Tag Archives: writers

Inside the Content Machine

Assembly line workers

Many of the freelance writers I know cobble  together their income from a mix of projects:  journalism, copy writing, web production work, and cranking out content widgets. Call that last bit what you will — content marketing, brand journalism, native advertising — skilled writers can make good money in this sector of the word market.

And there’s a fat supporting industry to all that content marketing gold — books, classes, fancy conferences. On Tablet, Sean Cooper attends a content marketing conference to find out how the content industry is selling itself — and selling itself out.

…the roaring fire that was 20th-century nonfiction magazine literature has been hosed down to wet coals. In this new 21st-century post-literature era, the techniques and tools of the journalism trade have been plundered by scavenger industries, which rightly foresaw profit opportunities in what has been called branded content, native advertising, or content marketing, which agglomerates techniques used to build characters, create narrative arcs, and establish tones of voice that once served as conduits for nonfiction writers attempting to intimately mind-meld with readers. While journalism continues to struggle, burgled storytelling devices are being leveraged at scale by content-marketing agencies and branding studios that publish content stories to satisfy shareholder expectations. One industry analysis estimates that the content-marketing business will be worth $215 billion in 2017. The Struggling Writer is here to see them count the money.

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The Tears of Denis Johnson

Illustration by Julia Carusillo

Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son is one of those books people collect in multiples, saving extra copies to give to friends. I used to joke about handing it out in place of Halloween candy. Fortunately, Johnson wrote so much more: two collections of plays, three books of poetry, two short story collections, nine novels, a novella, and a book of reportage. He was dedicated to his vision of the writing life and embraced the mystery of the creative process with his students. After his death on May 24, there was an outpouring of appreciation for Johnson’s life and work from readers and writers, students and friends. We’ve asked for further thoughts from some of the people he reached through his books, his friendship, and the classes he led at various universities. We hope this collection adds further warmth and insight into the extraordinary work Denis Johnson gave to the world.  —Aaron Gilbreath

Jonathan Galassi

Denis Johnson’s editor, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

In the end, for me at least, Denis was unknowable. We worked together in two different phases on a lot of books, but somehow I always felt he was over there and I was over here. It didn’t seem personal, more existential. He had a genial surface, a sunniness and generosity and humor that were joyful to experience. Who wouldn’t have loved basking in that warmth? But other waters were always running in Denis, and I don’t think many people, except his wife Cindy, got a look into them

Our work together was usually easy. Denis wasn’t interested in editorial intervention, nor did he need it. But I learned that he could take what might have been an offhand remark much too deeply to heart. I believe Denis was greatly vulnerable always, and I suspect this was part of why he kept his distance from the saturnalia of literary life.

Denis told his students at Iowa that they should want to be Shakespeare, the only thing for a writer to want. That he certainly wanted it for himself and his work — not only in fiction and poetry, but in journalism and drama — shows the relentless drive of his ambition. Ambition is the noblest quality a writer can have. Fighting all the impediments to it, internal and outward, is the writer’s daily task. Jesus’ Son is about the force of addiction and the only thing that can overmaster it: the ecstatic experience of God. Train Dreams is about solitude. I think it’s arguable that these books, which are among his great achievements, speak to two poles of his experience. Readers will keep coming to them always, which tells you that here, as elsewhere, he hit the nail on the head.

Lynne Tillman

Novelist, essayist, cultural critic

Denis was gentle, funny, good-hearted; a sweet, impish, and concerned man. You wanted to be around him. Maybe because in his early years he lost time to drugs, he felt life was precious. You felt that reading him, felt it being near him.

I was fortunate to meet Denis in 2011 in Kyoto. We were doing a week-long gig together. Riyo Niimoto, a writer and journalist, was teaching at the Kyoto University for Art and Design where he had recently started the first MFA writing program in Japan. He wanted Denis and me to discuss our writing with Japanese novelists and our experiences teaching in MFA programs. Denis hadn’t visited Japan since he was eight or nine, when his family lived there for a few years. He was full of joy retrieving Japanese words, pieces of his childhood. He was writing about it in his mind, you could see that. Denis embraced every experience, he was always observing life, and his beautiful sentences rose and fell with its rhythms.

