Pop quiz: first paragraphs

What do you think of these first paragraphs, collected from here and there? I doubt you’ll guess the authors, but see if you can guess where they come from. Answers at the bottom; don’t cheat.


The landline was mewling again in the kitchen, obliging Pell Munnelly, woke now for good, to climb from the cozy rut of her bed and pad downstairs in bare feet. She skimmed her fingertips along the dulled gray-and-lilac grain of the walls, swatted each light switch she passed to feel less alone.

A. First graf of hot new novel  B. First graf of New Yorker short story  C. First graf of freshman comp in creative writing course

Somewhere near the end, she decided that the drinking was the problem. So we stopped cold, both of us, in the middle of February. One of those winters where the sky looms over the town like a gray roof that never changes. Old ice and blackened snow in the gutters. It was maybe a mistake.

A. First graf of hot new novel  B. First graf of New Yorker short story  C. First graf of freshman comp in creative writing course

Many years ago, after I retired from the bank, James brought a small terrier to our apartment in Paris. I told him I did not want it. I knew he was trying to keep me occupied, and it is a ridiculous thing, to have a dog. Maybe one day you rise from bed and say, “I would like to pick up five thousand pieces of shit.” Well, then, I have just the thing for you. And for a man to have a small dog—it makes you a fool.

A. First graf of hot new novel  B. First graf of New Yorker short story  C. First graf of freshman comp in creative writing course

It had been an ordinary day, to a point. I had a headache that wouldn’t let up, and there was a party I’d promised I’d go to—I’d said see you soon to the people at work. But after I unlocked my door and kicked off my shoes all I could think about was jumping into bed. Once I allowed myself to think that this was a reasonable idea, I felt released from the grip of the party; I realized that if I slept right through nobody would really care.

A. First graf of hot new novel  B. First graf of New Yorker short story  C. First graf of freshman comp in creative writing course

I was walking down High Street to the funeral home when I spotted Ed Hankey coming toward me. He said, “Jay,” then, “Guess who’s sick?,” then blinked and concluded, “Murray Cutler.”

A. First graf of hot new novel  B. First graf of New Yorker short story  C. First graf of freshman comp in creative writing course

Fiona lived in her parents’ house, in the town where she and Grant went to university. It was a big, bay-windowed house that seemed to Grant both luxurious and disorderly, with rugs crooked on the floors and cup rings bitten into the table varnish. Her mother was Icelandic—a powerful woman with a froth of white hair and indignant far-left politics. The father was an important cardiologist, revered around the hospital but happily subservient at home, where he would listen to his wife’s strange tirades with an absent-minded smile. Fiona had her own little car and a pile of cashmere sweaters, but she wasn’t in a sorority, and her mother’s political activity was probably the reason. Not that she cared. Sororities were a joke to her, and so was politics—though she liked to play “The Four Insurgent Generals” on the phonograph, and sometimes also the “Internationale,” very loud, if there was a guest she thought she could make nervous. A curly-haired gloomy-looking foreigner was courting her—she said he was a Visigoth—and so were two or three quite respectable and uneasy young interns. She made fun of them all and of Grant as well. She would drolly repeat some of his small-town phrases. He thought maybe she was joking when she proposed to him, on a cold bright day on the beach at Port Stanley. Sand was stinging in their faces and the waves delivered crashing loads of gravel at their feet.

A. First graf of hot new novel  B. First graf of New Yorker short story  C. First graf of freshman comp in creative writing course


You weren’t allowed to cheat, but I was. (And the three I think are worth pursuing are Meloy, Theroux, and Munro.)

B. Colin Barrett; New Yorker, 1/5/2015; B. Kevin CantyNew Yorker, 10/6/2014; B. Maile Meloy; New Yorker, 6/23/2014; B. Elizabeth McKenzie; New Yorker, 12/15/2014; B. Paul Theroux; New Yorker, 10/7/2013; B. Alice Munro; New Yorker, 10/21/2013


FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Newtonville Books, Newton, MA

Town House Books & Cafe, St. Charles, IL

Broadway Books, Portland, OR

Prompts, part 2: A different approach

You might want to read Prompts, part 1: Useful? Or just a cute trick? before you wade into today’s post. I’ve been told that part 1 was cranky; part 2 is, well, crankier.


