Marcus Burke, author of Team Seven and a former college athlete, learned from Carter G. Woodson that teaching yourself is just as important as being taught in the classroom.
One truth underlies the sprawling, sometimes contentious, freebie-filled Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference: Making a life in literature isn’t easy.
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Some pieces of news precipitate a kind of journalistic pile-on. This can be unfortunate, a reason to rue the deluge of opinion (see: drawn-out analysis of James Franco’s antics, again and again). Or, because there are many smart and shrewd voices out there, the same density of opinion can enrich our understanding of complicated issues (see: drawn-out analysis of Edward Snowden). The pile-on—of either variety—is good for convening dissonant points of view. But the hubbub tends to obscure the subtler strands of opinion: The people who mostly agree with one another are flattened into the same perspective, and the interesting gradations that separate, say, one kind of liberal or conservative from another are lost.
There is special pleasure, then, in reading writers narrower conversation. Bill Keller and Glenn Greenwald sparred over the future of news in the New York Times last year, with provocative results. Roundtables like Slate’s Supreme Court Breakfast Table illuminate the less visible corners of controversy by forcing like-minded commentators to make agreement interesting and disagreement intelligent.
Over the past two weeks, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait of New York have engaged in a comparatively spontaneous back and forth that has accomplished this to great effect, shedding light on the places were progressives thoughtfully but profoundly disagree. The conversation began with no particular rules in place or end in sight—and their debate has proceeded with the intensity and unpredictability that such an approach entails.
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A new biography reveals a William S. Burroughs both ghastlier and more impressive than many previously thought.
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Like most writers, I am an inveterate procrastinator. In the course of writing this one article, I have checked my e-mail approximately 3,000 times, made and discarded multiple grocery lists, conducted a lengthy Twitter battle over whether the gold standard is actually the worst economic policy ever proposed, written Facebook messages to schoolmates I haven’t seen in at least a decade, invented a delicious new recipe for chocolate berry protein smoothies, and googled my own name several times to make sure that I have at least once written something that someone would actually want to read.
Lots of people procrastinate, of course, but for writers it is a peculiarly common occupational hazard. One book editor I talked to fondly reminisced about the first book she was assigned to work on, back in the late 1990s. It had gone under contract in 1972.
I once asked a talented and fairly famous colleague how he managed to regularly produce such highly regarded 8,000 word features. “Well,” he said, “first, I put it off for two or three weeks. Then I sit down to write. That’s when I get up and go clean the garage. After that, I go upstairs, and then I come back downstairs and complain to my wife for a couple of hours. Finally, but only after a couple more days have passed and I’m really freaking out about missing my deadline, I ultimately sit down and write.”
Over the years, I developed a theory about why writers are such procrastinators: We were too good in English class. This sounds crazy, but hear me out.
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At age 76, Jim Harrison has touched every major genre in American letters. He’s written 10 novels, 17 books of poetry, classic essays on food and wilderness, screenplays for feature films starring Jack Nicholson and Kevin Costner. Some of his best work, though, has been in that undersold genre, the novella—a form he became associated with after the success of his 1979 suite of three long stories, Legends of the Fall.
Harrison’s new novella collection—his eighth—features a character who’s recurred in his work for more than 20 years: Brown Dog, an unconfined, hard-drinking wild man from Michigan’s wintry upper peninsula. First introduced in 1990’s The Woman Lit By Fireflies —the story concerned the fate of an Indian chief’s recovered body, perfectly preserved in the deep murk of Lake Superior—Brown Dog became one of Harrison’s most recognizable characters. This eponymous collection collects the five existing Brown Dog novellas in one place for the first time, and closes with a new one.
When I asked him to share a favorite passage for this series, Harrison used a Theodore Roethke poem to share a vision of how he writes. His process, like his protagonists, is unintellectual, wild, and elemental. He explained why he waits for years before word one, and how rhythm helps unlock his characters.
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More and more often these days, authors are considered responsible for their own success—and those who were once responsible for promoting them now tout the glories of self-promotion. Or, as a cheery New York literary agent recently put it, “You, the author, have an unprecedented amount of control over the way people discover you and your work, and how your ‘presence’ is presented to the world.”
Here’s what an author’s guide to stardom might look like in the near future.
Dracula, Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe: it takes a special kind of greatness for a literary character to achieve autonomy from his creator. Like those “folk songs” that are actually the products of a single pen (“This Land Is Your Land,” say), such figures come to seem as if they’d sprung directly from the popular imagination, effacing their originators altogether. Everyone has heard of Frankenstein; not many know who Mary Shelley is.
Such is the case with Tevye, the jocular giant of Yiddish literature. With his trio of marriageable daughters and his eternal little town of Anatevka, his largeness and simplicity, he seems to come to us directly from the pages of a folktale. You’d almost have to be a Yiddishist to recognize the name of his creator, Sholem Aleichem. Yet once he was a giant, too: the voice of Eastern European Jewry by universal acclamation; the creator, Jeremy Dauber tells us in his new biography, of modern Jewish literature as well as modern Jewish humor; the man to whom the author of Huckleberry Finn replied, upon being introduced to “the Jewish Mark Twain,” “please tell him that I am the American Sholem Aleichem.” His death in 1916 was the occasion of the largest public funeral New York had ever witnessed.
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This year, I talked to nearly 50 different writers for the By Heart series, a weekly column about beloved quotes and cherished lines. Each author shared the life-changing, values-shaping passages that have helped sustain creative practice throughout his or her career. Their contributions were eclectic and intensely personal: Jim Crace, whose novel Harvest was a finalist for the Man Booker prize this year, shared a folk rhyme from his childhood, the investigative New York Times journalist Michael Moss (Salt, Sugar, Fat) close-read the Frito-Lay slogan, and This American Life host Ira Glass eulogized a longtime friend and collaborator. Though I began by asking each writer the same question—what line is most important to you?—their responses contained no formula.
There was also no specific requirement to talk about craft. And yet writers—being writers—offered a generous bounty of practical writing advice. They shared exercises. They discussed principles of revision. Some presented ways to beat procrastination, or fight back against writing-desk ennui. And a great many shared their thoughts on the most crucial craft question of all: Why does some writing feel dead on the page, while other words thrum with life?
Taken together, these conversations were like attending an MFA program—I learned that much. Here are the best short pieces of writing advice I heard from writers in 2013, a whole year’s worth of wisdom.
On the back cover of a 1967 album by Robert Pete Williams, beneath a photo of the Mississippi blues musician, appears a signature rendered illegibly in a strained combination of print and script. The lines shake with a careful effort which yields results only a step better than his the X his sharecropper father likely made. Takoma records trumpeted Williams’ illiteracy—with the printing of the signature they signaled to the audience the thrill of a hardened criminal life and raw emotion of the primitive musician. But the single line of scrawl is more deeply emblematic of the evils of the segregated society.
The signature, the ability to sign one’s own name with grace and confidence, has long been an essential marker of society. Today more and more I meet high school students who, though they can read, sometimes well and sometimes poorly, are ashamed whenever they are confronted with the need to sign a document. Students are sometimes too embarrassed to admit that they can’t read a piece of an important historical document or the comments of a teacher who writes in script. Script is not seen by students as some quaint relic of the past. Even among kids for whom academic achievement is hardly “cool,” students recognize the pedigree that the knowledge of the cursive alphabet and the ability to write it fluently represent. Cursive has become a status marker.
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