Entries from July 2010

A Writer on Monday Morning

Buzz Bissinger — who has a Pulitzer Prize and a smash book, Friday Night Lights, to his credit — was in a low mood when he sat down to work Monday morning. At 9:29, he tweeted:

My last book with LeBron was shit. I know that. All writers only have a finite amount in the tank. Every day — the fear you have run dry.

This was followed by a series of tweets, each separated by two or three minutes.

I wrote Friday Night Lights when I was 33. I am now 55. Haunts me every day. Best thing that ever happened. Worse thing that ever happened. [9:31]

When people call me over-the-hill I react with profane defensiveness. But maybe it is true. It crawls into my head every minute, every day. [9:33]

I have a beautiful book on my hands about my son. I can barely write a sentence w/o crippling self-doubt. i get encouragement — turn it off. [9:35]

I am angry. I do hate bullshit. But maybe I am the biggest bullshitter of all, passing judgment on those who still do. Am I caricature? [9:38]

It isn’t self-pity writers feel. It is fear that what you did was accidental, luck, no more words left. Only to escape it seems was Updike. [9:43]

At 9:51, pulling out of it, he tweeted,

Writing is a matter of confidence, like any creative act. You gain it, you lose it, you gain it, you lose it. No better high. No worse low.

And five minutes later, after he’d apparently received some encouragement from other Twitterers, he concluded,

Enough. Your support means a tremendous amount to me. And as some have said, pull up your socks and get back to work.

I haven’t accomplished anything like what Bissinger has, but I have felt all these doubts, every single one. Most writers do. Probably most creative artists of all kinds do. In a weird way, it is reassuring to hear someone so accomplished cop to it.

A strange benefit of the real-time web: the ease of broadcasting confessions like these in the false intimacy of a lonely office allows writers to peek over each other’s shoulders.

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Gorgeous Borges

Borges cover

From the latest round of Penguin’s Great Ideas series, a sumptuous cover for a collection of essays by Jorge Luis Borges. It’s enough to make a writer green with envy. Design by We Made This, a graphic design studio in London (with a lovely blog, too). More about the Borges cover is here. Still, my favorite of the Great Ideas covers remains this one.

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Fitzgerald on creating characters

“Start out with an individual and you find that you have created a type — start out with a type and you find that you have created nothing.”

— F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Starting Over

Tuesday I got the very good news from my editor, Kate, that my manuscript is finally finished — “nailed,” in her word. For those of you who have been following the stuttering process of bringing this book to completion, you will recall that I have reached the finish line several times before, only to have the manuscript returned to me for more changes. For the last month or so, I have been making a last round of corrections. The ending was particularly troublesome. I completely rewrote it several times, not to change the story but to fine-tune the storytelling. This time it really is done.

There remains just one nut to crack: the book still does not have a title. In my desperation, a couple weeks ago I took a very unscientific poll of my friends and family to pick among the likeliest candidates. The winner in a landslide was “Line of Descent,” a title my editor has already judged insufficiently attention-grabbing. At this point I admit I have lost interest in the whole subject. My publishers can call the damn thing whatever they want. I’m sick of thinking about it. In my own mind I have already moved on to the next project.

So what is the next project? That is not entirely clear to me yet. Here is what I do know.

I want to write about the Combat Zone, Boston’s notorious old red-light district, in the bicentennial year of 1976, an epochal moment in Boston. I have wanted to set a story there for a long time. I have written about the Zone before. A few years ago, I even tried to sell Kate on a novel set there. She did not buy it, and I wound up scavenging the proposed novel for the bones of a story that ultimately became my just-completed novel. (Lord, it would be easier to talk about that book if it had a name.)

Why the Combat Zone? There are a few signature Boston crime stories: the Strangler, the Combat Zone, the rise and fall of Whitey Bulger, the pedophile priests scandal. To me, it always seemed like bullshit that local writers kept churning out generic hard-boiled detective stories that had nothing to do with the real Boston when these true, epic stories were hanging there, ripe for the taking. Imagine the audacity of the Combat Zone experiment: in order to contain an intractable, spreading trade in prostitution and adult entertainment, Boston created a lawless zone — a sort of mini Tombstone or Dodge City — right in the heart of downtown. What writer could resist that?

Continue reading →

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How James Bond Got His Name

Ian Fleming explains.

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Henry James, age 57

Henry James, ca 1900

Henry James, ca. 1900, age 57. From the collection of the George Eastman House on Flickr.

Not many photos of James exist, and none are as revealing as this. The most recognized image we have of “the master” is the iconic John Singer Sargent portrait of 1913, which shows James as the Great Man. And that is how I always pictured him — aloof, fusty, royal — until I stumbled across this amazing picture. Here James looks haunted and weary, as I imagine he must have been. A great man, of course, but still an artist who struggled, like the rest of us.

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Losing LeBron

Cleveland Plain-Dealer - LeBron James

There is not much left to say about the LeBron James debacle. There is enough harrumphing already about James’s narcissism. (Good examples here, here, here or, well, anywhere you look today.)

But at least one good thing came out of it: this memorable front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. What a brilliant minimalist design. Great use of white space. Smart idea to position the image at the left margin to open up even more empty space in the center. The one-word, unbolded headline with a dainty little period to emphasize its brevity and completeness, set lower than an ordinary headline, in that sea of white. This is essentially a design for a poster, not a newspaper. It throws out all the usual rules for newspaper layout: no grids, no columns, minimal text. And it works beautifully. The simplicity eloquently captures what Clevelanders must have felt this morning — speechless. Here, less truly is more.

The only nitpick I have is the little arrow pointing at James’s ringless hand. (Click image to view full size.) The caption reads, “7 years in Cleveland. No rings.” Well, yes, but not exactly the whole story. LeBron is the best player on the planet at the moment, rings or no rings. But then, given Cleveland’s misery, maybe that bitter note expresses the city’s mood, too. When you get dumped, you feel hurt but also pissed off, betrayed, and sometimes you need to say stuff like this.

So bravo, Cleveland Plain Dealer! No amount of clever graphic design will save the dead-tree newspaper business in the long run, but who knows? Maybe sophisticated work like this will win readers in the brave new digital world.

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Flaubert on Life and Work

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

— Gustave Flaubert

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Circadian Novels

Novels that take place in a single day, of which Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) are the Adam and Eve, are apparently called “circadian novels.” I have never heard the term before, but I’m happy to learn it today via novelist James Hynes’s wonderful blog. Hynes links to a very smart article about “circadian novels” by Jim Higgins. The Guardian also has a list of the ten best. Hynes’s own new novel, Next, follows the day-in-the-life formula. I can’t wait to read it — as soon as I get my own damn novel wrapped up and emailed off to my editor.

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R.I.P. Inkwell Bookstore

Another one bites the dust: the wonderful Inkwell Bookstore, an indie in Falmouth, Massachusetts, the Cape Cod town I have been visiting in summer for 35 years or so, has closed. I will miss it.

If you have a favorite independent bookstore, support it!

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