To repeat from last Thursday’s post: A prompt—in the context of writing—is a short sentence or phrase used to help a writer get started when a writer is stuck and can’t write. A prompt supplies an idea to work with, just to grease the brain-wheels so it’s possible to get words onto a blank page or screen. The theory is that once the words start coming, the words will keep coming.

For this trick to work, quantity is necessary: the writer needs choice in order to find a prompt that beckons, resonates, piques the interest. If you have fifty prompts to choose from, chances are that one of them will grab you enough to start you writing something. Hence the popularity of long lists of prompts online and in books.

On the other hand, if you happen to be a student in an English class and the teacher puts only five prompts on the blackboard, it’s very possible that none of them will grab you. Five options aren’t a lot of options. Frustration with writing is sure to follow—exactly what the teacher was probably trying to avoid by offering prompts in the first place.

Now I’m going to come clean: I do not like the idea of anyone supplying prompts for someone else. It’s akin to handing a friend a load of nicely cut firewood when you should have taught your friend how to cut logs since she’s going to have to make more than one fire if she’s going to keep warm in the future.

understand that in an environment in which writing has become so accessible that almost anyone can try to be a writer, there will be writing aids under every rock and all a would-be writer has to do is turn over the right rock to get some help. But I don’t like it.

In fairness, I need to make a distinction between kinds of writers: professional and nonprofessional. Nonprofessional writers may make use of any old thing they like in order to enjoy writing—prompts, software, games, even the appalling National Novel Writing Month (better known, adorably, as NaNoWriMo).

But professional writers had better think twice before engaging in reductive practices.

What exactly is a professional writer? I’m afraid that by current definition payment and publishing are the two main qualifications. My definition, however, is this: a professional writer is someone who takes the work seriously, gives it time and attention, and continues to do these things regardless of payment and publishing.

Back to prompts, so I can tie all this together: Professional writers do of course get stuck and need pushes out of the dead air of doldrums and into the fresh air of invention. But I’d be willing to bet money that there aren’t very many professional writers who use websites or books full of prompts to find that fresh air.

What professional writers do is think. Or dream. Or daydream. Or back off and allow ideas to arrive in their own good time. Or they jot down ideas. Or read books, take walks, ride bikes, play music, or do nothing. They also complain, wail, moan, see therapists, drink, cry, decide to stop writing, decide to become brain surgeons, and drive their friends loony. Some stop writing altogether.

But the ones who begin writing again and who regard writing as an imperative, whether they love or hate it, eventually sit down at the blank page or screen and do some work.

What, after all, is so daunting about a blank page or screen? Why is the blank page or screen so panic-inducing?

A blank screen or page does not represent emptiness; it represents potential. View it as a calm, quiet field in which to let your fantasies meander. Constant stimulation is not necessarily productive; being empty and even bored is not necessarily unproductive. In fact, research shows that boredom contributes to creativity; see “Bored at Work? That’s Not a Bad Thing” in Slate via Inc.

Instead of following the herd to the long lists of prompts that other people have invented for you, consider making your own extremely personal list of prompts. And let us stop calling them prompts, a term that carries the unpleasant aura both of nudging and being on time.

Let us call them ideas, because that is what they are: ideas you are perfectly capable of finding for yourself and turning into writing.



FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

M.Judson Books, Greenville, SC

Books on the Common, Ridgefield, CT

The Last Bookstore, Los Angeles, CA

Roz Chast: pictures worth a thousand words

9781608198061_custom-035ffdc5e88431604aa7739c254c44f7148f65e0-s300-c85Can’t we talk about something more PLEASANT?  may well have been the best memoir published in 2014, and of course it is like no other. Roz Chast, prolific writer and artist, uses standard book form so inventively, so enticingly, filling the pages with so many visual delights that you’d follow her anywhere. Right into the Place [sic] where her ancient parents wound up, right into their bedroom, right into their illnesses and deaths. Painful as the material gets (psychologically, emotionally, physically), there’s no way you don’t see it through to the bitter end.

Chast’s drawing is unique, but what she does on the page as an artist isn’t completely new: other writer/artist/book designers have done similar things: combined panels with no-panels, used hand-drawn headlines, created pages that mix text with large images, and so on. Maira Kalman, Alison Bechdel, Art Spiegelman, for example. The design vocabulary exists; the question is what the writer/artist does with it.

Like these other luminaries, Chast perfectly uses the pictorial as a medium for her own clear, intelligent, funny, insightful voice. Or maybe the right word is “support”: her visuals support her writing. Neither would be as strong without the other, but the evidence suggests that despite all those years of withdrawing into drawing, Chast is a writer first. She has something to say, and her drawings are the delivery system. IMG_1138Take a close look: there’s hardly a drawing that doesn’t use words in one way or another. That’s not an accident.

Since her book is a memoir, she’s also wrestling with all the issues that every memoirist must confront. Her parents are dead, so she seems unconflicted about revealing their quirks and weirdnesses, as well as the peculiarities of their marriage and their parenting. IMG_1136She’s straightforward about her own difficulties with her parents too.

If there’s a flaw in the book, it’s the almost total absence of her own husband and children. When it comes to Chast’s own marriage and parenting, the shades are almost all the way down. Her daughter is mentioned several times and pictured once or twice; the word “husband” comes up a few times.

This is a perennial problem for nonfiction writers trying to tell a family story: they are entitled to tell their personal stories, but what do they do about the other family members? How far can they go in revealing what their children and partners don’t want revealed?

I imagined this conversation between Chast and her husband:

“Sweetie, I’m going to write a book about my parents.”

“Great, Roz, just leave me out.”

“How can I leave you out? You were there.”

“Maybe, but leave me out. I don’t want to be in the book.”

The absence of her own husband and kids in this family story seems in an odd way to reiterate Chast’s childhood isolation. IMG_1140In other words, it appears as if her life with her difficult parents was still—in this tale of their last years—a closed circle. I have no idea if this is true or not; I only know what the writer/artist has put on her pages.

What I do know, though, is that even a memoir done right (and this one is done very right) will always have gaps. There’s no way to tell the entire story, and one component of writing artful memoir is how you use what you’re allowed to use.


FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Warwick’s, La Jolla, CA

Union Ave Books, Knoxville, TN

The Doylestown Bookshop, Doylestown, PA

The memoir-novel–or the novel-memoir?

What accounts for our current—or recurrent—fascination with memoir-novels? That’s the question posed in the NYT “Bookends” feature of December 23.

Two very good writers take it on: Leslie Jamison (of The Empathy Exams) and Daniel Mendelsohn (essayist, book reviewer, memoirist). Their points are interesting, Mendelsohn’s perhaps a little more than Jamison’s if you’re looking for an answer to the posed question, since he addresses the issue more directly.

Both Jamison and Mendelsohn write about the memoir-novel from the reader’s point of view. Jamison says, for instance, in an analysis of Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, “We feel ourselves subject to the opaque terms of an authorial presence that refuses to neatly categorize its offering: We are, at once, deeply immersed in the Icy North, its extreme exposures, and deeply aware of the hands that built it for us.” Reader’s POV.

Mendelsohn writes, in dissecting the slippage between memoir and fiction, “What’s interesting is how many readers, judging by the online reviews, weren’t all that bothered by the literary frauds perpetrated by [James] Frey and others: They came for ‘redemption’ and they got it, even if it turned out to have been provided by fiction rather than fact.” Reader’s POV.

