Literary quotes, quips, observations, warnings #8

Fiction and autobiography edition, featuring Somerset Maugham, Alexander Chee, Joan Didion, Jean Rhys, and Graham Greene, and (semi-estranged) half-sisters AS Byatt and Margaret Drabble


“Fact and fiction are so intermingled in my work that, looking back, I can hardly distinguish one from the other.” — Somerset Maugham (in video above)

“I sat down to write a conventionally autobiographical novel. I wrote 135 pages, sent it to my agent at the time and she said, You know, the writing is beautiful, but probably no one is going to believe this much bad stuff happens to one person… I saw how she meant it — a life is not a story — and the novel lacked story and structure. I went to Aristotle’s Poetics, for his rules for the structuring of tragedies, and proceeded to alter my book from there, erasing the way it resembled my life and making something more and more fictional as time went on. So it’s as if I erased the core of my life and left the details to help convince, inserting an impostor who resembles me into the scene.” — Alexander Chee, on writing Edinburgh

“There was a certain tendency to read Play It As It Lays as an autobiographical novel, I suppose because I lived out here and looked skinny in photographs and nobody knew anything else about me. Actually, the only thing Maria and I have in common is an occasional inflection, which I picked up from her — not vice versa — when I was writing the book. I like Maria a lot. Maria was very strong, very tough.” — Joan Didion

“When I think about it, if I had to choose, I’d rather be happy than write. You see, there’s very little invention in my books. What came first with most of them was the wish to get rid of this awful sadness that weighed me down. I found when I was a child that if I could put the hurt into words, it would go. It leaves a sort of melancholy behind and then it goes. I think it was Somerset Maugham who said that if you ‘write out’ a thing… it doesn’t trouble you so much. You may be left with a vague melancholy, but at least it’s not misery — I suppose it’s like a Catholic going to confession, or like psychoanalysis.” — Jean Rhys

“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” — Graham Greene, The End of the Affair (his most autobiographical novel)

“I know at least one suicide and one attempted suicide caused by people having been put into novels. I know writers to whom I don’t tell personal things – which is hard, as these writers are always the most interested in what one has to tell. All writing is an exercise of power and special pleading – telling something your own way, in a version that satisfies you. Others must see it differently. As I get older I increasingly understand that the liveliest characters – made up with the most freedom – are combinations of many, many people, real and fictive, alive and dead, known and unknown. I really don’t like the idea of ‘basing’ a character on someone, and these days I don’t like the idea of going into the mind of the real unknown dead. I am also afraid of the increasing appearance of ‘faction’ — mixtures of biography and fiction, journalism and invention. It feels like the appropriation of others’ lives and privacy.” — AS Byatt

“Interviewer: ‘Can you describe the process of transforming material into fiction?’ Drabble: ‘Not sticking too closely to the accidental and circumstantial elements of the original material — but being able to recognize when some things — a name, a certain kind of face or voice, a nationality — are an essential part of the subject matter and therefore cannot be omitted or transformed.’” — Margaret Drabble

See also Fears, impulses, and dangers I’ve been sensitized to; On the melding of fact and invention in fiction; On the melding of fact and invention in fiction II; On the importance of what is culled; and Welty v. Maxwell on autobiography in fiction. Prior literary quotes, quips, anecdotes, and warnings: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, and 7;

On creating the feeling you want the reader to feel

“Do you think writers have to feel what they want the reader to feel when they’re writing?” I asked my friend Alex Chee in email this weekend, after reading a new story of his that powerfully evokes the kind of moony, depressive, sickeningly self-reflective state I’ve been in. “Because the end of this novel is completely kicking my ass. I hate what I’m learning about myself as I write it, but the dissociated part of me is fascinated that I’m learning so much about myself by writing something that is not literally about me at all.”

He replied:

I think we do. In true first person, definitely. God knows it was why writing Edinburgh was hell. When someone asked me if I wanted to work on a screenplay for it I thought ‘Not for anything in the world.’ But also, for writers, there’s a book that makes you as you make it. And in the writing of it, you learn to master both yourself and the book in a way you never have to again.

What comes to mind is advice Annie Dillard gave us, to think of yourself as going down in an old-fashioned diving bell [see above], a thread of air connecting you back to yourself. And when you must, to return to the surface. To treat an engagement with that work like deep sea diving. She meant for essays, memoir, but I found it applies to first person autobiographical fiction, too.

I guess one reason Alex and I are so interested in Jean Rhys is that she struggled with the same problems. But see Toni Morrison’s stern warning about writing from anything but the cold, cold brain.

