Empathy for the Reader

by Kristen Holt Browning

I’ve never been a fan of the “books are good for you” school of thought. Books are not broccoli, and poems won’t make you virtuous.

Plenty of social scientists disagree with me. Recent studies found that readers of literary fiction do better at recognizing, understanding, and inferring others’ feelings and emotions, while children who read a lot display higher levels of emotional intelligence, and increased empathy (http://science.sciencemag.org/content/342/6156/377; https://readingpartners.org/blog/reading-improves-kids-emotional-intelligence-increases-empathy/).

This is all good news, but literature shouldn’t be the vegetable of the arts. Must everything improve us? Can’t a novel, or a short story, or a poem simply be enjoyed, absorbed, and lingered over? Isn’t it enough to notice and admire the suspenseful plot, the gorgeous language, the finely depicted protagonist?

Then I read Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers, and it convinced me that there might be something to this books-make-you-a-better-person thing.

Half of the chapters take place in Chicago in 1985, and feature Yale, Nico, Richard, and the rest of their group of friends, all young gay men, as well as Fiona, Nico’s sister. Nearly all of these men are struggling with or affected by HIV/AIDS in some way. It was a sad shock to read The Great Believers and be reminded of how common, and commonly devastating, death was for this cohort just a few decades ago.

downloadFiona plays the central role in the alternating chapters. She is searching for her estranged daughter, Claire, in Paris in 2015. As we flash back and forth between young Fiona in the 80s—standing by her dying brother even as their family disowns him, nursing her friends throughout their illnesses—and contemporary Fiona, we gradually understand  the trauma of being the one left alive, and left behind. How do you live in a world populated by ghosts?

Makkai’s language isn’t particularly elevated or notable. It’s a fairly long book, and at first I didn’t want to read it: another overstuffed, earnest, well-meaning novel.

But as I read over the course of several days, I felt myself expanding, in my pity and despair and tenderness for these people. I  started to open to the terrible possibility of living during a plague, of dying pointlessly—or, of trying to make a life in the aftermath of devastation. I slid into the lives of these suffering, loving, laughing, crying people. In other words, I empathized with them.

So, while I distrust empathy as a reason to read, I value it as a side effect of reading. If a book can entertain us and bring us into the world of another, that’s only all to the good. At a time like this, marked by so much rage and distrust, anything that grows empathy is necessary, and welcome. We could all use a little more broccoli on our plates.

Brain in a Basket: Interview with Sarah Herrington

by Julie Chibbaro

A few months ago, I crashed physically: I couldn’t get out of bed, I couldn’t look at my phone or computer, couldn’t be near electronics of any kind, couldn’t even wear my step counter. I had been working hard—clearly, too hard—on my novel for months and months. I had forced myself to sit at my desk for 6 to 8 hours a day, crouched over my computer, churning out pages, even when I didn’t feel like it. I was angry that the book wasn’t coming as fast or as well as I wanted it to. And, maybe I was somehow punishing myself for not being the writer I’d imagined I would, and should be.

Later, huddled in bed with my physical pain, I realized I’d suffered a disconnect between my brain and my body. It wasn’t the first time that had happened to me. So I decided to talk to friend, yogi and author Sarah Herrington about how to approach the relationship between my writing and my physical body.

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Sarah is a yoga teacher and author of Wanderlust: A Modern Yogi’s Guide to Discovering Your Best Self; Om Schooled: A Teacher’s Guide to Yoga in Schools; and Essential Yoga. She is also a poet, and a fabulous journalist whose work has appeared in the LA Times, the New York Times, Interview magazine, Tin House, and Writer’s Digest, among many other publications.

Here are her thoughts on writing and the body, and other topics:

GLB: As a writer, I often feel like a brain in a basket, at times completely forgetting I have a body. You’ve written a number of essays on writing and the body. What does my body have to do with my writing?

Sarah: I have felt that way a lot! As a teen I had my nose in books and often forgot I had a body at all. When I discovered yoga it not only helped heal that split (the word “yoga” means “union,” after all), my writing practice changed. In fact, one of the reasons I started exploring yoga is that, after my first class, I felt a surge of creative energy and went home and wrote all night.