Either Mendelsohn or Jamison could easily have discussed the memoir-novel from the author’s point of view, but that was not the question with which they were charged. They did their jobs; now I’m thinking about my job, which happens to be writing a memoir-novel. Or—more accurately—a novel-memoir.

It is not splitting hairs to reverse the order of the terminology. At least, not in my own case.

There are writers who quite deliberately translate memoir into thinly-veiled fiction, and there are legitimate, even good, reasons for doing this: taking a small step back from reality may allow more clarity of thinking; it may also give the writer the freedom to adjust history a bit, for whatever personal requirement—reconciliation, perhaps, or even fear of lawsuits.

The difference between a memoir-novel and a novel-memoir is this: in a novel-memoir, the claims of novelistic thinking come first. A novel-memoir, no matter how closely it is or isn’t based on a “true” story, must work first as a novel. If you have a “true” story to tell in fiction and you cling to the “truth” instead of thinking like a novelist, you may find yourself sacrificing good writing to the demands of your own psychological needs.

Too rigorous? Then don’t write a novel-memoir; write, instead, a memoir-novel, in which you will more easily be able to justify clinging to what (you think) actually happened. You will more easily allow yourself to maintain loyalty to the “truth,” rather than loyalty to good writing. You will not think first like a novelist; you’ll think first like a memoirist.

Of course, if you do that you may risk losing narrative steam, arc, good dialogue, action, depth, breadth, and a dozen other novelistic options. On the other hand, you may feel better about the story you’re telling; you may feel you’re conveying the “truth” with more integrity.

But the novelist’s responsibility is to the novel.

On a small scale, this injunction to think like a novelist brings us back to that annoying “kill off your darlings” concept. Annoying because the phrase is used both to intimidate and chasten writers, when all it really means is that a writer does well to consider the design of her entire novel rather than become attached to small baubles that shine for only a moment and do not add to its overall quality. If the “darling” works, fine; if not, let it go.

So on a larger scale, if a memoiristic point enhances your novel, fine. If not, let it go.

This is what I think each day when I work on my novel: What actually happened was traumatic enough for one person to live through, and writing about it has not so much helped me as given me permission to stay with it and relive it as much as I need to. But when that phase is over, then novel-making must begin in earnest. I must take myself in hand and rethink all the parts that wallow in memoir and undermine the novel.

Writing a novel is a matter of artistry, not therapy. The creation of a novel-memoir may have to pass through a stage in which the therapeutic outweighs the artistry; it may, in the end, coincidentally, be therapeutic. Yet (with rare exceptions) a good novel-memoir transcends that private state of self-healing and expands enough to include the reader.

Questioning is the primary lesson I’ve learned—am still learning—while trying to nail this novel-memoir. That was not how I started out: I started out by spilling my guts onto the pages. When I’d had enough of that, I tried—am still trying—to be my own reader for as long as it takes to get to a complete first draft. It’s edifying. And it’s not even that difficult.

Disconnect just enough to read the pages as if you were someone else. Not a hostile someone else, not your partner or your mother, not the New York Times reviewer, not a reader who’d never in a million years buy your book or take your book out of the library. Think of a reader much like yourself, with the same expectations of fiction that you have, and read through her eyes. Let yourself know when your novel-memoir has turned in on itself and become, mistakenly, memoir-novel. Then fix it.


FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Saturn Booksellers, Gaylord, MI

The Novel Neighbor, Webster Groves, MO

Orca Books, Olympia, WA


Christmas in Greenwich Village

writers who lived in the east and west village, back in the day, now and then
  • Edward Albee • W.H. Auden
  • Edna St. Vincent Millay • William Burroughs
  • Allen Ginsberg • Emma Lazarus
  • Willa Cather • John Cheever
  • Edgar Allen Poe • Edith Wharton
  • E. E. Cummings • Dorothy Thompson
  • Gregory Corso • Mark Twain
  • Marianne Moore • Jack Kerouac
  • Dashiell Hammett • Sinclair Lewis
  • Lorraine Hansberry • Frank O’HaraIMG_1060
  • John Dos Passos • Dawn Powell
  • Thomas Wolfe • James Baldwin
  • Jane Jacobs • Richard Yates
  • Henry Roth • Sara Teasdale
  • James Agee • Sherwood Anderson
  • Joseph Brodsky • Hart Crane
  • Denise Levertov • Bret HarteIMG_1066
  • Eugene O’Neill • Richard Wright
  • Theodore Dreiser




FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Valley Bookstore, Jackson, WY

White Birch Books, North Conway, NH

Best of Books, Edmond, OK

When writers flail

If you are required (or if you require yourself) to produce pieces of writing on a regular basis, flailing is unavoidable. The definition of “flail” is visually delightful: to wave or swing or cause to wave or swing wildly. lindy-e1378959751286Lindyhoppers and jitterbuggers come to mind instantly, their hands waving and flapping, the girls’ skirts swinging out, the couples dancing wildly.

Unfortunately, that picture leaves out the other part of the definition of “flail”: to flounder, struggle uselessly, thrash, writhe. Uh-oh. Now we’re getting closer to the writer’s truth.

This flailing issue presented itself when I was flailing around, trying to think of what to write for TBUHB for a December 22 post that very few people would be likely to read. Does anyone want to read blog posts when there are only three days until Christmas? This is discouraging to a blog-writer.

On the other hand, if people prefer to shop and bake cookies instead of reading a blog post, then it’s only fair for me to be allowed to flail as much as I want. Freedom to flail, without fear of flailure!

Anyway, flailing came up because my thought about what to write today was a bounce off a really wonderful article in the November 4, 2014 New York Times, called “As a Writer, What Influences You Other Than Books?” Okay, I lied: it’s a half-wonderful article.

The piece is one of the regular NYT series called “Bookends,” in which two writers answer the same question, each in his or her own particular way. In this case, Thomas Mallon aces it with this answer: “I keep photos around me while I write the way other authors keep music in the background, as a kind of atmospheric stimulation.”

Nice. Clear. A cogent explanation of how the photos work for him.

James Parker, however, answered the question like this: “From my fellow bakers, I learned about industry and cohesion and the moral obligation to be cheerful.”

Obscure. Obtuse. Moral obligation to be cheerful?

So okay, he’s opting for puckish in his answer to the basic question. He also states that his “greatest nonliterary influences have been drummers, comedians and bakers.” The rest of his text is—I think—supposed to be amusing and clever, whimsical and offbeat, a pyrotechnic display of references and allusions. Which reads a lot like flailing.

One of the outstanding characteristics of flailing (in writing) is confusion. Another is deflection. A third is showing off. All of these conspire to distract the reader from noticing that not much is being said. It amounts to the writer’s version of sleight of hand. As I read and reread the Parker half of the piece, I understood less and less of what he was writing about.

And as I read and reread Parker’s flailing, I cared less and less about whatever point he was trying to make. If there was a point about what influences him, it got lost among the jazzy phrases; it hared off in odd directions, one after another. It made me think of being cornered at a party by a stoned kid who was absolutely sure he was making scintillating sense and, worse, that his captive audience gave a damn.

And yet his wind-up brought me back to my holiday-season-induced flailing with a thump. Here he is still dithering on about the lessons learned in the bakery where he once worked:

If you’re depressed, maimed, crocked in some way, fair enough—let us know. But if not, then in the name of humanity stop moaning. Keep a lightness about you, a readiness. Preserve the digestions of your co-workers; spare them your mutterings and vibings. It’s highly nonliterary, but there we are: be nice.

I like that. It’s good advice, even if it has nothing to do with the original question. It’s a tough time of year: BE NICE.


FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Alley Cat Books, San Francisco, CA

Titcomb’s Bookshop, East Sandwich, MA

The Velveteen Rabbit Bookshop, Fort Atkinson, WI


Death songs




A “death song” is traditionally sung before or after a death, in commemoration.

