Thursday, August 2, 2018

Draft No. 4

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process
John McPhee (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2017)

John McPhee's New Yorker pieces are always interesting, even when his subjects might sound unpromising. He's far more interested in geology than I am, as well as the natural world in general. Who else could have got a whole book out of oranges? But in Draft No. 4, he comes to a topic I'm deeply interested in: how does he do it? McPhee has been teaching the writing of narrative non-fiction at Princeton for many years. In these essays, which have themselves appeared in the New Yorker, he both shares his own idiosyncratic processes and lays out some broadly applicable principles.

Some of what is peculiar to McPhee has to do with the tools he's had access to. He started with typewritten slips of paper laid out on a table and grouped by topic. When he switched to using a computer, he found a piece of data-manipulation software that he's now effectively the last user of; he has the inventor's phone number. The essay on structure presents some rather abstruse diagrams that McPhee used to wrangle various stories into shape, including a couple of tours de force where he devised the structure before he even knew what the subject was. This is not recommended for amateurs.

But there's plenty of useful advice, which acknowledges that, while we can't all be John McPhee, neither can he be us. On taking notes: "Use a voice recorder but maybe not as a first choice–more like a relief pitcher. Whatever you do, don't rely on memory." In fact, it may be to your advantage that someone you're interviewing is aware of it: "Display your notebook as if it were a fishing license." When your subject is aware of you as an audience, "You can develop a distinct advantage by waxing slow of wit....If you don't seem to get something, the subject will probably help you get it."

When you've done your research, you're going to need a starting point. It's not a time to be too cute: "A lead is good not because it dances, fires cannons, or whistles like a train but because it is absolute to what follows." A sound lead points the way through your structure. What kind of structure? "A piece of writing has to start somewhere, go somewhere, and sit down when it gets there." What to include? "It's an utterly subjective situation. I include what interests me and exclude what doesn't interest me. That may be a crude tool but it's the only one I have."

This is all a lot of work, and unquestionably daunting. "To lack confidence at the outset seems rational to me. It doesn't matter that something you've done before worked out well. Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you." The point of doing (at least) four drafts is that the first draft may be a mess, but it can only be improved if it exists. If you're lucky, you're not completely alone. "Editors are counselors and can do a good deal more for writers in the first draft stage than at the end of the publishing process. Writers come in two principal categories–those who are overtly insecure and those who are covertly insecure–and they can all use help." Lucky for us, both The New Yorker and Farrar Straus and Giroux still employ editors, and long may they reign.

And here's the peroration, with which I couldn't agree more: "When am I done? I just know. I'm lucky that way. What I know is that I can't do any better; someone else might do better, but that's all I can do; so I call it done."

Email edition, August 3, 2018

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Crash Course

Any Good Books
July 2018

Crash Course: Essays from where writing and life collide
Robin Black (2016, Engine Books)

   Robin Black got a late start as a writer. In her twenties and thirties, she was raising three children, in the complicated circumstances that are commonplace these days. The opening essays in this book talk about what else was going on psychologically, how desperately she wanted to be a writer, and how angry she was that she was standing in her own way. "I no longer want the record sanitized, this story of mine, replete as it is with good fortune, to be recast as only a happy narrative, or as one in which everything fell into place with no damage done. You can't be that frustrated for so long, nor that filled with self-loathing, then emerge without sustaining injury."

   Crash Course is a book of essays about those injuries, and what Black learned from them about writing. She has written it at just the right moment, when she's still in sympathy with the difficulties she faced, but not overwhelmingly embarrassed about them. She's clear-eyed and careful about self-pity: " 'No Whining' makes a fine motto, but there's value nonetheless to understanding why this pursuit feels so difficult at times, why the writer's existence can be so isolating, and even so frightening; and there's value to exploring whether it's possible to restructure one's perspective to make it less so." Indeed, as it turns out, uncertainty is probably the key to creativity. The writer writes to find out, which means she starts out not knowing, which is bound to be uncomfortable. "And certainty? It closes doors. Ends discussions. Shuts other people out."

   That uncertainty means that Black starts every story not knowing if it will work. She also doesn't always know when she'll know it's not working: she worked on her first novel for four years. She felt she didn't have time to fail at her first novel, since she was in her forties–but three drafts later, she had to admit defeat, and the time was 'wasted' after all. Being a writer means accepting that the one piece out of ten that gets to publication shares a process with the nine that didn't. "We are all struggling here. We are all making false starts, falling in and out of love with our own words, facing hard truths about something we have labored on for what seems like an eternity. And we are haunted by the belief that it's a whole lot easier for everyone else."

