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As part of my book project on crowding, I traveled to New York in August to do some research and reporting. That research brought me to the busy Trader Joe’s in Chelsea, to write about the store’s “End of Line” position and their unique crowd-management technique. Here’s the piece:

 

In the produce section of Trader Joe’s store in the Chelsea section of New York, Karl Holman holds an eight-foot-tall sign that reads “End of Line.” It’s six o’clock on a Tuesday, and Holman is managing the line for the second time this shift.

While customers test peaches for ripeness, Holman holds the towering metal pole aloft, making the banner’s orange and yellow lettering visible to anyone who gazes up from the shelves. For the next hour, the line’s end moved constantly.

Short and stout, with a salt-and-pepper goatee and a grey Trader Joe’s T-shirt, the forty-nine-year-old Holman addresses a knot of stopped customers who are blocking traffic. “Are you ready to check out?” he asks. “Step right here.” Customers glance at his sign and then file into place.

Continue reading…

 

 

 

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I’m grateful to have an essay listed as a Notable Essay in this year’s Best American Essays, alongside pieces by many friends, colleagues and exceptional writers. Guest editor Cheryl Strayed and series editor Robert Atwan selected my essay “\’Ra-Di-Kel\” from Hotel Amerika, about the resurgence of the word ‘rad,’ cultural recycling and aging. (You can hear me read it here.) High fives to fellow notable essayists Leslie Jamison, Frank Bures, Roxane Gay, Colin Rafferty, Eva Holland, Brian Oliu, Steven Church, Nicole Walker, Ned Stuckey-French, Joe Bonomo, Rolf Potts, Ann Patchett, Gwendolyn Knapp, Rich Cohen, Atul Gawande, and someone named David Sedaris. I hope to see more of his work. http://www.hmhbooks.com/hmh/bestamerican/essaysbookdetails
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In the book’s table of contents, J.D. Daniels’ absorbing, voice-driven Paris Review essay “Letter from Majorca,” which you can read here first. The first section slayed me.
Also included, Frank Cassese’s Guernica essay “It Doesn’t Mean We’re Wasting Our Time,” which involves written correspondence with David Foster Wallace. Prose writers will especially enjoy it.
And another absorbing Sun magazine piece by BAE regular, the inimitable Poe Ballantine. Sample “Free Rent at the Totalitarian Hotel” here, and buy the book this October.

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Am happy to share this roundtable chat I had with writers Courtney Maum and Bart Schaneman over at Vol. 1 Brooklyn. The subject was travel writing and chapbooks. Tobias Carroll asked the questions, and I was as excited to hear Courtney and Bart’s answers as I was to have to think about these topics myself. Here’s the link:

 

http://www.vol1brooklyn.com/2013/05/13/talking-travel-chapbooks-and-a-sense-of-place-with-courtney-maum-aaron-gilbreath-and-bart-schaneman/

 

Make sure to order copies of Courtney’s chapbook Notes from Mexico here at The Cupboard, and Bart Schaneman’s Trans-Siberian here or over at Thought Catalog. You can still order my chapbook A Secondary Landscape here at Future Tense Books.

 

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I’m writing a book proposal currently titled Crowded: Portrait of Life on a Teeming Planet. In an effort to raise money to fund two short reporting trips to finish the proposal, I’ve launched a Kickstarter.

The Architecture of Density, by photographer Michael Wolf
The Architecture of Density, by photographer Michael Wolf

The book is narrative nonfiction about the profound yet overlooked ways dense communal living has shaped human affairs, including everything from our moods to our businesses to interior design. Crowding isn’t just an environmental and urban design issue. It’s a social, psychological and moral issue. With over half the world population now living in cities, it’s also our future. As the novelist Don DeLillo said, “The future belongs to crowds.” I plan to portray what that future looks like, how we’re preparing for it, and write the first book to detail exactly how crowds have shaped human history through time. Once I finish the proposal, I can find the right publisher and get to good hard work of writing the rest of the book.

I’m trying to raise  $3,000 by June 1st. Funds will cover flights to Tokyo and New York City, and small rooms in lean, inexpensive lodging like the YMCA and a capsule hotel. I’ve never asked people for financial help before, but I’m enormously passionate about this book, more excited than I’ve ever been about a project, and I believe that the subject’s global scope will impact the lives of city-dwellers both in the U.S., Canada and in Europe, and in developing countries such as China, India and Bangladesh. Maybe it’s a tall order, but it’s also a big world, and I want to make this book happen any way that I can, so I’m asking for help. As the saying goes, where there’s a will. If you feel like contributing a little, be it financially or by spreading the word, here’s more information.

Thank you for helping make Crowded a compelling read and a book to be proud of.
Love to all,
Aaron

