Monthly Archives: July 2016

Ann Patchett: Write What You Want To Learn

Ann Patchett, 2016 Photo by M. Snider

Ann Patchett, 2016
Photo by M. Snider

As a writer, I was grateful to listen to Roger Rosenblatt interview Anne Patchett, a woman of candor, on her writing process during the 4th day of Road Scholar’s Creative Expression conversations. “Write what you know,” is a bedrock adage among writers. Au Contraire, Anne Patchett takes risks in her choices. She writes on subjects she wants to explore and about which she wants to learn.

“Inspiration was a real thing to me when I was eighteen, and my analogy at this point is inspiration is a match,” Patchett said. “You’ve got to have a match,” she continued, “ but, at fifty-two years old, I have spent my life in a warm house. You don’t spend your life in a warm house because of a match. You spend your life in a warm house because of your ability to get up and split wood.”

Huh, I thought, split wood? What is she saying? The analogy goes to her belief that writing is all about going to work and the experience of fueling what evolves. She explained, “I think if I sit around and wait for someone to whisper in my ears, I would get a lot of knitting done.”

Patchett approaches her novels by developing the characters first. In the Magician’s Assistant, she envisioned a magician in a tuxedo and his assistant in a sequin dress, because it was “sort of sexy. “I was halfway through the book when I realized I knew nothing about magic, and then I stopped and I did a bunch of research,” she said.

To my amusement, she said, “ What I discovered was that I hated magic. I was writing a book about magic and I never thought about it beyond how my characters would look on stage.” I leaned in as she spoke of how she confronted what she did not know. To my mind, she went far beyond “chopping wood” in that the woodpile is visible; whereas, in the development of characters and their plot, one needs to mine the invisible. I write nonfiction and cannot imagine myself writing a work of fiction  about a character who dies in the first sentence of the book.

Patchett spoke of her nonfiction book, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. Divorced after a year of marriage, Patchett was reluctant to marry a second time. She dated her current husband for eleven years and decided to marry only when he became very ill. Pragmatic to the core, she decided that as his girlfriend, she could not make critical decisions regarding his health. They married. “Six weeks later, he was totally fine.” She mused, “I don’t know if I would have gotten married if it wasn’t for that.”

In reading the reviews, it’s clear that in contrast to fiction, Patchett shaped the book about what she knew— her marriage, her bookstore, her writing. I was grateful to learn that she was open to writing in a new genre and to dig into learning how to evolve her story as a memoir. I’ve added it to my list.


SONGS: A Corridor Back In Time

Jane Pauly sings Bergman's "The Way We Were" Thanks to Marv Snider

Jane Pauly sings Bergman’s
“The Way We Were”
Thanks to Marv Snider

Alan Bergman, Songwriter Thanks to Marv Snider

Alan Bergman, Songwriter
Thanks to Marv Snider

“A Song is a corridor back in time,” began Alan Bergman, half of the Alan/Marilyn Bergman song writing team, in the third Road Scholar “Creative Expression” lecture at the Chautauqua Institute.

Unfortunately, Marilyn was ill, but Alan, interviewed by Roger Rosenblatt, spoke and sang through a rich distillation of how he and Marilyn met in their twenties and in an instant began their creative lifetime of probing music for the words that lay within. “I can’t tell you enough about the melody,” he said. “Melodies have words in them. Melodies have the rhymes in them, and we have to find them.”

The last great contributors to the Great American Songbook, the Bergmans won three Academy Awards, two Grammys and four Emmy Awards. They were the songwriters of Marv’s and my generation.

My gratitude was instant the moment Alan began humming and speaking the words of “The Way We Were,” one of the 64 songs he wrote for Barbra Streisand. Marv and I watched the first time Barbra was introduced on television during The Jack Parr Show in 1961. A favorite of ours, I listened with delight as Alan spoke of his relationship to Barbra, how “you have to give her something to say and to sing.”

The movie, Yentel was a highlight of their collaboration. Barbra bought the story; the Bergmans read the screenplay. Often, Barbra would conduct a rehearsal of the movie in the Bergman’s living room. “They would then go right into the movie,” he said.

At one point, Alan, age eighty-nine, still with wonder in his craggy voice, evoked Dustin Hoffman’s character in Tootsie, a man dressed as a woman, who cannot make a commitment. “Something’s telling me it might be you,” he sang.

I so appreciated Bergman’s clear and artful articulation of the couple’s creative process. “In the writing, we never know where we are going in comparison to great writers like Irving Berlin who always knew where he was going…We just go and see what happens.” His description affirmed my own process, how my themes and storyline evolve as I write.

I marveled at how the Bergmans collaborated with many well-known song-writers, some of whom were close friends who dropped off pieces of music with the implicit request to write lyrics. The couple explore and search for the words within. Alan described it as pitching and catching. “One of us is the creator and the other is the editor, and those roles change in a second. It is very vocal.” At times, he and Marilyn would select a piece from their music “pantry” as the first ingredient in preparation for a new Broadway musical.

About the creative experience, Alan said, “You have to be ready to receive.” Indeed, I was again grateful for the resonance— how similar the Bergman’s writing process is to my own except I don’t sing; I talk out loud as I write. The sound goes right to the page.


