two phrases I could do without, and Michael Cunningham

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Two phrases have the insta-charm of nudging me into a dark corner:

The first: Can I pick your brain?

The second: Beth, the Prolific Author

The first always sounds like it will hurt. My hair will be shaved, my skin will be onioned (I mean peeled), my skull will be shattered (crash), and then my brain will be picked. Ouch. I want to help. I am glad to recommend an excellent book or think something through or suggest a possibility. I can answer (some) questions. (I have no answers for the really hard questions.) But I don't want my brain to be picked. I really don't.

The second I receive (oh, sensitive me) as a sleight. "Prolific" is a substitute word. When someone says "prolific" someone is most likely also not saying more meaningful words, like: "thoughtful," "searching," or even "good." Prolific, though, is how I'm most often introduced. I look at my writing life. I see struggle, hope, frustration, some elation, very little time, books that matter to me, a voice that carries me, quiet that sustains me, quiet that I search for in between the jobs I must do so that the bills will get paid (most of which I have nothing to do with the writing of books), and, thus far at least, no true commercial success. I look at my writing life and I see books that, every single one, came from a deep place and not from a machine, from a hope to capture some essence of the world I love, from a belief that I haven't conquered the whole thing yet, haven't figured it all out, never will.

I was thinking about this as I read Kevin Nance's interview with Michael Cunningham in today's issue of the Chicago Tribune Printers Row. Here's the excerpt that I stopped to jot down. I like what Cunningham says:

On the one hand, writers should write about the biggest possible world, and that takes more than one novel. But I'd be a little suspicious of a writer whose vision and sensibility and quality of insight were unrecognizable from one novel to another. I would wonder what that writer really (cares) about.

If you look at writers far greater than I, from Chekhov through Faulkner, the stories and the books differ from one to another, but there's a Chekhovian sensibility. There's a Faulknerian sensibility. You hope to be able to tune in to a lot of characters, but there's a limit to how chameleonlike you wan to be.


Dianne K. Salerni said...

Beth, I have to admit, when I saw you mentioned in a recent article that way -- "the prolific author" -- I thought: "Was that meant to be flattering?" There are a lot of better adjectives to describe you and your books, and I wish the writer of the article had stopped to think of one you deserved rather than use, as you said, a filler, a substitute.

Beth Kephart said...

Dianne, thank you. Yes. I don't think anyone ever means harm by it. She seemed so sweet. But I don't know. It seems that often, on panels and elsewhere, this is how I am introduced. I always want to say, But I'm not a robot!

April Lindner: Reading, Writing, and Rock and Roll said...

I'm afraid I've called you prolific, only because it's a wonder to me how devoted to writing you are. And it's a given to me also that your books are all wonderful and written with deep and intense thought and struggle.

Serena said...

I can't recall if I've called you "prolific" or not. But I see your point. I do agree that there is a certain sensibility in the authors mentioned in the Chicago Tribune piece, and dare I say, that you fit right in with your own Kephartian sensibility?!

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