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Many, many thanks to writer and NYLON editor Melissa Giannini for passing me the mic to do this Next Big Thing post. Below is my interview about two works of narrative nonfiction I’m writing. I’m proud to pass the mic to the super talented essayist and memoirist Steven Church, author of The Guinness Book of Me and The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst, and co-editor of the literary magazine The Normal School. Check the mic, one-two.
What is the working title of your book?
Currently, it’s Crowded: Portrait of Life on a Teeming Planet, though it’s hard to settle on a title until the entire story’s been written. I’m also working on another book of narrative nonfiction, this one a first-person narrative travelogue set in Canada. It’s called Canphilia. It’s essentially my attempt to understand Canada and Canadians, and to reconcile my ignorance with my strong attraction to the country. Since that book is slower-going, Crowded has overtaken it. But that’s what crowds do, I guess.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
The idea for Canphilia came like many of my essay ideas: from looking closely at my fixations. I’m obsessive. I fall deeply, and my interests lead me to read and learn as much about various subjects as I can. Be it music, food, a city or book, people or myself — I want to experience life fully, and to understand. I’ve been enchanted by Canada for about half my life, but one day I realized how strange a fixation that was since, despite having some Canadian friends and taken a few long trips through the western provinces, I didn’t really know much about the culture. I realized that my issue reflected that of many Americans: we shared the world’s longest international border with the world’s second largest country, and we knew little more about Canadians than clichés. That became my theme: do we even know what makes a Canadian a Canadian? What they stand for? How they think and act? And what do they think of us, anyway?  I spent months shaping that into a book proposal, and now I’m plotting my drive across their country in search of some enlightenment. The idea for Crowded came from feeling crowded in my daily life, which I’ll talk about more below.
What genre does your book fall under?
Crowded and Canphilia are narrative nonfiction, though I’ve been calling the former a narrative social history, and the latter a first-person narrative travelogue. They mix essay, memoir, participatory journalism, scientific exposition, profiles and history. It’s storytelling, swift and built from scenes, dialogue, action and characters, all accurately reported.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? 
Jawas, all the way. I’d have Tusken Raiders work the crew’s food service stations.
What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book? 
Canphilia: Who are the Canadian people, and why do I long to live somewhere I know so little about? Crowded: The story of one loner’s vision of human history through the story of the crowd.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I’m still writing both books, but I only started Crowded in late January, so I’m making good time. Sleep is overrated, especially when you work tea shop (caffeine).
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? 
Some stellar works of participatory journalism and narrative nonfiction that I love and keep high on my bookshelf: Taras Grescoe’s The Devil’s Picnic: Around the World in Pursuit of Forbidden Fruit, Susan Orlean’s Saturday Night, Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, and Bill Bufford’s Among the Thugs.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
For Crowded, real life. I was eating lunch inside a café across the street from work. The place was packed but thankfully not as noisy as it can be. I was reading the Susan Orlean chapter of Robert Boynton’s The New New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft, and when a guy sat down next to me, a few lines came to mind: how much elbow room do you need to get by in life? To thrive or just keep your sanity? I scribbled them down on one of the stained wrinkled pages in the back of the book, then I had to race back to work since my thirty minutes were over. The next day, I typed the scribbles and kept exploring the basic idea, expanding the range of my gaze and spelunking all the fissures in the topic, and I kept looking more closely at my life. The subject was all there, all around me. Now I have a stack of library books about sociology, psychology, evolutionary biology, ancient England and China, and photocopies of all sorts of music and historic stuff, and a thick manuscript. It’s fun, and it all started with a stray thought following a bowl of soup.
What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?
The fact that, if you live in or near a city — which over half the human population now does — you can relate to it. If you’ve ever sat near a screaming baby on a plane, watched someone in line buy the last pastry, struggled to find something on your messy office desk, or been smooshed at an awesome, sweaty rock show, then this is your story. Also, the human comedy of urban life, sleeping in a closet, scrambling over people on trains, and brushing your teeth while you pee and check your phone and close a cabinet. Life is crazy.
When and how will it be published?
With hope and with time. Meaning, hopefully sometime! (And the help of my brilliant, tireless agent.)

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Revered nonfiction writer Joseph Mitchell worked for The New Yorker from 1938 to 1996 but never published a word after 1965. The first new work of his to appear in forty-eight years did exactly that: appeared. With little fanfare or announcement of its arrival, not even a perfunctory tweet, the piece was slipped inside The New Yorker’s February 11, 2013 issue with all the ceremony of a subscription card.

Entitled “Street Life,” the piece is one of three excerpts from a memoir that he started in the late 1960s and early ’70s and never finished. After filing his classic profile “Joe Gould’s Secret” in 1964, Mitchell never submitted anything else for publication. For the next thirty-two years, the magazine kept him in their employ. He regularly came to his office, dressed in suit and tie. His colleagues heard typewriter keys tapping behind his closed door. They passed him in the hallway and rode the elevator with him. This is how it went until he died in 1996 at age eighty-seven. No one knew what he was working on, and no one seems to have asked. As fellow staff writer Roger Angell later wrote: “No one made jokes about him, or expressed ill temper about him; there was pride, in fact, about working for a place that would indulge such an epochal oddity. The piece, when it came, would be worth the wait.” The piece people expected never arrived. Unless Mitchell biographer Thomas Kunkel finds unpublished profiles in the author’s papers, these three first-person narratives might be the only new work readers get. The question is whether they were worth the wait.

This new excerpt comes to us from Thomas Kunkel, author of Genius in Disguise, the biography of New Yorker founding editor Harold Ross. Kunkel discovered it and the others while researching a forthcoming Mitchell biography. The New Yorker plans to publish the other excerpts at some point in the future.

I’ve written about Mitchell before, specifically about his enormous direct quotations and what they reveal about the nature of truth versus fact in narrative nonfiction. Like many Joseph Mitchell devotees, I’d been waiting years to read something new from him—ten, to be exact. Other fans, some who have been reading Mitchell since the ’60s, had been waiting forty years. And then there it was, a gem hewed from Mitchell’s estate, nestled between pieces from Susan Orlean, Adam Gopnik and Ian Frazier, regular contributors whose company might have made Mitchell’s presence and this February issue seem like any other, were his work and legend not partially defined by his preoccupations with death, the past and gallows humor. In this darker light, his story carries the eerie sheen of a message from the grave.

I discovered the piece accidentally early Sunday morning. My girlfriend and I were lying in bed, flipping through the magazine, when I saw the words “By Joseph Mitchell” and sat straight up. “Mitchell?” I said. I stared in disbelief at the author’s photo on the title page: the unmistakable figure in a dark suit, hands sunk in his pockets, one foot folded over the other, standing confidently in front of Sloppy Louie’s, a seafood restaurant whose owner Mitchell profiled in his well-known piece “Up in the Old Hotel” in 1952. This memoir, and his visage, came out of nowhere. The suddenness of it, like his sly expression and distant stare, gave me chills. Here was a man reporting on his own life seventeen years after it ended, in words he put down four decades ago. I read “Street Life” twice that day.