Writing was everything to Denis. Writing and his wife, Cindy, his children, his close friends, they were his life. He had no time for bullshit. Award-winning, acclaimed, sure, but Denis was resolutely straight ahead. Writing was a calling, not a career.

I didn’t know Denis’s cancer had come back. We were talking by email about friends’ dying. His last sentences to me, sent on April 10: “Another day this side of the grass — I’ll take it. And it’s the only day there ever was — today. Every breath is sweet. Love, DJ.” It kills me — this glorious, graceful man gone from our world. A magnificent American writer. One of our best, ever. Denis Johnson had it all, and he took it to the limit.

Sam Messer

Painter, professor at the Yale School of Art

FEAR NOT are the words inscribed across the pinnacle of James Hampton’s Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly. In 1982, DJ and I drove from Florida to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC to see the throne. DJ had become obsessed with Hampton’s work after hearing me describe it as one man’s visionary sculpture of his dialogue with God, and he insisted we stop in Eloree, South Carolina, the artist’s birthplace. At the Stop-n-Go on the corner of Hampton Street, DJ asked everyone in the store if they had ever heard of the artist, but no one had. When we arrived at the Smithsonian and DJ finally saw the throne, he said, “I couldn’t take it all in, and I was a little frightened.” Hampton’s lifelong work about redemption, a whale-sized gold and silver tinfoil sculpture created all alone in his garage, brought DJ to his knees. That night in the motel DJ began writing a poem in the bathtub. Later, he bolted up in bed. “I have to go home right now,” he said. “It was too much for me.” So I drove him to the airport. As he got out of the car he snapped his fingers and said, “Fear not.” Five years later he finished the poem.

Marie Howe

Poet, author of Magdalene and The Kingdom of Ordinary Time

When Denis Johnson came out with The Incognito Lounge in 1982, the world of poetry trembled. In that extraordinary collection is the poem titled “Now,” which is as close to perfect as anything I’ve ever read, and the central poem of my writing life.

The poem is an experience. It’s happening to the poet as he writes it ─ not a record of an experience, not a memory ─ the experience is occurring to him word by word ─ a stepping into space without a rope. A waking awareness, a contradiction of his own impulse (Darkness, my name is Denis Johnson), and a series of urgent questions lead him and us to the very brink of radical transformation.

Denis was the first sober writer I had ever met. He was almost bursting out of his skin with aliveness. I watched him in wonder. How could someone so alive walk into rooms without holding something in front of his face? The poem “Now” suggests how.

Alix Ohlin

Author of the novels The Missing Person and Inside

When I learned as a graduate student that I could take a workshop with Denis Johnson at the Michener Center, I was nervous to meet him and also electrified. Few books meant more to me at that time than Jesus’ Son and Angels. I loved his work because he didn’t write like anyone else — he was gritty and lyrical, sacred and profane. I guess it’s not surprising he didn’t teach like anyone else either. I think his process was intuitive, mysterious perhaps even to him. He was shambling, unguarded, and had no prepared speeches. He didn’t line edit your work or give lectures on structure, or whatever conventional workshop leaders might do — but a lot of the things he said have never left me.

Once, a young person in our workshop handed in a seemingly autobiographical story about a child. It wasn’t, to be honest, very accomplished. Denis’ main comment was “It’s good you’re writing about your childhood now, because when you’re older, you won’t be able to remember it the same way,” which struck me as both generous and nakedly sad.

When I went to his office to ask for advice on the novel I was just starting to write, Denis more or less shrugged at the impossibility of offering advice. “You have to learn to write this novel, and anything you learn won’t teach you how to write the next one.” It was infuriating to hear and also, I now realize, true. In class he talked about Raymond Carver, about what it meant to him to study with Carver at Iowa; how as a young writer, an undergraduate, he just wanted to be in the library where Carver had been, to sit in the same chair. He wept as he said this. Later that semester a friend of mine, a literary agent, came to town and wanted me to arrange lunch with Denis. When I asked him about it, he blanched. “Do I owe her money?” “No, you’re one of her idols” I said stubbornly, and insisted they meet. (This makes me cringe in retrospect — I wonder how often he must have heard that, and what a burden it must have been.) We took him to lunch. He ordered a cheeseburger, and when it arrived it was not done the way he ordered it. He wept a little at this too. It made me smile, and now it amazes me to remember it — how little armor he had, how he chose to live without it.

