by Brian Doyle, September 30, 2014 12:05 PM
One day when I was 12 years old and setting off on my newspaper route after school my mom said will you stop at the doctor's and pick up something for me and I grimaced and said something almost rude but not all the way rude and off I went on my bicycle. In autumn where we lived the afternoon didn't slide gently or melt easily into dusk but just snarled and surrendered and suddenly everything went brown. My mom had lost interior parts one after another over the years but I knew nothing and cared nothing of which parts and why and how they had been lost. I had 60 papers to deliver and I could deliver them in exactly 70 minutes if all went well but now I would have to go easily five whole minutes out of my way all the way over by the woods by the highway and I would not get home until long after five o'clock which meant I would miss most of the one television show we were allowed to watch per day why my mom would be so thoughtless about this matter was a mystery to me. My mom never explained what parts she was missing or where they went or how painful and complicated it was to live without certain of your crucial interior parts for example not being able to eat certain foods. By the time I got to the doctor's office the world was browning so fast it was like someone was exhaling brown at a herculean rate. My mom never complained about anything even when she had to lie down for a whole day or even two sometimes and we had to be as quiet as we could possibly be which meant take your fistfight outside or else. I knocked on the door of the doctor's office and no one answered and I knocked again and no one answered and I said something unforgivably rude for which I still feel ashamed of myself even today although no one heard me in the deep brown dusk near the woods by the highway. Sometimes my mom would vanish for a few days and the stern glare of our grandmother was in charge until our dad came home from the city and we would be so happy to see him that we leapt off the porch and sprinted to the corner and burbled home with him pretending that we too wore fedora hats and cool brown overcoats. Finally an older woman in some sort of medical tunic opened the door and I explained that I was picking up something for my mom and here is her name and here is the envelope with the money and thank you and off I went on my bicycle. The quickest way home at that point was to cut through the woods by the highway. My mom could be tart and terse and curt and sharp and sometimes she bit and snapped words so that your ear stung but when she put her long calm gently brown fingers on your neck or shoulder all was well and all manner of things was well. The woods were so black and brawly with branch and scatter that I got off my bicycle and walked through the sifting darkness. When I got home I handed her the package and she said thanks and I said something not rude for once and even now all these years later I wish I would have said a thousand thousand more gentle reverent things to my mother than I ever did in the years we lived together in that house by the woods by the highway. But we hardly ever say the things we ought to say, and desperately wish to say, from under the rude burl of our masks, even
by Brian Doyle, October 22, 2010 12:24 PM
Well, having just committed a Vast Sprawling Epic Labyrinthine Novel, my first (that's right, I am going to write a Huge Honking Novel every 50 years, at this rate), let me poke into what, if anything, I learned about the dark art of fiction.
First lesson: something has to happen. I bet I threw away 100 pages of lovely, lyrical passages, sinuously flowing, artfully crafted sentences rolling along like salty music, because nothing actually happened in those passages. Even I, their inky dad, had to sigh and blubber and cut them. If nothing is moving, if no one is leaping into the next moment or crashing into a tree or happily doing exactly the wrong thing at the right moment, then it's not a useful part of the moon mission. Huge lesson for me.
Second lesson: real characters do things that the author is horrified by. If the people in your book are real, then they are essentially in charge of the action. I had ideas for the plot, you bet, but quite often my ideas were trumped by what the characters were doing, and it seemed to me that often they were happily giving me and my plans the finger. I called a friend of mine, who is a superb novelist, to complain about this. "Let them go," he said. "Real people do real things." I suppose there are novelists who map out every twist and turn, graph and chart the action, and then write to fit, as it were, but, at the moment, I cannot imagine doing such a thing. There would be a carpenter's pleasure in writing a novel like that, snicking all the pieces cleanly into place, planing and polishing the result, and there, voila, a lovely piece of finished work — but, to me, a great deal of the pleasure of committing a novel was discovering with my fingers what was going to happen next. Quite often I would open the file in the morning, read through what I had written recently, and then type furiously to see who was doing what and why. We often say, as readers, that we want books to be page-turners, but I wonder how often writers themselves write to turn the page, so to speak.
