Public Writer, Private Writer

Preparations continue for this winter’s publication of Defending Jacob. The cover art is locked in (sneak preview soon). Yesterday I spent six hours being photographed on Boston street corners in various brooding writerly poses. This morning comes news that the book has sold in China, making it the rare product that we export to them. (Hang on, America, just a few more books and I’ll get this darn trade deficit turned around.)

But the strangest bit, to me, is that I will soon go off on a “pre-publication tour.” In September and October, I will visit regional trade shows for independent booksellers in New England, Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, southern California (Long Beach) and northern California (San Francisco). I am delighted to do this, of course. Author tours, pre- or post-publication, are rare today. Not penny-on-the-sidewalk rare — unicorn rare. So I’m very grateful to my publisher for putting increasingly scarce resources behind my book.

At the same time, I can’t help thinking that I am a hell of a lot less interesting in person than I am in my books. In person, I am a perfectly pleasant guy, I suppose, but no author can replicate the intensity and intimacy of a good reading experience. Most authors I’ve met? Meh, the book was better. That’s the nature of reading, which requires the reader to conjure the author’s voice out of squiggles on the page. Inevitably the voice you, the reader, create in your head has a special quality. It seems to come from inside you, it seems to originate in your own thoughts. A good book hijacks the inner voice that burbles constantly in every reader’s head. That’s what makes the medium so powerful: the story takes place inside the reader’s consciousness. No wonder the author’s voice seems so familiar and authoritative.

The author’s voice is not my real, conversational voice, of course. When you read my books, you hear only my most articulate, well-crafted sentences. My best and most refined self. That’s what good writing is. The rest — the clumsy phrases, the not-quite-right words or metaphors, all the inarticulate flubs that characterize ordinary speech — is edited out. Even my realistic dialogue is not quite real, the quotation marks notwithstanding. It is shaped, polished, crafted, improved. Every stammer and stumble is calculated for its precise effect. It is the way you would talk if you had a writer scripting your life. (How great would that be?)

Surely readers know all this, but they crave the writer’s personal presence anyway. They want to meet the awkward, bashful, inarticulate writer behind the exalted, hyper-articulate authorial voice they’ve heard in their heads. That’s why there are bookstore readings and author tours and Oprah (well, there used to be Oprah). Continue reading →

Hemingway, 1916

Hemingway fishing, 1916

Ernest Hemingway, age 17, fishing at Walloon Lake, Michigan (1916). Below, another photo of Hemingway apparently from the same trip. Today is Hemingway’s 112th birthday. (Sources: Wikimedia Commons, JFK Library.)

Hemingway 1916

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Hemingway, 1923

Hemingway passport detail, 1923

Ernest Hemingway’s 1923 passport (detail). Hemingway is 24 years old. (Source: JFK Library, via.)

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Orwell on Dickens

Two quotes pulled from Orwell’s classic 1940 essay on Charles Dickens.

Why is it that Tolstoy’s grasp seems to be so much larger than Dickens’s — why is it that he seems able to tell you so much more about yourself? It is not that he is more gifted, or even, in the last analysis, more intelligent. It is because he is writing about people who are growing. His characters are struggling to make their souls, whereas Dickens’s are already finished and perfect. In my own mind Dickens’s people are present far more often and far more vividly than Tolstoy’s, but always in a single unchangeable attitude, like pictures or pieces of furniture. You cannot hold an imaginary conversation with a Dickens character … because Dickens’s characters have no mental life. They say perfectly the thing that they have to say, but they cannot be conceived as talking about anything else.

And a little further on:

What people always demand of a popular novelist is that he shall write the same book over and over again, forgetting that a man who would write the same book twice could not even write it once.

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Harlan Ellison: Pay the Writer!

Wonder what Harlan Ellison thinks of writers’ blogs. If only there were someone willing to pay me for every word I write. (And yes, I get the irony: I didn’t pay Harlan Ellison for reposting this clip. But then, you didn’t pay to watch it, either.)

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Mark Twain on film

Mark Twain at his Connecticut home in 1909.

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Miller & Monroe, 1957

Monroe and Miller by Avedon (1957)

Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, 1957, by Richard Avedon.

Note to my sons: once upon a time it was very, very cool to be a writer.



John Steinbeck

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Fitzgerald’s briefcase

Fitzgerald's briefcase

“F. Scott Fitzgerald’s briefcase. The monogram reads:

Scott Fitzgerald
597 – 5th Ave.
New York

The address is not Fitzgerald’s but that of his publisher, Charles Scribner’s Sons.” (Source)

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Quote of the Day

I can quite understand people wanting to know my writings, but I cannot sympathise with anybody wanting to know me.

Vladimir Nabokov, who “despised the idea of the author as celebrity” (via)

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Hemingway in Paris, 1923

Hemingway by Man Ray 1923

Photo by Man Ray. (Centre Pompidou.)