Debate and discussion — but not attacks — are welcome in the comments below.

A talk with Misha Angrist, whose genome is online


My friend Misha Angrist, a former geneticist and the author of Here is a Human Being At the Dawn of Personal Genomics, answers some of my questions about DNA research at The Awl.

Holy crap, Misha, you’re making your entire genome public! Are you nervous?

It’s already done. All of my data are here. Frankly I don’t think anything in my DNA could be as embarrassing as this kelly green shirt that continues to taunt me from the interwebs.

I spend a lot of time worrying about the long-term consequences of opening the Pandora’s box just by joining 23andMe.

Hmmm. What is it you’re worried about exactly?

Well, in addition to being an enthusiastic neurotic, I’m a hypochondriac with health problems, and I guess I’m anxious that I won’t be able to get insurance coverage in my old age, and I’ll end up being yelled at and bossed around in some grannies’ ward with rows and rows of beds, like in Memento Mori. Here Is a Human Being includes some pretty sobering stories of insurance companies — and even the military — booting people because they’re at high risk for certain genetic conditions.

True, although I suspect that those types of stories are rare. But even if they’re not, I believe that one way of combating/preempting that sort of behavior is by having a cohort of people putting it all out there and seeing what happens. I am fairly well convinced that if an insurer or employer used a Personal Genome Project participant’s data to discriminate against him/her, the personal genomics hive would raise holy hell and quickly create a PR nightmare for the perpetrator.

Ah, so participation is actually a kind of insurance of its own! Where do I sign up?

Yeah, if you fuck with me, then you fuck with all of the public genomes and arguably the entire biomedical research enterprise.

More here, and we continue the conversation at McNally Jackson tonight, at 7 p.m. Join us if you’re free.

Giving grief its own corner


Talking to Grief

Ah, grief, I should not treat you
like a homeless dog
who comes to the back door
for a crust, for a meatless bone.
I should trust you.

I should coax you
into the house and give you
your own corner,
a worn mat to lie on,
your own water dish.

You think I don’t know you’ve been living
under my porch.
You long for your real place to be readied
before winter comes. You need
your name,
your collar and tag. You need
the right to warn off intruders,
to consider my house your own
and me your person
and yourself
my own dog.

            — Denise Levertov

(Thanks, Jane and Max. Video of Levertov, also pictured above, after the jump.) Continue reading…

Writing as compensation for the things we don’t do

Geoff Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It coasts into and out of asides about the consolations and difficulties of writing, about the many books he started, or thought about starting, on his travels but didn’t finish.

“Whenever a publisher asks me what I’m going to do next,” he told John Crace a couple years ago, “I say, ‘Whatever the fuck I want.’ After all, it’s me that’s going to be stuck indoors doing the hard work, so I might as well try and enjoy it.” Part of that enjoyment — for him and for the reader — lies in pondering the relationship between writing, living, longing, and the mind.

In “Horizontal Drift,” a novel he’s writing compensates for his real-life failure to hop a freight train.

As I sat by the Mississippi one afternoon, a freight rumbled past on the railroad track behind me, moving very slowly. I’d always wanted to hop a freight, and I sprang up, trying to muster up the courage to leap aboard. The length of the train and its slow speed meant that I had a long time — too long — to contemplate hauling myself aboard, but I was frightened of getting into trouble or injuring myself, and I stood there for five minutes, watching the boxcars clank past, until finally there were no more carriages and the train had passed. Watching it curve out of sight, I was filled with magnolia-tinted regret, the kind of feeling you get when you see a woman in the street, when your eyes meet for a moment but you make no effort to speak to her and then she is gone and you spend the rest of the day thinking that, had you spoken, she would have been pleased, not offended, and you would, perhaps, have fallen in love with each other. You wonder what her name might have been. Angela perhaps. Instead of hopping the freight, I went back to my apartment on Esplanade and had the character in the novel I was working on do so.

When you are lonely, writing can keep you company. It is also a form of self-compensation, a way of making up for things — as opposed to making things up — that did not quite happen.

Later, in a different essay, he says, “For a while I contemplated writing a story about someone who absorbs other people’s memories, memories of their friends and the things that have happened to them, memories that become intermingled with his own; then I realized that the person was me and I had already written several stories like that.”

These interludes are quick but open-ended, self-mocking but also serious, raising questions to which answers emerge, if at all, only indirectly, when looking at the work as a whole. I particularly like this section, from “Miss Cambodia,” in which Dyer likens his companion’s uncertainty about when to begin calling herself “Circle” to the author’s difficulty of deciding (knowing? learning?) what to call fictional characters. Continue reading…