All that matters is the work.
This academic year, I've made a point to consume more literary media whenever I can: I started reading lit mags on the elliptical, subscribed to Rattle's daily poetry email, and I listen to the Paris Review Podcast when driving my brother, Joel, to school. Despite these steps toward leisurely reading (or listening), it's been a few months since the last time I read a full book that wasn't on a course syllabus --that is, until this weekend.
As noted in my last journal post, I recently participated in a three-day short fiction workshop led by Lan Samantha Chang during Eckerd's Writers in Paradise conference. I read a handful of Chang's short stories when I applied for WIP, but I only got my hands on her most recent novel, All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost, after the conference ended. I'm so, so glad I did -- but before I explain why, be warned: there will be spoilers as I unpack my responses to this masterful novel about the isolating and sincere life of an artist.
All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost follows a talented writer, Roman Morris, who leaves a career in finance to study poetry under a famously influential instructor, Miranda Sturgis. The novel follows Roman through the crest of his career, a painful divorce, and the death of his (once) best friend. Throughout the novel, Roman struggles with anxiety about the quality of his poems; his desire to be "the greatest poet of [his] time" colors his every observation and interaction with the people in his life. Chang's use of close third-person perspective worked incredibly well, in this regard, to show how Roman's internal state -- including his self-image, his relationship with poetry, and his understanding of other characters -- evolved over time, for better or worse.
Particularly, I loved when certain moments from early sections of the novel are presented again, differently, having passed through the distorting lenses of time and memory. It takes Roman decades, for example, to think of his affair with Miranda "with an understanding that he had been, during those six months, very happy." During Part One, however, young Roman seems no less plagued by doubts and loneliness than he does in his later adulthood. Which perspective is to be believed? Was he happy back at the School, or does he think so only after a lifetime of continued dissatisfaction? Readers must reconcile Roman's limited, evolving image of himself (and others) with our image of them, which we piece together panoramically across three sections of the poet's life.
The people who matter the most to us in the end, who teach us the most, are the people who make the worst mistakes with us.
Another interesting moment of retrospection takes place when Roman encounters a past acquaintance and lover by accident, several years later. He wonders "why he had treated her with such dismissiveness" and soon "underst[ands that] he had imagined for himself a future that did not lie with Phebe Platz." Moments like these capture the bittersweet way that humans often arrive at self-knowledge: much later, and with sudden awareness of our past myopia. In my writing classes, I've learned that characters are built on the changes they make (or fail to make) over time; I loved that, in All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost, Chang's characters grow (or are unable to grow) in realistic, heartbreaking, and sometimes profoundly relatable ways.
In this scene among others, readers become aware of the expectations (which Roman hadn't known he was setting for himself) that prevented him from connecting with others. One of the central questions of this novel — which Chang called the 'long threads' of narrative, during our workshop — is: "can Roman Morris ever love anyone?" I would argue that he never loved anyone, because love was never part of the future 'he had imagined for himself.' Roman's idea of his future changes over time alongside his self-image; his vision always holds him back, in the end, from being able to love the women who love him.
For example, his intense affair with Miranda was defined by an "essential attachment ... so incomprehensible and so unspoken that he rarely cared to think of it," which rings with the possibility of love; however, Roman is incapable of loving and continuing his involvement with Miranda because she is no longer part of his future. In his mind, "the crux of their attachment [was] that he was the pupil and she the instructor," and that her role had not been that of a longtime love, but rather a gatekeeper to the writing world.
Similarly, his affection for Lucy is limited by his perception of her and her role in his life, as well. When he sees her again for the first time after their graduation, he feels "suddenly that she had been saved for him ... a companion [with] the potential to come with him ... into the future." But if he ever loves her, it is only insofar as she soothes him and preserves his self-esteem. He fixates on a memory of Lucy defending his work once in Miranda's class. He depends on Lucy's comfort and kindness for the duration of their relationship, which falls apart when an emotional chasm finally manifests in their marriage. Lucy tells him: "You never wanted to know anything except that [your work] was wonderful."
Don't you know that for a woman to praise your work is the only way to get you to notice her at all?
Being in such close third-person allows the reader to know Roman's consciousness as intimately as he does, but also provides enough objectivity to doubt his self-awareness. This novel made me acutely aware that knowledge of one's characters' (and one's own!) emotional and perceptual limits is incredibly important, in writing and in life.
