Thursday, April 10, 2008

Novel update

There's been none over the past few weeks. None.

The novel, of course, is a hobby, a side project, a creative endeavor, far from my reason for existence. It's not my pay-the-mortgage work and it never will be. I really enjoy my paid work, but there's a lot of it to do and I have to do a lot of it to be any good at it. Something has to give. Recently, it's the novel that has given. I hope to have renewed progress to report next week. But I don't guarantee it. Especially when there's eelgrass everywhere.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Quote of the day

In a throwaway line in his review of The Band's Visit, ace critic Anthony Lane nails what I'm trying to write a novel about:

"When in doubt, strike up the band."

If I had a monitor, I'd tape that quote on it.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

An embarrassing moment and what I learned from it

For many years, I've joked to friends and family, usually during public radio pledge drives, that someone should invent a device connecting to your radio that, after you've paid up, turns off all those requests for money during NPR pledge drives. You get back to the regular programming you've paid for. I thought that was something I could work into an article or a story someday.

One night last week, I was at a dinner party, listening to someone who was building an innovative radio for the BBC. Also listening was a respected colleague. He said that someone should invent a device connecting to your radio that, after you've paid up, turns off all those requests for money during NPR pledge drives. Independently, he had come up with the same line (for me it was a joke; for him -- a successful entrepreneur -- it was a potential invention). I felt uncomfortable saying something like, "Hey, I thought of that, too," and stepping on his line, so I said nothing.

This reminded me of something that happened when Jane and I bought a hybrid car back in 2002. A neighbor said he'd thought of a hybrid engine years earlier. I laughed about it, but it illuminates a point that's also relevant to the public radio joke/invention line: It doesn't matter so much that you have an idea. What matters is whether you do anything with the idea. Otherwise it's just a line in your notebook doing nothing.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Sentence #29

"Don't? Or won't?"

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Monday, February 18, 2008

My novel and the kitchen: Two worlds collide

I know it's procrastination (like blogging isn't?), but sometimes when I should be working on the novel, I read about working on novels. Raymond Carver once said "You have to decide whether you're a reader or a writer." I guess I'm still working on that.

Last night, when I should have been writing, I started James Wood's How Fiction Works. I'm still early on, but since two of the first characters he quotes are Maisie Farange (from Henry James's What Maisie Knew) and Mr. Mallard (from Robert McCloskey's Make Way for Ducklings), two characters I have come to love over the years, I suspect this will be a good read/distraction/whatever.

Swirling through my head today is the Henry James epigram with which Wood kicks off the book: "There is only one recipe -- to care a great deal for the cookery."

What a lovely observation. Without respect for our tools, the products of our tools won't be worthwhile.

This dovetails nicely with a welcome non-fire-extinguisher-requiring cooking experience I had yesterday. I made Jane the North African cauliflower soup from one of the Moosewood cookbooks, a recipe with which I've had success in the past. I wanted to be careful to respect the instructions and I followed them much more closely than usual.

So I was disappointed when the soup turned out noticeably thinner than usual. I was nervous -- did I put in two few potatoes? too much bouillon? -- but Jane complemented me on it.

Jimmy: But it's not thick enough.

Jane: Yes it is. You usually make it too thick.

Respect your tools. Sometimes it's the Moosewood collective offering them up, sometimes it's Henry James. And sometimes the person opposite from you at the kitchen table will be kind enough to let you know if, at last, you finally paid attention.

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Thursday, February 7, 2008

The beginner's mind vs. the expert's mind

A bit more on the same topic:

When you're deep into a project, so deep that objectivity was gone long ago (i.e., when you're writing a novel), you have to find a way to look at it with a fresh and new mind (a "beginner's mind," as the Zen masters -- and today's productivity bloggers -- put it). It's hard to do that as a critic -- the whole point of being a critic is making judgments informed by experience -- and the jump from critic to novelist is high indeed, at least for this one. Critics can refer to anything; the best novelists create their own world and ignore anything that doesn't fit into it. It's rare that someone (I'm thinking John Updike) can do both with equal authority and style.

