“We are, in the end, a sum of our parts, and when the body fails, all the virtues we hold dear go with it.” -Susannah Cahalan, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, written by New York Post journalist Susannah Cahalan, is a page-turning account about Cahalan’s experience … Continue reading The Sum of Our Parts: Brain on Fire Book Review
One of my writing professors once said that every story was a coming of age story– that there was really no other story that could be told. I think she was right. Even if a story isn’t about coming of age in the traditional sense, it is about learning, developing, and adapting. A coming of … Continue reading 4 Books for 20-Somethings Who Are Trying to Figure Things Out
Dave Egger’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a frenetic, darkly humorous, and tragic memoir, is a story about rebuilding. After both of his parents die when he is twenty-one, Dave is charged with caring for Toph, his precocious 7-year-old brother. He and Toph move to Berkeley where Dave starts a magazine and auditions for … Continue reading Secrets as Tools of Connection: Thoughts on Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
When it comes to stories, everybody knows that when you say, “That character’s not believable,” it’s a bad thing. You hear it in school. You hear it in workshop groups. You hear it when people talk about what they’re reading. This intense preoccupation with everything–even fiction– being extremely believable is human nature. In Aristotle’s Poetics, the earliest surviving work of dramatic theory, Aristotle talks about how mimesis in narratives creates an emotional connections between the writer and the audience:
The instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated.
In other words, people connect to what they know. Fiction, then, becomes a balancing act: get as close to the truth as possible without telling the truth.
I thought about this paradox when I read Isabel Allende’s latest novel, Maya’s Notebook, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I was fascinated by the story of Maya Vidal, a teenager who gets involved with drugs, runs away, gets caught up with a group of criminals and addicts, then is saved by her adoring, spunky grandmother and whisked off to Chiloé, a rural island in Chilé. It’s a fantastically entertaining book, but the eerie thing about it is that for all the darkness it takes on (counterfeit money rings, drugs, racism, rape, police corruption, alcoholism, death), it’s filled with an overarching sense of serenity and joy. Maya overcomes her addictions more easily than a person might in real life; her grandmother is a little too adept at out-smarting the police, considering she doesn’t have any practice as a criminal and all her knowledge is theoretical; the romance between Maya and the dreamy American guy visiting Chiloé, Daniel, is a little too perfect.
I loved all these unbelievable things, even though they were unbelievable. Because they were unbelievable. Mary Pols says on her review of Maya’s Notebook on NPR:
I myself was not scared by Maya’s story, mostly because I didn’t believe a word of it… Maya may be a lively character, but she never feels remotely real.
I didn’t believe Maya’s character, either. Her voice didn’t sound like a teenager’s voice to me and she seemed to get through her struggles a little too calmly. But unlike Pols, I didn’t feel like that was a bad thing. It was what made Maya’s Notebook what it was– a magical kind of story where all the characters pass through troubles with grace and skill.
“She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying.” -Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, “Why Don’t You Dance?” Raymond Carver’s collection of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, is full … Continue reading What We Talk About When We Talk About Editing
“It’s a great lesson about not being too precious about your writing. You have to try your hardest to be at the top of your game and improve every joke you can until the last possible second, and then you have to let it go. You can’t be that kid standing at the top of … Continue reading Let People See What You Wrote
Then one hot Sunday afternoon, when we were at the pool with Jamie’s parents, Eliza said to me, “You know what I was just thinking? ‘I’m in the pool, it’s summer, I’m seven years old, I’m wearing a very cute bathing suit, and my grandmother is asking me if I want anything to eat or … Continue reading What I Learned from Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project
“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.” ― J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye As soon … Continue reading Salinger: Thoughts on the Documentary and Further Publications
“I felt like the gloomy hero in a Russian novel, brooding in my bolt hole above the dramshop in the village of Dash, in the year Dot, with my story all before me waiting to be told.” – The Book of Evidence, John Banville John Banville’s 1989 novel, The Book of Evidence, is a Dostoyevsky-esque story about a … Continue reading What I Learned from John Banville’s The Book of Evidence
Elmore Leonard, author of over 40 novels, many screenplays, and several short stories, died at the age of 87 today. He was known as the “Dickens of Detroit” because of his sharp dialogue and striking portraits he created of people who lived in the city where he spent most of his life. Many of his … Continue reading Elmore Leonard’s 10 Tips for Writing