Doug Bruns

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Didion’s book

In Death, Reading, Writers, Writing on November 25, 2005 at 1:18 am

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Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking is, I suspect, a milestone in the literature of grief. Not being familiar with the literature I assume it must be so; for hardly can I image a more braided, tangled, yet orderly assembly of emotions and observations. Delivered by a masterful voice that is always careful and precise, this book is the account of Didion’s year following the death of her husband, the novelist John Gregory Dunne. A great deal has been written about this book. I do not need to try my hand at the turning the wheel too. But there are couple of things about it that affected me deeply. (This is after all, a blogg entry, not a book review. Liberty is mine to exercise.) To wit: I love the account of marriage that Didion relates late in the book.

“We were equally incapable of imagining the reality of life without the other. This will not be a story in which the death of the husband or wife becomes what amounts to the credit sequence for a new life, a catalyst for a new life….but marriage is something different. Marriage is memory, marriage is time.”

This is not so much an account of grief as it is the painstaking effort to rise for celebration. I read this passage aloud to Carole and thought long on the truth of it: the patterns that a long marriage ingrain in two people, such that they anticipate and know in unspoken ways; and when the pattern is broken, as is the pattern that was Didion and Dunne, the troubles that arise from the depths cannot be entirely fathomed.

But Didion is a “cool customer” –such was the phrase used by her social worker, meeting after the arrival of Dunne’s body at the hospital. She is a writer after all, among the best of writers. So precise is her writing, her account, that indeed she must be the coolest of customers. I thought of Diane Arbus photographing her dead father toward the end of this book. Arbus loved her father. Didion loved her husband. But genius is a constant and turns in untold manner and direction. And that is the other thing I like so much about this book: Didion is passionate about her subject. She pains to understand what happened in her living room that December night, 2003. And does she? When all is said and done, does she understand anything? I think not. But that is not a shortcoming of the book, of her, or of this reader. For really, what can anyone understand about death? Nothing. Nothing at all.

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Perhaps you are interested in this short NPR interview with Ms. Didion:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4866010

Thursday is Theme Day: Hemingway

In Books, Creativity, Literature, Writers, Writing on January 24, 2013 at 6:00 am
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Yousuf Karsh’s famous portrait of Papa Hemingway

The (new) plan is to program Thursdays around a person, a thinker, writer, philosopher, a creative genius, a traveler–a person whose life was (or perhaps is) about the stuff that matters*–share some quotes,  lift a few words from a speech or lecture, perhaps recommend a few books by or about. In other words, on Thursdays, we’ll turn the podium over to an individual “the house” members might be interested in. That way you’ll get a break from my incessant navel gazing and auto-biographical-slash-memoir ramblings. (I hate the ungrammatical “/”.) Okay? I’ll try to bring you something fresh, and avoid the tired cut-and-paste lame Wikipedia entry.

Today we will begin the series with Mr. Hemingway (1899-1961).

To weigh in just a moment here (so difficult keeping my mouth shut!): I am, like so many others, more a fan of the man’s life than I am ofimgres his work. Of course Hemingway left us great writing. I am particularly fond, as I’ve mentioned before, of A Movable Feast. And of course the stories. The great short stories–marvelous stuff, indeed. But it is the life that has the grip on my imagination. (He was life outsized,  the Lady Gaga of his era.) He was no Montaigne; he did not talk about how to live outright, he showed us–at least his painful, dangerous, depressed-manic, genius version of life. So here are a few of Ernest Hemingway’s thoughts.

Oh hell…when I get excited it is difficult to stay with the program. Let’s first set this up with a quote from Joan Didion. We did just talk about her last week. When asked who most influenced her, Ms. Didion said:

I always say Hemingway, because he taught me how sentences worked. When I was fifteen or sixteen I would type out his stories to learn how the sentences worked. I taught myself to type at the same time….I mean they’re perfect sentences. Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes.

Now on to Papa and his work habits:

imgres-4When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but fulling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.

