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'The Writing Life'

<I>The Writing Life</I> includes essays from more than 50 contemporary authors. The collection was edited by Marie Arana, editor in chief of <I>The Washington Post Book World</I>, where the pieces originally appeared.
The Writing Life includes essays from more than 50 contemporary authors. The collection was edited by Marie Arana, editor in chief of The Washington Post Book World, where the pieces originally appeared.

Like an actor who refuses to watch his own movies, author Michael Chabon says he can't stand to read his books. On Morning Edition, Chabon and fellow writers Jane Smiley and John Edgar Wideman share their thoughts about the nature of writing in a virtual "salon" styled after the famous Round Table at New York's Algonquin Hotel.

"I don't like any of them," Chabon says of his previous novels. "I find it very painful to re-read things that I've done in the past, whether people liked them or didn't like them. It's exactly the same sensation as re-reading letters that you wrote to a girlfriend when you were 17..."

Wideman agrees. "Well, they're just irrelevant because the fun is whatever one happens to be writing at the time... The stuff that's already done, that is for other people. It has no life anymore."

The discussion turns to dispelling a popular myth about writing. Smiley says: "I think that this is an interesting secret that we have that we really enjoy our work because the convention about writing is that it's a lonely, difficult business. And I always thought that I was the only one who was sitting in my office saying, 'Wow, hurray! I love this.'"

Chabon, Smiley and Wideman are among dozens of authors who wrote essays about their craft for The Washington Post Book World. The columns have been collected in a new book, The Writing Life (PublicAffairs). In an excerpt below, Marie Arana, editor in chief of Book World and editor of the collection, offers this introduction for author John Edgar Wideman's essay, which follows.

John Edgar Wideman

Months after John Edgar Wideman first saw light in Washington, D.C., his father impulsively quit a post with the U.S. Treasury and drove his little family back to Pittsburgh, where they were from. His supervisor had been verbally abusive, a racist, and the humiliation had been more than he could take. Wideman remembers his father donning his tuxedo every night after that -- tall, impressive, heading out to restaurants to wait on tables.

The family house was on a tree-lined street in a vibrant, racially mixed corner of Homewood. The oldest of 5 children, Wideman was known for two things: his ability to put a ball through a hoop and his gift for impromptu storytelling. When Helen DeFrance, his 9th grade English teacher, told him he could be somebody if he stopped using clichés, he decided he had a future in prose.

He attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a star basketball player and one of 11 African Americans in a student body of 3,000. "It was culture shock," he says. "The blacks there were as different from me as whites. They dressed differently, spoke differently." Within days he was at the bus terminal, headed for home. A professor talked him into staying.

That may have been the only time Wideman's career hung in the balance. He slipped comfortably into the milieu of Philadelphia, a city "full of African-American enticements." He played All-Ivy, won numerous awards, graduated Phi Beta Kappa, was made a Rhodes Scholar. He was doted on by poet Richard Eberhardt, encouraged by novelist Christopher Davis, and, when he realized that his basketball career had probably reached its climax with an induction into the Big Five Basketball Hall of Fame, he turned confidently to his other skill: writing.

Wideman took a job teaching at the University of Pennsylvania in 1967, the year he published his first novel, A Glance Away, a story based on his uncle, a self-cured drug addict. "It was, in many ways, a story about me -- about being caught up in an alien culture and wending my way back to reality. I hadn't thought much about racism. I was too busy trying to swallow the world in one gulp. I was struggling to make sense of a world that was far away from the world I'd grown up in -- Penn, Oxford, the writing workshop at the University of Iowa. I was the living exception in these places. There was something charmed and wrong about that. I felt at any moment a bell would ring, fingers would snap, all of it would fall apart and I would stumble, leaving an ugly handprint in the nice white cake."

His writing became a way to reclaim his roots. Sent For You Yesterday, a novel for which he won the PEN/Faulkner Award, was set in his old Homewood neighborhood. Brothers and Keepers, a memoir, was about his younger brother, convicted and sentenced to life in a robbery and murder case. How could a brother be so different? The younger ended up behind bars, the elder caged in his own bafflement.

