It’s often a shock when I search my archives for a book or a writer and read what I wrote six or eight or ten years ago, so much so that lately I’ve considered taking down most of my old posts. I’ve always edited things, particularly when, after time has passed, I’ve come across them and found them particularly flippant or harsh, or offensive to the way I read or think about or experience things now. Occasionally I’ve removed things, usually more personal posts.

For now I’ve decided to leave the bulk of the site alone, not to go through and rethink everything I did when I was younger, even though I think my younger self — also a compulsive self-second-guesser — would have understood if I did take it all down.

In leaving this stuff up, it feels important to say that I posted a lot of it a decade or more ago, and my opinions have changed, and there are things I regret writing. I wrote that I was disappointed the first (and only) time I saw Lorrie Moore read in person, for example. That was all about me, and the importance I attached to her writing, and not about Lorrie Moore at all.

Back then blogging felt more like a personal journal and reading diary made public. It’s become something different. At some point I’ll reckon with my archives

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The complexity of religious phenomena rather than the obtuseness of those who sought to describe them

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Wunderkammer: Padgett Powell’s Edisto

Megan Mayhew Bergman

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So much in writing depends on…

“I was trying to write a book that simply would not come. I did my daily five hundred words, but the characters never began to live. So much in writing depends on the superficiality of one’s days. One may be preoccupied with shopping and income tax returns and chance conversations, but the stream of the unconscious continues to flow undisturbed, solving problems, planning ahead: one sits down sterile and dispirited at the desk, and suddenly the words come as though from the air: the situations that seemed blocked in a hopeless impasse move forward: the work has been done while one slept or shopped or talked with friends.”

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Whiskey in the blood

Legend has it that Stephen Gaster donated the land with the understanding that a bottle of whiskey be kept on top of his marker. Supposedly a bottle of whiskey was encased in concrete and affixed to the top of the grave marker. The day I took these pictures, I noticed that the concrete container, shaped like a pitcher, had been knocked off, probably by vandals. I could not resist the temptation to examine it. I shook it, but I didn’t hear anything liquid.

Between years of digging Jesse Newton, my fourth great-grandfather, granted a license to
retail spirituous and vinous liquors
Whiskey in early Arkansas:

To hear him explain it, the story of bourbon is one of luck, coincidence and fortune — a series of “happy accidents,” as he calls it.

Distilling alcoholic beverages goes back to the earliest years of Arkansas history. Indeed, the iconic Arkansas Traveler painting depicts the squatter’s rude log cabin having a sign over the door advertising whiskey for sale. Like Americans in general, 19th Century Arkansans drank a great deal of liquor. Politicians were expected to provide liquor to supporters. Opposition to alcohol has a history in Arkansas, too. The Little Rock Temperance Society was established in 1835, a full year before statehood. The federal government regulated alcohol production through the sale of permits. Federal Revenue Agents (“revenoors”) kept a close eye on liquor production, and illegal distillers (“moonshiners”) were harried relentlessly, sometimes resulting in violent shootouts. Sometimes moonshiners added coloring to their whiskey in order to make it appear aged. A few drops of iodine or a little brown sugar gave a mellowed appearance. Moonshining was not glamorous. Most moonshiners were poor men hoping to eke out a living. One of the most persistent wildcatters as they were sometimes known was E. L. “Jack” Robertson, who made whiskey on just about every creek and branch in Montgomery and Yell Counties over a 59-year period before going legit around 1900. Here’s how Robertson described one of his stills: “I made a crop that year and whiskey, too. When I was not in my crop, I was poking wood under my little still, trying to make a living. I made about fifty gallons of whiskey at this place. It was corn and sorghum whiskey, and I sold it at three dollars a gallon . . . . Men from Yell County would come and buy it in hack loads.”

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elizabeth’s def of katzenjammer

I have a bit of a katzenjammer. (I like the Wikipedia definition better than the cute barista’s definition: “Katzenjammer is a German word literally meaning ‘cat’s wail’ and hence ‘discordant sound’, sometimes used to indicate a general state of depression or bewilderment or in reference to a hangover.”) General depression, bewilderment, OR a hangover!! Or some combination of those things. That discordant next-day feeling.

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Elizabeth Bishop’s little-known toilet poem

Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker, out next month, collects the poet’s correspondence with the magazine and notes that she was a compulsive rewriter, “always [making] changes to her poems after submitting them, what she called her ‘second-thought habit.'”