Third lesson: readers swim and live in novels in ways they don't in nonfiction, or so it seems to me from the first wave of letters I am getting from readers. I love being an essayist (such a dignified and graceful title), and my heart has many times been pierced by the letters I get for my essays; but novels are whole worlds, and I am fascinated by the number of people who have already said they miss the world inside the book. Notes like that are almost enough to make me want to write another novel, God help us
by Brian Doyle, July 21, 2006 1:37 PM
Last post. I find I will miss bloggery, for it allows you to think exuberantly out loud with your fingers, and have entertaining replies delivered posthaste.
Let's spend a final moment in Oregon literature. Question: what are the twenty greatest Oregon books? In the widest possible senses ? books of Oregon, by Oregonians, set in Oregon, created in Oregon, associated in any wayshapeform with Oregon.
Me personally I'd immediately say Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion, perhaps the best Oregon novel, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Maybe one of the Don Berry novels? Certainly Ursula Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven, set in Portland, a classic speculative fiction adventure, and certainly David Duncan's The Brothers K or The River Why, heck, maybe both ? you can say accurately of The River Why that it's a young raw book and not as good as The Brothers K which though much longer is much tighter, but you have to wonder at The River Why selling briskly and blowing young minds all these years later, something great in that...
And certainly something by Stewart Holbrook, who I'd say, banging the old pint glass on the table, is the greatest Oregon writer of all. Terence O'Donnell's exquisite The Garden of the Brave in War, written in Oregon? Barry Lopez's Winter Count, maybe? Something by Sallie Tisdale? H.L. Davis's Honey in the Horn? William Kittredge's Hole in the Sky? Something by the late great gentleman Alvin Josephy? Homer Davenport? Joe Sacco, the artist and storyteller? Heck, does Washington Irving's Astoria count? James Beard? Kathleen Dean Moore? Robin Cody's Ricochet River, which was, as he says himself smiling, made into the worst feature film in the history of movies? Something by Beverly Cleary, certainly, and maybe Graham Salisbury, or Virginia Euwer Wolff, I mean the woman won the National Book award, for heavenssake. A William Stafford book, certainly. Kim Stafford's lovely Having Everything Right, maybe? Jean Auel? I mean, the woman has sold millions of those novels, and you have to admire and celebrate a storyteller who connected to millions of hearts. Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club? Katherine Dunn's Geek Love? Sam McKinney's great wet book Reach of Tide, Ring of History? And what of other poets, Hazel Hall, Clem Starck, Lawson Inada? And a novel I will never forget, Diana Abu-Jaber's Arabian Jazz...
Or even the Oregon section of Lewis & Clark's journals, you know? and Walt Morey's Gentle Ben, and John Quick's great odd coast memoir Fool's Hill, and Linus Pauling's The Nature of the Chemical Bond, which the deft scholar Tom Hager says is the single most influential science book published in the world in the twentieth century, which is a remarkable phrase, and and and... help. What do you think? C'mon, blurt ‘em down, it'll be good for us to have this discussion, because books are fun and they make your mind hum, which is where joy lives.
Last but not least ? thanks for reading these notes. Your attentiveness was, is, a
by Brian Doyle, July 20, 2006 10:25 AM
See, now you got me all ranting and raving, and addicted to bloggery, because you can issue opinions without your paramour giving you that particular sigh or your friends falling off their chairs with laughter, and so while we are here rattling on at high speed about writers and national characters, the mind spins right into the handful of books that just nailed you right in the heart, stayed in your head, haunted your shivering soul, so let me recall a few of those that knocked me out over the years, which might lead to You pondering which books really Mattered for you; and in so many cases still do; which is really more amazing and fascinating than we mostly admit.
I mean, isn't it cool that some books speak right to your holy bones? How could that be that one writer sometimes connects so electric with so many readers? A lovely and confusing dynamic which I am awful thankful for.
