Jul 072012

upstreet with Douglas Glover

Here are some snippets from an interview with Numéro Cinq commander-in-chief, landlord, CEO, COO, CFO and venture capitalist Douglas Glover just out in the brand new issue (issue #8) of upstreet, the magazine with the distinctive midnight black cover edited and published by the redoubtable and irrepressible Vivian Dorsel. No doubt you will want to read the rest of the interview — go to the magazine website and order a copy. Or write to editor@upstreet-mag.org. Also in this issue is work by David Jauss, Rachel Hadas, Jodi Paloni, Diane Lefer, Jay Kaufmann, Steve Rucker and a host of other terrific writers.



Vivian Dorsel:  What kind of writing discipline do you maintain?

Douglas Glover:  I have no writing discipline at all; maybe an anti-discipline. I have an aversion to keeping regular hours. I like to write in bed. I’m an insomniac. I am also persistent and obsessive, but neither of these traits has anything to do with discipline. The word “discipline” implies forcing oneself to do something against one’s will.

Dorsel:  Does writing come easily for you?

Glover:  I like what Tom Hanks, the alcoholic baseball manager in A League of Their Own, says to Geena Davis when she tries to quit the team. “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”


Dorsel:  Are there any writing craft books that you would recommend?

Glover:  Not really. Most craft books look as if they were cleverly written to keep students from learning how to write and compete with the authors of craft books. Craft books are like that reflective chaff jet fighters deploy in their wake to confuse radar trackers and heat-seeking missiles.


Dorsel:  What do you emphasize in your teaching of writing?

Glover: Reading. The first thing I give students is a reading rubric and an analytical check-list to begin to reform their reading skills. As I say in Attack of the Copula Spiders, we live in a post-literate age. On a certain level that book is about the act of reading. I am pushing a critical aesthetic that is a bit like New Criticism and a bit like Russian Formalism; but, to my mind, as a writer, it just seems reasonable and immeasurably expands comprehension. You read a story and pay some attention to how it’s put together and, beyond the illusion of fictional narrative, you suddenly engage with the text on a whole other, rather exciting, level of grammar, rhythm and meaning. You begin to see connections that hitherto you vaguely passed over supplying your own dreamy connotations (as you’re taught to do in high school). We’re at a moment in our culture when differences in the ability to read and comprehend a text are critical.

I can’t remember the moment when I actually invented the phrase “copula spiders,” I only foggily recall circling over and over again all the “to be” verbs and then noticing that I could make a diagram on the page and that the diagram resembled a spider (with far more legs than it should have). The real issue, the shocking point, is that when you teach writing you are basically teaching the same student over and over again. It doesn’t matter whether the student is writing nonfiction or fiction or that the student thinks the burning piece of paper in his hand is the next War and Peace because he has put his heart into it and it comes out of his own original personal thoughts and is different (he believes) from anything ever written before (or in the future). The shocking thing is the uniformity of mediocrity. The shocking thing is that intelligent adults can’t think of another verb to use (actually most students jog along with a verb repertoire of about five: to be, to look, to sit, to stand, to see—absolutely the most popular verb choices).

The crucial connector here is to realize that part of the reason proto-writers don’t notice they are doing this is because they don’t know how to read. Eighty percent of what I do every semester is teach students how to read like writers, that is, with attention to structure and the felicities of well-written prose. So the two aspects of my book are necessarily joined: you can’t teach people to write simply by telling them what they are doing wrong; you have to show them where it is done right, that is, you have to show them how to read.

Once you learn to read you can teach yourself how to write. Literature is an encyclopedia of technique.


Dorsel: Over and above influence, are there any principles or rules of thumb you’ve learned from other writers that guide your work?

Glover: Walker Percy once did an amazing self-interview for Esquire Magazine. He called it “Questions They Never Asked Me.” In the midst of some witty back-and-forth with himself imitating a bad interviewer, he makes this startling statement: “A novelist these days has to be an ex-suicide. A good novel—and, I imagine, a good poem—is possible only after one has given up and let go.” Percy was a Catholic so he was playing with fire when he wrote that. He wasn’t joking.  He was speaking of the self exposed under the sign of death and the consequent shedding of vanity, the true enemy of art.

Walter Benjamin in his essay on Leskov, “The Storyteller,” wrote: “Death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell. He has borrowed his authority from death.” Neither of these writers mean quite the same thing, though they are using similar words. Benjamin is talking about a figure and ground structure, the story figured against a background of death, the authority, the motive, the significance of the story deriving in part from that background. Percy is talking about a quasi-mystical subjectivity, the authorial self giving up vanity, ambition, competitiveness, influence in the face of death (which proves none of these is important), his authority deriving from the freedom of someone who realizes nothing matters and he can do what he wants. “As for me,” he writes, “I might try a little something here in the wet sand, a word, a form…”

— Vivian Dorsel & Douglas Glover

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