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As someone who has read about Mitchell extensively, I’m tempted to say that I knew this work was there, hidden in his papers among the discarded profiles and pieces that went nowhere. Signs of continued production pepper the historic record. Besides the recollections of colleagues hearing Mitchell’s typewriter keys, Mitchell’s daughter Nora Mitchell Sanborn told The Guardian in 2012: “[My] father was always writing. He would talk about certain projects and get involved in a million things. He had oceans of paper in many file cabinets, at home and at the office. Unfortunately these papers have been in storage since he died and in the charge of his executor [from whom his daughters are estranged].” The truth is that I never would have guessed those oceans of paper contained a memoir.

In The New York Times recently, New Yorker editor David Remnick said, “What’s so poignant about [the excerpts] is the sadness of the incompletion but the brilliance of the voice.” The voice, the declarative sentences, the catalogues of details, many of the hallmarks of Mitchell’s canonical nonfiction are here. What’s different is the volume: that recognizable voice often takes a maximalist tone, what Remnick describes as “more Joycean.” Mitchell is still pushing the boundaries of the form, seeing how much material he can include before the paragraphs bend and narrative snaps. But the lengthy sentences, long lists and repetition that defined pieces like “Old Mister Flood” and “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” now exhibit a manic quality. Where older pieces contained direct quotation that ran between four and ten straight pages, here we have a sentence on the first page that contains four hundred and thirty-nine words, thirty-one commas, one emdash, one parenthetical remark and a semicolon. Many paragraphs in “Street Life” reach such a dizzying pitch that you question the author’s mental state, even wonder if some sort of psychological collapse caused his forty-year silence. For some readers, the voice will try their patience and cause them to turn to the next piece. For others, the voice will deliver exactly what we’ve been missing.

“I keep on walking,” Mitchell says early on, “sometimes only for a couple of hours but sometimes until deep in the afternoon, and I often wind up a considerable distance away from midtown Manhattan—up in the Bronx Terminal Market maybe, or over on some tumbledown old sugar dock on the Brooklyn riverfront, or out in the weediest part of some weedy old cemetery in Queens. It is never very hard for me to think up and excuse that justifies me in behaving this way (I have a great deal of experience in justifying myself to myself)—a headache that won’t let up is a good enough excuse, and an unusually bleak and overcast day is as good an excuse as an unusually balmy and springlike day.”

At another point he says: “[I] have been down in three tunnels while they were under construction—the Queens Midtown Tunnel, the Lincoln Tunnel, and the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel—and watched the sandhogs forcing their way inch by inch through the riverbed.”

Later he says: “Pretty soon my obsessive curiosity began to dominate me, and I went to a succession of Masses in St. Patrick’s that encompassed seven Sundays, the Easter-cycle Masses, and then I went to Masses in such representative Eastern Catholic churches that are in union with Rome, Syrian-rite churches and Byzantine-rite churches and Armenian-rite churches; and then I went to Masses or Liturgies in some Orthodox churches, Greek Orthodox churches and Russian Orthodox churches and Carpatho-Russian Orthodox churches and Ukrainian Orthodox churches and Bulgarian Orthodox churches and Serbian Orthodox churches and Romanian Orthodox churches; and then I went to Liturgies in two so-called Old Catholic churches, one that I found in a Polish neighborhood in Manhattan and another that I found in a Polish neighborhood in Brooklyn.” It isn’t simply the information that’s important here, it’s the pleasure the author and the reader experience while hearing these items strung together, side-by-side. To my ear, it seems Mitchell has fallen in love with the sound of it all, the way each name offers a variation on the theme of churches and tunnels, Orthodox this and Orthodox that, adding a slight twist to the stock he’s temporarily toying with. In this way, Mitchell resembles a baby making sounds after discovering the sonic capabilities of its lips. The fact that the person who wrote this was well into middle age makes you think that, despite the dearth of published work, Mitchell still found great pleasure in working with words.

If this piece provides many readers with their first taste of Mitchell, the exuberance and details might not provide a good introduction. It piece might run some of them off.

In addition to the strength of Mitchell’s voice, the other difference between “Street Life” and his previous work is the subject matter. In place of characters like Joe Gould, shad fisherman and Caughnawaga Indian construction workers, the piece’s central character is Mitchell himself. Irrespective of its origins, this is the rarest sort of Mitchell piece: an entirely first-person narrative.

In it, he describes his compulsive wandering around New York City. He talks about what he calls his “obsessive curiosity,” and his attraction to “old restaurants, old saloons, old tenement houses, old police stations, old court houses, old newspaper plants, old banks, and old skyscrapers.” In a broad sense, “Street Life” tells readers a lot of what they already know: the aimless walking, the preoccupations with old New York, marginal New York, underground, off-limits and working class New York. Setting the scenes of his profiles, Mitchell often included comments about his personal habits. The most recognizable might be the opening lines of “Up in the Old Hotel,” where he says, “Every now and then, seeking to rid my thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to Fulton Fish Market. I usually arrive around five-thirty, and take a walk through the two huge open-fronted market sheds, the Old Market and the New Market, whose fronts rest on South Street and whose backs rest on piles in the East River.” Mitchell opens “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” which an equally dark, revealing admission: “When things get too much for me, I put a wild-flower book and a couple of sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island and wander around awhile in one of the old cemeteries there. …Invariably, for some reason I don’t know and don’t want to know, after I have spent an hour or so in one of these cemeteries, looking at gravestone designs and reading inscriptions and identifying wild flowers and scaring rabbits out of the weeds and reflecting on the end that awaits me and awaits us all, my spirits lift, I become quite cheerful, and then I go for a long walk.”