So, then, in no order, o man, the Bible in the King James translation, that thorny prickly proud muscular flinty prose, and Mezz Mezzrow's Really the Blues, which I sometimes think is the great American book, period, such slang and verve and dash and jazz and energy and kicks in it, such New York Chicago Louis Armstrong, you know; and On the Road, of course, which every American should read at age seventeen, the age it matters, because if you read it too late you see the self-indulgent lazy side of the book and how the women in it are doing all the work with no credit at all; and Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian, which is indescribably excellent, and Joyce Cary's The Horse's Mouth, which is my favorite novel ever, and Maurice O'Sullivan's Twenty Years A'Growing, my favorite Irish book, and Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped, my favorite Scottish book, and Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum, my favorite German book, and Primo Levi's books, which are haunting, and Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard and The Tree Where Man Was Born which are his greatest nonfiction books I think, and Jan Morris's one glorious novel Letters from Hav, and Steinbeck's Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday which I reread every few years for the light and humor and mercy, and Twain's Life on the Mississippi which some days I think might be his best book of all, and Bellow's Humboldt's Gift which I think is his best book ever and which occasioned a hilarious argument one time in a sunny pub in Australia which I will tell about sometime if you remind me, and Willa Cather's lean dry perfect Death Comes for the Archbishop, which tells me the early dusty Southwest and leads somehow to Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire, and Abbey knew Wallace Stegner who wrote the glorious biography Beyond the Hundredth Meridian which is ostensibly about John Wesley Powell but really is about the character of the arid West and so in many ways is about America, for we have always been a westering people, no? And then of course Annie Dillard's For The Time Being, which is the greatest spiritual book I ever read period, and Terry Tempest Williams's Refuge, which should be required reading for every young woman in America, and any collection of old Elwyn Brooks White who was, bless his shy heart, maybe the best essayist we have made yet other than Mr. Clemens, and don't even bring Emerson to the table here, the man was a terrific aphorist but an egregiously bad essayist, you can't sit there and tell me straight-faced that you enjoyed his essays, you can say you find them elevating or educational or whatever but finally for me and I bet most people they are sermons and homilies and lectures and not essays at all, essays being at their best playful, ruminative, sneaky, wandering, sexy, devious, and having something like the complex characters of the best red wines, smoky and substantive but vibrant and electric.
Man, now I am all bookish in the brain and need a pint of the reason God invented the McMenamin brothers ? a Hammerhead Ale, bless its dense amber
by Brian Doyle, July 19, 2006 9:49 AM
And while I am totally on a rolling ranting rollick here about books and writers and stories that matter, let's sail abroad for a moment and consider a literature in which I have been swimmin' for the last few years, which would be Australiana, in which I most admire not only the great heroes of that dusty lucky country's tale-tellers, like their Twain
figure the terrific Henry Lawson
, whose stories are a great place to start if you have never read anything by an Australian, and the excellent mystery writer Arthur Upfield
, and the wonderful Nevil Shute
who was a most fascinatin' man altogether whereas his name was actually Nevil Shute Norway and he was born in London and was an aeronautical engineer worried that being known as a writer would damage his professional cash-earning capacity, which you have to laugh about that, and he then moved to Australia and lived the rest of his life there and set many of his best books there so I would say he's an Australian writer despite being born inside the Empire that enslaved my people for six centuries, not that the Irish have long and bitter memories or anything. Anyway, Shute's terrific, and it's too bad that all anyone knows of his work usually is the novel On the Beach
, which partly people know of that not only because it's a great post-apocalyptic novel but also because the movie made from it starred Ava Gardner
, who was, I point out, of Irish descent, so there you go. This reminds me of the Ava Gardner story that the poor woman had the affections of Howard Hughes
inflicted upon her, and when she refused to accede to his intimations and delectations, which included the gift of a new car in hopes that automobilia would spur amorousness (how very American), he had the car completely taken apart and left in her driveway in careful pieces. Was that dude weird or what? I cast no aspersions on the fact that he was born in Texas. So anyway, back to Australia, where Tim Winton
has written the masterpiece Cloudstreet
about western Australia, and David Malouf
has written the masterpiece Remembering Babylon
, and Inga Clendinnen
wrote the masterpiece Dancing With Strangers
, and Robert Hughes
wrote the haunting The Fatal Shore
, and Shirley Hazzard
made The Great Fire
, and Peter Carey