Time eventually brought him another tragedy to ponder. His 16-year-old son was tried and convicted for the murder of a young man in an Arizona motel. "There was an illness there," Wideman says. "Something we didn't know, couldn't talk about." When he did talk about it, it was in Philadelphia Fire, a raging, jagged novel based on the 1985 police bombing of a black neighborhood in the City of Brotherly Love. The book won him another PEN/Faulkner prize.

Today, Wideman lives and teaches in Amherst, Mass. His most recent novel is Two Cities, a multilayered story that takes place in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. His latest work is Hoop Roots, a book about basketball, race and national identity. You can bet Homewood is there, and Philadelphia, as well as a tamped-down, simmering rage. You can also bet that some form of shock rattles the story's heart.

It's as if Wideman were waiting for life to shift and turn, for powers beyond his control to alter the landscape forever: a father's sudden frustration, a brother's plunge into the streets; a son's inexplicable violence in a faraway motel. And in the course of that waiting, his stories will come.

'In Praise of Silence'

by John Edgar Wideman

On a roomsize dock beside a Maine lake where for 30-some summers I've gone each morning to write, I often find myself thinking about silence. When I'm writing or, more likely, in the spaces between writing that are also writing -- the spaces when words aren't being scratched on the page, either because one thought is finished or another won't come or because I'm having thoughts for which no words exist, no words I know yet anyway -- when I'm pausing, looking out at water, trees and sky, the silence of my hideaway in the woods meets the silence inside me and forms a horizon as tangible and razor-sharp as the shoreline across the lake, dividing trees from their upside-down reflections on days when water and wind are calm.

Perhaps words lie behind this horizon, but for the moment they are utterly inaccessible and can remain so for what seems like minutes, hours, days, on and off the dock. Some mornings I'm frustrated by the pause, disquieted by a foreboding that no words exist, that even if there are words, they will always fail, that this pause might go on and on, but more often I find myself growing calmer, relaxing, spreading out, breathing deeper because I'm aware of time's motion, its capaciousness, aware of being inside it, bundled, dragged, gliding along. I never get closer to understanding time than in these moments when inner and outer silence meet: silence, a medium I enter and feel around and inside me, an affirming vital presence always, whether or not I'm conscious of it.

The more I write, the more I realize how deeply I'm indebted to a communal experience of time and silence, an African-American language evolving from that experience, a language vernacular, visceral, sensuous, depending on the entire body's expressive repertoire, subversive, liberating, freighted with laughter, song and sigh, burdened and energized by opposition. African-rooted, culturally descended ways and means of speaking that emerged from the dungeon and dance of silence.

For a people who have endured a long, long history of waiting -- waiting at the Jordan river, waiting chained in stone forts on the west coast of Africa, waiting for slavery and discrimination to end, waiting for justice and respect as first-class citizens, waiting for prison gates to open, waiting eternities in emergency wards and clinic lines of sorry urban hospitals -- silence is an old, familiar companion. Time and silence, silence and time. The silence attending waiting, waiting through times of enforced silence. Silence the ground upon which wishes are inscribed while the endless waiting continues. Silence a dreaming space where what's awaited is imagined and, when it doesn't come, the space where dreams are dismantled, dissolving again into silence. Dreams born and dying and born again in the deep womb of silence, and silence, tainted though it is by disappointment and waiting, also a reservoir of hope.

Imagine yourself disembarked on an alien shore after a long, painful voyage so harrowing you're not certain you survived it. You're sick, weak, profoundly disoriented. You fear you haven't actually arrived anywhere but are just slipping into another fold of a nightmare.

You are naked and chained to others who look like you, under the merciless control of brutal strangers who look and act nothing like you and, much worse, do not speak your language. To you their language is gibberish, the ba-ba-baaing of barbarians. They communicate their orders with blows, screams, shoves, crude pantomime. You are compelled at the peril of life and limb to make sense of verbal assault, physical abuse. You realize you're learning a new language even as you swallow the bitterness, the humiliation of learning the uselessness of your own. Much of this learning and unlearning occurs in silence inside your skull, in the sanctuary where you're simultaneously struggling to retain traces of who you are, what you were before this terrible, scouring ordeal began. In order to save your life, when you attempt to utter the first word of a new tongue, are you also violating your identity and dignity? When you break your silence, are you surrendering, acknowledging the strangers' power to own you, rule you? Are you forfeiting your chance to tell your story in your own words some day?

