"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: Creative Process

The Art of Storytelling

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The GZA drops science:

I’m sure there are great lyricists out there today, but when you look at mainstream hip-hop, lyricism is gone. There are some artists out there that think they’re great storytellers, but they’re not. Nowadays there are certain things I don’t hear anymore from rappers: I haven’t heard the word “MC” in so long; I haven’t heard the word “lyrical.” A lot of rappers think they’re hardcore or say they’re from the streets and there’s that thing where they always say, “I live what I rhyme about, I rhyme about what I live.” But you don’t always have to do that. Because for me it’s not about telling the story — it’s about weaving the tale.

[Photo Credit: Frank Hoensch/Getty Images

Blume in Love

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I didn’t read Judy Blume when I was growing up but my twin sister sure did. I have a clear memory of her worn paperback covers for Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, and Blubber.

Susan Dominus recently profiled Blume for The New York Times Magazine.

I like this passage:

“I’m a storyteller — you know what I mean — an inventor of people,” Blume said. “And their relationships. It’s not that I love the words — that’s not the kind of writer I am. So I’m not” — she made a furious scribbling motion with her right hand — “I’m not a great writer. But maybe I’m a really good storyteller.”

All writers are not created equal.

BGS: The Writer as Detective Hero

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Last weekend at the Beast, I had the pleasure to reprint Ross MacDonald’s 1965 essay for Show magazine, “The Writer As Detective Hero”.

Dig in:

A producer who last year was toying with the idea of making a television series featuring my private detective Lew Archer asked me over lunch at Perino’s if Archer was based on any actual person. “Yes,” I said. “Myself.” He gave me a semi-pitying Hollywood look. I tried to explain that while I had known some excellent detectives and watched them work, Archer was created from the inside out. I wasn’t Archer, exactly, but Archer was me.

The conversation went downhill from there, as if I had made a damaging admission. But I believe most detective-story writers would give the same answer. A close paternal or fraternal relationship between writer and detective is a marked peculiarity of the form. Throughout its history, from Poe to Chandler and beyond, the detective hero has represented his creator and carried his values into action in society.

The Great Outdoors

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Dig this piece my friend Ben wrote for the Daily Beast:

Many of Orwell’s books and his uniformly excellent essays feature, to one degree or another, passages extolling the quiet glories of nature: conscious respites from the grimmer landscapes of the author’s political explorations. For every bleak London slum or vile kitchen of a French restaurant, a prim, beloved garden. For every deadening trip into the suffocating dark of a coal mine, a journal entry hailing the beauty and the bounty of fruit trees Orwell planted with his own hands.

But his loveliest, longest, and, for those unfamiliar with this side of Orwell, his most unexpected hymn to nature’s wonders is a 1946 essay published under the misleadingly humdrum title “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad.” Here, in 1,600 words, all of the very best characteristics of Orwell’s essays are in evidence: his talent for launching, deftly and without preamble, into his theme; his matter-of-fact eloquence; his avoidance of cant; his empathy for the underdog; his wry humor; his reporter’s eye for the telling detail; his delight in elementary beauty.

Above all, however, the essay’s great strength and abiding charm reside in the evident pleasure Orwell takes not only in nature, but in sharing that appreciation with the reader. More so than in most of the man’s writings, one senses Orwell genuinely enjoying himself while crafting this particular piece.

[Photo Credit: Derek Hudson via MPD]

On Writing Well

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Farewell, Mr. Zinsser. 

Slow Down

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Head on over to The Paris Review and dig their Interview with the novelist T.C. Boyle:

“We live in a cluttered culture, a culture of information in which even our computers can’t tell us what’s worth knowing and what is merely cultural scrap. In such a society, we don’t have the experience of contemplative space, of the time or mood to engage a book of poetry or even read a novel. Who can achieve the unconscious-conscious state of the reader when everything is stimulation, everything is movement and information?”

[Photo Credit: Jakub Karwoski via Untrustyou]

New York Minute

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Set it off. The Golden Age of Hip Hop on the Radio. 

[Photo Credit: Eve Arnold via Snowce]

Video Killed The Radio Star

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This is cool: “Rockit” Revisited. 

[Photo Credit: Sophie Bramly]

BGS: Darkness Visible

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Over at the Daily Beast, check out Philip Caputo’s excellent Esquire profile of William Styron:

A private man when compared to professional celebrities, say, Mailer, he did not wish to pursue the subject any further. Prying into a living writer’s personal life, he said, was “trivial, a degrading pastime that is best left to gossip columnists. What’s important is a writer’s work.”

And how, at sixty, did he assess his work, I asked, mentioning that writer Richard Yates had described him as “probably the finest living novelist we have.”