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In my experience it’s helpful to get out of my head and into my heart and body, where I believe the origins of stories live. The body records stories in the form of sensations, and to tap into their power before approaching the realm of language, to me, makes the words more true. And I want my words to be as true as possible. I often practice meditation or yoga before going to my computer. They both quiet my mind, so I can hear my spirit and gut, and hopefully write from there. Getting in touch with my body helps me sense my way into the subconscious as well, which has a lot of interesting writing material. I think writers’ minds are often on fire with ideas and to settle the mind through a body-centered practice helps you focus and follow through.

I’ll also say writing can be quite physically rigorous—think wrists and back. Dance, yoga, walking, taking a nap—something to get into the body—creates a sense of ease which then will hopefully let me write longer.

GLB: Your topics are wide-ranging. For example, you’ve written about ethics in yoga practice. That’s a fascinating subject! Why is this an important issue to write about?

Sarah Herrington

Sarah: Because there are questionable things—and worse—happening! And I believe in the power of talking, and writing, about what is in the shadows. As a woman in yoga and meditation spaces I’ve both experienced and been witness to other practitioners—mostly women—being touched inappropriately, complicated student/ teacher relationships, disrespectful language, and other potentially shady behavior.

I wrote about ethics in student/teacher relationships in particular for the New York Times and Yoga Journal before the #metoo movement hit, and I’m very thankful to see conversations expanding, and communities more consciously addressing this. All seekers, regardless of gender expression, have the right to learn and explore. Of course I feel the same about literary spaces, as well.

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GLB: Can you talk a little about what other writers have influenced you? What has led you on this particular writing path that you’re on?

Sarah: I think of the word “lineage” a lot, because it’s important in yoga and Buddhism, but also art and writing. I feel I’m part of a lineage of both women writers who I admire for using their voice in societies that tried to silence them, and of writers who practiced both Eastern contemplative practices and creative ones. For example, poets and writers like Anne Waldman, Jane Hirshfield, and Allen Ginsberg both meditated and wrote. These people moved between silence and language, and that’s my jam. Then there’s Walt Whitman- great yogi poet who explored the interconnectedness of things. Emerson and Thoreau, whose Transcendentalist work drips with yogic philosophy. There’s also my mentors: Francesca Lia Block, who encouraged heart-centered creativity, and Susan Shapiro, who fired me up and helped me fall in love with essays and being more honest in my work.

There are so many writers, dead and alive, who feel like family, and depending on what’s going on in my life, different ones speak to me in different ways. In this way I’m never alone.

BIO: Sarah Herrington’s essays have appeared in the New York Times LATimes,  Poets and Writers Magazine,  Tin House, Interview Magazine, Slice, San Francisco Chronicle, Writer’s Digest, Yoga Journal and other outlets, and she was selected as one of eight emerging women poets by Oprah Magazine. She is the author of a collection of poetry, Always Moving (Bowery Books, 2011) and several nonfiction books, including Om Schooled (Addriya Press, 2012), Essential Yoga (Fair Winds Press, 2013). She worked as editor/co-author on Wanderlust: Find Your True North (Rodale, 2015).  She has worked with Girls Write Now mentoring teen girl writers, Gotham Writers Workshop offering student support and coordinating events, and found family at the Bowery Poetry Club. She has been a visiting writer at UCLA, The New School, University of Central Florida and other institutions. She currently works at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

 

Tony Earley: Writing Past the Sucker Punch

By Flora Stadler


Most writers I know would say their relationship to writing is complicated. Periods of inspiration make the world feel as if it’s unfolding just for you. But inspiration comes when it wants, a lot like sadness. Tony Earley, author of the beautiful novel Jim the Boy, and its equally dazzling sequel The Blue Star, spoke with me about his own relationship to inspiration and sadness. Our conversation was more than a single question-and-answer, but the fundamental question was:

How does depression affect your writing process?