If the themes are the same, “Street Life” offers unique particulars. We learn about a few specific moments from his explorations – his encounter with a priest in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, for instance, who told him “a church is simply four walls and a floor and a roof inside of which the Mass is celebrated. Never mind the ins and outs of the architecture,” and the way a certain Mass gave Mitchell “an aperture through which I could look into my unconscious, a tiny crack in a wall that all my adult life I had been striving to see through or over or around—” For all its detail and personal revelation, though, “Street Life” never answers the question at the core of his legacy: What else was Mitchell working on all those years?

For seven pages, Mitchell speaks in a controlled frenzy, cataloguing his travels and the city’s topography, and when your patience starts to wane and you begin to wonder where the author is going with all this, he ends a sixty-seven line paragraph to say, “And now I must get to the point.” He then goes on for thirty-one more lines – not lists but a candid description of his paralyzing homesickness, where he felt at home neither in New York nor his native North Carolina – before drawing to what feels like a close: “Then, one Saturday afternoon, while I was walking around in the ruins of Washington Market, something happened to me that led me, step by step, out of my depression.” Ah, you think, here it comes, the moment of revelation, the insight we seek, a portrait of what he was doing for forty years behind his closed office door. Instead, he says, “A change took place in me. And this is what I want to tell you about,” and a black diamond icon marks the piece’s end. Because Mitchell never finished the memoir, we assume he never got around to writing the section that would have addressed this.

“Street Life” provides a deeper look inside the mind of one of our best nonfiction writers, but its charms cause certain frustrations. To fans, Mitchell’s life was already incomplete. The memoir reminds us of this. After making peace with the permanence of the Mitchell mystery and the finality of his work, this story comes along out of nowhere and stirs up the kind of sediments that Mitchell’s characters dredged for fish and oysters, leaving readers with a renewed and possibly irrational feeling of hope, a sense that we might finally find out what he was working on all those years, if not here in “Street Life,” then maybe in the next memoir excerpt. If not there, then maybe in the next, or at least in Kunkel’s biography. The most seductive thought of all: That an entirely new long-form profile of a personality as compelling as Joe Gould might sit in the author’s papers, waiting to be discovered. Until Kunkel tells us otherwise, we are left with this titillating fragment, this story that repeats so much of what we already know in different language, and reminds us what Mitchell already knew: that we really don’t know as much as we think, that nothing is finished until we ourselves are finished, and that the known body of an author’s work exists, like the old wharfs and train tracks that lined the shores of New York Harbor, in a state of flux. It’s as if Mitchell came back from the grave to tease us. “Okay,” he seems to be saying. “You want to know what I was up to all those years? Sit down. I’ll tell you.” And just as he starts to speak, he disappears again.

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The talented fiction writer Matthew Salesses was writer-in-residence at Necessary Fiction for the month of July. He used his time to gather other writers’ ideas on the revision process, and to explore and articulate his own. The result is a lively web salon and a potent pool of information like no other I’ve seen – many perspectives, insightful self-reflection, and tons of practical advice. Anyone looking for a window into the revision process will enjoy it.

Here’s Matt’s introduction, and here’s where Matt lives online. For reading, I recommend his novella, The Last Repatriate.

Below is the piece I wrote for him. Hope you find some of it useful.

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Thoughts on Revision

There is power in a first draft, but Hemingway was mostly right: first drafts are shit. Maybe it’s not that way for everyone, but for me and what seems like many people, first drafts are a start; you find your story in revision.

Revision is both the most gratifying and the most draining part of my writing life. It exhausts while it challenges, engaging my aesthetic and intellectual sensibilities simultaneously, my conscious and subconscious minds, and it leaves me so worn out that it I no longer distinguish between the excitement of constantly thinking about and laboring over an essay, and the frustration of it. Revision is so essential that if I had to choose one line to describe the writing process, it would be: “writing is revision.” Maybe that’s why I love poet Robert Hass’s quote so much: “It’s hell writing and it’s hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written.” Exhausting or not, it still beats working in a cubicle.

Some people would disagree with the idea that writing is revision. There’s a popular notion that art is about inspiration, and the challenge of the artist is to capture a spontaneous outpouring as it happens, without spilling any of that molten magic while it’s hot. I don’t know where this idea came from. Maybe it stems from the human tendency to relax rather than work; maybe it’s as ancient as the Greeks. What I do know is that the idea can encourage laziness. By presenting the core mechanisms of creation as something extemporaneous rather than labor-intensive, revision comes to resemble a kind of ruination, a process of tinkering that dilutes the original potency of the spontaneous composition. The message is: “the less you mess with it the better.” I can’t speak for all disciplines, but for essay writers, I think that idea is damaging. When essayists do less, their essays contain less. Even the term “discipline” implies labor, practice.

The essays I like to read and try to write don’t spring to life as the proverbial lightning bolt delivered by magic or the gods. They accrue, developed through protracted effort to build, shape and layer. In tea terms: revision is the process of steeping to develop character. Those who resist it on the grounds that it lessens the raw life force of revelation not only fall prey to a clichéd, romantic notion of writing (the frenzied poet, scribbling fast enough to capture the words as they come), they often fail to fully tap all the meaning and power that their subjects and they as writers contain. Maybe that sounds smug, but in my experience, more work = better essay. For me, telling a story isn’t enough. Instead of an awesome anecdote, I want meaning, nuance, theme, dazzling sentences, interesting narrative architecture, little if any of which arrives when you first sit down to tap computer keys. If we could speak sentence as incredible as the ones we write, then writing would just be the act of transcribing words spoken into a digital recorder. I can’t think of any narrative nonfiction that I’ve read that resulted from that. Can Denis Johnson do that? Or Barry Hannah? Among his many accomplishments, Kerouac did us a disservice by making us think that writing was only about filling a scroll with speedy first takes. Maybe some writers think otherwise while the Adderall still has a grip on them.