Styron’s self-appraisal was more modest. “I have created and, I hope, will continue to create a few people whom readers will want to read about after I’m gone,” he said. “I still feel that I have years ahead of me to be able to say more with the same talent that I have been endowed with.”

A few months after he said that, Styron very nearly lost those years, and the talent that had produced Lie Down in Darkness and Sophie’s Choice collapsed to the point that he could not read and comprehend a simple newspaper article, let alone write anything. The disease that struck him used to be called melancholia. Its current name is clinical depression—a cloak of despair that falls over a man or woman and makes every waking moment so painful that the victim loses all desire to live.

I was made aware of his breakdown last fall, when Styron called me at my home in Key West and told me he was suffering from a profound depression, which, he then thought, had been caused by tranquilizers prescribed to ease his withdrawal from alcohol. He was, he’d said, considering committing himself to a psychiatric hospital.

The news shocked me because I had formed an image of him as a contented man—contented, that is, compared to other novelists I knew, including myself. Naively, I had persuaded myself that his stable marriage, affluence, and “literary gentleman” style of life had insulated him from the grave misfortunes that seem to befall most American writers.

l heard nothing from or about him for weeks; then, in the winter, I learned from a New York magazine editor that Styron had been committed to the psychiatric ward of Yale-New Haven hospital.

There was no other word until this spring, when the same editor telephoned with what might be called the good news and the bad news. Good news first: Styron had been released. The bad news was, he’d been so ravaged by his bout with depression that he had abandoned The Way of the Warrior. Worse, the editor implied, Styron’s career might be at an end. This information was more than distressing; I refused to accept the idea that Styron’s voice could be silenced by anything short of death. I wrote him a letter, a somewhat embarrassing letter, for it was full of tough-guy, gung-ho attempts at reinspiring him, the sort of thing a corner-man might say to an exhausted fighter, but inappropriate when addressed to a sixty-year-old author recovering from a nervous breakdown. The gist of it was that writers sometimes need as much courage as warriors, courage of a different kind. If he was abandoning his book for artistic reasons; that was one thing, I said; but if he was doing so because he no longer felt up to it, he had to force himself to keep going. I then invoked the “never retreat, never surrender” spirit of the Marine Corps. It would not have surprised me if Styron had not bothered to reply to such rah-rah, but I received an encouraging answer in early April.

“Let me say again how grateful I am to you for your letter,” he wrote. “Corny as it may appear, it seems that only a Marine can be truly aware of another Marine’s suffering; you gave me a nice jolt of good cheer. Thanks from the depths. I’m pleased and proud of your friendship.”

And I was pleased that I had done some good after all. Still more pleasing was the news that he had not given up on The Way of the Warrior.

“It’s not so much abandonment,” he’d said in his letter, “as extreme alteration….I’ve completely restructured the novel.”

Over the phone, we agreed to discuss the book’s radical transformation when I visited New York later in the month.

[Photo Credit: Brigitte Lacombe]

The Art of Fiction

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Over at Fairfeld Writer’s Blog, Alex McNab does a nice job of curating some cherce quotes from Richard Price:

“Part of the jam that I was in as a novelist [after his fourth novel, The Breaks], was that I kept going back to my autobiography for material. . . .Life is hard enough without it having to be perpetual material, too. I felt like a cannibal eating his own foot. Once I became a hired pen out there [in Hollywood], for the first time in my life I was forced to leave my own autobiography to research my characters’ lives, and I learned, with great gratification, that talent travels. If you have enough imagination and empathy, you can write about anybody. That was probably the only good thing, tangible good thing, that came to my writing through screenwriting; knowing that I could go anywhere and learn and bring it back home and turn it into art.”

 

Fail Better

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Langdon Hammer, the chairman of the English Department at Yale, is the author of a new biography on the poet James Merrill. It looks like a formidable book and in the Times, Dwight Garner calls it “nearly flawless.”

I’m sure the book is an achievement and I’m not interested in minimizing that but I really like what Garner says here:

Mr. Hammer’s book is something close to brilliant, but it would have benefitted from committed liposuction. Its “Shoah”-like length will repel many casual readers, and likely even noncasual ones. While this book is not stuffed with sawdust, 800 pages is a lot of James Merrill, and its girth is admission of a certain kind of failure. Knowing what to omit is as important as knowing what to add.

Picture by Giorgio Morandi.