“What it’s turning out to be, if you look at my work, there’s usually a big gap in books and that’s due primarily to depressive episodes. So I’ll go through two to three years at a time and write very little. My writing is through windows of lucidity between bouts of depression. It feels exhilarating—’Wow, I’ve forgotten how much fun this is!’—and I remember why I started doing it.

My stories tend to be about wistful, sad people… I guess my characters are often kind of emotionally me, if not recognizably autobiographically me. I think when I first started writing about Jim, I just killed the father off—because my father wasn’t a great father and it wasn’t easy growing up in his house. But I replaced the father with the three really kind uncles. What I think I did was I wrote the childhood that I wished I’d had.

[The depression] always kind of sucker punches me, because when I come out of it and I’m writing and the writing’s going so well, I think, ‘OK, this time it’s going to last.’ It’s kind of sudden, but also it’s not something I realized that happened until I looked back at it in retrospect and thought, ‘Oh I’m starting to feel better.’ Until suddenly one day, I’m starting to write and my head is filled with ideas.

There’s this sort of narrow band of good level-ness, and whenever I can get into that band, that’s when I write. I tend not to write after I’ve published because I’m just so giddy, and I tend not to write when I’m depressed. I’ve come to accept that that’s just part of the deal, and at this point I don’t see any new deal coming, so I’m learning to accept that this is just the process. And if it means publishing a book every eight years instead of every three or four years, that’s just how it’s going to be. I wrote a story in July and it was the first fiction I’d written at all in two years. And during that two years, I still teach and I’m still a husband and a father, but I’m not an artist.

I sort of like talking about this in that if there’s a possibility that hearing my story might help somebody else—if there is a benefit to this, that’s the benefit. If there’s anyone who, for whatever ungodly reason, romanticizes depression in artists—that really hits me wrong. But I have good radar for fellow travelers, particularly students, and I’ll pull them aside and initiate a conversation and maybe help somebody else get farther down the road.”

Tony Earley is the Samuel Milton Professor of English at Vanderbilt University and the author of several books, including the story collections, Here We Are in Paradise and Mr. Tall, as well as the novels Jim the Boy and The Blue Star. His books can be ordered from Binnacle Books in Beacon.

Burning Questions About Book Publishing: From start to finish, how does a book end up on a bookstore shelf?

By Ruta Rimas

As a publishing professional, I’m often asked about the process of book-making, how a Word document is transformed into a beautiful, typeset, bound, physical object that one can purchase.

The answer seems obvious —  write, send off the files to the printer et voilà! Book! — but many are surprised by how complicated and time-consuming the creation of a book can be. The general process outlined below can take between one to two years, though it can vary depending on the needs of the book and what is selling in the marketplace (e.g., a publisher will “crash” a book and speed up this process if they think a book needs to hit the shelves sooner).

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How does a book go from your brain to Binnacle?

Many different people have a hand in book creation; once the book is written, it’s touched by agents, acquiring editors, assistants, managing editors, production editors, designers, marketers, publicists, sales reps, warehouse staff, and more. Writing is solitary but book creation is a team effort.