We can learn a lot about revision from first impressions. People say you only get one chance to make one. That’s true, and sometimes you meet someone and immediately know, “Blowhard, don’t trust him,” or “Perv.” I always trust my gut. I also know that sometimes we misread people, so it’s wise to keep that first impression open to some amount of modification and allow in new information from further interactions. Meaning, as we get to know people, we broaden our initial perceptions and allow them to develop depth, even when depth contains the sort of contradictory information that is central to human nature. This is how revision operates.

I might think I know what an essay is about when I start writing it, but I don’t really know. Oh, I think, this is about Googie architecture in my home town, or, This is about this one Miles Davis song where Miles pissed off Red Garland and had to play piano on the recording after Red stormed out of the studio. But that’s just one thread of the story, often the surface-level subject, what you might call the “ostensible subject,” which functions as a window into other component stories. Those other stories often reveal the essay’s theme: loss, regret, longing, failed hopes. They can also be the ones that readers connect to on an emotional or psychological level. More often, they’re the ones that address the question of meaning, or at least tries to chase meaning down. Ok, Googie, but what does it mean? In essays, meaning and theme are vital. I have yet to start an essay with either of them in mind. I find them through revision.

Revision takes me past my initial idea of what the essay is about. Once there, I explore the many facets of my story by going over and over and over it, plunging its depths. Ooh, what’s this here? And: Hey, that’s interesting. Never noticed that before, and I check it out. You see connections, see parallels, symbols, tangents and stories-within-stories. Revision is the playground where you can let your mind run free and discover not just things, but the things that are crucial to a literary essay. Instead of relaying information, and instead of just telling a compelling anecdote to get laughs or shock or entertain, spending time tinkering allows you to let go of narrative and your preconceptions long enough to see what it all really means. Which is to say, first impressions are important, but the more compelling portrait is a broader portrait, and that mostly emerges from revision.

To do this, you have to humble yourself: accept that you don’t know as much as you think you do, or as much as you would like to. If you explore your subject deeply enough, you’ll end up knowing a lot more than when you started. Readers will, too. That’s half of the fun. In the finished piece, your narrative voice might be confident, projecting the strength that assures readers that you’re taking them somewhere worthwhile and that you’re a knowledgeable, reliable guide. To get there, you have to stand before your subject and acknowledge your limits. You start out writing about X and Y, and you end up writing about who knows what. Without getting all New Agey, it’s the same thing we do when looking up at the full moon while camping and feeling like an inconsequential speck of dust on a rock in the vastness of space: there is so much we don’t know. I like to do the same with the story itself: whatever story I start with, I know that the bulk remains to be discovered. And so I revise.

To revise, you also have to be patient. You’re not going to finish that essay as quickly as you’d like. You might not finish it before your favorite lit mag’s reading period closes. You might not even finish it this summer. Good stuff takes time. That’s why barbecue cooked for a day over tended coals in a pit tastes a billion times better than that stuff people cook for a few hours over wood chips in a metal smoker. Go eat some ramen at Daikokuya in Los Angeles. You’re not going to tell the cooks that simmering their perfect porky broth overnight was overkill.

I wish I had a system for revision. Granted, systems can be constraining and snuff out innovation, but they can also produce what scientists would call “reproducible results.” My only system is: drink tea, eat chocolate, and heed Harry Crews’ advice about keeping your ass in the chair. Sometimes I also chew on unlit cigarillos. I used to smoke and think I like the trace nicotine. Mostly it’s that, in lieu of specific revision strategies, I rely on that obsessive tea/chocolate/chewing nonsense to help me concentrate and keep me grounded during what is an inherently imprecise, ethereal, unscientific process.

In other words, I’m flailing. I drink tea and follow my gut. For all the formalities and “craft” stuff that I know, intuition is my guide. My chart: tell a good story; be insightful, probing but entertaining. Not dancing-in-short-shorts entertaining. Not ah-isn’t-that-clever, but entertaining in that I want to give readers a narrative that takes them somewhere deep, on a journey both through a story described and a landscape of ideas. How I extract that from the ether, or shape it from raw experience, is something I figure out differently each time. In that sense, revising always feels like I’m doing it for the first time every time. In another sense, the more I do it, the easier (“easier”) it gets. Maybe I’m getting more in touch with my intuition. Maybe I’ve become more willing to follow my gut and not second guess myself, or I’m becoming more reckless and willing to play around with narrative architecture and follow whims down the ideological rabbit holes and stop being such a cautious baby. Maybe I’m better able to recognize what it is I’m looking for: themes, symbols, metaphor, narrative.

What I’m left with each morning, then, are the basics: the need to go back into an essay and follow my instincts. I rearrange. I add and subtract. I pee in the beaker and see how that changes the flavor and coloration. There’s no big checklist of things to do or look for. It’s just “find the meaning,” “reveal the themes,” “have fun,” “tell a compelling story” and “cut out everything else.” I like what Rick Moody once said about writing: he tries to cut out all the parts that he as a reader would skip.

Even though this phrase sounds like one plucked from a teen goth message board, the “best advice on cutting” I’ve ever received came in the form of an offhand comment at dinner. A few fellow grad students and I were discussing revision, how much we loved or loathed it, ways we went about it. “I keep everything I cut in a separate document,” one person said. “That way I can always go back and retrieve it if I want to.” Then she admitted: “I never do.” Instead of using that separate document as a reservoir for retrievable overflow, she used it as a dump disguised as a storage shed. Knowing that all that material was there emboldened her cuts. She trimmed more daringly and frequently because she knew that whatever she cut hadn’t been erased, it had simply been moved to another page. If you need to think of revising partly as a form of moving things aside rather than eliminating, go for it. “Erasing” sounds final in a way that “moving offsite” does not, even when it’s just semantics. Tell yourself whatever you need to tell yourself to get the superfluous stuff out and find the keepers, because the truth remains: the absence of unnecessary text makes rooms for newer, better stuff, and that leaner arrangement allows the vital text to come more clearly into view.