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Salinger, 1952

J.D. Salinger 1952

J.D. Salinger, 1952. (via WSJ)

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Flaubert at Work

From Frederick Brown’s definitive biography of Flaubert, a typical day during the writing of Madame Bovary in 1851-56. Flaubert was 30-35 at the time.

Flaubert, a man of nocturnal habits, usually awoke at 10 a.m. and announced the event with his bell cord. Only then did people dare speak above a whisper. His valet, Narcisse, straightaway brought him water, filled his pipe, drew the curtains, and delivered the morning mail. Conversation with Mother, which took place in clouds of tobacco smoke particularly noxious to the migraine sufferer, preceded a very hot bath and a long, careful toilette involving the regular application of a tonic reputed to arrest hair loss. At 11 a.m. he entered the dining room, where Mme. Flaubert; Liline [Flaubert’s niece]; her English governess Isabel Hutton; and very often Uncle Parain would have gathered. Unable to work well on a full stomach, he ate lightly, or what passed for such in the Flaubert household, meaning that his first meal consisted of eggs, vegetables, cheese or fruit, and a cup of cold chocolate.… In June 1852, Flaubert [wrote in a letter] that he worked from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m. A year later, when he assumed partial responsibility for Liline’s education and gave her an hour or more of his time each day, he may not have put pen to paper at his large round writing table until two o’clock or later.

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Nabokov’s cards

Lolita index cards

Life magazine has posted a trove of photographs of Vladimir Nabokov in 1959, a year after the first U.S. publication of Lolita. From the photo captions:

Nabokov wrote most of his novels on 3″ x 5″ notecards, keeping blank cards under his pillow for whenever inspiration struck. Seen here: a draft of Lolita.… Near the end of writing Lolita, Nabokov became dissatisfied with the work and tried to burn his notecards. Vera [his wife] stopped him.

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Orwell of the Tribune

Orwell journalists union card


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Katherine Anne Porter: This thing between me and my writing

This thing between me and my writing is the strongest bond I have ever had — stronger than any bond or any engagement with any human being or with any other work I’ve ever done.

Katherine Anne Porter

Experimental Writers vs. Conceptual Writers

Economist David Galenson posits that there are two types of writers: experimenters, a group that includes Dickens, Twain, and Virginia Woolf; and visionaries, such as Melville, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway.

Experimental innovators are seekers. Their most basic characteristic is persistent uncertainty about their methods and goals: they are typically dissatisfied with their current work, but have only vague ideas about how to improve it. Their dissatisfaction impels them to experiment, and their uncertainty means that they change their work by trial and error, moving tentatively toward their imperfectly perceived objectives. No matter how great their progress, their uncertainty rarely allows them to consider any of their works a complete success.

In contrast, conceptual innovators are finders. Their basic characteristic is certainty about some aspect of their work — their method, their goals, or both. Their certainty often allows them to work methodically, according to some system, toward their goals. Their clarity of intent and confidence in their ability often allow them to feel that they have fully realized their objectives in a particular work.

The life cycles of experimental and conceptual writers tend to differ sharply. Experimental writers’ achievements usually depend on gradual improvements in their understanding of their subjects and in their mastery of their craft. Their major contributions consequently emerge only after many years of writing, often late in their careers. Conceptual innovations, which depend on the formulation of new ideas, are made more quickly, and … typically occur early in a writer’s career.

— David W. Galenson, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young or Old Innovator: Measuring the Carers of Modern Novelists” (2004) (link, fee required).

Galenson’s research is fascinating and feels dead-on to me. I am very much an “experimental” writer. No lightning bolts, no visionary insights, no “Eureka!” Only gradual, uncertain, incremental iterations of idea after idea, draft after draft. I plane my sentences over and over, like a carpenter, yet they never feel finished. No book ever feels completed, only abandoned. And always flawed.

The good news? Experimental writers tend to reach their peak later and hold it longer. That feels right to me, also. I am convinced my peak is still ahead of me and that ten years hence I will be writing much better books than I am now. But then, that attitude is probably the mark of an “experimentalist” personality too — the actual, completed books feel hopelessly botched, but the faith always remains that someday, by rigorous trial and error, I will chisel out a “perfect” book. So it goes.

(For a fuller explanation of Galenson’s theory, Malcolm Gladwell repackaged Galenson’s research for an interesting New Yorker article a couple of years ago.)

Hemingway’s standing desk


“Ernest Hemingway at his standing writing desk on the balcony of Bill Davis’s home near Malaga where he wrote The Dangerous Summer.” — Life Magazine, Jan. 1, 1960

I’ve wanted a standing desk like this for a long time. (Philip Roth uses one, too.)

Hemingway, 1918

Hemingway in Milan 1918

Ernest Hemingway, American Red Cross volunteer, 18 or 19 years old, in Milan, 1918.

Photo credit: Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. Portrait by Ermeni Studios, Milan, Italy. (Via.)

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