Once, when asked about his style (of writing), Papa replied:

That is a long-term tiring question and if you spent a couple of days answering it you would be so self-conscious that you could not write. I might say that what amateurs call a style is usually only the unavoidable awkwardness in first trying to make something that has not heretofore been made. Almost no new classics resemble other previous classics. At first people can see only the awkwardness. Then they are not so perceptible. When they show so very awkwardly people think these awkwardnesses are the style and many copy them. This is regrettable.

When talking about what writers he read, Hemingway launched into a who’s-who of influences:imgres-3

Mark Twain, Flaubert, Stendhal, Bach, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Andrew Marvell, John Donne, Maupassant, the good Kipling, Thoreau, Captain Marryat, Shakespeare, Mozart, Quevedo, Dante, Vergil, Tintoretto, Hieronymus, Bosch, Brueghel, Patinir, Goya, Giotto, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, San Juan de la Cruz, Góngora–it would take a day to remember everyone. Then it would sound as though I were claiming an erudition I did not possess instead of trying to remember all the people who have been an influence on my life and work. This isn’t an old dull question. It is a very good but a solemn question and requires an examination of conscience. I put in painters, or started to, because I learn as much from painters about how to write as from writers. You ask how this is done? It would take another day of explaining. I should think what one learns from composers and from the study of harmony and counterpoint would be obvious.

Hemingway & Gellhorn--the movie.

Hemingway & Gellhorn–the movie.

I’ve read a lot of Hemingway, but it is likely true that I have read more about him than by him. The great biography by Hemingway associate, Carlos Baker, is definitive. (Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s third wife, called it “the King James Version” of Hemingway’s life. Not everyone thought so highly of the book. Truman Capote said, “The Baker book was bad all the way through. It was dull, it was uninteresting, it was badly put together.” ) There are many others–at last count over 500!–more or less of value.  For me, however, one of the most interesting books about Hemingway is Denis Brian’s, The True Gen. It’s a collection of memories and reminiscences from friends, lovers, enemies, and wives. It’s heavy on gossip, but rounded out the man in a way I found compelling and brimming with insight.

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*If there was a tag line to “…the house…” it would be, We think about the stuff that matters. But wait!– whether you know it or not, we have a tag line, A Journal of Life Pursued. Can one have too many tag lines? Too many interests?

Tell me a story.

In Books, Writers, Writing on January 15, 2013 at 6:00 am

421“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” That is the declaration by which Joan Didion begins her now-classic, The White Album (1979). The book is a highly literary, essay-slash-memoir collection exploring the 1960s and 70s in California. Martin Amis, in reviewing the book, called Ms. Didion, a “poet of the Great Californian Emptiness.” It was a time of personal challenge for Didion, chiefly of the mental-stability order, and the expanse of California as metaphor agitates as a perfect harmonic.  Central to the book is the unease of the era as exemplified by the Charles Manson Helter Skelter murder of Sharon Tate and friends. Tate was a friend of Didion‘s. (As a side note, if you pick up The White Album I strongly suggest–no, demand–you then read Battleborn, by Claire Vaye Watkins. Watkins is the daughter of Charles “Tex” Watkins,  Manson’s righthand-man. Battleborn is starkly, and breathtakingly, original.)

So as to not drop Ms. Didion’s quote out of context, here is the full paragraph for your reading pleasure:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accident, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be ‘interesting’ to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be, the Aristophanic view, snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest’s clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely… by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria — which is our actual experience.”

I am unabashedly smitten by: “We live entirely…by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images….”

(Aside: I drifted to this shore while reading an article about the current line-up of new TV shows, in particular shows that qualify my loose definition of being narrative-driven. You know the shows: Downton Abbey, Shameless, Breaking Bad, Homeland and a few others. (Full disclosure, I watch–no, I drink thirstily–the mentioned shows.) Are these the stories we are telling ourselves in order to live? What does that mean?)

