alexandra alger


Archive for the tag “writing”

Method and Manhattan Beach


Yesterday I had the privilege and pleasure of a listening to the magnificent Jennifer Egan talk about her writing process, and the depth of research she did for her new (published in late 2017) novel, Manhattan Beach.

I wasn’t alone! No, no…I was one of about fifteen rapt women, members of the longstanding Cobble Hill Book Club (as we call it), in the warm and lovely sitting room on Baltic Street in Brooklyn. Egan—whom I’m just going to start referring to her as Jenny—had come at the behest of one of our group, Dr. Edna Pytlak, who happens to be the pediatrician to Jenny’s children—and to many in the ‘hood, including mine. (Not to get sidetracked, but Edna is a throwback to an era when doctors were more personable. She’s renowned for inviting panic-stricken parents to visit her home office on weekends. And she sometimes does drop-bys, if you live close enough. I happen to live a few blocks away from her, and I’ll never forget how grateful I was when she came by one Christmas morning—in a cheery red track suit, about to go on a run, since her own kids were teenagers and sleeping in—to take a look at my feverish then-toddler.)

Back to Jenny Egan. I’m not going to into immense detail, because it’s her story to tell, but what I am going to relate is something she’s already talked about in interviews (of course, I’m hoping it’s new to those who might read this!). She begins every novel by writing a first draft, by hand, in one fell swoop. Writing, writing, writing—about six pages a day—until the first draft is done. And only then does she begin to consider what’s she’s got and what she’s going to do with it. With a roll of the eyes, she pronounced her first draft of Manhattan Beach “terrible.” (No big surprise there, I guess—most writers would say the same—but in Jenny’s case, I wonder. I bet her first drafts are better than most.) I’m envious of writers who have the discipline to do this. I don’ have it—at least, not yet. I tend to reread, then tell myself, “No, no!” and go back and start rewriting. Too early!

What Jenny then does is go through the draft and make a highly detailed outline—sixty pages, single-spaced, that kind of detail. And from that comes the final manuscript, after much writing and editing—which oddly, we didn’t question her about as much…though we did hear that she keeps every draft of a chapter, and each one goes through many dozens of changes.

Another thing that struck me—her best ideas, she said, come when she’s not trying to think of them; they come in the writing. If she’s trying to plot—what comes is too predictable.

Joan Didion said something similar once—or maybe more than once, but I know of it  from the documentary her nephew made about her, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, which I watched on Netflix a month or so ago. In an interview after the publication of Didion’s novel The Book of Common Prayer, Tom Brokaw asked Didion about her method. Didion paused. Then she said: “It unfolds as you write it. That’s something I never believed before I wrote a book, but it does.”

When Didion gets stuck, she puts the manuscript in a bag and puts it in the freezer.

Now there’s something I could try!

Back to Jenny—Manhattan Beach, which takes place in 1940s Brooklyn, is enthralling. Read it, if you haven’t!

Thoughts on Hemingway

Generation gap? My daughter, Vanessa, is reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and can’t stand it. In her view his characters do no more than meander through life, glass in hand. “All they do is drink,” she says disdainfully.

I, too, read Hemingway in high school (hasn’t everybody?). But I found all the drinking, amid the bull fighting of Pamplona, kind of glamorous. Drinking counts as doing something, doesn’t it? Then again, when I was my daughter’s age—18—I liked beer and wine and had already discovered that rum gave me a crushing hangover. Vanessa doesn’t like any kind of alcoholic beverage I can see it might be difficult to settle in with Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises if you aren’t wondering what a Jack Rose is—one of the drinks Jake orders—and half wishing you were in the Paris hotel bar with him. (Turns out a Jack Rose is composed of applejack, grenadine and lemon or lime juice. Hmm. Not sure what to make of it.)

The drinking scenes throughout Hemingway’s oeuvre are famous enough to have inspired Philip Greene’s Hemingway cocktail compendium, To Have and Have Another, a second edition of which came out last year.

Of course, the drinking is not the only reason Vanessa shuns Hemingway. She’s indifferent to the unvarnished style that made him famous. She finds it really boring. I’m fascinated by her confidence here. I don’t remember feeling as if I could not like Hemingway. We were expected to appreciate, if not revel in, the short declarative sentences, his insistence on cutting away everything but the essence, leaving the reader to interpret what is left unsaid. (That’s what I vaguely remember. If I’m misrepresenting Hem, let me know.)

Thinking about him now, I know I didn’t just like him because I was supposed to. That man could write. Okay, he was clearly a male chauvinist pig. But he could write. Here’s something he once said about the training of a would-be writer, in an interview with Paris Review editor George Plimpton, back in 1958 (as printed in Newsweek):

“Let’s say that he should go out and hang himself because he finds that writing well is impossibly difficult. Then he should be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his life. At least he will have the story of the hanging to commence with.”