Even though I’ve largely taught myself to write just by practicing for years, I learned other things in grad school, too. I attended a low-residency MFA program, so I didn’t spend as much time in workshop as I did alone at my computer. One of the things that brief workshop experience taught me, though, was how to identify and articulate what I was going on in an essay, the so-called mechanics of it. Another lesson proved useful during revision: the ability to read my work as if it were written by someone else.

One teacher at my grad program said that, after decades of writing and teaching, he could no longer read anything without editing it. Even if he wasn’t making editorial marks on the page, he was editing in his mind: trimming sentences, rearranging passages, formulating suggestions, rephrasing. If that seems obsessive, it is. It’s also a useful way to treat your own work. When you distance yourself emotionally from the words on the page and stop seeing them as the precious thing that you made yourself, you are able to see the story for what it is. Not the incredible object your brilliant brain made. Not the thing you labored over for weeks, the thing you ditched work to finish, or the thing that better get accepted by a magazine soon or you’re going to conclude that you suck at writing and go back to playing video games in basements in a cloud of bong smoke. No. It’s a story. It either works or it needs work to make it work. As a story separated from the act of creation and all its backstory, you can better see its machinery: what’s missing? What makes it drag? Should you slow this scene down to amplify the drama? How can you let readers see what this really means? Do readers really need to know all those details just because they happened as described? These are the sorts of constructive comments we make in workshop, or at least that we should be making when we’re not critiquing our classmates’ essays based on laziness, envy or malice. So after months of this constructive flailing, when do you know that a story is done?

There’s a famous anecdote in jazz involving Miles Davis and John Coltrane. When Coltrane was still playing in Miles’ first quintet – often called the “classic quintet” – and hadn’t yet started to gain control of his horn or the many sounds inside him, his solos could be erratic. Some were transcendent exaltations of emotion and architectural brilliance; others were uneven, stop/start affairs full of alternately radiant and apprehensive passages. You can hear this range on the records Milestones, Steamin’, Workin’ and Relaxin’. You can hear his vast improvements on Kind of Blue and ’Round About Midnight. Well at some point, Coltrane and Davis were playing or hanging out – I don’t remember the details – and Coltrane said something about not knowing how to end a solo. Miles said, “Take the horn out your mouth.” Overly simplistic, but it’s still good advice. It reminds me of what the polymath Paul Valéry once said: “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”

For those of us revising, maybe that’s a more useful guide that “finished.” Based on the responses of lit mag editors, my essays are rarely finished when I send one to them. Even the editors who accept my essays for publication often send comments and suggestions along with a requested revision. The process of editing together is a more collaborative version than most of us writers are used to doing alone, and it’s one so fruitful and invigorating that it makes me envy musicians collaborating in bands. Editor says I like X and Y, I think you should cut C and D, maybe better address the issues you raise in sections A and B. Then I revise. I can’t think of a single instance where I’ve revised something for an editor and the resulting essay wasn’t vastly improved. They’re always better. The experience has taught me two things: that (a) few finished stories are as finished as you think they are, and (b) what qualifies as “finished” is highly subjective, a matter of taste that varies reader to reader. You could go on revising forever. Sometimes you just have to take the horn out your mouth.

The essays that I quit revising and pronounce dead, I send to a folder called “the junk pile.” It’s like the oubliette in Labyrinth. If I feel that I’ve plumbed the depths of a subject deeply enough, that I’ve studied its angles and sculpted an essay that I would be so proud to let other people read that I’d be willing to take full responsibility for its strengths and weaknesses, then I take the horn out your mouth. No matter what you think of the idea that the Beats helped impart, that writing is a jazz solo, pure and unmodified, the fact of the matter is that not all jazz solos are entirely spontaneous. Once he quit using drugs and dedicated himself to his music, Coltrane practiced many of the parts of his best recorded solos. Other mid-century players did too. I’ll end there. I need to go chew on an unlit cigarillo.

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I’m thrilled to have my essay “\’ra-di-kəl\” in the spring issue of Hotel Amerika. It’s one of my favorite literary magazines for nonfiction. Founding editor David Lazar has dedicted much of his professional life to the essay form. The issues are always eclectic, and in the world of literary magazines, Hotel Amerika is a strange bird. It feels good to have my digressive essay about the term ‘rad’ and the nature of cultural recycling there. Thanks to David Lazar and managing editor Adam McOmber for including it in their pages.

To channel my excitement, here’s footage of me reading this esssay on 3/25/12 at Portland, Oregon’s Alberta Street Pub. It was my first public reading. I go to readings — I used to host them at Powell’s Books — but when it comes to participation, I just assume stay in my burrow and write new stuff. I know there’s a balance to strike between writing and reading; I need to work on it with the same dedication that I’ve been working on my tan.

Kevin Sampsell, author, independent literature advocate, and publisher of Future Tense Press, organized the reading to celebrate the release of Chloe Caldwell’s book of essays, Legs Get Led Astray,  He was generous enough to invite me to participate. And he had the thing filmed. Here’s most of it, with his intro:

In an especially cool twist of fate, my friend, the nonfiction writer Lisa Fetchko has an essay in this issue, too. I’m bad at math, but I know enough to say that the statistical probability of us ending up in the same issue, of all the issues and all the lit mags in the world, is very slim. It makes me want to play the lottery.