I have another quote from The White Album in my moleskine: “I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read me, who I am and where I am and what is on my mind.” That is as beautiful an explanation of why a writer writes as ever I’ve encountered. I trust Vonnegut‘s “ink-stained wretches” are applauding furiously. This is the quote that comes foremost to mind when reflecting on that which is attempted here at …the house…. My personal bookend to Ms. Didion’s observation is that I read in the hope, maybe even in the faith, that I will find a writer who will not necessarily explain my life, but share it. That, my friends, is why we tell stories–which is to say, the declaration of our very existence.

The City Weird

In Photography, Travel on June 19, 2012 at 6:00 am

As noted previously, I’m traveling. This is a repost from January, 2010. Thanks for reading.

Street Photography, D. Bruns

Can there possibly be a greater American juxtaposition: Portland, Maine to Las Vegas, Nevada? But then Las Vegas (I feel weird calling it Vegas, we’re not that close) makes for a stark comparison to most any other place.

I had to go, yes, had to go, to Las Vegas to attend to some last-minute–and unexpected–business. This was my third time in that city. The first visit, I think six or seven years ago, was particularly weird. My daughter, Allie, and I had been climbing in Joshua Tree, dirt-bagging it, tearing our knuckles on those famous cracks, getting sunburned and thriving a pitch off the deck. Good stuff. Camp fire at night. Great stuff.

Carole and Jeff (I think Tim was in Michigan, at camp) flew out and met us in Sin City. Allie and I drove out of the desert, still dirty and thrilled at the great climbing, and into the evening glow of Las Vegas. As we pulled into town she looked at me like we’d just landed on a moon of Jupiter. “Las Vegas is weird,” she said.

In 1968 Joan Didion wrote Slouching Towards Bethlehem. In an essay called “Marrying Absurd” she wrote: “Las Vegas is the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements, bizarre and beautiful in its venality and in its devotion to immediate gratification…” That was a long time ago. But it still rings true. Las Vegas is an event seeking participants.

This time, a few years older and knowing what to expect, it is, well, still weird. There are some places that feel right. And some that don’t. More people than not, I think, find Las Vegas right. Not me. But I revel in contrariness. Maine feels right. Every other place seems by degrees a little weird from home. Some places more than a little.

Street photography, D. Bruns, Vegas Escalator

Bookends

In Books, Creativity, Literature, Memoir, Writers, Writing on May 2, 2012 at 8:00 am

This is a repost. I’m out of the country. As this piece is “published,” I will have touched down in Kathmandu, day one of twenty-two days away from home. That’s a long time.

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November 14, 1851, one-hundred fifty-nine years ago today Moby Dick was published. The Reader’s Almanac, “The official blog of The Library of America“,tells the story of Melville inviting Nathaniel Hawthorn, his reclusive neighbor to a celebratory dinner party as Moby Dick is came off the press. The article quotes a letter from a local Lenox resident:

Not very long ago the author of The Scarlet Letter and the author of Typee having, in some unaccountable way, gotten a mutual desire to see one another, as if neither had a home to which he could invite the other, made arrangements in a very formal manner to dine together at a hotel in this village . . .

If you love reading about the writing life, you will find short article of interest: “The happiest day in Herman Melville’s life.”

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The grand lady of American Letters, Joan Didion, has a new book coming out next year, a memoir about aging called Blue Nights. Didion, who almost single-handedly created the genre of literary non-fiction (a bit of an overstatement but close (enough) to true) has been a favorite of mine for many years.

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“What Bloggers Owe Montaigne” is a wonderful essay at The Paris Review by Montaigne biographer Sarah Bakewell.

Bloggers might be surprised to hear that they are keeping alive a tradition created more than four centuries ago. Montaigne, in turn, might not have expected to be remembered so long, least of all in the English language—yet he always believed that such understanding between remote eras and cultures was possible. “Each man bears the entire form of the human condition,” he said.