   That could be true, but it's probably not. Everyone else is also feeling competitive, envious, and discouraged, in between bouts of inspiration. Some days we can live in that enviable state where only the work itself matters; other days, the rejection letters represent the verdict of Literature. By the end of the book, Black sounds calmer and wiser than when she began, even though her narrative voice is otherwise occupied lately. I don't think it's because she's achieved Success, exactly, but because she trusts that, when she has something she needs to say, she'll be able to say it.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Living with a Wild God

Any Good Books
June, 2018

Living with a Wild God: A Non-believer's Search for the Truth about Everything
Barbara Ehrenreich (Twelve, 2014)

When Barbara Ehrenreich was a girl, she was not religious. Her bent, both personally and by family tradition, was toward radical rationalism; this book, a not-quite-memoir, could have been titled "I Was a Teen-Age Solipsist." In Living with a Wild God, Ehrenreich revisits her journals from that time, which she'd kept through four decades and a dozen or so moves, "because," she says, "if I have any core identity, any central theme that has survived all the apparent changes of subject, the secret of it lies with her."

As an adult, Ehrenreich is a writer and an activist, always on the side of the economically down-trodden, and this, she comes by honestly: her family emerged from Butte, Montana, a mining and smelting town in the middle of Big Sky country. Her father got out of the mines by pursuing the study of metallurgy, and then parleyed his good looks and ability to hold his liquor into a series of upwardly mobile management jobs. This entailed repeatedly uprooting his family, through Pittsburgh and various spots in New York and Massachusetts, before their arrival in Southern California.

The family's tradition of hard-headed atheism also sprang from Butte. "I was born to atheism and raised in it, by people who had derived their own atheism from a proud tradition of working-class rejection of authority in all its forms, whether vested in bosses or priests, gods or demons." So when the fourteen-year-olds around her were going through religious training, Barbara was on her own with the Big Questions, like 'why are we here?' and 'why do we die?' She was also wrestling with a secret. Starting about a year before the journal begins, she had begun to have moments of direct experience, unmitigated by words or thoughts. 
The nearest name for this seems to be 'dissociation'; Ehrenreich satisfied herself that it was neither a religious experience nor a sign of insanity. In what was probably a very good decision, she almost never discussed her episodes with others: the more accurate her description, the more it would have made her sound insane. The unpredictability of her episodes was worrisome, and made avoiding the psychedelic drugs of the day the obvious choice: "For some of us, at some times, participation on the dullest, lowest-common-denominator version of 'reality' is not compromise or a defeat; it is an accomplishment." 
Having devoted her college years to the study of chemistry and physics, Ehrenreich went on to graduate school in New York. It was there, in 1965, that the larger world, at last, broke in on her ruminations. The war in Southeast Asia changed everything, as reports trickled back of atrocities in the jungle. " that I had begun to love the protective armor of solipsism, there was less to shield me from accounts of bayonets cutting through the bellies of pregnant Vietnamese women or napalm-dispensing helicopters swooping down over children. Once the imagination learns how to construct an image of another person's subjectivity–however sloppy and improvised that image may be–it's hard to get it to stop." 
She never quite gets to the answers her teenage self was looking for; life got in the way. She got married and had children; she continued to find things out and write things down, producing nearly two dozen books to date. So the answer to sixteen-year-old Barbara's question to her future self, "What have you learned since you wrote this?" is missing some things that girl would have liked to know. Neuroscience would have been very interesting to her, and philosophy as well. What she did learn, though, about engagement with the world, matters a lot: we are members of a species, in a network of life. Other people are real, and their suffering matters.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Slow Medicine

Slow Medicine: The Way to Healing
Victoria Sweet (2017, Riverhead Books)

We last heard from Victoria Sweet, M.D., in her 2012 book God's Hotel, about the charity hospital in San Francisco where she had practiced Slow Medicine for some twenty years. She has continued to meditate on what makes 'the practice of medicine' distinct from 'the delivery of health care'; not surprisingly, the latter suffers in the comparison. She's doing her part to help the pendulum to swing the other way, so that sick people can be healed as well as cured.

That's not to say that she does not give due respect to the modern methods of medicine. She tells one remarkable story of saving a man's life because she had simple surgical instruments with her on a hike through Nepal. Blood tests and imaging systems will always have their place as extensions of the physician's senses. Intensive care units can keep a body ticking over, sometimes longer than makes any sense.

Parts of Slow Medicine put me in mind of Perri Klass, whose memoir of a medical education was memorably titled A Not Entirely Benign Procedure. Sweet's progress through med school, internship, and residency had what seems to me an unusual number of detours, all of them fruitful. Her original intention was to become a Jungian analyst, hoping to meet the most interesting philosophical questions. "Medicine asked the wrong questions –What is causing that ear pain?–practical questions, not deep and interesting questions. But it did have answers, and I preferred answers to questions."

But she's quite open-minded about where she gets answers. Chinese medicine's model of the body bears little relation to what she learned at medical school, but in some circumstances it seemed to work better. She also became interested enough in the teachings of Hildegard of Bingen to acquire a second doctorate, in medical history. But also, always, Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, its 2,600 pages well-thumbed.

And always, first, the physical examination, meeting the patient with sight and sound and touch. Given time to examine a patient and read carefully through his record, the doctor can build a story about what's wrong, run tests to be sure, and make a plan to treat it. Essential to the plan is a judgement about what is urgent to treat, and what can be left to watchful waiting. Sweet's study of Hildegard suggests that the patient has the same drive for life and growth that a plant in a garden has, which the doctor/gardener needs to seek out and make way for. "I found myself practicing a kind of Fast Medicine and Slow Medicine together–at many different levels. At the level of actual time, of course, but even more, at the level of style. Mechanic and gardener. Focused and diffuse. The parts and the whole."