Ladies and gents, ladies and gents,
Flushing away your excrements,
I sit and hear behind the wall
The sad continuing waterfall
That sanitary pipes can give
To still our actions primitive.

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Kafka’s sales figures

“Kafka’s Metamorphosis, on its small-press publication in 1915, sold 11 copies — of which 10 were bought by Kafka.”

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FTW: a tutorial

I haven’t felt the pull of the Internet since my father-in-law died, and it seems important not to resume posting until the urge to wax platitudinous

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Last month Sven Birkerts and I met at The University of Pittsburgh to discuss the future of books and reading. Given how strongly we disagree on that front, I was surprised by how much I liked him and, in a separate event, the personal essays he read.

Birkerts’ concerns about the deleterious effects of the Internet on thought, discourse, and literature are passionately held. See, e.g., Reading in a Digital Age.

But haven’t writers always had to pull away from the rest of the world, to create a space for reading and reflection, and for their work? The culture is not obligated to facilitate the creation or appreciation of literature, or to slow down so that people have time to ; on the contrary, over the millennia, artists have had to resist the pull of the mass and the consolations of belonging, and to possess the discipline and conviction and self-assurance to sit alone for long hours working on something that may, in the end, not interest anyone else. If writing a novel were easy, many more of them would exist.

I was thinking about all of this in January, in connection with Saul Bellow’s observation that “art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos.” Colson Whitehead made these same points, more succinctly and less pedantically, at Twitter a month later: “Sure am glad Shakespeare found that wifi-less cafe! Or no Hamlet!” He went on: “I dig the need to kickstart things every once in a while, but don’t blame the internet for your crappy work habits.”

If the Internet generation doesn’t focus

Forgive the repetition if you saw my mention at Twitter last week, but I recently came across Douglas Adams’ 1999 Sunday Times essay, “How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet,” and particularly enjoyed this part:

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones…

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At PBS, Jessa Crispin observes that Jonathan Coe’s next novel, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, appears in the U.K. May 27 but has no announced U.S. publication date.

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Borges advised us not to read

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Oxford American’s forthcoming Best of the South issue will include my ode to Miami’s Biltmore Hotel, a “preposterous but wonderful heap of stucco and concrete” that’s just down the Coral Gables Waterway from the house where I lived as a child until my parents divorced. It’s said to be haunted

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C.E. Morgan’s All the Living, which I reviewed last year for The Second Pass, wins the W.D. Weatherford Award.

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I’ve always enjoyed the repetition of words in fiction, but reading Brad Gooch’s biography of Flannery O’Connor last year made me start to question the practice in my own work. In part due to Elizabeth Hardwick’s advice, O’Connor avoided repeating a word on the same page of a manuscript.

Spark does it not out of laziness or for want of ideas, but for brilliant, often hiliarious emphasis. Sticks in Memento Mori, X in Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

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Cormac McCarthy’s second published play, The Sunset Limited, is being staged by the St. Thomas Players in Salisbury, North Carolina. (Via.)

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Too far down the rabbit hole to find my way back?

Jesus H. Christ on a winged chariot of fire, I hate Apple. Bought an iPad, discovered the OS on my 2007 MacBook is too old. Bought and installed “Snow Leopard,” discovered my USB ports are 1.1 rather than 2.0, so the #^$*?#!?! computer still can’t detect the device. Now will attempt to sync with Max’s 2008 MacBook instead. If I can’t, the iPad gets returned, I switch back to PC (when this laptop reaches the end of its natural life), and I buy as few iPhone apps as pos

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It’s hard to know how worked up to get about the Hutaree, the Antichrist-obsessed militia group arrested by the FBI this weekend for allegedly plotting to kill a police officer, blow up members of law enforcement at the resulting funeral, and thus set in motion the annihilation of the federal government. When the Tea Party kicks you out of its massive tent, and neighboring militias dismiss you as a cult, you might just be out there on the fringiest fringe in Fringeville.

On the other hand, the Hutaree’s plots sound vagely familiar — like a garbled outtake from the popular post-apocalyptic video game, Left Behind: Eternal Forces, a hands-on companion to Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ bestselling End Times novels. The object is to “wage a violent war against United Nations-like peacekeepers who, according to LaHaye’s interpretation of Revelation, represent the armies of the Antichrist. Each time a Left Behind player kills a UN soldier, their virtual character exclaims, ‘Praise the Lord!’

Eternal Forces was shipped, with the blessing of Bush’s Defense Department, in “Freedom Packets” to soldiers serving in Iraq.

