“Words Creating Space: Three-Dimensionality in Prose,” December 2017 AWP Writer’s Chronicle. A craft essay inspired by John Berger and Frederick Reiken and touching on writing by Jo Ann Beard, Marguerite Duras, Sheila Heti, Sarah Manguso, Jenny Offill, and Bruno Schulz, as well as dance by Ohad Nahrin.
Excerpt: I was introduced to [Raymond Carver’s] “Errand” in a lecture by my graduate school mentor, the novelist Frederick Reiken. Being a Rick Reiken lecture,1 the talk also dipped into quantum wave theory and Schroedinger’s cat. And it ended with an allusion to an essay by the novelist and art critic John Berger, an essay titled “Lost Off Cape Wrath.” I don’t remember what Rick quoted from Berger’s baffling essay, but I remember Rick pointing at the window behind the lectern, shaking his baseball-capped head at the inability of us struggling scribes to access his electrified brain, and saying “Fiction is not what’s out there.” I felt my mind grasp at truth, and just as quickly felt truth slip through my cognitive fingers. I have since come to believe that Rick’s imploring recapitulation of Berger—“fiction is not what’s out there”—applies not just to fiction, but to any writing, fiction or nonfiction or some ambiguous place between, that draws the reader inside its own independent, vivid reality.
How does this spaciousness happen? I want to make three foundational hypotheses.
Gesture Writing, a “Draft” column in the New York Times
Excerpt: Five years ago, I walked into a third-floor art studio on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, climbed atop a wooden stage covered in stained padding and dropped my ratty yellow bathrobe. A panel of strangers asked me to pose, and then to freeze. I had never modeled for artists, and had no idea how I would feel standing naked as people I had just met stared at me. The idea held some bohemian appeal, but more urgently, I needed to supplement my income as a freelance writer while I worked on a novel.
I made the cut, and became a member of the Bay Area Models Guild. I had hoped this gig might earn me grocery money. I soon grew to love the freedom and strange relinquishment of status that comes from offering your nude presence to artists. What surprised me the most, though, was how profoundly it changed my writing life.
Excerpt: My violent objection to the notion of “unlikeable characters” began in fall 1996, in a UC Santa Barbara literature seminar. I was 20 years old and on the edge of a near-suicidal breakdown, having thrown myself for a full year at Eric, my elusive not-quite-boyfriend, while also fighting repressed childhood memories of my father’s sudden death. The professor for “Readings in the Novel” was an avuncular, brandy-voiced novelist from the Caribbean–what a lovely, safe escape from my obsessions this class would be. Then, on the second day of class, in walked Eric. Painful honesty compels me to report that I hoped this marked a fateful new chapter for us, and I adjusted the strap of my tank top to reveal more shoulder.
Fortunately, Eric was a lazy, mostly absent student. Did he show up the day we discussed Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark? I feel like he did, but back in those days I lived with an illicitly thrilling and demented sensation that Eric was always with me, so it’s hard to remember.
What I remember best is the other students’ reaction to Voyage in the Dark’s narrator, Anna Morgan, a stand-in for Jean Rhys’s younger self, and a girl who, ahem, throws herself shamelessly at her lover and longs to die, while fighting repressed childhood memories of her father’s sudden death. “She’s pathetic,” the other students said. “She’s just a victim.” “There’s nothing you can like about her. She just seems like a waste of time.”
They weren’t just talking about Anna. They were talking about me.