Keeping Out of Mischief Now

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From Whitney Balliett’s book American Musicians: Fifty-Six Portraits in Jazz:

The Cape Cod pianist Marie Marcus came to New York from Boston to do a radio show in 1932, when she was eighteen. Her experience had been limited to Boston radio shows and to playing for a week at a Chinese restaurant called the Mahjong. “Tillie’s Kitchen, in Harlem, was a fried-chicken place,” she has said, “and Bob Howard, who sounded just like Fats Waller, was on piano. We went up there quite often, and one night Fats himself came in. I remember the whole room lighted up. He played, and then listened, and when I’d finished, he pointed to his heart, and said, ‘For a white gal, you sure got it there.’ We got to talking, and I told him that I would like to further my education in jazz, and did he know a good teacher? He looked at me and said, ‘How about me?’ I thought he was putting me on, but he wasn’t. He had a small office, with two pianos, in the Brill Building, at 1619 Broadway, and during the next year or so, when he wasn’t on the road or making records, he’d call me up and say, ‘Come on down and let’s play some paino.’ You couldn’t exactly call them lessons. We’d play duets, and then he’d play, and have me listen carefully to the things he did. He was very serious when we were working together, and I was grateful for every minute. He’d tell me, ‘When you’re playing jazz, remember the rhythm, remember the rhythm. Make the number of notes count. Tell a story, and get that feeling across to the people. Please the people by making it come from here.”

[Photo Credit: Time Life Pictures/Getty]

New York Minute

Joseph Mitchell in Lower Manhattan, near the old Fulton Fish Market; photograph by his wife, Therese Mitchell

Head on over to The New York Review of Books and dig Janet Malcolm on the new Joseph Mitchell biography by Thomas Kunkel:

Mitchell studied at the University of North Carolina without graduating and came to New York in 1929, at the age of twenty-one. Kunkel traces the young exile’s rapid rise from copy boy on the New York World to reporter on the Herald Tribune and feature writer on The World Telegram. In 1933 St. Clair McKelway, the managing editor of the eight-year-old New Yorker, noticed Mitchell’s newspaper work and invited him to write for the magazine; in 1938 the editor, Harold Ross, hired him. In 1931 Mitchell married a lovely woman of Scandinavian background named Therese Jacobson, a fellow reporter, who left journalism to become a fine though largely unknown portrait and street photographer. She and Mitchell lived in a small apartment in Greenwich Village and raised two daughters, Nora and Elizabeth. Kunkel’s biography is sympathetic and admiring and discreet. If any of the erotic secrets that frequently turn up in the nets of biographers turned up in Kunkel’s, he does not reveal them. He has other fish to gut.

From reporting notes, journals, and correspondence, and from three interviews Mitchell gave late in life to a professor of journalism named Norman Sims, Kunkel extracts a picture of Mitchell’s journalistic practice that he doesn’t know quite what to do with. On the one hand, he doesn’t regard it as a pretty picture; he uses terms like “license,” “latitude,” “dubious technique,” “tactics,” and “bent journalistic rules” to describe it. On the other, he reveres Mitchell’s writing, and doesn’t want to say anything critical of it even while he is saying it. So a kind of weird embarrassed atmosphere hangs over the passages in which Kunkel reveals Mitchell’s radical departures from factuality.

It is already known that the central character of the book Old Mr. Flood, a ninety-three-year-old man named Hugh G. Flood, who intended to live to the age of 115 by eating only fish and shellfish, did not exist, but was a “composite,” i.e., an invention. Mitchell was forced to characterize him as such after readers of the New Yorker pieces from which the book was derived tried to find the man. “Mr. Flood is not one man,” Mitchell wrote in an author’s note to the book, and went on, “Combined in him are aspects of several old men who work or hang out in Fulton Fish Market, or who did in the past.” In the Up in the Old Hotel collection he simply reclassified the work as fiction.

[Photo Credit: Therese Mitchell/Estate of Joseph Mitchell]

Night in the City

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Richard Price and David Simon schmooze:

David Simon: I’ve seen you answer this question before, but I’ve decided to ask it using my wife, who is a genre writer of some repute. So, Laura Lippman’s take on this was, “Let me understand this: when he was going to write genre, he had to change his name? Is it that bad to write genre? I’ve been doing it for years and I felt no shame until this moment.”

Richard Price: Well, I knew Laura was pissed at me. When I started this book, The Whites, what I intended to do was write a strictly genre book that was going to be an urban thriller—although the problem with thrillers is they are thrilling. It’s like the problem with horror stories is that they are really horrifying. I just thought it was going to be such a departure for me that I wanted to create a persona for this separate type of writing I was allegedly going to do, so I came up with this Harry Brandt.

I use this line all the time, so why not use it again: I know how to dress down, but I don’t know how to write down. And the book kept expanding on me, and the characters kept becoming more, and all of a sudden I was writing about family dynamics in a way that I’ve never done before.

It turned out to be a Richard Price novel after all, and it took four years, just like any one of my cinder-block books, and at this point, I regret using the pen name, because I was foolish to think I could become another person. Laura is still going be pissed at me.