Remember the ’90s? The Okahoma City bombing seemed to come out of nowhere. Two generations after Pearl Harbor, we gaped at our televisions. It was the first time most of us watched people emerge from smoking wreckage because of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Over the months and years that followed, we and the media became conversant in militia-speak: black helicopters, Ruby Ridge, and the coming One World Government.

When my fundamentalist mother started using this language, I got nervous: exactly how far did these anti-government conspiracy theories reach in Pentecostal circles? By the end of the millennium, far enough that there was a Christian Patriot Movement, and my mother could have been a member. She was receiving faxes from militia groups, anyway. I know because, when I visited once, I slept in the room with the machine. Early every morning, the thing would start up; I’d jolt awake as it switched on and the pages tumbled to the floor. To be fair, she might not have given them the number; every right-wing group in Western North Carolina seemed to have it. Their bulletins ran the conspiracy gamut: the dangers of contrails, antiperspirant, and fluoride; the approaching New World Order and reign of the Antichrist; some sort of militia propaganda that I was too anxious to read in detail. On a different visit, my sister was subjected to a video about how the government was controlling the weather.

While I can’t remember the name of faxing militia(s), likely suspects include Citizens for the Reinstatement of Constitutional Government, whose mantra is “Bibles, bullets, beans and bandages,” and whose members seek to “make the Holy Bible and the United States Constitution the law of the land.”

Most of these groups started to peter out when Bush took office. His call, after September 11, 2001, to “rid the world of evil-doers” really seemed to resonate with the take-up-arms crowd. Suddenly, rather than planning to attack the U.S. government, they were eager to avenge it.

For some fundamentalist Christians, including the former president, the fight was a holy battle. “I am driven with a mission from God,” he reportedly said. “God would tell me, ‘George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan’. And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq’. And I did.” Late Great Planet Earth types were galvanized and exhilarated, ready to incite the Rapture.

Now Obama is deescalating in the Middle East. If the polls are to be believed, a quarter of Republicans believe he’s the Antichrist. A larger number believe he’s a Muslim. For these people, the enemy is literally in the White House, putting our paramount ally, Israel, in jeopardy, and pandering to terrorists.

Elsewhere, fundamentalists are mapping the ungodly and preparing for Spiritual Warfare. And armed “patriot” groups are growing. One, the Oath Keepers, “consists of men and women in uniform, including soldiers, police, and veterans. At regular ceremonies in every state, members reaffirm their official oaths of service, pledging to protect the Constitution—but then they go a step further, vowing to disobey ‘unconstitutional orders from what they view as an increasingly tyrannical government.” Former Alabama Militia boss Mike Vanderboegh, of break-their-windows fame, is one of the speakers at a massive Restore the Constitution gun rally set for April 19, the fifteenth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, or, as Rachel Maddow puts it, Christmas Day for the militia movement.

Let’s just hope the Hutaree, in marrying weapons with End Times zealotry, are an aberration.

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The way we mourn now

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When Sarah Palin announced her intention to host a “Planet Earth-type” reality series based on Alaska, the media responded with its usual chorus of amused bafflement and surface reporting. Now two networks, A&E and Discovery, are vying for . Has anyone ever been more able to garner media attention but those of us who were raised as Pentecostals or Charismatics knew she was

Decoding Sarah Palin: Demons, Spiritual Mapping, and the End-Times Role of Alaska

When Sarah Palin announced her intention early this month to host a “Planet Earth-type” reality series based in Alaska, the media responded with its usual amused bafflement. Now two networks, A&E and Discovery, are vying for chance to produce the former Alaska Governor turned FOX News pundit’s show

Has anyone ever been more able to garner media attention but those of us who were raised as Pentecostals or Charismatics knew she was

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When Pat Robertson blamed the Haitian earthquake on a pact the country had made with the devil, the media responded with its usual amazement and confusion.

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One of the many problems with spouting opinions on the writing of novels before you’ve completed one to your satisfaction is that your ideas change as you run up against the wall of your own abilities.

I became obsessed several years ago, for example, with the idea of writing psychologically-oriented fiction. I “enhanced” my draft by weaving in a hundred or so pages of interior monologue. What I learned from this exercise is exactly what I’d feared: my writing works best when it’s concrete, scene-driven, and economical. Psychological insights have to emerge naturally in my fiction, flowing from the action, and I have to pare them down even more ruthlessly than I cut everything else. In short, I will never be Thomas Mann. Reading Victor LaValle’s The Ecstatic and overdosing on Muriel Spark helped me understand what I needed to do.