In 2014 we lost many important and  well-known writers whom we wish to remember. Many unsung writers died too—writers who were, perhaps, friends, relatives, lovers, acquaintances, lesser lights, forgotten authors. Writers who worked alone, steadily, without much recognition. Writers whose suns eclipsed, whose stars faded. We celebrate them too, as members of our community, whether or not we knew them, whether or not they achieved their goals.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 

Nadine Gordimer • Gabriel García Márquez • Walter Dean Myers

Vicente Leñero • Maya Angelou • Kent Haruf • Sue Townsend

Mark Strand • Carolyn Kizer • Galway Kinnell • Radwa Ashour

Siegfried Lenz • Thomas Berger • Maxine Kumin • Daniel Keyes

P.D. James • Eric Hill • Marsha Mehran • Joe McGiniss

Amiri Baraka • Diann Blakely • Saeed Akl • Michael Shanahan

Ana Maria Matute • Richard Eder • Bel Kaufman • Gil Marks

 Mavis Gallant • Paul Robeson Jr. • Claudia Emerson

Jonathan Schell • Mary Stewart • Jack Agüeros

Elizabeth Jane Howard • Justin Kaplan

Martin Gottfried • Susan Spencer-Wendel

Farley Mowat • Ann Marcus • Joel Brinkley

Shon Harris • Peter Matthiessen • Sherwin B. Nuland

IMG_0904Apologies if I’ve inadvertently omitted any writer you feel strongly about; add a comment below, to inform us all.


FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Wind City Books, Casper, WY

bookbook, New York, NY

Sherman’s Books, Bar Harbor, ME



Returning to center

Friday night, on the Seventy-second Street crosstown bus, I had an epiphany. Or rather: after reading W.S. Merwin’s poem “The Blackboard” on the crosstown bus (on page 48 of the October 20, 2014 edition of the New Yorker), I came to my senses.

“The Blackboard” is an exquisite poem, which I’m surely not allowed to reproduce in full without permission. But I think the “fair use” doctrine will allow a few lines:

The question itself has not changed

but only the depths of memory

through which it rises and now in a late

dream of childhood my father is a blackboard…

For several weeks I’ve been preoccupied with publishing news stories about the enormous advances recently given to debut novels: Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves (one million dollars, reputedly; Simon & Schuster), Stephanie Clifford’s Everybody Rise (a seven-figure amount; St. Martin’s Press), Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites (a million; Little, Brown), to name a few.

News about this phenomenon keeps cropping up in the publishing newsletters as well as in newspapers. Every time I see one of these reports I think, What’s going on here? How can these money-strapped publishers be sinking so much dough into completely unpredictable ventures? What’s happening to advances for mid-list novels that might be just as good (or bad) as this slew of newbies? Haven’t the Big Five publishers learned anything at all from past experience?

Past experience should show them that investing that much money in books that may or may not earn out their advances is risky in the extreme. But they don’t seem to learn anything from past experience—hope apparently springs eternal, for no good business reason.

The common wisdom is that the more a publishing house sinks into the advance, the more marketing support the book will get. But that doesn’t guarantee sales. Sometimes that strategy works, sometimes it doesn’t. And meanwhile, what happens to the rest of the books that house is publishing? None of it makes sense. I’ve been trying and trying to figure it out, and I’m not alone.

The Merwin poem has nothing, nothing, to do with the state of publishing. I did not have that Friday-night epiphany because the poem told me something about the madness of the publishers.

My Merwin-induced moment of clarity and insight was about a different kind of business entirely. It was about this: the job of serious writers is to write serious work, beautiful work, intelligent work, and to hell with the business of publishing. Not exactly news, I admit, but a jolt I needed badly.