As you might know, from reading my posts here, Montaigne is the writer-thinker-friend I have turned to repeatedly for as long as it matters. As this article demonstrates, Montaigne continues to influence–to this day–as he did centuries ago. There is the hue of immortality to that.

And interestingly, to speak of current and lasting influence, there is this extended essay over at The Nervous Breakdown on all things Montaigne, thanks to Jason Chambers, Johathan Evison, Dennis Haritou and Jason Rice. Their piece is called: When We Fell in Love: Sarah Bakewell.

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A bit of Maine. My review of Maine writer, Susan Hand Shetterly‘s book, Settled in the Wild, is now up at Mostly Fiction dot com. As the dusk jack reads: “Like Annie Dillard and Mary Oliver, Susan Hand Shetterly takes a magnifying glass to the wilderness that remains, spending the time few of us take to really look.” I am, admittedly a fan of all things Maine (well, most all things…), but objectively, this is a wonderful little book.

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Read On!

Of poets.

In Books, Creativity, Writers, Writing on April 10, 2012 at 7:00 am

I have one poem memorized, W.B. Yeats’s The Second Coming. I thank Joan Didion for this singular accomplishment. Her book, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) brought the poem directly to my attention. It is a famous poem and I suspect I read it in high school and perhaps college, but am not sure. For a guy who has lived with books center to existence, poetry has been ill represented.

Yeats ends his great poem with this line:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

I wanted to memorize the poem because I loved it. (David Orr, in his book, Beautiful and Pointless, a Guide to Modern Poetry, writes “…people who read poetry have a tendency not simply to say that they ‘like’ it or ‘enjoy’ the art form, but rather that they ‘love’ it.”) It was to be the first of many poems I planned to discover and commit to memory. Imagine the magic of carrying all that around in your head. In a wonderful piece, Got Poetry? (2009), New York Times essayist Jim Holt argues convincingly the benefits of memorizing poetry. He says he has hundreds of poems memorized. “I recite them to myself while jogging along the Hudson River, quite loudly if no other joggers are within earshot. I do the same, but more quietly, while walking around Manhattan on errands — just another guy on an invisible cellphone.” He ends his essay on a light note: “Everyone needs an iPod. You do not need an iPod. Memorize poetry instead.”

My project never got past Yeats, sadly.

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Last summer poetry introduced itself properly. It snuck up and rattled me by the shoulders. I didn’t know what to make of it at the time, and still don’t. I can’t explain things like that but accept them as they happen. It seems to happen to me a lot.

I took a workshop for poets. I’m not a poet. That’s a title one has to earn, in my opinion. My friend Gibson Fay-LeBlanc told me that he does not subscribe to the school of the born poet; that becoming a poet is the result of “putting in the work.” Gibson has put in the work. His new book of poetry Death of the Ventriloquist was released last month.

I’ve been working with Robert Frost Award-winner, Megan Grumbling. Megan is a wonderful teacher and has been encouraging my effort to put poetry pen to poetry paper. I’ve published a little bit of everything over the years, except poetry. And as a life-long reader, I’ve read a little bit of everything over the years, except poetry. Discovering poetry has been like finding a secret door in a house I’ve lived in all my life.

Another poet-friend, Ken Rosen, told me to write a poem every day for a month, “Pluck it out of nothing,” he said. “Create somewhere out of nowhere, mercilessly. Force yourself to do it for 30 days and see if that changes your brain chemistry.” I don’t know about the resulting chemistry, but it was excellent discipline. Ken’s lastest book is The Origins of Tragedy and other poems.

I’ll leave you with a few lines from another poem I love, “Bars,” by Jim Harrison:

Once in the driveway

a female wolf stood in my headlights and nodded,

obviously the reincarnation of a girl I knew

who drowned in Key West where I first discovered

that one drink can break the gray egg that sometimes

encloses you, two drinks help you see this world.

Three drinks and you’re back inside the gray egg.