How a Book Is Made

  1. Manuscript is written. This step is the most obvious. There is no book without words strung together by a writer.
  2. Agent offers to represent writer. Posts 1 and 2 address agents.
  3. Editor acquires book Check out post 3 for an overview of that process.
  4. Editor edits. Working as a one-on-one creative writing workshop, the acquiring editor will often send a letter and notes on the manuscript to the author, making revision suggestion on aspects like plot, characters, arcs, continuity issues.
  5. Manuscript is finished. After a few rounds of revision, the manuscript is sent into managing editorial and the managing editor begins copyediting and proofreading. At the same time, the Book cover is designed. The book cover is generated fairly early in the process as it is the first material that the sales teams shares with their accounts, like Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Independent Book Stores, etc.
  6. Author addresses copyeditors questions. Working from a master Word file created from the copyeditor, the author will go through the pages and address any outstanding issues, including grammar. Most publishers use the track changes function in Word for this step.
  7. Manuscript is sent to design. This step is a fun one: the interiors of the book, the galley pages, are laid out.
  8. Advance Readers Copies are created. These are early bound galleys, sometimes referred to as ARCs, and they look like paperback books. Publicity, marketing, and the author are able to send ARCs to reviewers and to others to generate early buzz. Generally, these are available 6-8 months before a book is on sale.
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    This is an ARC of a book that publishes as a hardcover in December 2018. Note that the back has a section dedicated to list the marketing campaign.
  9. The production editor schedules the book at the printer. Working closely with editorial, design, and managing editorial, contacts the printer to set up the printing schedule for ARCs, jacket proofs, and final books. Many publishers work with international printers, usually in China or India. Some books are printed domestically, depending on how quickly they are needed. This scheduling can become complicated during certain times of year, like Chinese New Year, when overseas printers close for a few weeks.
  10. The books ship from the printer and are warehoused. The printer will place books on ocean liners to arrive at US ports. Trucks will pick up the boxes and drive them to publisher warehouses. From the warehouse, the books ship to booksellers, distribution centers, and other facilities.
  11. Books are delivered to the store, shelved by staff, and ready to buy!

This list addresses the physical production of the book but it doesn’t outline everything that is happening simultaneously with nearly every step: Sales meetings! Marketing and publicity discussions! Licensing opportunities! That will be the subject of a future post in the Burning Questions about Book Publishing series.

If you have any additional questions about book publishing, please ask in the comments and those questions may become the topic of another post in this series, too.

Let’s Get Political

by Kristen Holt Browning

Politics and writing: do they mix? Up until recently, I would have said “no.” I thought works of fiction and poetry that overtly articulated political opinions or worldviews were artless and heavy handed. 

But it’s 2018, and regardless of whether you’re liberal, conservative, or somewhere in between, politics is everywhere. A very smart teacher recently told me, “All poets are contemporary. You write in the present you live in.” Her point was that your work has to speak, both formally and linguistically, to your era. If it doesn’t, it isn’t honest, or relevant. And if we live in an era saturated by politics, how can our writing not absorb and reflect that reality?

On the face of it, the new novel Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg has nothing to do with contemporary politics. It’s presented as the memoir of Jack Sheppard, famed eighteenth-century thief and jailbreaker, who served as the inspiration for The Threepenny Opera’s Mack the Knife (or, maybe you know him from the Bobby Darin song).

Jack is raised as a girl, although, upon reaching adolescence, he (his preferred pronoun) takes to wearing male clothing and taping down his breasts. Bess, his lover, is a prostitute of South Asian descent. This is a multicultural, polyglot world, where people decry, undercut, and push against the social, economic, racial, and gender constraints and categories put upon them—something that is happening as urgently as ever in the twenty-first century. Confessions of the Fox is a propulsive story that encompasses grand themes of identity and individual self-determination, and that also happens to couch its plea for a rethinking of our ideas about gender and diversity in gorgeously inventive language.

Good poetry pushes language as far as it can bend without breaking it completely. It’s the opposite of bland and simplistic political sloganeering. In Morgan Parker’s collection There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé, pop culture intertwines with urgent political rage to present a wide-ranging overview of black womanhood in contemporary America, as in the opening of “Poem on Beyoncé’s Birthday”:

Drinking cough syrup from a glass shaped

Like your body I wish was mine but as dark

As something in my mind telling me

I’m not woman enough for these days

Parker offers a wide historical range of black female experience, as when she writes a poem on the Hottentot Venus that manages to take in slavery, capitalism, and white domination of black bodies:

No one worries about me

because I am getting paid.

I am here to show you

who you are, to cradle

your large skulls

and remind you

you are perfect. Mother America,

unleash your sons.

Everything beautiful, you own.

Rosenberg and Parker are both expanding the inclusive limits of writing. Their work is political in its topics and obsessions, in the stories it chooses to honor and represent. This, I think, is how politics is best embedded in writing: by incorporating the entirely of one’s world, insisting on the necessity of one’s desires and concerns, and thereby expanding the worlds of others.