…Changing Mugs and Turning Over New Leaves

Posted on November 24, 2008. Filed under: The Writing Life | Tags: , , , , , |



As both a Roman Catholic and an ex-ice hockey player, I have serious superstition issues. (Ask my wife—she’ll tell you straight.) For years, one of my most beloved superstitions has involved the coffee mug I drink from while I write. When Jen and I first got together nigh on a decade ago, she gave me a fabulous gift in honor of our mutual appreciation of Austin Powers: the black Dr. Evil mug pictured above on the right. It instantly replaced my previous writing mug, a slim white one that I had pilfered from some workplace back in my starving post-grad school days, when pilfering from The Man was a source of pride. 

The Dr. Evil mug proved incredibly dependable and lucky, partially because I maintained its sanctity and never polluted its aura by grading student papers while I drank from it. I whipped my first book into shape while under its auspices; I wrote things that got published and won prizes; I tried things on the page that I had never imagined before. I filled that cup every morning for nigh on a decade and went about my creative work, certain that my dedication and attachment to this material object would somehow enhance my ability to make aesthetic decisions and allow me to create works of lasting literary value. 

Like I said: serious superstition issues.

The golden days of the Dr. Evil mug did not have to end; I could have sipped from it in perpetuity with no change to how I felt about the words I put on the page or the writing life that I had chosen (despite its pecuniary impracticalities) to lead. But since my last posting to this blog—way back in July, which feels like ancient history now—was about my first book as an end to things, rather than a beginning to things, a part of my soul has lately felt keenly open to fresh starts. And it just so happened that the next fresh start I jumped on involved the red coffee mug that stands next to Dr. Evil in the photo above. 

Here’s how I met it: I stood in the gift shop at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston looking for souvenirs to buy for my family. In my search I happened upon a simple, sleek red mug with perhaps the sexiest handle I had ever encountered in almost three decades of coffee drinking. It called to me, begging to be touched, and I instantly felt ashamed of “cheating” on Dr. Evil by lusting after another mug. But MFA Boston, with its sultrily sloping contours, felt too good to walk away from. I caressed it with both hands, imagining the warmth my fingers would feel once I filled that mug with freshly brewed Sumatra Mandheling. I closed my eyes and imagined my lips against its rim, which no doubt imagined my lips as well. 

By the time I left the museum store I had already forsaken Dr. Evil. It was time to grow up, I told myself. Time to gradate from the old superstitions and embrace new ones. (God forbid I should drop them altogether. What would happen to my world?!?) So now when I write in the morning I drink from my ravishing, bright red MFA Boston mug, which has had no discernible impact on my work but does, at least, feel like a new beginning.   

And what of Dr. Evil? The mug served me so well that I can’t possibly throw it away. It will not become a repository for pencils or shaving soap, as have so many other mugs that I used, only half-lovingly, in the past. In order to prevent it from turning against me like some spurned lover or voodoo charm, I have given it a new purpose in my life: henceforward it will be reserved for ceremonies and celebrations. For egg nog, for birthday coffee drinks that contain a shot of Bailey’s or Amaretto, for mulled wine, for hot apple cider. Beloved friends will occasionally be allowed to sip from its insouciant lip. It will live forever, having served me so well, in my Pantheon of superstitious objects. If it ever breaks, at least one shard will go into the relic box with my father’s black gloves, my first dog’s collar, the hood emblem from my 1973 Buick Centurion. 

I can only hope that MFA Boston can live up to Dr. Evil’s example. Check back with me in ten years. Check back with me when the next book comes out. 

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…Re-Assessing the Adage “Write What You Know”

Posted on May 31, 2008. Filed under: The Craft of Fiction | Tags: , , , |

I’ve had a quote on my mind all day, and it comes an interview between George Saunders and Israeli author Etgar Keret in PEN America, Issue #8.

Keret: The first thing they tell you when they teach you about the Holocaust is that if you were not there, then you are never going to understand…. But I have parents who went through the Holocaust and I know that you can communicate with it. When I was a young kid, my father said to me, “Of course you can understand what the Holocaust was like. You know what it means to be afraid, and you know what it means to be cold, and you know what it means to be hungry. I was much more afraid than you are, you ever were, you ever will be. And I was much hungrier and I was much colder. But I didn’t experience any emotion during those years that you do not know.” [emphasis mine]

To me, this quote gives breath and flesh to a great deal of what I’ve been thinking about the imaginative act of telling stories. Most fiction writers, at some point, have been told “write what you know.” But this often gets interpreted as a (self-) limitation, rather than an invitation to imagine the lives of others. The approach of Keret’s father allows us to “write what we know” by viewing our own emotions through a truly limitless kaleidoscope of the imagination. If we all know hunger, fear, and cold—if we all experience the fundamental human emotions—then we can, theoretically at least, imagine and render the experiences of any character that we imagine. 

Too often in the world of fiction, we are given the same line Keret was given about the Holocaust: “If you weren’t there, you can never understand.” It has become a kind of Political Correctness that prevents writers from rendering something that they can’t claim to know firsthand. Not Cuban? Then you can never understand a Cuban character, and therefore (implicitly) can’t write one. Not a woman? Then you can’t write a woman, either. But this approach does not serve The Muse, who wants us to imagine what is beyond ourselves. If we just write what we know in the limited sense of our sociocultural identities and our professions, then the world will end up with far too many novels about out-of-shape middle-aged people who stare at their computers too much for their own good. 

This limitation, I believe, is partially responsible for fiction being eclipsed by memoir in the public eye over the past decade. If fiction becomes limited to considerations of the self, then why bother reading it? Why not go with the genre that is all about considerations of the self? Thinking of “write what you know” not as a constraint, but as an invitation to explore the fundamental human emotions through the lives of imagined others, completely liberates that hackneyed piece of advice. Envy, love, hope and hopelessness—this is what we know. Allowing these things to play out in the lives of our characters is our craft. 

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