I’ll Be a Visiting Professor at St. Bonaventure University in March
I’m pleased to announce that I’ve been selected to be the Spring 2017 Lenna Endowed Visiting Professor at St. Bonaventure University in Olean, New York. I’ll be on campus for the last two weeks of March, giving talks, visiting classrooms, meeting with students, and chatting with the Franciscan friars.
I’m especially honored to receive the Lenna Professorship because the first recipient of it, when it was established in 1990, was Robert Lax. St. Bonaventure is in his home town and, as those who’ve read my biography of him know, he and his mother went there often. The friars were an important early spiritual influence on him.
The dates for the public talks haven’t been set yet but they should be soon. I’ll post them in the Talks section of my website. If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll come!
New Postings Coming!
I posted a promise at the end of 2016 that I’d be making new entries on this site once the new year began–so much for New Year’s promises…BUT I will be offering new writings soon. (Another promise, I know, but so it goes….) One main reason I’ve been slow to post has been dealing with the many arrangements for the larger-than-usual number of speaking engagements and workshops I’ll be doing this year. Some of my upcoming posts will be announcements about them. I’ll also list them in the TALKS section. Stay tuned!
This weekend I’m off to the Associated Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Washington, DC, manning the Fordham University Press booth for a couple of hours, seeing old friends, meeting new ones, and generally getting inspired by the many fine writers who will be speaking. I’ll also be doing a little research for a new book I”m not quite ready to talk about yet….
The picture here is from last year’s AWP in Los Angeles: posing with my friend Tim Bascom and his excellent memoir about growing up in Ethiopia, Running to the Fire.
A New Series of Posts on Writing About People (Profiles and Biographies) Coming Soon
I haven’t been very active on this site the past few months, but I’m planning on posting regularly again soon. On January 11, I’ll start teaching a course on Writing About People: Profiles and Biographies. As I did last spring with Memoir Writing, I’ll be posting weekly thoughts throughout the ten-week course, covering things like choosing a subject, interviewing, researching for scene and background, etc. I hope you’ll check back in the new year.
Video of Fordham Editor Talking About the Acquisition, Design and Selling of PURE ACT
I didn’t know this was available online but found it yesterday: It’s a video of my editor, Fred Nachbaur, talking about the acquisition, design and selling of my book, PURE ACT: THE UNCOMMON LIFE OF ROBERT LAX. It was presented at a conference as an illustration of what university presses can do beyond their usual markets:
A Year of Pure Act
The image here is of the bottle of vintage French wine Sylvia and I opened to celebrate signing my book contract with Fordham University Press two years ago. Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax has been out in the world just over a year now, and what a year it has been. The unofficial end of the book’s debut year came three weeks ago when we attended the Washington State Book Awards in Seattle. Pure Act was a finalist in the Biography/Memoir category. It didn’t win but it was a great honor to be recognized in my home state.
All told, Pure Act was a finalist for four awards: the WSBA in Biography/Memoir, the Religion Newswriters Association Book Award for best religion book of the year, the Association of Catholic Publishers’ Excellence in Publishing Award in Biography (it won second place) and the Catholic Press Association’s Book Award in Biography (it received an Honorable Mention). It has been nominated for an Oregon Book Award too, but the finalists for that won’t be announced until early January 2017.
For a big book by a first-time author about a little-known poet published by a small publisher, it has done pretty well. It’s in its third printing and a paperback version will be published in March 2017. It was favorably reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, the Times Literary Supplement in the U.K., Publishers Weekly, the Oregonian and over 20 other publications. The American Association of University Professors recommended it as one of ten nonfiction books and only two biographies (the other was of Mark Twain) in the area of American Studies for libraries to purchase in 2016. I’ve had a chance to read from it at bookstores, universities and community events across the country. And it has led to my being asked to be a keynote speaker at the 2017 International Thomas Merton Society conference at Saint Bonaventure University.
I’m reluctant to let this wonderful year end, but time marches on, of course, and I’ve already drafted my next book, a memoir about a year spent in the San Juan Islands. A huge thank you to all who were part of a marvelous experience.
PURE ACT a Finalist for a Washington State Book Award
Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax has been named a finalist for the Washington State Book Award in Biography/Memoir. You’ll find a full list of finalists and information about the awards ceremony here.
If you live in the Seattle area and are interested in attending, the awards ceremony will take place 7-9 p.m. in the Microsoft Auditorium at the Seattle Public Library’s central branch (1000 Fourth Avenue).
I’m off hunting new prey this summer (actually, working on a new book) but I’ll be back in October with more news and stories. I hope you’ll check back then.
PURE ACT a Finalist for the Religion Newswriters Association 2016 Book Award
Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax has been named one of ten finalists for the Religion Newswriters Association’s 2016 Religion Nonfiction Book Award. A full listing of finalists for all awards is here. Winners will be announced on September 24.
PURE ACT Wins a 2016 Excellence in Publishing Award and NCR Reviews It
I learned this week that Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax has won a 2016 Excellence in Publishing Award from the Association of Catholic Publishers. It received second prize in Biography. First prize went to my good friend Angela Alaimo O’Donnell for her biography of Flannery O’Connor. The ACP announcement is here.
On the same day I learned about the award, a nice review of Pure Act by Dana Greene, biographer of Denise Levertov, appeared on the website of the National Catholic Reporter. You can read it here.
Memoir Monday #7 — The Dance of Expectations and Fear: Missing the True Story
My thoughts today are less about memoir per se than storytelling in general and what is often called “writer’s block” in particular. As with my last entry, they come from something John Edgar Wideman wrote in his deeply searching and searing memoir Brothers and Keepers. Near the book’s end, Wideman talks about showing the first draft of his book to Robby, the imprisoned brother whose story lies at its heart. Robby tells him that “something crucial” is missing from it.
In seeking the source of the problem, Wideman decides that his expectations and fear kept him from getting down to the true story. “By the book’s conclusion I wanted a whole, rounded portrait of my brother,” he writes, but “no apotheosis of Robby’s character could occur in the final section because none had transpired in my dealings with my brother.”
In other words, Wideman’s expectations of what the story would be, and his ideas of what a story is, were keeping him from seeing what his brother’s life had to tell him. “I’d been waiting to record dramatic, external changes in Robby’s circumstances when what I should have been attuned to were the inner changes, his slow, internal adjustment day by day to an unbearable situation.”
Wideman’s use of the word “unbearable” at this point links Robby’s life to that of their mother, who used it to describe daily life as an African American. “Unbearable is not that which can’t be borne,” Wideman writes about his mother’s understanding of the word, “but what must be endured forever.” Wideman’s late recognition that the real story is Robby’s “internal adjustment” to “an unbearable situation” allows him to link Robby’s plight to those of his ancestors, including his mother, and of African Americans throughout history. By listening more carefully and homing in on smaller, more intimate details, he gives his story universality.
But it is what Wideman writes on the following page that speaks more generally to writers, especially those who find themselves scared to write:
“The problem with the first draft was my fear. I didn’t let Robby speak for himself enough. I didn’t have enough confidence in his words, his vision, his insights. I wanted to clean them up. Manufacture compelling before-and-after images. Which meant I made the bad too bad and good too good. I knew what I wanted; so, for fear I might not get what I needed, I didn’t listen carefully, probe deeply enough.”
The last sentence here is particularly useful. It is our idea of what we want that gets in the way, that makes us afraid the outcome won’t be good enough. We’re thinking about the end product when we should be thinking about the process. “The best is the enemy of the good,” Thomas Merton used to say. Our desire to be praised for what we produce keeps us from listening carefully to our sources or ourselves, from probing deeply enough to see what is truly there rather than what fits more easily into our preconceived notions.
“Lower your sights,” writing teachers often say to students who face writer’s block. A better thing to say might be “Forget about the writing and concentrate on listening more carefully, probing more deeply, seeing what is actually there.” Viewed in this way, writing is not a craft or even a talent but a way of understanding the world, others and ourselves. The focus isn’t on writing beautiful sentences or telling a compelling story but on seeing and understanding what is really in us and around us, trusting that truth, however provisional, will sparkle with a beauty all its own.