Kelly Luce

Fiction writer, author of Pull Me Under

I was lucky to be in Denis Johnson’s workshop at the Michener Center two years ago. He was an unorthodox and beloved teacher. That first day, he told us he was a crier. But we shouldn’t worry, it usually passed quick. He cried three times that semester: One over Mavis Gallant’s “The Latehomecomer,” one over how hard writing is, always, but how beautiful to get it right, and one I forget.

He said that if we didn’t feel like submitting stories to workshop, we didn’t have to. “What’s best is to just sit around and talk.” One day he brought in two metal balls and made us all hold them and decide which was heavier. The difference in weight was very tiny but we found we could usually tell the heavier one if we didn’t think about it too hard. Denis was DELIGHTED by this. We spent an hour holding the balls; he was practically bouncing off the walls with excitement at how much more our minds knew than our brains. And he never said, “This is like writing,” or anything like that. He was just awestruck. We left class early that day and walked over to Crown & Anchor where he ordered a burger and gave the name “Elvis.”

I submitted two stories to workshop that semester. One was previously published, but I wasn’t happy with it anymore and unsure why. He knew. It was the ending. Who knows more about endings than DJ? “This sounds very END-Y,” he said of the final paragraph. “But it’s not really an ending.” But he liked the story in general, which was good, because he HATED the next story I put up. It’s one of my most memorable Michener moments.

The second story was a shitty first draft with magic in it. I volunteered because no one else had anything. I thought I was being gracious. Denis hated that fucking story so much, it was shocking and, in retrospect, just as delightful as the metal balls. He hated it so much he gesticulated wildly with the pages, yelling “Is this your best work?” He knocked his Red Bull off the grand old table onto the blue carpet. I said, “It’s a first draft?” and blacked out. Afterward I tried to flee but fell off my bike in the road in front of everyone.

Another time he told us about going on a weeklong silent retreat. He thought he and his roommate liked one another and looked forward to talking. When the week was up, he eagerly greeted his roommate. His roommate quietly said, “I had a very expensive watch, and it’s gone.”

His joy and sorrow were on the surface. He didn’t give a shit about hiding them. So many of us hide them in public and call them back when we write. As if they will continue to respond!

Now I remember the third time Denis cried. He was talking about what makes a story interesting; how it’s the little things, how all the tricks we try as writers are often bullshit. And he wells up with tears and says, “There’s nothing more fascinating than watching a guy trying to untie a knot from his shoelace. Nothing.”

There’s something wonderful about a teacher who insists he knows as little, or less than you. It makes you feel like maybe you can write.

Alexander Chee

Author of The Queen of the Night and Edinburgh

In the spring of 1994, Denis Johnson was my workshop teacher and thesis adviser at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I remember he had the sort of charisma that is impossible to imitate or fake — everyone was either in love with him, or for the few who were not, annoyed that everyone was in love with him. He told stories of when he was a student there in poetry — of how this or that famous writer was not so beloved, he assured us, in workshop. But he made it more than gossip: “You don’t know what someone can do just from what they show you here,” he said of one poet who used to drive him crazy and was now one of his favorites. In that little anecdote was a story about the long game of writing, and the false intensity of a present that feels so permanent.

For me, he was important in several different ways. He was a poet who also wrote fiction, which I was too at the time—this was not so common then. I remember with one of my stories he said, “This has the feeling of a lit match carried through a storm.” He then spoke of the importance of guarding one’s original inspiration all the way to the end. That story was an experiment in writing about the queer punk scene in San Francisco in the early 1990s. (The writing of certain stories in the beginning of your career has the feeling of something that makes you as you make it — this was one of those for me.) It was not easy to present that kind of work in 1994, and so to be greeted like this by him alerted me to my own powers. It conferred the feeling of graduating from that place as nothing else did.