made many cool books among them True History of the Kelly Gang
which is superb, and Kenneth Cook
wrote the menacing Wake in Fright
which was made into a chilling movie, but over and above all these may be Helen Garner
, who might be the most widely accomplished modern writer, famous for her fiction but an even better essayist (read her collections The Feel of Steel
and True Stories
, and her great nonfiction Joe Cinque's Consolation
), and Mark Tredinnick
is an interesting writer about nature, and Terry Monagle
is a lovely writer about spirituality (read his Fragments
), and James Button
is a superb journalist, and while the Tasmanian Richard Flanagan
's novels, notably Death of a River Guide
and Gould's Book of Fish
, win acclaim and awards and all, I might posit that his brother Martin Flanagan
is the Australian writer most interested in matters of race not as politics but as possibility, in the still riveting idea of an Australia that emerges from its orbit as English satellite not to become an American satellite, or a cousin of Asia, but a country brimming with a kind of light that has everything to do with where the human species might go in terms of peace and harmony and cohesion and creativity turned to vigor rather than violence. In a real sense it seems to me that a nation's best writers are really dreamers of what the country and its people are really about in their bones, and what they might be if everyone sings rather than slings; which is why, to loop around toward yesterday's post
, such American writers as Twain and Bellow
and Willa Cather
and Flannery O'Connor
and Eudora Welty
and Isaac Asimov
seem the best of us, and Martin Flanagan, especially in works like The Game in Time of War
, seem the best of that brilliant land today. A nation's very best writers are those who have something finally to say about their own place, its salt and spice, its sins and bones, its gifts and glories, its pain and prayers. Such writers do more than entertain; they point toward what is best and what might be better; which is finally a glorious and insane thing to try to do; which the attempt is lovely and so very human in its ambition and madness; rather like marriage, or democracy, or grilling
by Brian Doyle, July 18, 2006 9:12 AM
And while we are on the subject
of heartfelt opinions as to great books and writers and such, I might as well say here with little fear of contradiction or howls of protest that Mr S. Clemens
is The Greatest American Writer, Period, and he was the greatest American writer of the 19th century, no question about it absolutely, and he ought to damn well be considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century also, whereas his utter total masterpiece Autobiography
was largely dictated or ractonteured in the opening years of that bruised gaggle of years, and it seems to me that with all due respect to E. Hemingway
and J. Steinbeck
, that the Canadian-born S. Bellow
was the great American writer of the 20th century, which somehow seems very American that a Canadian was our finest troubadour of the times (although bless their cold hearts they produced Farley Mowat
and Robertson Davies
and Margaret Atwood
and Ken Dryden
, too), and as for the 21st century we are awfully raw yet to pick a star, and maybe it's not Americans so much who should be saying such things, but readers abroad, because so much of what makes great American writers great is that they are saying something piercing and true about the peculiar bone of Americanness, which is far more interesting a topic than is usually bruited about in the shrill baying of political pundits and the dusty groves of academe. For example, don't you think it's true that to be American has something to do with being able to lie with panache and grace and hilarity? And to be American has some intimation of violence and independence and automobiles and confidence bordering on arrogance? And to be American also means in some way familiarity with footloose, inventiveness, the ability to use your hands to fix things or to punch someone in the nose, the bravura to think that you can get through damn near anything because we always have even when things looked darkest? And don't you think that America is in a sense a teenager of a country, young and strong, convinced beyond all sense of its immortality, able to do astounding things and incredibly dopey things back to back, unwilling to listen to advice, burly and handsome, energetic and liable to let things slide until the last second, with a dirty room and a brilliant smile? The sort of country that drives you insane but you cannot help loving? Know what I mean? So by those lights you can see why I lean toward Steinbeck and Bellow and Twain and Springsteen
and Willa Cather
and Flannery O'Connor
and Walker Percy
and Woody Guthrie
and Count Basie
and Raymond Chandler
and Ken Kesey
and John McPhee
and Arthur Miller
as wondrous American writers, because they are telling stories of Americanness with broad strokes, and reading them, listening to them, hearing our voices through their stories, is in a real sense to understand something about living and loving here in this place which is an extraordinary place unlike any other that ever was, which is a remarkable thing to say, and in the end a moral charge ? to live here with the respect this place deserves, this Turtle Island, this gift, this blessing, this grin of a country, this verb, this roaring idea, is finally to be charged with loving well.