P.S. In my local Barnes & Noble, on the “Books Everyone Must Read” table, two Hemingway classics lie front and center:



I spotted For Whom the Bell Tolls on another side of the table, along with The Old Man and the Sea. He was the only author to have more than two books, and only two had more than one–Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Kurt Vonnegut. What does this mean? Is it a reflection of Hemingway’s stature in American literature? Are the B&N staff composed of big fans? The former seems more likely than the latter.


Anyone know a good character plumber?

The Canadian writer Sheila Heti wrote recently in New York magazine about an ah-ha moment she had about writing many years ago. She was in her early 20s, writing a short story that would become the wonderfully titled The Princess and the Plumber. At one point a frog is giving love advice to the plumber. She remembered feeling “an inner obligation” to continue the conversation between the two, even though she didn’t know what else they had to say to each another. “Then I suddenly realized that there was nobody looking over my shoulder, and that nobody had any greater authority over what should happen next than I did.” The conversation ended; the plumber turned and walked away.

Don’t you love the idea of a frog giving love advice to a plumber? I can’t wait to find this short story! (It’s in a collection of Heti’s called The Middle Stories, published in 2002 and reprinted, with additional stories, in 2012.)

I know many writers who feel their characters take charge and all they as authors can do is follow along. “I didn’t know what was going to happen next,” one friend told me not long ago. “And then the doorbell rang!”
I like to think I have ultimate authority over my characters. If only they weren’t such an independent bunch—sometimes terse and inscrutable. I have to coax thoughts and feelings out of them, burrow into their furtive minds. Every writer has to be a plumber of sorts, an un-clogger of minds and hearts.

Oil & Vinegar, Anyone?

IMG_2487.JPGMy twenty-year-old son Davison gave this clever oil-and-vinegar vessel to me for Christmas.

I told him about two books he could get me; I wanted to make things easy for him, and I really do always love a book. But he went off and found me something that I didn’t even know I wanted! I’ll be eating more salad now, for sure, which I’ve been meaning to do for quite a while. It’s one of those vague New Year’s resolutions that barely survives the first week of January. But guess what, I’ve had two salads already this week, and it’s only Wednesday! Thank you, dear Davison, for thinking about my pleasure and my health!

Here he is, wearing my reading glasses and a new scarf. He’s affecting the Brooklyn writer look. (He writes well but is not, in fact, interested in writing. He likes problem sets. Multi-variable calculus. Statistical analysis. There’s more but I don’t know how to describe it. Literally, I don’t understand it enough to describe it.)


It’s interesting how some people are naturally good at finding gifts that please those who receive them. I say “naturally,” because I do think it’s a trait that one is born with. I remember when Davison was in sixth grade and had to find a Secret-Santa present for girl in his class, but nothing that cost more than ten bucks. I went with him to a local shop, and he picked out a set of dangly earrings on sale for exactly ten dollars. They were cute! I thought he’d nailed this Secret Santa thing; this girl was going to be totally wowed. It didn’t sound like she was, in the end—I don’t know why, I only heard part of the story—but the point is, he showed early promise in the gift-giving department.

( All right, yes, I’m still a bit irked at the girl for not being wild about the earrings, even after all these years. The Secret Santa tradition, it seems to me, promotes more ill will more good will. Parents get drawn into finding a present for a kid who may well not like it; their own child may be just as disappointed; and the whole notion of giving as a gesture of the holiday spirit goes by the wayside. I thought maybe Secret Santa had been junked, but I just came across a posting by someone who goes by Crappy Christmas Letter on Be Like Water Production’s blog, whose daughter just had a bad S.S. experience. Crappy Christmas (interesting name there) wrote about having a fun time picking out a pretty box and necklace and chocolates with her fifth-grade daughter, Elizabeth. Surprise, surprise: The recipient didn’t like her offering and had no trouble telling Elizabeth as much. By the end of the post Crappy Xmas was plotting some kind of public humiliation for the girl.)

Back to Davison. He’s going to be put to the test in the next few months: He’s confronting, in quick succession, his girlfriend Sidney’s birthday, Valentine’s Day and the one-year anniversary of being with Sidney. What a terrible trifecta! I never had to face that kind of pressure. Good thing, because I’m not sure I could’ve handled it. I would’ve ended up buying, I don’t know… what might have I gotten one of those guys I dated in college? I’m straining to think of an idea, but I’m blank; completely blank. Ah, well, that was a long time ago. But Davison’s go this thing in hand, he has assured me. Of course he does. He’s a natural. He’s just going to get better and better at giving presents. I can’t wait to see what he gets me next Christmas.