Emily Rapp Black

Author of Poster Child: A Memoir and The Still Point of the Turning World

I met Denis Johnson as a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin where I was a student in fiction in the early 2000s. On the first day of class we were nervous and star struck, but Denis was friendly, chatty, kind, and more than anything else, he was open. Within the first hour, Denis read aloud from J.D. Salinger’s A Perfect Day for Bananafish. In the middle of the story he stopped and wiped his eyes, his voice cracking with emotion. “Isn’t that a beautiful line?” he asked. I wish now that I could remember which one.

He could have entered the space of eager graduate students arrogantly, even cruelly, and we likely would have accepted it. Certainly his epic reputation made many of us assume he would be anything but kind, least of all so emotional. Instead he read aloud from one of his favorite stories and burst into tears, as he continued to do throughout the semester. His great empathy and willingness to be vulnerable, not venerated and worshiped, made him a terrific leader of workshop. It is a model, I believe, of how to remain an artist — even when one becomes a kind of cult figure.

I also credit Johnson with giving me the greatest editorial gift, although at first it felt less like a gift and more like a massive moment of embarrassment. One day he announced he had hired actors to read aloud our stories for workshop. Hearing my overly long, overly lyrical story go on and on and on for more than an hour (Four metaphors per page! Overkill!) while I slashed phrases and lines taught me an invaluable lesson: The best way to edit is to read aloud. To this day, I read everything aloud, from short stories to essays to entire book-length manuscripts. So thanks, Denis. You are missed, and you will be remembered.

Rebecca Bengal

Fiction writer and reporter

It was my first fiction teacher, Michael Parker, who turned me onto Denis Johnson in undergrad workshops in Greensboro, North Carolina. Jesus’ Son was the gateway, the pocket-sized paperback with the blackboard cover that I read behind the counter at the bookstore where I worked, a place where I shelved serial romance novels and saved copies of Shotgun News and Hustler for regulars. Reading Jesus’ Son, I felt as I had when I’d first heard the Velvet Underground, from whose lyrics Denis had stolen his title. These were perfect sentences that sliced straight through to the core. Here was a writer acknowledging the things I’d suspected to be true of human beings and the world, confirmed and transformed into bleak, electric language. The words were simultaneously blistering and healing; they stayed with me like scars.

A few years later I was on a plane to Austin, Texas, a place I had never been. We whipped through dense clouds, landed with a sickening thump, and hurtled along the tarmac. I was disoriented and green when I arrived at the Michener Center for Writers as a prospective student. Down the stairs came Denis, whose sentences I knew by heart. He introduced himself, as if he had to, and said, “I was thinking about making a pot of coffee. Want some?” We stood and talked in the kitchen and that day felt like a beautiful augur. In Austin, he was the first person who helped me.

Denis later returned as a visiting writer and I was a student in his fiction workshop. I had not expected the writer of Angels to wear Hawaiian shirts and drive a cherry-red convertible, but who was I to judge? I decided to think of it as a character he was maybe trying out, the Denis Johnson who lived in Austin. I knew that back in Idaho he lived in a remote part of the state near a place named for a local bar, the Good Grief. In class, he was grand and occasionally admonishing, prone to laughter and tears. He hired student actors to read our stories back to us, which I hated at the time. Sometimes he alluded to his past in a far-off way, or spoke of the war-torn places he reported from in Seek, or mentioned his teacher Raymond Carver. In private, talking over stories, he was serious, rigorous, and generous. We sat in his office at Michener and talked about language, the kind of words that exist between people thrown together in certain circumstances of place or misfortune; the kind of language that is never spoken aloud.

A few days after I first met him, Denis invited his students and the visiting prospective fellows over to dinner at his rental in South Austin. Denis and Cindy’s kids drifted in and out of the house, there were plates of spaghetti and salad, and there was a sort of languidness about everything. Off to the side of the kitchen, normally a pantry or a laundry room, was the place Denis wrote. The door had been left slightly open. When you are a young writer you are always looking for clues not only in how to write, but how to be. I remember seeing a small plain table, a stiff uncomfortable-looking chair, a pad of yellow paper, and a typewriter with an index card taped on the wall above. On it, I imagined the three rules he frequently dictated (“Write naked. Write in blood. Write from exile.”) or a quote from Whitman he often recited, though I didn’t let myself look long enough to tell. Some dirty clothes were tossed on the side of a washing machine. I saw Denis just a couple times after our workshop — the years in which he published Train Dreams and Tree of Smoke — and I still try to square the image of that red convertible with the idea of that stark, demanding little room.