Or something like
by Brian Doyle, July 17, 2006 9:47 AM
Bloggery, bloggitude, blogaciousness ? oi, what do we call the urge to blab electric? The condition of confession? The urge to purge? The yen to yarn?
Of such matters is the smoking train of my thought this morning.
On the other hand, a public letter like this gives you a terrific chance to get some opinions off your chicken chest and pinned up on the door of the universe. So then, three matters to discuss on this crisp, clear day:
Who are the greatest essayists ever in English? Why, Robert Louis Stevenson, George Orwell, Mark Twain, and Annie Dillard, for starters. Charles Lamb, maybe. Some of Barry Lopez and Edward Hoagland. The wonderful Australian writer Helen Garner. Flannery O'Connor here and there, when she wasn't committing genius stories. Ian Frazier. David James Duncan who, when he's on his game, is hilarious and prayerful and angry and hilarious and hilarious. John Updike, maybe, if we are talking about literary essays. Cynthia Ozick when she is at her most playful, like in her recent collection The Din in the Head when she writes a hilarious imaginary interview with Henry James. Everyone's always bowing toward William Hazlitt and Montaigne as the masters of the form but old Montaigne maybe needed a head-butt to the chest here and there to make him stop musing and tell me a story, and too much Hazlitt makes you wonder why the English Empire didn't piddle away sooner. This line of thinking reminds me of the great poet Pattiann Rogers (whose most recent book is a sort of amazing thing called Generations) who, whenever I razz her that the lowest form of literary life is Poet because poets don't get paid any money and hardly anyone reads their stuff and when they do get paid it's in subscriptions to magazines they don't want and wouldn't get other than the fact that their poems are in them, she says, tartly, Waaal, when we name the five or ten greatest literary artists in the history of Western civilization, how many essayists are we talking about after we talk about the poets Dante and Homer and Shakespeare? Which she has a good point there. For a poet.
Whereas I just wrote a book about wine, sort of, here's a question, especially for everyone who is reading this elsewhere than in the sovereign state of Oregonness. Why is it the case that the northern Willamette Valley of Oregon produces pinot noir wine as good as, and in some dozens of cases better than, the vaunted glorious ancient cocky redolent proud region of Burgundy? Why is that? And isn't that cool? I mean, we used to be known as a state that produced most of the world's hazelnuts, and Steve Prefontaine, and a truly stunning amount of board feet of timber, and an equally stunning number of pounds of salmon, and Ken Kesey, but now, and I maintain increasingly as the years they pass, we will be known as the pinot noir capital of North America. Which is pretty cool.
I do think that the greatest sport in the world is basketball, which is quicksilver, generous, lyrical, sprinting, and rife with success, unlike the stutter and spit of baseball, the sociopathic militarism of football, the toothless where's-the-puck of hockey, but Australian football comes close, and ultimate Frisbee comes close, and soccer comes close, a game of spin and sprint and graceful geometry. You just wish there were more shots and scores, and the game didn't so often come down to a stalemate after hours of effort, you know? Like a poor date. All that said, wasn't it cool to watch the best players in the world for a few weeks? Man. I would have given the MVP of the World Cup not to Zidane, all due respect to a wonderful player at the end of his career, but to his teammate, the little relentless terrier right wing Ribery, who never ceased moving, who flew and flowed, who never lost his cool, who is a devout Muslim and prays before every game, who is a remarkable story. As are we all, as are we all.