Writing & Reading

Overcoming the Allure of Efficiency

2015-05-22 The Dangers of Efficiency

In a way, it’s in my blood.  My mother was born in Switzerland, and every time she executed any task with a high level of efficiency, say carrying six bags of groceries from the car instead of the more reasonable two, my father (from what is now Serbia) would grin and say, “You’re being Swiss.”  I’m not really sure if this was a compliment or a dig, but, even now, it’s the way I tend to operate.  And it’s a problem.

Some years ago, I read about Douglas Adams rewriting the same portion of a novel over and over—each time tossing the unsuccessful pages into the trash before beginning again.  I was horrified by this.  I have always been terrified of throwing away words I have written, fearing that I might lose hold of whatever decent work I might have done, and hoping that some salvage might be made of the less than optimal parts.  I have labored over sentences, attempting to perfect them, believing they may be the only material I would ever be able to create.  “Waste not.  Want not,” I have told myself, “Time is short and words are precious.”

And yet, a few years ago, in a more inspired moment in the Long Room at Trinity College I instructed myself thusly: Write on!  It is the only path to the path—to write wantonly, wastefully, scattering letters across the page like so many seeds on the winds.  This feels true—the idea of taking it all much less seriously.  I could even have fun writing my new novel.  Make it crazy.  Make it disjointed.  Write bits and pieces, turn them upside down, chew them up and spit them out.  Just do it.  The story will find its way into being.  Just have fun with it.  Start anywhere.

That’s what my four year’s older sister told me when I was a kid and needed advice on tackling my overwhelmingly messy room. “Start anywhere,” she said.  “Don’t worry about beginning in the best place, just pick something up, put it way, and move on to the next thing..”  When I’ve gotten stuck in just about any kind of project, I have gone back to this advice.  Start anywhere.  Just get yourself going.  It may not always be the most efficient way of getting something done, but it works—and sometimes, it’s the only thing that does.

A few months ago I read Dennis Lehane’s book of short stories, Coronado.  At the end, was a Q & A with the author, in which Lehane talked about his need to write his way into a novel.  He may start with only a slender idea, so he has to figure the story out by putting pen to page (or fingers to keyboard) and letting the words come out like so much clay for him to eventually shape into a narrative.

This is my task now.  Forget about being efficient.  Forget about figuring out the best way to do it.  Just take it one sentence at a time, and don’t be afraid to throw away a thousand, a million words, because, in reality, those words are not wasted.  They are building blocks for the next generation, they are inroads into the wilderness where the whole of the story resides.


Writing & Reading

The Books That Changed My Life (or at least some of them)

The books that changed my life: My Name is Asher Lev, The Complete Works of O. Henry, Beloved, The HItchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy | dianaklein.com

This week I was searching in my local library’s web catalog for a book by Alice Hoffman.  They didn’t have what I was looking for, but instead I found The Book That Changed My Life.  Don’t you love that about libraries?  Whether you’re online or in the stacks, you can look for one thing and discover gems you didn’t even know existed.  Of course, that usually means that by the time I get to the circulation desk, my arms are overflowing with items that I will never get a chance to consume in the time they are allotted to me.  No matter.

The Book That Changed My Life, edited by Roxanne J. Coady and Joy Johannessen, is a collection of essays from celebrated authors (mostly of fiction) about the book, you guessed it, that changed their lives.  This got me thinking two things: a) How, on God’s green earth, can anyone choose only one book?  And b) To which book would I assign that distinction?  As I dipped into the essays, I found that several of the authors couldn’t limit it to one choice either, so there’s that mystery solved.  But I was surprised to find that not all of them designated novels as their book of choice.  There have been a number of nonfiction texts that have made a huge difference in my life—many of them spiritual or philosophical—but they would never be at the top of the list that jumped to mind when I asked myself the question.  I have learned so much from novels—about the world, the past, myself, that I suppose I think of them as the best textbooks for the school of life.

My sister (eleven years older than I) started reading The Complete Works of O. Henry to me when I was seven.  This book pretty much ruined me for just about all other short stories.  I loved that there was always a kicker at the end, ironic or not.  We never finished a tale with me thinking “Okay, so what’s your point?” which often happens when I read short fiction now.  My favorite story was Springtime a la Carte mostly because it begins:

It was a day in March. 

Never, never begin a story this way when you write one.  No opening could possibly be worse  It is unimaginative, flat, dry, and likely to consist of mere wind.  But in this instance it is allowable. 

It changed my life because it was funny and irreverent and it felt like a personal invitation—as though this man from almost a century earlier was holding out his hand and saying, “C’mon, Diana.  It’ll be fun.”  I think that’s when I knew I wanted to be a writer—not that I thought I could or would ever be good at it, but that, even if I wasn’t ready to admit it to anyone (least of all myself) this was where some part of my passion lay.

I still wasn’t ready to commit to my creativity when I read My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok in my early twenties.  It’s the story of an observant Jew who can’t stop himself from becoming an artist, and further, cannot turn away from the path his art is determined to take—which, in part, is to paint a portrait of his mother entitled The Brooklyn Crucifixion—despite the injury it will cause to his relationship with his community.  I love this book because the protagonist is earnest and really wants to do the right thing, but he knows he has follow his path, despite the difficult consequences—to do otherwise is to be false in the deepest kind of way, and, in a fashion, to turn away from God.  I love the description of Judaism, the rituals such as praying over a simple glass of orange juice.  I love how the book starts.  It’s as though you are walking into a room and hear a snatch from the middle of a fascinating conversation, and you can’t help but want to go back to the beginning and get the whole story.  This book changed my life because it taught me about how close artistry can be to spirituality (or even the same thing?).  It whispered to me about things I might like to do with my life—true things, literary things, small, but powerful things—and it wouldn’t stop whispering.

Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy first came into my life as an abridged book on tape.  I think I was about ten, and this science fiction masterpiece blew the roof straight off my mind.  It was as though Adams had given me a crystal, and instructed me on how to hold it and take it in.  Instead of just admiring one side, I was meant to turn it—just a little—and then consider it from this new angle.  And I was meant to do this again and again, over and over, becoming aware of how unfixed an idea or a reality might be.  The book was also really funny.

I read and re-read Beloved by Toni Morrison when I was 16.  Its story about an escaped female slave several years after the Civil War taught me about beauty and horror.  There was a lot I didn’t “get”, but that didn’t bother me.  When I read an earthy and lovely passage about the main character kneading bread, I found a porthole into the life of a woman whose experience had been so different from mine and I wanted to hold her.  I didn’t know books could do that.  I was glad to learn.

What book(s) changed your life?  How?  Why?