Susan Steinberg

Fiction writer, author of Spectacle

In the early 1990s I lived in Boston and worked in a bookstore in Harvard Square. There was a night I went to a talk by T.C. Boyle, and during the Q & A someone asked what we should be reading. Boyle said Jesus’ Son. The bookstore I worked in was about to close down for good, so we didn’t carry Jesus’ Son. I couldn’t find it anywhere else and eventually I forgot about it. A few months later I was in Seattle helping my brother move and I was staying with a friend from college. There was a day my friend was at work and my brother and I were fighting, so I went for a long walk.

This moment is now personally significant, marking the first time I had walked alone aimlessly through a city I didn’t know. I ended up in a bookstore that had one copy of Jesus’ Son that I found while looking for something else. The next day I was in the Seattle airport. I was feeling bad about leaving my brother after our fight, I was feeling bad about a lot of things, so I started Jesus’ Son in a dark mood and read it in its entirety, sitting there, waiting. I’ve heard people say reading something great makes them feel less alone. But reading something great often has the opposite effect on me. With Jesus’ Son, I was acutely aware of my aloneness, even in that crowded airport. Coming out of the book, I remember looking up at the strangers around me. It’s hard to describe the feeling, but I’m thinking of a line from the first story in the collection: “…he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.” Something like frustration. Some beautiful awareness of our limitations. I still can feel it.

Jason Diamond

Editor at Rolling Stone, author of Searching for John Hughes

A few minutes after I saw the news that Denis Johnson had passed away, I took down Angels, his first novel, off my shelf and started to read it for the first time in over a decade. This is something I find myself doing whenever somebody whose art I appreciate passes. A few days earlier, I found myself revisiting Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger after Chris Cornell died, and I binged on more than a few of Nora Ephron’s films after her passing in 2012. This is how I cope.

Johnson’s books are scattered around my apartment. Like so many others, I read the stories in Jesus’ Son at the moment in my life when I found fiction really starting to impact my thinking. I’ve always kept a copy the way some people always have a Bible or specific bottle of Scotch in the house, but this night I decided to go back to the start of his career after reading a few of his poems to get warmed up. I reread the entire book in one sitting.

Angels was a novel that, when I read it at around 24 or 25, I told myself I had to read. Today, I realize maybe I was reading it the wrong way. I was under the influence of Jesus’ Son, and the idea that Johnson — like Lou Reed, who wrote the song the book gets its name from — was sketching a certain kind of person he had observed and wanted to write about; people living on the fringes, messed up people, criminals, junkies, and “weirdos,” as Matt Bell writes in his moving eulogy. I’d thought Johnson was commenting on those people, and nothing else. Like many other things in my twenties, I was so wrong. While he writes about people who are messed up, what becomes clear is that Johnson didn’t necessarily believe we were born sinners, his characters didn’t come out screwed up and weird. They’re victims of America, its weirdness and dysfunction; American dreams turned into nightmares.

Amy Gerstler

Poet, author of Dearest Creature and Scattered at Sea

When I first read Denis Johnson, his poetry and prose knocked the wind out of me in the best way, and his writing has never failed, upon frequent re-readings, to leave me breathless. On every level I love his work: the mind behind it, individual sentences or lines, how he humanizes “twistedness” and all that seethes within his characters, his dark grace in dealing with insane behavior and suffering (including the self-induced variety), his intensity on the page, his gift for making the strange relatable and the relatable strange, and the weird humor that gleams beneath.

I began with the prose. When Jesus Son came out in 1992, I was stunned by the stories’ mix of beauty and harshness, and the way he wielded images. Then I backtracked to the poems. After that, I had to ask myself, how the hell was this guy so good at both genres? Had anybody ever written about being high, caught the glory, hilarity and crazy desolation better than him? When I read his work, I re-learn that writing about extreme states or violence or being under the influence never need be limited to just that, but can be a deep dive into the hallucinatorily human, into our wildest capacities. His fiction goes way beyond ‘poetic prose’ for me. Car Crash While Hitchhiking and Emergency are two of my favorite stories, ever. I’ve never read a poem of his that didn’t give me a wonderful shiver.

