put in their novels, East Hampton in the hands of Mrs. McDermott is superimposed on history and personal significance. She opens the essay by capturing that bend on Main Street (and, like Dickens, conjuring up a magical vision of a graveyard):
The intersection of Route 27 and Main Street in East Hampton, New York, has enchanted me since I was a child. There is its postcard beauty: the city pond reflecting the reeds and the sky, the swans, the worn cemetery stones set in the lush grass. Every summer of my childhood I felt that breathtaking thrill at its enduring sight as my father drove us through town on our two week vacation in what we have always called ‘the country’, never ‘ the Hamptons ”.
The sensation caught up with me again that day in late June when my husband and I returned to East Hampton after a ten year hiatus. . . . As I passed the Home Sweet Home Museum, a preserved cedar cottage from the 1700s, I recalled the summer “educational” visits there and a fascination I had as a child with an antique drafts game that was still on display – the checkers in brown or yellow corn cores, the board was set up to suggest that a game was already in progress, that the kids who played it had only briefly, recently, moved away.
In her essays, McDermott helps us understand the act of writing to preserve, of reading to remember. Like players in an eternal game of checkers, the back and forth between writer and reader allow us to re-examine our world as it is refracted through the writer’s imagination.
Alexandra Shelley is a freelance book editor and professor of fiction writing at The New School. She spends her summers in Sag Harbor.