Toward the end of “When the Flock Changed,” the novel excerpt Narrative published, my narrator, Lula, reflects on a terrible thing she’s done, and unexpectedly remembers a brutal act she’s heard her great-great grandmother committed. I wasn’t sure when I wrote the line that it made sense there, that readers would understand why Lula thought of the story just then or would see how it flowed, in a way, from everything that had come before, but several people have pointed to that moment as the one that tied the excerpt together for them.

Over the years I’ve bellyached here from time to time about the logistical (never mind the emotional) complications of writing a novel that’s drawn from my life but is, ultimately, not about me in any literal way. More recently, in the Los Angeles Times, I discussed some of my reasons for writing a novel rather than a memoir. Shalom Auslander, Stephen Elliott, and my friend Phil Campbell managed to sidestep the

I’m trying to figure something out in my fiction by taking someone who’s sort of like me — whose experiences draw on mine but are different, so that —

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On Monday, March 22, I have the great pleasure of interviewing my friend Victor LaValle, a about his

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Huh. I spent a couple days in Oxford and didn’t, to my knowledge, meet a single writer — unlike Tom Junod who was nauseated with encounters, and who met Barry Hannah looking “like a little old lady.”

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Huh. I spent a couple days in Oxford and didn’t, to my knowledge, meet a single writer — unlike Tom Junod who was nauseated with encounters, and who met Barry Hannah looking “like a little old lady.”

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More on that soon, but meanwhile, here are the first sentences of nine of her twenty-two books.

The Comforters: “On the first day of his holiday Laurence Manders woke to hear his grandmother’s voice below.”

Memento Mori: “Dame Lettie Colston refilled her fountain pen and continued her letter: ‘One of these days I hope you will write as brilliantly on a happier theme. In these days of cold war I do feel we should soar above the murk & smog & get into the clear crystal.'”

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: “The boys, as they talked to the girls from Marcia Blaine School, stood on the far side of their bicycles holding the handlebars, which established a protective fence of bicycle between the sexes, and the impression that at any moment the boys were likely to be taken away.”

The Girls of Slender Means: “Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions.”

The Driver’s Seat: “And the material doesn’t stain,” the salesgirl says.

Loitering with Intent: “One day in the middle of the twentieth century I sat in an old graveyard which had not yet been demolished, in the Kensington area of London, when a young policeman stepped off the path and came over to me.”

The Only Problem: “He was driving along the road in France from St. Dié to Nancy in the district of Meurthe; it was straight and almost white, through thick woods of fir and birch.”

A Far Cry from Kensington: “So great was the noise during the day that I used to lie awake at night listening to the silence.”

The Finishing School: “You begin,” he said, “by setting your scene. You have to see your scene, either in reality or in imagination.”

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On blogging and being known as someone who does

Jessa’s post

trying to step back from the need for constant affirmation

Taint of the blogger will always be upon me. Some believe blogger and writer are mutually exclusive categories, which is kind of ridiculous when you consider all the writers who blog, and blog well: James Hynes, Alison Bechdel, A.L. Kennedy, Alasdair Gray, Jose Saramago…. to name just a few

At the same time, I understand that I’m lucky to have the attention my site has brought me, and that the cross I have to bear isn’t so heavy in comparison to the weight of the usual taking-forever-first-time-novelist’s

still want to read, write, etc., but I started this blog back in 2002 to be an occasional distraction from my fiction and personal writing and in many ways it has superceded it

realization that many people do not view me as a writer, or as a legitimate critic

maybe that’s fair; I haven’t published much, although I think what I have published has gotten better

I’m still reviewing books, still reading them, still wanting to talk about them, still enjoying writing here and at Twitter, but I need to create the space for my writing

going to literary events, etc., does not do that

when I started blogging, the number of people writing about arts and literary fiction online was pretty small. now huge. if you’re looking for constant flow of information, you’re better off at a site designed for that. There are some great ones. Group blogs can handle that very well, and they are also turning out some great commentary. What I link to are the things that interest me.

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Attention-grabbing arguments

I’m curious. How often do you read a “provocative” article by a journalist or cultural critic, and think: this person doesn’t actually believe this? Or if he or

Katie Roiphe

Always been a temptation, Not a new thing. Internet has to some degree exacerbated it — whoever yells loudest

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On ebooks and trusting archivists

What worries me most about electronic books (which I read, often, and am in favor of) is preservation.