There are plenty of reporters reporting on the state of publishing. No one needs me to do that, blog or no blog. don’t need me to do that either. Granted, it’s fascinating, in a horrible sort of way, to follow the marketplace, but how can I possibly do that better than people who are full-time employees paid to know everything about the topic? I can’t, and I shouldn’t try. I shouldn’t think about it. Or worry about it. Or get preoccupied by it.

What they do is report; what I do is write.

The sheer quality and brilliance of Merwin’s poem—and frankly, it could have been another fine poet’s poem that did the trick—snapped me out of my silliness and slung me back to where I belong: at my desk, working on my novel, working on my short stories, working on the posts I love writing.

There’s nothing on this earth I can do to influence the publishing business, of course, and the only thing that happens when I—or you or other writers—get off track is that I do less good work and spend more idiot time in a place I don’t belong.

I have plenty of writer friends who are savvy about the marketplace and discuss it endlessly. They strategize, plan, decipher, figure, calculate—and that has its place. At the proper time. Right now I’m returning to center.


FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Village Square Booksellers, Bellows Falls, VT

Reading Rock Books,  Dickson, TN

Powell’s Books, Portland, OR


Andre Dubus III, travelin’ man

I do not review books on this blog; book reviewing is a special skill I don’t have. But I do often express preferences, confess infatuations, cheerlead for my favorites.

Dirty Love, by Andre Dubus III is an astonishing book in every way, not least for its form: separate but slightly interwoven long stories (as opposed to short stories) that focus on different characters but allow peripherally reappearing characters. It’s rich, very rich—and dirty in the best way.

This description doesn’t begin to capture the quality of the book, which is why I disclaim book-reviewer mentality. I can’t explain this book, but the writing is extraordinary and I was transfixed.

So, curious about the writer and not yet having read his memoir Townie, I poked around to find out a bit about him beyond the obvious. Read Wiki for the obvious, though you won’t learn much. You do learn that he has a wife and three children.

And then I went to his website and discovered the meaning of “traveling man.” I nearly fell off my desk chair. According to his “Tour Dates” page, the man has been and will be on the road in 2014 for fifty-nine events, some of them gobbling up more than one day. And there’s travel time between dates, because he hopscotches the country (and sometimes the globe) without cease.

Take June, for instance, in sequence: Toronto, Massachusetts, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Mississippi, Louisiana, Colorado, Massachusetts, and Maine. Awesome.

How about April: Massachusetts, Florida, Italy, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont.

And this is a guy who says, “Whenever I’ve gone without writing two or three days at the most I feel far away from my center almost on a spiritual level and I have to get to the desk.” So with all that traveling, when and how does he get to a desk and summon enough mental wherewithal to write?

But clearly he does find it, and I would be riveted to hear how he does it. One can’t help but be knocked over by the sheer energy of the man. One little weekend trip to Richmond, another week-long trip to Oregon, and I’m ready to tear out my hair. I want to know what his secret is. No, I really mean it. How does he do it? I want what he’s got.

In an interview he gave in 2010, Dubus said, “I really feel that if I hadn’t started writing I would not have outgrown my rage. But I’ll tell you this—I’ve always loved human beings, working out and taking care of my body while helping others to do the same. So I think I might have become a family doctor in some small town. At least that’s my hope.”

I don’t think a small town could have contained his energy.



FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Horton’s Books & Gifts, Carrollton, GA

Edgartown Books, Edgartown, MA

Boulder Bookstore, Boulder, CO

Oh, that New York Times. How hard it must be to fill those pages every day. But some days we get lucky and the editors push themselves onto new turf. As yesterday in the T Magazine, in a piece called “Old Books, New Thoughts.”

The article comprises seven writers reconsidering their earlier work, and this sentence alone—from Philip Roth, on the topic of Portnoy’s Complaint—made me grateful I’d stumbled on the piece.

While the protagonist may be straining to escape his moral conscience, I was attempting to break free from a literary conscience that had been constructed by my reading, my schooling and my fastidiousness — from a habitual sense of prose decorum.