Silence in this context is a measure of resistance and tension. A drastic expression of difference that maintains the distinction between using a language and allowing it to use you. That was yesterday. Yet much has not changed. Centuries have not erased the archetypal differences between people of African descent brought to the new world as slaves, and the people who claimed this new world, claimed our African bodies and minds. Tension and resistance characterize the practices African-descended peoples have employed to keep their distance from imposed tongues, imposed disciplines. Generation after generation has been compelled to negotiate -- for better or worse, and with self-determination and self-realization at stake -- the quicksand of a foreign language

that continues by its structure, vocabulary, its deployment in social interactions, its retention of racist assumptions, expressions and attitudes, its contamination by theories of racial hierarchy to recreate the scenario of master and slave.

Uneasiness and a kind of disbelief of this incriminating language we've been forced to adopt never go away. Some of us choose to speak very, very little or not at all. Let our actions, other parts of our bodies besides the mouth, speak for us. Lots of us refuse to change speech habits that distinguish us as southern or urban or rural or hip or poor and lacking formal education. Some glory in these habits, others can switch when convenient, necessary or enjoyable. Plenty of us have mastered the master and always wear the mask. Many, whether proficient or not in standard dialects, despise them. Mangle, distort, satirize the would-be master's tongue. Reject most of it, stigmatize the so-called mainstream language, seal it in a ghetto, a barrio, separate and unequal. Some strategies are defensive, reactionary, destructive, others outrageously healthy and creative, and the totality of these strategies make up the African-American culture.

Silence marks time, saturates and shapes African-American art. Silences structure our music, fill the spaces -- point, counterpoint -- of rhythm, cadence, phrasing. Think of the eloquent silences of Thelonious Monk, sometimes comic, sometimes manic and threatening. Recall gospel's wordless choruses hummed, moaned, keened, words left far behind as singers strive to reach what's unsayable, the silent pulse of Great Time abiding within the song.

Silence times our habits of speech and non-speech, choreographs the intricate dance of oral tradition, marks who speaks first, last, how long and with what authority. Silence indicates who is accorded respect, deference, modulates call-and-response, draws out the music in words and phrases. Silence a species of argument, logical and emotionally persuading, heightening what's at stake. Silence like Amen at the end of a prayer invokes the presence of invisible ancestors whose voices, though quiet now, permeate the stillness, quicken the ancient wisdom silence holds.

The sign of silence presides over my work. Characters who can't speak, won't speak, choose never to speak until this world changes. Stories and essays whose explicit subject or theme is silence. My impulse to give voice to the dead, the unborn, to outlaws and outcasts whose voices have been stolen or muted by violence. Characters who talk in tongues, riddles, prophecies, at the margins, unintelligible until it's too late. Alternate forms of speech, in my fiction, which celebrate the body's ingenuity, how it compensates the loss of one expressive sense with eloquence in another. My ongoing attempt to define African-American culture, explicate its heavy debt, its intimacy with silence. My journey back to lost African cultures, to the stories of Homewood, the Pittsburgh community where I was raised. My struggle to emulate the achievement of African-American artists in song, dance, sport; invent a language that doesn't feel secondhand, borrowed, a language rich with time and silence that animate the written word.

And thinking about that struggle takes me back to those mornings on the dock in Maine. The silence I experience there is not really silence. It's an illusion. If we hear nothing, if one ever can hear nothing, it only means we aren't listening hard enough. At a minimum, we can hear ourselves listening. The total absence of sound is never a possibility for a hearing person, is it? Unless we pretend to have God's ear and can stand aside, outside being, outside self, and listen. So silence is a metaphor. A way of thinking about how it might feel to be both creature and creator, able to experience whatever there might be to hear or not hear if the earth stopped spinning. Silence is a way of imagining such a moment outside time, imagining the possibility of pausing at ground zero and examining our lives before the buzz of the world overtakes us. Nice work if we could get it, and even though we can't, we have the power to see ourselves other than we are. Silence is proof that the decision to listen or not is ours. Proof that we are called to pay attention.

November 29, 1998

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