Its not that I don’t trust archivists to preserve ebooks, it’s that I don’t trust human nature. What Amazon has done with Stanza

Convo with Carrie about

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“The only artists I have ever known who are personally delightful are bad artists. Good artists exists simply on what they make, and consequently are perfectly uninteresting in what they are.” — Oscar Wilde, Sebastian Melmoth

“I think one of the worst parts of being a writer is trying to appear normal. Especially at grown-up gatherings such as holidays, dinner parties, gallery openings. I really like the self-check out at the supermarket; cuts down on one more human interaction.” — Betsy Lerner

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Millions of Cats (the book, and my childhood)

Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats the first book I gave my beloved stepdaughter, A. its somewhat gruesome ending, I sometimes wonder if it was as misguided a gift as Gorey’s alphabet book later turned out to be. I still give it to all of my
enowned Canadian children’s book author Robert Munsch’s latest book has fallen victim to heightened airport security. The book, about a little girl who smuggles dolls onto a plane, has been put on hold by Scholastic. via Guardian Books.

Very old man couldn’t say no to any. Brought all home to very old woman. They didn’t fit. Animal hoarding ancestry.

Then they decided (horrible) to keep the prettiest one. (in my

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David Lodge

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Publisher’s Weekly praises James Hynes’ Next: “funny, surprising, and sobering.” (Via the man himself.)

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Two and a half centuries of Candide

In honor of Voltaire’s immortal satire, the NYPL launches an online companion to its Candide at 250 exhibition.

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The NYPL celebrates Voltaire’s

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Geoff Dyer

The institutionalization of creative writing poses the danger that, “at a very early stage, the lure of writing gets entangled with the idea of writing as a career.”

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Helene cixous

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Bookmarked for later reading: Claudia Roth Pierpont

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At Words Without Borders,

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Difference between Walker Percy/Flannery O’Connor

Accused of being disingenuous. Wasn’t.

Flannery O’connor’s stringently moral stories led me to hope something different.

Walker Percy had many views that offend me, including his thoughts about homosexuality, but …

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The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, a twisted and fascinating photographic collection of dollhouse death scenes based on real-life crimes and tragedies, but also a study of the master criminal investigator and grandmother who created the dioramas to teach her detectives to be attentive to the smallest of details. The book, a gift from my HTML Giant Secret Santa, is one of my favorite Christmas presents and a reminder, going into the next decade, that it’s never too late to make creative use of the things that obsess you.

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Elissa Bassist’s

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Electric Literature

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Former President Carter

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My friend Alexi wrote earlier to tell me that my essay “Conversations You Have at Twenty” was an honorable mention A few months ago I gave away copies of the two issues of Narrative Magazine

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“One other major reason for my preferring to write at night (apart from the obvious one of increased quietude & privacy) is that when I am mildly tired the censor and the constraining factors of sharp consciousness, self doubt and criticism are not functioning well.” — Patricia Highsmith (from Joan Schenkar’s The Talented Miss Highsmith)

“In the old days I used to [get up in the middle of the night and write]… I used to write at night best when everyone was asleep.” — Muriel Spark, in a BBC3 interview

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The literary life (and avoidance thereof)

I wish I could say that I was surprised at people taking

When I sat down, she sighed. I asked her name. She sighed and rolled her eyes. I inquired about her poetry, and she sighed and rolled her eyes and opened her menu. Hiding behind it, she mouthed something to her husband, who was seated at the head of the table and was also a poet.

I opened my menu, too. The least expensive entree was $19. Most glasses of wine were $10. I had $28 in my wallet. I asked TPP what she was ordering. She muttered something inaudible and turned her back.

She did not speak to me again, but she did speak over me, to a guy two seats to my left, in Japanese, for ten minutes. Later she sang, in French, along with a “delightfully melancholy” little ditty she’d requested.

Soon it was time to leave lest I be stuck paying an equal share of a bill that included someone’s $78 bottle of wine.

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MFK Fisher

MFK Fisher published How to Cook a Wolf in 1942, when the country was in the midst of wartime shortages and rationing, and revised it in 1951.

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The story that Rick Moody is posting on Twitter, over the course of three days, at ten minute intervals, is making me want to stab my eyes out. Although Electric Literature organized the project, a number of literary magazines and booksellers are also posting it, so that, if you follow those feeds normally, you will see

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Jenny Diski The Sixties.

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