You can read more of Lisa’s incredible essay “Nipper” here at AGNI, and this review at Bookforum, (Also, here at n+1, though beware: through some sort of editorial miscalculation, the latter is labeled as fiction. As Lisa will tell you, it’s nonfiction all the way.)

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As much as I read, I don’t find myself rereading too many books. I’m no Larry McMurtry, revisiting the same book year after year. Mostly, I reread essays, and the pieces that I find myself returning to with most frequency were written by Luc Sante, Calvin Trillin and Joseph Mitchell.

In his documentary stories for the New Yorker, pioneering nonfiction writer Joseph Mitchell celebrated both eccentrics and the average Joe, and in turn, he immortalized a scruffier, working class era of New York City. He also wrote what might be the longest quotes in our genre.

When first published in 1956, Mitchell’s classic “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” contained 12,056 words; over nine thousand of them were directly attributed to Hunter as quotations. Many of the stories in Mitchell’s book The Bottom of the Harbor are like that. “Up in the Old Hotel” contains a quote that runs for over four pages. “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” has one that goes for eight pages. “The Rivermen” boasts the longest of all: ten and a half pages – or six pages followed by four more, if you count the three-lines of intervening dialogue as an interruption. I don’t. But it’s not simply the length that interests me; it’s what length requires of a writer’s memory.

Take this quote from “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” where Mr. Hunter tells Mitchell about picking a plant called pokeweed: “I went up there one morning this spring to pick some, but we had a late spring, if you remember, and the pokeweed hadn’t come up. The fiddleheads were up, and golden club, and spring beauty, and skunk cabbage, and bluets, but no pokeweed. So I was looking here and looking there, and not noticing where I was stepping, and I made a misstep, and the next thing I knew I was up to my knees in mud.” Mitchell didn’t use a tape recorder, and he rarely took notes, which raises certain questions: how did he remember these details? The precise order in which Hunter listed them? And, if many of his quotes aren’t verbatim, then how much of his nonfiction is to be believed?

In his article for the Oxford American, “The Collector of the Everyday,” author Sam Stephenson doesn’t believe that Mitchell necessarily remembered details accurately every time – that Mr. Hunter said golden club before spring beauty before bluets – only that Mitchell got the larger truth right. William Zinsser, in his book On Writing Well, agrees with Stephenson and defends Mitchell’s technique and integrity: “Now, nobody thinks Mr. Hunter really said all that in one spurt. Mitchell did a heap of splicing. Yet I have no doubt that Mr. Hunter did say it at one moment or another—that all the words and turns of phrase are his.” Zinsser describes Mitchell’s stories as mosaics, literary composites that reflected Mitchell’s journalistic technique. He would befriend a knowledgeable and colorful source – a fishmonger, oysterman, tugboat captain, etcetera – and make multiple visits over the course of weeks or months, sometimes years, gradually gathering quotes, history, scenes and a sense of the cultural landscape. Then, Mitchell would assemble his stories over time, layering the material like some sort of phyllo dough pastry; yet he rendered these portraits to depict a particular occasion – a single visit to a graveyard, a single chat with a Bowery barfly – so that they are composites of facts, collages. He likely fashioned his Olympian quotations the same way.

Certain critics might say that such composites are fictions, because the information portrayed didn’t exist in the real world in the precise way it was rendered. The composite only exists because the artist created it. I used to agree with this line of thinking.

When I first discovered Mitchell at age twenty-five, I believed that George Hunter said those words in that way verbatim, because I assumed all dialogue in nonfiction was verbatim. Not a spliced rendition, not a near-accurate depiction, not a highly educated guess, but a replica, a photograph in text. I was naïve about the mechanics of nonfiction writing, and the complex nature of truth. Now, after a decade reading and writing narrative nonfiction, I still expect accuracy whether I’m reading a magazine or a memoir, but I also know that truth is more complicated than the usual “accurate/inaccurate” dichotomy suggests. If the parts that Mitchell used to fashioned his hybrid stories and hybrid quotes were facts themselves, then is not the collage of facts also true if it captures the larger truth of his subjects? By larger truth, I mean the essence of Mister Hunter’s personality, and the particular texture of his speech. And on a thematic level, I mean the emotional truth of Hunter’s situation: aging and looming specter of his, and everyone’s, impending death. This is part of what Zinsser means when he says that “all the phrases and turns of phrase are his.”  He means that despite the splicing, Mitchell captured Hunter’s essence by accurately portraying his diction (like the way Hunter said “spring beauty” rather than “beauties”). Mitchell didn’t make quoted phrases up, didn’t invent information; rather, he simmered the facts so they accreted into a more potent truth, which is why the quotes sound like his speakers, rather than like Mitchell. This is also why I consider Mitchell’s stories nonfiction.

Mitchell’s literary standard was that of both the artist and the reputable journalist. He organized his facts in a creative arrangement in order to best serve the story. As Zinsser says: “Although Mitchell altered the truth about elapsed time, he used a dramatist’s prerogative to compress and focus his story, thereby giving the reader a manageable framework. If he had told the story in real time, strung across all the days and months he did spend on Staten Island, he would have achieved the numbing truth of Andy Warhol’s eight-hour film of a man having an eight-hour sleep. By careful manipulation he raised the craft of nonfiction to art. But he never manipulated Mr. Hunter’s truth; there was no ‘inferring,’ no ‘fabricating.’ He has played fair.” By employing these techniques, Mitchell spared readers the superfluous details, framed the relevant information, and distilled the piece to its essence, for the sake of the audience’s reading experience. In this way, Mitchell’s stories predated the “nonfiction novel” of Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe, as well as the 1960s “new journalism” that followed after: using dialogue, character development, narrative arc, foreshortening, well-sequenced scenes, emergent themes, dramatic tension in nonfiction, rather than the who, what, where, when, why of standard expository reportage. Mitchell’s Olympian quotations are sure to remain one of nonfiction’s most peculiar attractions – an extraordinary monument to truth’s complex incarnations – but it’s his stories’ artfulness and readability that have made them endure.