David Simon: To give you some small history in this preamble here: Richard and I have the same editor, John Sterling. He’s here tonight. When I was working on Homicide, he was working on Clockers, and to me at that time Richard Price was The Wanderers; I was like, holy shit, this is otherworldly. Then I was a police reporter in Baltimore, and John laid the manuscript of Clockers on me. Not even the reader’s copy, but the manuscript. I remember reading through it and thinking, “My God, he got to everything.” He got to everything the way it actually is in the project stairwells, on the corners. The Wanderers, I never imagined that it was researched. I imagined it was conjured the way I imagine literature to be conjured. I knew he knew the people of Clockers. They had been transformed to literature, but I knew you knew it, and I don’t think until that moment I had really seriously given thought to the notion that novelists love research.

[Photo Credit: Bruce Davidson]

42 Boxes

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“There is a certain embarrassment about being a storyteller in these times when stories are considered not quite as satisfying as statements, and statements not quite as satisfying as statistics, but in the long run, a people is known, not by its statements or its statistics, but by the stories it tells.”–Flannery O’Connor

Our man Ken Arneson has a thoughtful and intriguing post over at his site. It’s involved and absolutely rewarding.

[Image Via: Toile in the Family]

Bring That Beat Back

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This is goodness. 

New York Minute

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This is a few weeks old but check out Nick Paumgarten’s long New Yorker profile of the piano man:

Billy Joel sat smoking a cigarillo on a patio overlooking Oyster Bay. He had chosen the seating area under a trellis in front of the house, his house, a brick Tudor colossus set on a rise on the southeastern tip of a peninsula called Centre Island, on Long Island’s North Shore. It was a brilliant cloudless September afternoon. Beethoven on Sonos, cicadas in the trees, pugs at his feet. Out on the water, an oyster dredge circled the seeding beds while baymen raked clams in the flats. Joel surveyed the rising tide. Sixty-five. Semi-retirement. Weeks of idleness, of puttering around his motorcycle shop and futzing with lobster boats, of books and dogs and meals, were about to give way to a microburst of work. His next concert, his first in more than a month, was scheduled to begin in five hours, at Madison Square Garden, and he appeared to be composing himself.

“Actually, I composed myself a long time ago,” he said. He told a joke that involved Mozart erasing something in a mausoleum; the punch line was “I’m decomposing.” He knocked off an ash. Whenever anyone asks him about his pre-show routine, he says, “I walk from the dressing room to the stage. That’s my routine.” Joel has a knack for delivering his own recycled quips and explanations as though they were fresh, a talent related, one would think, to that of singing well-worn hits with sincere-seeming gusto. He often says that the hardest part isn’t turning it on but turning it off: “One minute, I’m Mussolini, up onstage in front of twenty thousand screaming people. And then, a few minutes later, I’m just another schmuck stuck in traffic on the highway.” It’s true: the transition is abrupt, and it has bedevilled rock stars since the advent of the backbeat. But this schmuck is usually looking down on the highway from an altitude of a thousand feet. He commutes to and from his shows by helicopter.

Joel was wearing a black T-shirt tucked into black jeans, black Vans, and an Indian Motorcycle ball cap. The back of his head, where hair might be, was freshly shorn, and his features, which in dark or obscure moods can appear mottled and knotted, were at rest, projecting benevolent bemusement. To prepare for the flight, he’d put on a necklace of good-luck medallions—pendants of various saints. The atavism of Long Island is peculiar. Though Jewish, and an atheist, he had, as a boy in a predominantly Catholic part of Hicksville, attended Mass, and even tried confession. His mother took him and his sister to Protestant services at a local church; he was baptized there. Still, a girl across the street said he’d grow horns, and a neighborhood kid named Vinny told him, “Yo, Joel, you killed Jesus. I’m gonna beat your ass.” Vinny did, repeatedly. Joel took up boxing to defend himself. The nose still shows it.

There was a rumble in the distance. “That’s my guy,” Joel said. “He’s early.” A helicopter zipped in over the oystermen and landed down by the water, at the hem of a great sloping lawn, where Joel had converted the property’s tennis court to a helipad. He’d recently had to resurface it, after Hurricane Sandy. Joel often attempts to inoculate himself with self-mockery. “Oh, my helipad got flooded,” he says, with the lockjaw of Thurston Howell III.

 

Fail Better

Robert Capa 937; 923.PST.PER.032; 50-7-5 1949

Wonderful piece by the Times on Old Masters.

I dig this from Lewis Lapham:

Now I am 79. I’ve written many hundreds of essays, 10 times that number of misbegotten drafts both early and late, and I begin to understand that failure is its own reward. It is in the effort to close the distance between the work imagined and the work achieved wherein it is to be found that the ceaseless labor is the freedom of play, that what’s at stake isn’t a reflection in the mirror of fame but the escape from the prison of the self.

[Photo Credit: Robert Capa]

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver