Writer’s Desk: Finding a Nook

Brooklyn's Central Library - a sweet place to write (Library of Congress).

Brooklyn’s Central Library – a sweet place to write (Library of Congress).

Finding the right space to write in is always a challenge. Some people could write in a highway median; others need dead silence. Most of us are somewhere in that Goldilocks in-between.

For all those New York-based writers (or just those coming through), here’s some ideas for great writing spaces that the Times culled from some local playwrights:

Dan Lauria (Dinner with the Boys) — “All the rewrites on my play were done sitting at the Westway Diner in a booth late at night. It’s 24 hours. I get all the coffee I want.”

Michael Weller (Doctor Zhivago) — “I tend to write on subways.”

Laura Eason (The Undeniable Sound of Right Now) — “… the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza. The third floor has a music and art room where there are these great tables … You’re surrounded by humanity that I find inspirational and beautiful and sad and complicated.”

Reader’s Corner: Great Library Reading Rooms

The library at Paris's La Sorbonne (Zantastik).

The library at Paris’s La Sorbonne (Zantastik).

Even in our brave new online world, libraries are still one of the best repositories for research and reading. Yes, most things can be gotten online, but there are times when the physical proximity of materials provides new insights that strictly electronic pursuits do not.

They are also simply great places to read. The good folks at Read It Forward have presented here nine of the greatest and grandest library reading rooms from around the world. Some are beautiful enough that it’s hard to imagine not being too distracted to even turn the page.

Writer’s Desk: Turning Words to Sparks

Even when a piece of writing isn’t about writing it can inspire. Take, for example, Marge Piercy’s poem “The birthday of the world.” It’s a big, declamatory piece all about calling oneself to task for what’s been done and not done for the world and others. 

Here’s how she ends it:

Give me weapons 
of minute destruction. Let
my words turn into sparks.

Smashingly good stuff.

Writer’s Desk: Today’s Prompts

The thing with writer’s block is that there’s no way to get around it but by writing. That’s where the prompt can come in handy.

At Poets & Writers, they have a handy resource that churns up a steady stream of prompts to get you going on that project, regardless of what it is, from creative nonfiction (always a tricky category) to fiction.

Here’s a few:

This week, take a straightforward scene you’ve been working on and insert an awkward mistake made either by a major or minor character.

Do you have a time period you routinely set your stories in? This week, choose a story you’re struggling with and reimagine it in a different decade or century.

This week, write about a time when you were out of your element, immersed in a community or culture that you felt was very different from your own. Observe your own behavior as an anthropologist would.

You might want to toss the results away when you’re done. But at least you’ll be writing.

Readers’ Corner: Cervantes Found

cervantes1It looks as though the grave of the Western world’s first true novelist might have been found at a 17th century convent in downtown Madrid. According to NewsHour:

Cervantes died the same week as William Shakespeare in 1616. He had requested to be buried at the convent where he was found. Luis Avial, the georadar expert on the team, said at a news conference on Tuesday that Cervantes’ remains will be reburied at the same convent, after a tomb has been built…

Cervantes didn’t just create the modern novel with the satirical mock-epic (and bestseller) Don Quixote—Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu is normally credited with penning the first novel, The Tale of Genji, in the 11th century—he also lived a life that most novelists could only dream of.

One of the more notable episodes came when the larger-than-life writer’s years of incarceration by Moorish pirates was put to an end in part by a ransom paid by the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians, the order of nuns whose convent ultimately became his resting place.

In Books: Richard Price’s ‘The Whites’

The Whites-coverEven though The Whites was technically published under Richard Price’s genre pen name Harry Brandt, the publisher didn’t even bother leaving his real name off the thing. It might be a crime novel instead of straight realist fiction and a couple hundred pages shorter than his usual. But the style is unmistakably that of the writer who brought such lived-in detail to novels like The Wanderers and Lush Life and his scripts for The Wire. This time, it’s just a little tighter, more razored. So in short: great stuff.

My review of The Whites is at PopMatters:

Fitting his moniker, Billy Graves is a cop working the night shift. Exhaustion is his permanent state, eyes falling out of his head from the damage being done to his circadian rhythms. All the caffeine in the world, those long-after-midnight energy-drink bodega injections, can’t keep his thought processes straight. As a result, he’s a little slow on the uptake when things start getting squirrelly. But, then, maybe he always was on the slower side…

You can read the full first chapter here.

In Books: Ursula K. Le Guin is Right About ‘The Buried Giant’

buriedgiant-coverIn Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel The Buried Giant, the author of Remains of the Day takes on a different kind of period setting: A fantastical yesteryear in which ogres roam the land, King Arthur is only recently departed, and a great dragon threatens the land.

It’s not the easiest fit for Ishiguro, who never quite seems comfortable in his own setting. He continually holds the reader’s hand, taking them aside for background notes on what they are witnessing instead of just letting the story flow. The flatness of his language, which was more appropriate to the subject of a novel like Never Let Me Go and its story of stunted humanity, here keeps the reader from ever engaging with his deeper, fascinating-in-theory themes of memory and selective amnesia.

When Ishiguro was interviewed about working in a different metier than he was used to, he seemed uneasy that readers might think of the novel as being fantasy. Which, of course, it was. You wouldn’t think that authors would still hold such prejudices against genre, given how porous the borders between literary fiction and fantasy and science fiction have become. Just see the reaction to Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road a few years back. Now everybody can play.

Ursula K. Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness) took exception with Ishiguro’s defensiveness, as well as his seeming nervousness, “Are they going to say this is fantasy?”

I respect what I think he was trying to do, but for me it didn’t work. It couldn’t work. No writer can successfully use the ‘surface elements’ of a literary genre — far less its profound capacities — for a serious purpose, while despising it to the point of fearing identification with it. I found reading the book painful. It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, “Are they going say I’m a tight-rope walker?”

Le Guin is right in her judgment. Ishiguro’s inability to commit to the wild strangeness of his story kills any joy or mystery the reader might have found in it. Perhaps the natural chilliness of Ishiguro’s prose makes it a better fit for certain other types of genre writing (again, like he was able to deliver much more powerfully in the mournful science fiction of Never Let Me Go).

The Buried Giant is fantasy. It’s just not very good fantasy.

There’s an excerpt from the novel here. You can also see Ishiguro reading from it here.