Stories that Clamor for Attention

A few weeks ago, early planning started for this summer’s Fiction Intensive at UC Berkeley Extension, a week-long fiction program with workshops and craft talks, readings and lectures.

I’ll be giving a talk: What Is Fiction? Yes, it’s a question both daunting and exhausted. Nothing I can say here that’s particularly new. And I’m wary of definitions that suggest fiction is any one thing. Escapism? Moral duty? Truer than truth? Totally amoral? A pack of lies? All of the above.

But the more I keep thinking about it, the more excited I get. Examples tumble out like toys from a cupboard, begging my attention—and they surprise me. I’ve taught fiction long enough to have the anthologized standards at the ready.

You know, those classics with clear, dramatized change manifested in action or image: “Barn Burning,” “Araby,” “Roman Fever,” and, for a more contemporary example, a terrific Dagoberto Gilb story called “Uncle Rock.” Great examples, all. But the stories clamoring for my attention right now fall into another category. [Read more...]

To Live by the Light of Fiction

“In the end, a story is never going to make a damn bit of difference to the dead.” —The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Michael Chabon

When I’m gone, son, tell me the story of the day you collided with the opponent’s keeper, his knee to your temple, and collapsed, face down, on the pitch until the EMS crew rolled you off the field on a gurney.

Tell me the story of how, during the month you waited to play again, you tried to rally the flagging team and inspire them to turn around their season.

Tell me the story of the coach who failed to recognize your talents and dedication—as player and leader—so I can rally to your defense—if the dead can come to the defense of a good son. [Read more...]

The Unbearable Badness of Ayn Rand

My good friend Marcelo has decided to read Ayn Rand’s fiction, to “see what all the hype is about.”

He has started with Fountainhead, the story of Howard Roark, the architect who heroically refuses to sacrifice his individual principles to the collective, no matter how they treat him. Marcelo is an artist, and he likes Roark’s pluck, his faith in his own artistic vision. Plus, Rand speaks with such conviction, it’s hard to resist.

As many young people do—in my experience, mostly young men—I once went on a Rand bender: Atlas Shrugged, We the Living, The Romantic Manifesto. I devoured the book by her disciple Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.

She starts with existence exists, which is her axiomatic principle, the starting point from which she builds her belief system. From there she is quick to deny even the possibility of spiritual reality. Eventually she ends in a place where selfishness is a high virtue, altruism a despicable vice, and capitalism the only sane economic system.

Her philosophy is harshly categorical, and corresponds to the developmental stage of black/white either/or thinking of youth. No wonder the people I run across who take her philosophy seriously are always young, at least in their thinking. [Read more...]

Shaping the Heart

The following post is an edited version of the commencement address given at the graduation ceremony of the Seattle Pacific University MFA in Creative Writing program on August 3.

I’d like to share a few thoughts that have emerged from the two texts we’ve been studying together: Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and Richard Rodriguez’s Brown: The Last Discovery of America.

Though they are vastly different books—one an old-fashioned Western elevated to the heights of tragedy and the other a collection of essays that dance around questions of race and ethnicity—they focus on the same subject.

On the literal level they are concerned with the border between the United States and Mexico, but because they are ambitious works of literature they have other goals in mind. These authors are interested in the borders between cultures, customs, sensibilities—how people eat and drink, how they regard their possessions, how they endure the vicissitudes of life. [Read more...]

The Bleeding Woman: an Imagining

—This story was inspired by Mark 5:21-43, the gospel reading for Sunday, July 1.

Twelve years earlier, after her first baby was born cold and blue and the bleeding wouldn’t stop, the woman tried offerings and prayers. She was raised in her ancestors’ faith, believing that if you lived according to the commandments, you—if you were a man—would prosper with fruitful crops, riches, and many children. Women, some, were blessed. Sarah, Hannah.

Her husband sought the midwives, the physicians, the rabbis, asking, “What have I done to cause this?” He made repeated trips to the mikvah. The bleeding would stop for a while, long enough for her husband to lie with her again, and then it would return. The woman grew weaker, she and the servant girl unable to keep enough clean rags to stanch the flow.

[Read more...]


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