Christian Kiefer

Novelist, author of The Animals

I’ve been looking over my friend Denis Johnson’s writing in the silence after his demise, marveling anew at the moments of grace in his work, the way he turns toward the spirit, the divine, just when it seems that to do so would be, is, utterly impossible. Yet is it not true that whenever we reach those moments in his books and stories and poems and plays, what we come to understand is that he has been quietly, deftly, directing us toward our own souls with every scene, with every sentence, with every word? So that when the great surprise comes and we stand face to face with that bright light that is — what? God? the universe? our very selves? — there is no great surprise at all. He has been telling us all along that it is coming: a reckoning which is, in the end, deliverance itself. Oh how he hands you the great gift you think is a bullet, a feather, a small smooth pile of pills like tiny blue stones, a whole collection of objects which, when you look later, is only your own heart held wild and beating in your hands. What a marvel you were, my friend. And so what a marvel you will ever be. Godspeed. In those darkest of nights I will forever think of your light. You saved me. God knows you saved us all.

The Essay Will Feel Like It’s Killing You

Photo by Curtis MacNewton (CC BY-SA 2.0)

At Catapult, Porochista Khakpour reflects on her desire to write — about anything other than being Iranian-American. Deeply conflicted about speaking from her perspective as an Iranian-American, she says, “Remind yourself that when the performance is honest two things happen: The essay will feel like it’s killing you and the ending will not be what you thought it might be. Learn to respect more than resent those parallel planes of living and the rendering of living.”

Begin by writing about anything else. Go to the public library in your Los Angeles suburb and ask for all the great books people in New York City read, please. Wonder if the reference librarian knows a living writer and ask her what would a living writer read—and an American one, please. When she realizes you are still single digits and asks, Where are your parents, young lady? don’t answer and demand Shakespeare and take that big book home and cry because you can’t understand it. Tomorrow, go back to reading the dictionary a letter at a time and cry because you can’t learn the words. (Ask your father if you will cry daily for the rest of your life and remember his answer decades later: When you are older you will care less about things.) Pray to a god you still believe in that you will once more avoid ESL with all its teachers who look to you with the shine of love but the stench of pity: refugee, resident alien, political asylum, immigrant, foreigner the only words you know that you don’t want to know.

Write about it and make sure you keep writing about it. Plan out three more books and call it the end; each and every one is about Iranian-America. Write all the secrets like every essay is a suicide note: one that reveals your Zoroastrian name is a fraud and you are a Muslim and watch everyone applaud it, from all sorts of people online to your own father who gave you your name. Wonder if anyone is reading properly. Put “Iranian American refugee” in your Twitter profile, the way all the other refugees are doing. Question if this is empowering. Imagine you’ve been throwing yourself off a cliff every time you’ve been writing, but it’s hard to know if you are killing yourself or trying to fly. Wonder if a cliché like that is all you’ve got. Wonder if the death you’ve been imagining is just you becoming a bad writer.

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Publishing’s New Four-Letter Word

Writing in LitHub, Alana Massey responds to Emily Gould’s essay on publishing’s “niceness” requirement for women to ask: what’s wrong with nice? Shouldn’t we ask men to be more nice, rather than giving women permission to be less so?

The idea that writers are good at writing and little else perpetuates a mythology that we are special creatures whose agility with language renders us more deeply attuned to the human condition than others and therefore exempt from doing the bare minimum: answering questions in full sentences at industry events and talking about our work when we are, indeed, at work. It is the decency of returned emails and speaking to your tablemates at a party thrown to honor you. Such decency is demanded in every other profession on Earth besides being a Real Housewife or playing in the NHL, and I don’t think that just because the men in our industry eschew this in favor of offensive levels of self-regard makes it courageous or authentic in women. This decency need not be the over-indulgence of cookies or new friendships on demand, but a manifestation of that thing we are allegedly so good at: seeing the human condition and responding to it with just enough tenderness to connect but not attach.

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Jenny Diski Remembers Doris Lessing: Why Can’t People Be Sensible?