In addition to Klass, this book resonates within the tradition of Oliver Sacks, Jerome Groopman, and Atul Gawande. On some level, Sweet loves her patients. "I liked watching them improve, reconstitute, heal. Day by day, their minds clearing, their limbs strengthening, their wounds reconstituting. Not everyone got well, but almost everyone got better, and it was the same pleasure as watching a film go backward. The pieces of the broken vase coming together, jumping back up on the table, the spilled water collecting and running back inside, the tossed flowers righting themselves and reassembling until the vase of flowers is whole again."

The tools of modern medicine are impressive, and sometimes life-saving, but that doesn't mean that our bodies are machines. It's not too much to hope that our doctors will be craftsmen, or gardeners, and not just mechanics.

May 2018

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Beginner's Grace

Beginner's Grace: Bringing Prayer into Your Life
Kate Braestrup (Free Press, 2010)

    There's something scandalous about prayer. Even for people who go to church, the thought of having a personal prayer life is challenging. We build our own stumbling blocks: imagining that our prayers have to be fresh, original and perfect; or knowing them so well we can't hear their inner life any more. Most seriously, I think, trying to pray means sitting face to face with the fact that we aren't as self-sufficient as we like to imagine. We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can take nothing from it, but in between, we are going to pretend to have this thing covered.

    In her capacity as a chaplain to the Maine Warden Service, Kate Braestrup meets people in need of prayer, even if they have gone years without thinking about it. Or, if they have thought of it, it's been with reluctance, or indeed resistance. "I'm too busy. I'm uncomfortable. All the people I know who pray are real jerks, and I don't want to be one of them. I have bad memories of abusive religious figures. I wouldn't know who I was praying to. I don't know what to say."
    So, if we imagine prayer in our own lives, we may not feel that we know when or how to pray, to whom, or to what end. Braestrup's Beginner's Grace proposes answers to these questions. She gives examples from assorted traditions, along with some simple, direct prayers of her own devising. Like Anne Lamott's Help, Thanks, Wow, which came out two years later, it also points out the places where our hearts lead the way, and we're praying without quite knowing it.

   Some of the 'whens' and 'hows' present themselves in the most ordinary ways. "Offering thanks for a meal is familiar, mannerly, and sensible, so much so that you might overlook the other helpful attribute of mealtime. It occurs with considerable regularity, once, twice, or three times a day, and because even forgetful and preoccupied people generally remember to eat, saying grace before supper doesn't require nearly as much self-discipline as carving out a distinct time for spiritual activity from days that are already overbooked."

    We part from our loved ones on a regular basis, and we could probably remember to say, or think, "God go with you till we meet again," or words to that effect. Like the physical threshold of our household, the passing into the night's sleep represents a change of state worthy to be noticed: "Because we don't know what the night will bring, because we will not necessarily remember what the night has held, bedtime is, as it has always been, a time that lends itself to prayer."

    How to pray? Braestrup has good words, but she sees beyond them. On a night when you can see a thousand stars, words may be superfluous. If the officers of the Warden Service are searching for your child in the woods, "Oh God, Oh God, Oh God" may be all you have, but you'll have it deeply. The God who 'makes me lie down in green pastures' may bring me to my knees, or, like a novice nun, to complete prostration; or he may permit me to hold the hand of a friend in a hospital bed.

    To whom? Braestrup is a Unitarian Universalist, so she is philosophically as well as temperamentally unlikely to try to persuade people of The One Right Way. But she'll take her stand here: "I believe all human souls are called to become as loving as they possibly can be, given the limitations that time and luck will inevitably impose. Love is the point, the purpose, and the ultimate value; it is consciousness and empathy, alpha and omega, beginning and end. God is love."

    And what's it all for? My favorite part of this book may be Braestrup's fitness instructor informing her cheerfully "that the logic of physical fitness is not teleological but tautological. This means that the goal of exercise is to enable you to exercise more." While we live, there is no 'last' workout, no final state of fitness. That's true of prayer, too. "There will be no moment–in this life, anyway–when I will be able to say, 'That's it! I've prayed, and the prayers have paid off: I'm a fully conscious, totally grateful, and unstintingly generous person. I can just start stuffing myself as soon as the plate hits the table.'" That's such a gloriously silly way of reminding us that life is made up of habits and practices, and we are always works in progress.

    That being the case, we always have an option for courage. Prayer feels risky, vulnerable - that's because it is. To pray is to stand, for that moment, in need: grateful for riches you didn't make, incomplete, imperfect, mortal. Like all those squats and crunches, we can expect it to feel like work, at least sometimes. "Doubt, frustration, and plain hard work are inevitable and more or less permanent features of a spiritual life. How could it be otherwise? No word, book, story, scent, or pretty statue can mask for long the essential pathos of the human being struggling to extract transcendent meaning from her merely human life."

Nonetheless, we persist. Alleluia! Amen.

Any Good Books
April 1, 2018