On a personal level, I have begun to notice the way my own self-narrative has shaped my professional and emotional trajectory over the past several years; it often felt as if this novel held answers to questions I had only dared to ask in my private journal and with my closest friends. I was so engrossed and transported by Chang's story that I hardly cared when tears filled my eyes while I read this novel (in an earthy, gluten-free, and very crowded coffee shop, of all the places). As a young writer, I saw myself in many of Chang's characters, who each pursued their art differently and for different reasons. Story-by-story, book-by-book, and inspired by Chang's incredible prose, I have begun to approach this lifelong question of how I, myself, ought to pursue a creative life.
I realize that, given the time, I could write any number of journals about this particular novel: how it depicts the malleability of memory, to the tragic inevitability of certain friendships' and relationships' falling apart, to the difference between a true poet and a talented one. There was truly so much to admire, on a craft level and, more generally, on a human level. The margins of my paperback copy are covered in sloppy, urgent exclamation marks, wordlessly punctuating my favorite moments.
However, I must move on to the next book on my shelf. At Chang's suggestion, I've already found a copy Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, and am excited to continue this exercise of "writing about reading." Until next time!
Note: This post is the first in a series of reflections on novels, short stories, poems, essays, etc. that move me as a reader & inspire me as a writer. Thus, these entries will combine both my personal responses to the works as well as the craft techniques that I hope to learn from.
Last week I participated in Writers in Paradise, the annual writers' conference at Eckerd College. I encountered the conference first during my senior year of high school, when a friend invited me to see author Tim O'Brien read from his novel, The Things They Carried, as part of WIP's evening reading series. I was familiar with Eckerd and had visited often, since my father is an EC professor and runs their International Cinema Series. However, I had never been to a literary event on campus before - I hadn't known about them. Witnessing WIP for the first time in high school was an important moment, because I had recently applied for admission to Eckerd College; although I wasn't sure if it would be the right fit for me, I was glad to learn that Eckerd's Creative Writing program allowed its students to apply to WIP for course credit, and that someday I might return as a participant.
After I entered my Eckerd education (studying Creative Writing and Visual Art) I regularly attended the January WIP readings, but I wasn't able to join the conference as a participant until my senior year. This year, I was lucky enough to be placed in my top choice workshop: the Short Fiction Mini-shop with Lan Samantha Chang, whose short stories I admired. Rather than the typical six days, this workshop spanned three days and contained half the number of participants in other WIP workshops. The small size of our group allowed us to spend over an hour and a half on each participant's submission, and left us additional time to discuss topics from living a writer's life to the importance of pacing in short fiction.
I was impressed by my classmates' and instructor's thorough reading and thoughtful comments, and with the clarity of each participant's distinct written voice. In the end, I learned as much from workshopping the others' drafts as I did from the comments on my own work-in-progress. Additionally, I couldn't help but compare this workshop to the seven writing classes I've taken during my college career. I found the greatest similarity to be the structure: each round began with the author reading an excerpt of their work, then falling silent as peers discussed memorable features of the story, and areas of possible improvement. One difference, however, was Chang's approach to each story; which I could only describe as "both serious and compassionate" whenever I was asked by members of other sections.
After a few days' reflection, I think what I meant by "serious and compassionate" was that, from the beginning of the first round of workshop until the end of the fifth, I got the impression that my work and my peers' work was important. Too often, writers' hands are pinned to our desks by the self-sabotaging question: "is my work worth it?" We worry that no reader will care about the stories and poems we have carefully pieced together. Or, we lose touch with the heart of our stories in an effort to make them technically "perfect," "impressive," or at the least "interesting" to imaginary readers. We forget why we write in the first place, which is -- to borrow a phrase from Russell Banks (who gave an "anti-craft lecture" on the final day of WIP) — to cultivate our capacities for attention and honesty.
Writers in Paradise reminded me why I write, but also gave me direction as I consider what kind of writer and reader I want to be. For example, Chang modeled what it means to be an attentive, enthusiastic, and supportive — but not flattering -- reader of others' work. She reminded me that it's equally important to approach others' stories in workshop as a comrade-in-creative-arms as it is to be a meticulous editor. I will carry this forward, along with the numerous lessons gleaned from the rest of WIP's events and activities, to my upcoming, final (!!!) college workshops.