Peter Lessing died in his flat, of a heart attack, in the early hours of 13 October 2013, aged 66. His mother, Doris Lessing, died four weeks later, on 17 November 2013, aged 94, in the adjoining house. An interconnecting door had been cut into the shared wall and was always left open. This very nearly tells the story of their lives as mother and son, in the sense that we know our planet is part of our universe, but there remain gaping holes of incomprehension that no one is going to be able to fill no matter how much detail their story is told in.

At London Review of Books, Jenny Diski reflects on Doris Lessing’s hierarchy of writing, life, and motherhood.

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Bona-Fide Celebrities: Nikki Finke on the Late ’80s ‘Literary Brat Pack’

Cover image from Bright Lights, Big City via jaymcinerney.com

In 1987, a young Nikki Finke profiled the “Literary Brat Pack” (choice Brat Pack members included Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney, of Less Than Zero and Bright Lights, Big City fame, respectively) for The Los Angeles Times. Read more…

James Salter on Writing and the Open Road

INTERVIEWER

Does the travel help your writing?

SALTER

It’s essential for me. There is no situation like the open road, and seeing things completely afresh. I’m used to traveling. It’s not a question of meeting or seeing new faces particularly, or hearing new stories, but of looking at life in a different way. It’s the curtain coming up on another act.

I’m not the first person who feels that it’s the writer’s true occupation to travel. In a certain sense, a writer is an exile, an outsider, always reporting on things, and it is part of his life to keep on the move. Travel is natural. Furthermore, many men of ancient times died on the road, and the image is a strong one. Kings of Arabia, when they are buried, are not given great tombs. They are buried on the side of the road beneath ordinary stones. One thing I saw in England long ago struck me and has always stayed with me. I was going to visit someone in a little village, walking from the railway station across the fields, and I saw an old man, perhaps in his seventies, with a pack on his back. He looked to be a vagabond, dignified, somewhat threadbare, marching along with his staff. A dog trotted at his heels. It was an image I thought should be the final one of a life. Traveling on.

James Salter, in an interview with poet Edward Hirsch from The Paris Review. Hirsch interviewed Salter in late summer 1992 and the interview appeared in the Review’s Summer 1993 issue. Salter died June 19, 2015, at the age of 90.

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Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Thoughts on a Gentrifying San Francisco, In Honor of His 96th Birthday

Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Robert Duncan, 1978. Photo by Gary Stevens

There was no electricity above the ground floor, and he had a pot-bellied stove for heat. There was a whole new school of poets brewing, and there were pioneering artists around the School of Fine Arts who later became famous as San Francisco Figurative painters and abstract expressionists. It was the last frontier, and they were dancing on the edge of the world.

Fifty years later, he awoke one fine morning like Rip Van Winkle, and found himself again with his sea bag on his shoulder looking for anywhere he could live and work. The new owner of his old flat now wanted $4,500 a month, and many of his friends were also evicted, for it seemed their buildings weren’t owned by San Franciscans anymore, but by faceless investors with venture capital. Corporate monoculture had wiped out any unique sense of place, turning the “island city” into an artistic theme park without artists. And he was on the street.

—An excerpt of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s 2001 prose poem “The Poetic City That Was,” which appeared in San Francisco Poems. Ferlinghetti turned 96 today. He is a longtime and legendary San Franciscan, his name synonymous with a former version of the city. He cofounded City Lights—the city’s iconic independent bookstore and literary press—in 1953, and was arrested in 1956 on obscenity charges after City Lights published Allen Ginsberg’s HowlYou can see him read a section of “The Poetic City That Was” aloud in this KQED video segment about Ferlinghetti’s perspective on the San Francisco’s  changing landscape.

Read the poem

Jeffrey Eugenides Imagines His Favorite Writers Together at a Dinner Party

You’re organizing a dinner party of writers and can invite three authors, dead or alive. Who’s coming?

First I call Shakespeare. “Who else is coming?” Shakespeare asks. “Tolstoy,” I answer. “I’m busy that night,” Shakespeare says. Next I call Kafka, who agrees to come. “As long as you don’t invite Tolstoy.”  “I already invited Tolstoy,” I tell him. “But Kundera’s coming. You like Milan. And you guys can speak Czech.”  “I speak German,” Kafka corrects me.

