Friday, April 30, 2010


My favorite aspect of writing is creating voice.  I like for each of my characters to have a distinctive way of thinking and speaking.
Creating children’s and teenagers’ voices is especially challenging because their vocabularies are necessarily limited.  Little kids don’t know a lot of words; teenagers often speak inartfully (“Like, um, yeah.”) and profanely.  (There are only so many times you can use “bitch” and “asshole” in a young-adult novel.)  Somehow, you have to give the impression of child-speak or teen-speak without relying too heavily on the words children and teens actually use when they are sitting at your dining room table telling you why peas are disgusting and why, by the way, you should buy better snacks and you don’t know anything.

Another part of this is conveying character through voice.  The way a character speaks is the best way for a writer to tell readers something about her.  Is anybody watching this season’s “The Amazing Race”?  You know those two brothers, Jet and Cord?   Their preferred exclamation is, “Good gravy!”  What does this tell us?  That they are polite (at least on camera), that they are unafraid—proud, even—of being different, that they keep their cool under intense pressure.  All this from just two words.  (I should say that while Jet and Cord seem like lovely young men, they would be terrible characters in a book.  I have no idea which one is which.  Real people can be similar to each other, but characters have to be distinct and well differentiated.)

My favorite writers use voice to good effect.  Mona Simpson (ANYWHERE BUT HERE) comes to mind.  Also Philip Roth and Jennifer Egan.  Nicholson Baker’s THE EVERLASTING STORY OF NORY is an adult book about a nine-year-old girl, written in the third person.  Baker gets nine-year-old girls so well that he actually disappears. You forget the book is written by a middle-age man.
It’s not just that Baker gets nine-year-old girls.  He gets this particular nine-year-old girl.  Nory is kind to a classmate who is bullied, she worries about aphids that are eaten by ladybugs, she is suspicious of kids who “tell stories a certain way.”  She is at once like all other nine-year-olds and different from all other nine-year-olds: her very own particular self.  It is an achievement.  (I recommend the book if you love language and character, not so much if you are a fan of plots.  Not much happens.)

I am working on a book right now that takes place in Missouri.  People in Missouri speak differently from people in California.  I want to get it just right without beating readers over the head with it.  Not easy, but that’s the fun part of being a writer.  (The not-fun part is sitting in front of the computer for two days trying to figure out whether Danny should like Cap’n Crunch or Fruit Loops.)

It doesn’t sound like much, but if you like reading about believable, authentic characters who, somewhere along the line, turn into believable, authentic people, it’s a big deal.

Like, um, yeah.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Thoughts While Sitting in the Doctor’s Office

--I am okay with the old-fashioned formality that used to attach to the doctor-patient relationship. I want my doctor to be authoritative and wise, and to the extent that calling him “Doctor” furthers this notion, I am not put off. I don’t want to be his friend. I don’t want to call him “Todd.”

--Doctors are explorers, mapping uncharted land. They are 49ers, prospecting in faraway territory for something priceless and elusive. Doctors are spelunkers. (“Let’s go down there! And bring a camera!”)

--At a certain point in your life, you are going to end up entrusting your physical health to someone who was riding a Big Wheel during the Reagan Administration. At first it seems fabulously risky, but you get used to it. It is a strange rite of passage, one of the first times you are able to acknowledge that someone younger knows more than you do.

--It is impossible not to look at other people in the waiting room and wonder what is wrong with them.

--I wish the nurse who takes my blood pressure would stop talking about her son who is doing Jazz Studies at Chico.

--On the exam room wall: graphic illustrations of normal sinus cavities, written exhortations to get your colonoscopy, a sign reminding all health-care practitioners to wash their hands. There is nothing to read except a back issue of “Modern Maturity.” I don’t read it because it might be germ-y: a sick person might have touched it last. In doctors’ offices, I push open doors with my shoulder and slather anti-bacterial cleanser on my hands when I get back to the car.

-- It is inordinately important to me that my doctor believe I am smart. I am sure this has something to do with the fact that my father was a doctor. (I couldn’t care less what my accountant thinks of me.) When he says, That’s a good question, I beam. It is just nuts.

--I never take the elevator at the doctor’s, if I can help it. Germ-y air.

--I love my doctor, but I am always so relieved to be finished talking to him. Is there another person in my life I feel this way about? Can’t think of one.

--A lot of people are sick. A lot. It is easy to forget this if you and your family are healthy. When you go to the doctor’s, you are immediately reminded. It is touching and sobering. I hate being sick more than anything. (The only thing worse is when my kids are sick.) Going to the doctor’s makes me want to be compassionate and kind. I want to hug all those people in the waiting room and tell them it will be all right, except that, of course, I don’t know that it will be all right. (And also, the germs.) For some of us, it will be, and for some of us, it won’t. And that is just brutally awful, something I never get used to.

--A lot of things I go to the doctor for are things people died of seventy years ago. Now there are new drugs and therapies and technologies. It makes you think of all the things we are still dying of that someone will someday cure. Who is she, and what is she doing now? Probably sitting at the kitchen table, coloring.

Friday, April 2, 2010


I am reading Nicholson Baker’s new book, The Anthologist, and finding it wonderfully entertaining. Every night I look forward to getting into bed and diving in. It is like having a conversation with a funny, damaged, massively literate friend.

Nicholson Baker is a remarkable writer. I am certainly not the first person to say so, but I may be one of the first people to have recognized it. He was in a creative writing class I took in college. (I attended a women’s college, Bryn Mawr, which has a cooperative relationship with Haverford College, where Baker went.) I noticed him on the first day of the semester. He was very tall and very handsome, and I had never seen him before (which was noteworthy in and of itself: the two colleges were quite small and “tall and handsome” [at the same time] was a rare and highly visible attribute among Haverford men).

The class was taught by Christopher Davis, who told us that each of us would be required to submit eight pages (I think) of fiction, which would then be critiqued in class. I set confidently to work and produced a short story called “Summer on Goose Island.” Just writing the name fills me with horror. It was the story of a Tragic marriage, with lots of fog-swept sand dunes and execrable dialogue. I was rightly eviscerated in class for its many flaws, none of which I remember, as I threw the story away immediately on returning to my dorm room.

What I do remember, though, was being handed Nicholson Baker’s writing sample. It was twenty-six pages long and I thought, Oh, good Lord. I imagined that it was going to be an obvious attempt at suck-up-ery, that this Nicholson Baker, whoever he was, thought that twenty-six pages was his sure-fire route to an ‘A’.

I don’t remember what he wrote. I just remember that on page six, I looked up and said to my boyfriend, Oh, my God.

I don’t recall how the story was critiqued. I think Christopher Davis knew that he was in the presence of greatness. Nobody said much, except another Haverford student who made an ass out of himself by saying that the story “took too long to get going.” (There is one of these in every writers’ critique group I have ever been in.) Nicholson Baker didn’t say a word. He nodded and made a few notes.

After class, I went over to him and babbled something about how he was a genius. He smiled politely and said, “Thanks very much.” In that instant, I knew that Nicholson Baker was destined to travel in circles different from those I would inhabit. He was already a grownup, albeit with talents and sensibilities very few grownups possess. I knew that I wanted to be a writer; I knew that I was probably good enough to become one. But I also knew that I would never approach the deft, sure-handed brilliance that Nicholson Baker effortlessly commanded at the age of twenty.

It’s okay. I’ve accepted it.

Some people are just that good. And what I learned by being in class with Nicholson Baker is that most of us are not. Most of us have to work really, really hard and be very, very lucky.

And isn’t that just the greatest name for a writer? How did his parents know?