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Susan Ito trying to do it all: reading writing mothering spousing daughtering working living

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Slow Reading

I've been often accused of reading too fast. I can read an entire novel during a plane flight of 3-4 hours. When I was staying at a friend's house recently, I read two of her books by staying up late in the evenings. Some books just beg to be gobbled up. And I realized that I can do this by reading vertically down a page; my eyes make a straight lline down the center of a page, and somehow gather up the sentences and words and make sense of them. Even when I go back and try to read these books slowly, I find that I'm not getting anything extra that I'd missed the first time.

But some books can't be read like this, or they lose all meaning. One of my favorite books of all time, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, is one of them. I quickly found that my vertical skimming was not working with this book, and that I had to limit my reading to two or three pages at a time, and reading with absolute attention to every word. I read every word, left to right, then back again to the left. It's one of the few books that I actually read "horizontally."

A few people mentioned to me that they found Claire Messud's books "dull." I was so thrilled by hearing her read at Napa that I bought her first book, When the World Was Steady. My first night home, I settled down to read. I was tired and I tried reading with my vertical-skim method. It was awful. I thought, oh what a waste of money. But then a few nights later I gave it another try, doing a slow and deliberate read. And suddenly I fell into the pages, felt totally immersed in something deep and quiet and meaningful. It made all the difference.

Great fast books I've read recently: The Sleeping Father by Matthew Sharpe (ironic, funny and poignant)

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (a great character study of the mother of a Columbine-type teen killer)

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Rearranging The Great Gatsby

People have asked to hear more about what Sam Chang said about the Great Gatsby in her lecture on "Unfolding." It was very interesting. First she said, "In order for there to be revelation, there must be concealment." She's done a lot of research and lecturing on TGG, and in her research, discovered the original manuscript that F Scott Fitzgerald sent to his editor Maxwell Perkins. And she found that lo and behold, the original novel had reversed the positions of what (in the published novel) is Chapters two and three.

It went like this: Originally, Chapter one begins with Nick's intro, who he is, and he ends looking out at the green light at Gatsby's house. Chapter Two, he goes to a party at Gatsby's house. Chapter Three, they go to NYC on a little adventure.

Well, in the published version that we all know, the trip to NY is in Chapter TWO and the Gatsby party is in Chapter THREE.

Why did he switch the chapters like that?

Well, as Sam explained, it added more suspense to introduce the Idea of Gatsby, but not actually MEET hiim until Chapter three. It adds more suspense and anticipation, and there is more impact of his actual meeting with that trip to NYC in between. It stretches things out.

This was also kind of an example of a diversion that may not be about the Main Thing, but actually adds to the intrigue of the Main Thing because it allows some distance.

This wasn't nearly as articulate as Samantha's lecture, but... hope it helped illuminate this little point. There's your little craft lecturette for the day!

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

A Perfect Reading

I went to the reading after all last night, and am so glad that I did. It was held at the Silverado Winery, up a winding road, with absolutely heart-stopping views of the entire Napa Valley.

The first reader, a poet, was named C. Dale Young, a full-time working physician and poet. He was engaging, moving, and his work was just spectacular. I have a total weakness for medical literature, and for writings about the body. His final poem, about stitching up the face of a patient who had been slashed by a knife (referred to by his supervisor as "the faggot in bed 16") and reflecting on the fact that there will always be a knife, a bat, for "his kind," but when those people who slash gay people come into the ER with their own wounds - well, he will be there with his needle and thread, and he will stitch them up.
OK, I'm not doing it service here, but it was breathtaking. There was total silence for a nanosecond after he stopped, and then wild applause. He only has one small book out right now, but keep your eyes open for this guy. He's incredible.

Claire Messud is gorgeous, and elegant, and funny, and just an amazing writer. She gave a five minute prelude, making all kinds of comical excuses for what she was about to read, and how she would "tell myself not to read this," but how her husband convinced her to, and that well, here she was. It was from a novel just turned in to her agent, just finished, and wow it is a stunner. It's set in NYC in 2001, and, well, that was why she thought she shouldn't read it, but it was gripping, and true, and from yet another completely original perspective. And her SENTENCES! They were complex, and layered, and just went on and on in absolute perfection. I am mourning the fact that I know I will probaby have wait a year, or probably much more, to see this book in print. I think she said the working title was The Emperor's Children. Anyway, I bought one of her books - I hadn't read her before - and am eagerly waiting to immerse myself in this impossibly beautiful language.

It's been good to have this little reprieve, this reminder of why literature is important, why it IS important to try and do it all. I've had my walk in the vineyards and it's almost time to pack up and go back home. I'm refreshed, inspired and ready.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Learning to Unfold

I went to a "craft lecture" by Samantha Chang today, and she talked about the art of "unfolding" in fiction writing. She was talking about a mile a minute, and every single word was utterly fascinating, and felt very relevent, and I was frantically scribbling a bunch of incoherent notes.

"fineness and squalidness of real people"
"Plot must not cease to move forward, but must have APPARENT variations in speed."
"SLOW DOWN after action so that readers can re-absorb."
"Important to have scenes that SEEM like nothing is happening, but something is."
an artist described himself (who?) as "an exposed nerve for whom art provided the only protective covering."
"In order for there to be revelation, there must be concealment."
"Read: William Maxwell - the Folded Leaf."
"As characters unfold, our opinion of them changes via the narrative."
Read: "Sarah Cole" by Russell Banks

It all seemed very profound at the time.

Now, my dilemma is this: to drive down to yet another gorgeous winery for another reading (Claire Messud) or stay here in the air conditioned splendor of my little room and write?

Monday, July 25, 2005

Semi-Crashing a Writers' Conference

So I'm kind of participating in the Napa Valley Writers' Conference, and kind of not. I really didn't want to submit a manuscript, and be part of a workshop, and have to read a dozen manuscripts. Although I've done that before, and Napa is really one of the best. It's in a totally gorgeous setting, and there are great readings every night set in stunning wineries, and it's all just kind of idyllic.

This year I decided to take part in a more a la carte style. I came up last night for Lan Samantha Chang's reading at the Robert Mondavi winery. (wonderful reading, gorgeous setting with really nice art, and okay wine) Today I'm hanging out at Scarlett's Country Inn, writing and lounging by their sweet little pool. It's about a hundred degrees outside. I thought about going to a lecture about "Time and Fiction" this afternoon but decided it's better to work on my own stuff. Tonight I'll go to the reading by Christopher Tilghman and poet Jane Hirschfield at the Niebaum-Coppola winery.

I really like doing it like this. Normally writers' conferences are so frenetic, there isn't a hope of writing at all, and that's really what I'm craving these days more than anything: time and focus for my own writing.