When Tolstoy hears that Kundera’s coming, he drops out. (Something about an old book review.) So finally I call Joyce, who’s always available. When we get to the restaurant, Kafka wants a table in back. He’s afraid of being recognized. Joyce, who’s already plastered, says, “If anyone’s going to be recognized, it’s me.” Kundera leans over and whispers in my ear, “People might recognize us too if we went around with a cane.”

The waiter arrives. When he asks about food allergies, Kafka hands him a written list. Then he excuses himself to go to the bathroom. As soon as he’s gone, Kundera says, “The problem with Kafka is that he never got enough tail.” We all snicker. Joyce orders another bottle of wine. Finally, he turns and looks at me through his dark glasses. “I’m reading your new book,” he says. “Oh?” I say. “Yes,” says Joyce.

Jeffrey Eugenides, from an interview in the New York Times Book ReviewOctober 4, 2012.

How Truman Capote Compiled the Guest List for His Famous Black and White Ball, According to Gloria Steinem

Vogue, January 1967, courtesy Yale Library

Truman Capote’s legendary 1966 Black and White Ball still stands as one of the greatest parties of all time. Hot off the success of In Cold Blood, Capote billed the party as an “all-time spectacular present” to himself, inviting everyone who was anyone and demanding they appear in masks and black-and-white attire, a color scheme inspired by Cecil Beaton’s Ascot scene for My Fair Lady.

What gave the Black and White Ball “its intoxicating piquancy,” according to Amy Fine Collins, was the fact that Capote’s guest list had “flung together, in a gilt-edged melting pot, the most alluring power brokers in the worlds of high society, politics, the arts, and Hollywood—disconnected universes that collided, if not for the first time that evening, then at least with unprecedented force.”

The Ball also found an unlikely chronicler in Gloria Steinem, an invited guest who had made Capote’s acquaintance after she interviewed him for Glamour the year before. Steinem wrote a feature on the party for Vogue in January 1967 in which she described the luminaries, feathers, masks, ball gowns, and jewels all whirling around the room: “The effect was like some blend of Hollywood, the Court of Louis XIV, a medieval durbar, and pure Manhattan.” (The full article is not online, but is excerpted below.)

Descriptions of unlikely collisions between worlds are one of the highlights of Steinem’s piece: the detective hired to guard the ladies’ jewelry asking Lee Radziwill to dance; Lynda Bird Johnson’s Secret Service men looking unmistakably Secret Service-y despite their black tie attire and requisite masks; and Beverly and Norman Mailer creating a dance move that involved balancing on an invisible tightrope. Also of particular interest is Steinem’s description of how the party’s legendary guest list came together:

The guest list of five hundred and forty—inscribed painstakingly and by hand, like all his writing, in a ten-cent lined notebook—reflected the full range of twenty years’ writing and travel: one Maharajah, a Kansas detective, half a dozen Presidential advisors, businessmen, editors, a lot of writers and performers, some artists, four composers, several heiresses, one country doctor, and a sprinkling of royalties, with defunct titles attached to very undefunct people. Thunderous publicity which leaned heavily on the Maharajah-heiress side of things, soon made it the Party of the Year—possibly of Several Years—leaving the host and everyone involved some combination of pleased and stunned.

As the day approached, there was a growing conviction—false but intriguing—that the invitation list was not just friends but a new Four Hundred of the World. Pressure from would-be guests became enormous, especially from those who were strangers to the host but felt their social status alone entitled them to go. Truman resisted, but the requests, even threats, finally forced him to cut off his phone and retire to the country.

The week before the party, international guests began arriving in New York like family-of-the-groom for a wedding and caused the same string of accommodation problems and pre-party parties. A whimsical rumor that we were all being called together for some purpose—probably the announcement of the End of the World—spread by magic or telephone. Jerry Robbins wondered if we weren’t the list of those to be shot first by the Red Guard. Kenneth Galbraith said no, not as long as he was on it.

See Also:

1. “A Night to Remember: Inside the Black-and-White Ball” (Amy Fine Collins, Vanity Fair, July 1996)

2. “A Brief History of Epic Parties: A Reading List” (Michelle Legro, Longreads, December 2013)