On a side note, I found this short documentary, about the old Fulton Ferry Hotel, from which Mitchell’s classic essay, and his collection, take their name:

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Over at HTMLGiant, I wrote a short review of Craig Taylor’s epic oral history, Londoners, which is both a joy to read and a study in the form. I’m eating some crisps to celebrate the fact that I still have a number of pages left to read — comforting to know the book’s not over. Here it is:

Reviews

I Like Oral

Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now – As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long for It by Craig Taylor

Ecco, 2012 448 pages / $29.99

Buy from Amazon  /  Powells

 

Looking at a map of London, you see neighborhoods with familiar names such as Chelsea and Greenwich, and you see neighborhoods that sound like cheeses (Rotherhithe), erectile dysfunction pills (Vauxhall), Tolkien inventions (Isle of Dogs) and enormous breakfasts (West Ham). Maybe you’ve visited London, but for those of us who haven’t and who still harbor a deep curiosity, despite the dreary weather, bad food, soot, lootings, and long shadow of Bill Buford’s soccer hooligan book Among the Thugs, Craig Taylor’s Londoners both confirms and broadens London’s reputation as an enchanting, holy polluted kickass clusterfuck. And it does so in a way that proves as interesting as its subject.

Londoners is an oral history, a fact suggested by its old-McSweeney’s-ish subtitle: The Days and Nights of London Now – As Told By Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long For It. Unlike a traditional narrative or expository history, an oral history is, by its nature, a “through the eyes of” point-of-view. It isn’t theoretical. It isn’t analytical. It doesn’t offer insight into its subject by editorializing or examining, or by trying to contextualize things in a bed of paraphrased or distilled information. Instead, it’s a collection of trimmed and sequenced quotations – just spoken words, the voice of the people rather than the journalist.

Those who frequently read about music will recognize the format from Legs McNeils’ canonical Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, John Cook’s Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, and Mark Yarm’s recent Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge. All use the oral history form to great effect. Taylor’s is equally engrossing. Over the course of five years, he interviewed over 200 people in London, producing some 950,000 words of transcribed interviews, before winnowing his selections down to the wriggling mass of text that fills these 400 pages. The book not only asks, “What is London?” it asks, “Who is a Londoner?” As Taylor says in the introduction, his goal was “to assemble a collage of voices that could yield a richness about a place and time.” He wanted to do so in a way that created the “narrative arc and emotional truth” and “pace and texture of a good novel.” He isn’t fooled about the project, though. “Whatever it is,” he says, “Londoners is not a definitive portrait; it’s a snapshot of London here and now.”

In Londoners’ case, the oral history format also reflects the nature of not just London, but cities in general. They’re knowable yet not entirely fathomable. They can’t be reduced to simple characterizations, because as well you can describe them physically, their essence is more elusive. As a composite of various, often conflicting impressions, an oral history might come the closest to capturing a city’s character, because the form itself is a bundle of contradictory, overlapping voices. Londoners is a case of form as function. The portrait that emerges from it is, like its subject, a pastiche, and like any community, it’s comprised of its residents’ experiences, and as Shakespeare says in the book’s epigraph, “What is the city but the people?” (It should be noted that, despite the book’s format, Taylor’s intro stands alone as a stellar first-person narrative essay on London, the nature of place, travel, home and being an outsider.)

Writing an oral history isn’t easy. Taylor and McNeil didn’t just dump a bunch of quotes onto the page and slap a cover on it. This isn’t an exercise in transcription. Transcription is only the first step. The job of a narrative historian is to write history by metabolizing existing information, paraphrasing and selecting quotations, and telling the story in his or her own words. The job of the oral historian is to shape the exact words of others into a story, by interviewing innumerable sources, then cutting, refining, editing, grouping and sequencing quotations into a tightly curated composite that forms a larger portrait. That’s a different challenge than the traditional narrative author’s job, but no less of a chore.

After conducting thousands of hours of interviews, the oral historian has to sift through the tape to cull the choicest quotes, the ones that actually say something interesting, substantive, or revealing. As most journalists know, not all sources give good quotes, and not everyone is a natural storyteller. Some people ramble. Others jump around. Some say ‘um’ too much, or ‘like,’ like, um, way too much, and double back on themselves, don’t get the point, repeat and repeat, or can’t remember enough specifics to make their comments useful. So authors edit and refine such quotes. When including a block of quoted text, oral historians also have to leave out their own comments in order to preserve the quote’s integrity, namely, the comments the interviewer made in the middle of the conversation in order to extract more information (“So what was that like?”) and to keep sources talking (“Cool, tell me more.”). And they have to cluster and order their text so that the story’s arc, or a gestalt, emerges. That’s hard work, and an art in itself.

In the end, Taylor fails to “sort out just who is, and who isn’t, a Londoner” or fully comprehend his home. This is central to the book’s success, because this limitation acknowledges the fundamental elusiveness and complexity of the world’s most interesting cities. This isn’t to say nothing is learned. Londoners is overflowing with life and detail. It’s one of those books whose pleasures derive from dipping randomly into the pages, slowly savoring what you find over months’ time. Aside from the wild anecdotes and charged language, what Londoners offers above all is an antidote to all the common, negative characterizations of the city as cold, difficult, dirty and mean. As a Transport for London Lost Property clerk says in the second chapter, despite the “bleak view of London,” “there’s a hell of a lot of good people here. It’s a testament to the honesty of Londoners and people in general who hand things in.” It’s something I think about during my regular bouts of Anglophilia, where I rewatch Fawlty Towers and eat crisps in the desperate ways armchair travelers do when they can’t afford a plane ticket.

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