Here’s to 2016

I love the holiday season. How festive the city is, ablaze with Christmas lights, both ethereal and gaudy, Balsams greening up street corners, shops bright and busy. I thrive on the chaos the season brings. It’s a delicious kind of stress, the only good kind I can think of it—the mad scramble to find gifts and get the holiday cards out and plan the Christmas lunch. Every year I wonder how it all gets done, and it always does. This year, for the first time in memory, I got all the presents wrapped before Christmas Eve. It was fantastic to not be up at midnight, blearily trying to masquerade the ends of a Lego set with what’s left of the wrapping paper. And the years of trying not to slip up and wrap Santa’s gifts in the same paper as Mom and Dad’s! (Nothing got by those kids— they were quick to point out if Santa had the same wrapping paper, challenging me to admit something I never would and never will. You’ll never heard me say I don’t believe in Santa!) This probably sounds either pathetic or crazy to those of you who get your holiday shopping done byThanksgiving. I have met a few of your number, so I know you actually exist. I can never hope to be in your company, O otherworldly ones!

And now it’s coming to end, once again, and 2015 is nearly over. Oddly, I feel as if 2016 is already here. I’m lacking my usual, roll-up-the-sleeves, I’m-gonna-do-it-all sense of resolve when facing a new year. Is it age? Am I just at the point at which time, as meted out in human-ordered increments, has no meaning? Is it just that the number six doesn’t look so different from the number five?

Partly to blame, now that I’m thinking about it, is the state of the world. It’s hard to look ahead with optimism when there is so much to worry about. When and where terrorists will strike. The plight of Syrian and other refugees, short and long term (Germany alone has taken in nearly a million so far and pledges an open door—but can it house and find jobs for so many? Can and will they all assimilate?) At home the appalling slate of Republican candidates. If any one were elected, we wouldn’t be living in a country I recognize (Kasich would be okay, but he doesn’t seem to gaining any traction). Hillary better win. She’s going to, she’s got to. She must.

The world’s problems are taking some of the fizz out of my champagne, but not all. I’ve got resolutions, I’ve got ‘em. Some of the usual suspects are on the list, of course (i.e. reduce ice-cream, red wine consumption; get an agent, get published, etc.) Here’s a new one: I want this latest novel I’m working to be really good—objectively, no-doubt-about-it good. I tend to like my own writing, but I know when things aren’t entirely right—the plot’s going limp, a subplot isn’t jelling, voice is off. So self: Let’s pull it all together this year! And here’s to excellence in your work, fellow writers!

France and its Petty Problems (Joke!)

For anyone who’s interested, I’ve made progress on my resolutions! I’ve thrown out several stacks of old papers and board proceedings. It was easy, and so gratifying…I really have to do it on a more regular basis! I’ve also weeded out my closet, which was even more gratifying. After agonizing on this blog about whether I could really toss items like the skirt I wore on my wedding day and not since, the tossing was surprisingly easy. Something about writing it down—and then Lara wrote in her encouragement (thanks again, Lara!). My desk is still an utter mess, but at least now I can see all those other clothes that I forgot I had.Yes, I realize that if I forgot I had them then I haven’t been wearing them and should be chunking them, too, but I’m choosing to think these are blouses (mostly blouses, oddly) as new additions to my wardrobe. We’ll see how that works out.

It’s a gorgeous Saturday, I’m over the flu that laid me low for a few days, and I’m going to write. If I could just stop reading stories about what’s going on in France. I knew that anti-Semitism was on the rise in France—the odious National Front party, both anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant, gaining support—and I knew French Muslims were living the lives of an underclass, apart from real opportunity. I say “know” about these problems, meaning I’d read about them. Read about them, and forgotten them, as one reads and forgets about news stories all the time. And now the tragedy at Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket have made all these issues painfully real.

As per a new anti-terrorism law, the French are now arresting and incarcerating people who make or post comments supporting terrorism—a guy who yelled support for the Hebdo terrorists getting six months. This is the wrong tack. I’m not against taking measures to criminalize hate speech, but throwing people who are likely just idiot loud-mouths into prison isn’t going to prevent further terrorist attacks. Muslims need improved economic and social mobility in France—that’s the longterm solution. I don’t know how much will there is among other French to give it them, though. The future for Jews in France is grim, too. French authorities say they can protect their Jewish citizens. Can they? Day in and day out? It’s surreal, the idea that they need to be protected at all.

Now I’ve got to get my head back into writing. Oh—first lunch. I worry about the world, but I’m also a master of procrastination.

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