Creative Expression: Editors Galore !

Pamela Paul, Editor, N.Y.Times Book Review photo by Marv Snider

Pamela Paul, Editor, N.Y.Times Book Review
photo by Marv Snider

“The literary life is alive and well,” David Lynn, Kenyon Review editor, announced to the Chautauqua audience during the second day of Roger Rosenblatt’s interviews on Creative Expression. Joined by colleagues, Pamela Paul, Editor of The New York Times Book Review and Lorin Stein, Editor-in-Chief of the Paris Review, Lynn continued, “Today, writers and readers know each other, they’re in contact with each other. I think that’s a very vibrate movement, and I’m glad to be part of that.”

Stein pointed out that The Paris Review does not publish reviews but aims to discover writers through the long interview. I recall my first introduction to The Paris ReviewWriters at Work, The Paris Review Interviews, the first in the series with interviews of E.M.Forster, William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, William Styron, Truman Capote and more. How amazed and grateful I was to read the trove of essays in the dialogue of technique.

I am most grateful to these editors for their willingness to describe their process. Paul, in particular, was articulate about her job. The Times Book Review is published independently of The New York Times news staff. Every week, cartons of newly published books arrive at her offices. She and members of her staff consider each and every book though some, very briefly. Each independent and selected reviewer has carte blanche to write her own copy and voice her own opinion, even if Paul does not agree. Once a year, she and her staff make recommendations of their top choices.

Rosenblatt and the three editors weighed in on the state of the book industry today. Paul was optimistic about the statistics she looks at, stating that book sales figures have been really strong and that independent bookstores have rebounded. “People are yearning for community and bookstores have become a place for gathering of people who are interested in literature…”

I was most grateful for the discussion on “immersion,” how a book can take us to into situations and places unique and new, into a creative and evocative story, in contrast to the digital world of compression and sound bites. I am always searching for a literary voice, a situation, to stretch beyond my own experience.

When Rosenblatt asked what influences their work, answers varied from ”anything that gives surprise and delight,” to “literature is supposed to make you a little uncomfortable.” Paul questioned the new tendency to post “trigger warnings” for individuals with high sensitivity to certain content. She felt these warnings flew in the face of authors whose work makes you a little uncomfortable with yourself.

Lynn spoke to how The Kenyon Review’s May/June issue was focused on eco-poetry with emphasis on global warming, and human beings going forward. His greatest pleasure was to “wake up and read the stuff you love.” While Paul’s was “to read young writers she had never read before,” and Stein’s was “being with talented, wonderful people. At the end, the audience was on their feet with appreciative applause.





Creative Expression: Jane Pauley & Gary Trudeau at Chautauqua

Pauley & Trudeau Thanks to Mike Clark Chautauqua Daily

Pauley & Trudeau
Thanks to Mike Clark
Chautauqua Daily

“Our DNA indicates we are all stories waiting to be told,” thus Roger Rosenblatt began his interview with the married couple—Jane Pauley, journalist and Gary Trudeau, creator of Doonesbury— day one of five during my Road Scholar week at Chautauqua.

“Every story, in my book, is a different puzzle,” Pauley said, “and as we interview or read, we may think the story has little to do with you or me but then, inevitably, you find that connection— that illumination that reveals something about yourself.”

How gratifying to be among a community of 5,000 listeners and to listen, first hand, to the why and wherefore of the inclination to create, to tell a story.

Trudeau is motivated by curiosity. He writes Doonesbury as a week-long story. Often beginning in the middle, his inspiration challenges him to “reverse engineer” to begin at the beginning, to create Monday’s edition. He believes that people evolve with different skill sets, storytelling being one of them. He described the storyteller as “indispensable” because the storyteller chronicles events and memories that “helps the rest of the tribe understand how to move forward.”

Over and over, the theme returned to how stories enable us to drop into the story and shape our own meaning. Having seen Jane Pauley on television, her voice and style were not new to me. Live, she was witty, incisive and intimate as she spoke of how she is an early riser who needs immediacy. She checks her phone, the papers, makes coffee long before Trudeau arrives at the breakfast table.

At breakfast, Trudeau is quiet, while Pauley is eager to share. As they described their ritual, I perceived links to Marv’s and my story.  Like Pauley, Marv is up at dawn, in his sweats, checking his e-mail, writing a draft, then onto the elliptical long before I remove my sleep mask to open the shades. I am first at the table, eager to read the comics (yes, always Doonesbury), followed by the news. When Marv and I reconnoiter over fresh brewed coffee, like Pauley, I am eager to talk. Like Trudeau, Marv is quiet, but willing to listen.

Rosenblatt contrasted the complementary between men and women as he pointed out how women have a tendency to sense the whole of the story that allows them to pinpoint the essence. “That’s why I put puzzles together,” Pauley said. “That’s what I’m looking for. The story is part of the whole.”

When Marv has completed a working draft, I find it waiting at my place first thing— the unspoken request to read as soon as possible, to see the whole, ask the questions, so that he can get back to shaping and revising.

I am grateful for the remarkable opportunity to have seen Marv and myself in Pauley’s and Trudeau’s story, and to consider the communal patterns of story telling. For the rest of the month, I shall post more stories of Rosenblatt and friends, creative expression at Chautauqua.