Since I first read it in The New Yorker more than a decade ago, I've never gone more than a few months without rereading Tobias Wolff's short story "Bullet in the Brain," later collected in his The Night in Question. I read it again in January, and -- while ruminating on the difference between interpretive writer and creative one -- this line, regarding the critic about to meet his untimely end, jumped out at me: "He did not remember when everything began to remind him of something else." That's the blessing and curse of the critic: he can call on all he knows, but he's limited by his knowledge. That knowledge is crucial to his calling, but it prevents him from creating with a "beginner's mind." I don't want to sound like a parody of a Jedi master here, but I'm trying to call on everything I know -- and then set it aside so I can do my job as a would-be novelist.

(See this post on Leaf-Stitch-Word for a more interesting take on the benefits of being a novice.)

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Blinders

I want to know everything.

If I want to be a competent novelist, I have to stop.

Here's why. Sherlock Holmes, in A Study in Scarlet, let Dr. Watson know why he doesn't care that he doesn't know that the Earth revolves around the Sun: "What the deuce is it to me? You say that we go round the Sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or my work."

I want to be up-to-date on all political, geopolitical, business, and technology news. But none of that will help me write a better novel. None of it. If I want to be truly creative, I have to put on blinders.

Back to it...

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The rules

People sometimes ask me for rules about writing and I claim I have none. Well, I don't. But someone in my house does.

Last year, when Lydia was in fifth grade, she came home with an index card she had filled out at school.

Lydia's rules


In 20 syllables, only three more than a haiku, she elegantly and authoritatively states what is to be done.

Onward!

UPDATE: As Lydia notes in the comments below, the index card was a fourth grade project, not a fifth grade one. Senior moment?

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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Sentence #28

"Hello, 911? Yes, I have a Shania Twain song stuck in my head."

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Jimmy Guterman's Jewels and Binoculars: new (and, perhaps, improved) 2008 edition

Hello to both of you who've waited for this humble weblog to return. I'm going to try something different this year. As those closest to me know, structure and I are not close friends. Everything reminds me of something else, which reminds me of something else, which ... well, you get the idea. No structure. If I'm going to stick to blogging for more than a little while this time, I suspect it will be only if I create a structure that encourages me to post here almost every day. And a different topic every day keeps this blogger unbored.

So, here's the structure that I'm going to attempt:

Every Monday, I will post about Cooking. [insert pause for laughter.] Yeah, I know, but hear me out. When I look at the things about myself that I want to improve, cooking keeps coming up at the top of the list. Partly it's because I'm a lousy cook (married to an adventurous, imaginative one) and I want to become a better one. Partly it's because my failure in the kitchen often feels like a metaphor for other failures in my life. Just as last year my cryptic decision to post sentences here from my novel-in-progress helped me focus on writing every day, I'm hoping that chronicling my disasters and occasional successes in the kitchen will keep me focused. The possibility of public embarrassment remains a powerful motivator.

Every Tuesday, I will post something Work-Related. The vast majority of my writing these days is for my work at O'Reilly (and, to a much lesser degree, Harvard). On Tuesdays, I'll post something related to what I actually do for a living.

Every Wednesday, I will post the latest Greatest Song of All Time of the Week. No further explanation necessary.

Every Thursday, I will post something related to the Novel-in-Progress. They may be sentences from the work (currently, but tentatively, titled The Rock Star Next Door), they may be complaints about the process, they may be lessons I've learned.

Every Friday, I will post nothing, probably, because Man was not meant to blog with the weekend coming so soon.

Random Crap can appear any day, as it is, er, random.

I will also tag each post, to make searching by topic easier, and to help anyone coming here who wants to peruse, say, the music posts but none of the cooking posts.

Seeya Monday...

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