Jesse Lee Kercheval sent me mail

“Brazil” and “Space,” both by Jesse Lee Kercheval.

Yes, what you’re looking at is a photo of two books, both by Jesse Lee Kercheval, that arrived in my mail today. And they weren’t in an Amazon box — they were in a thick manila envelope with my name and address handwritten by Kercheval herself.

How, you ask?

It pays to engage the writing community folks!

I’ve known Jesse Lee Kercheval since my grad school days, when I was working as production editor of American Literary Review and was in contact with many of the authors and poets we published. Kercheval has a fairly substantial body of work in ALR, because ALR knows a good thing when they see it, so I swapped emails with Kercheval a few times in the course of my work and I became a fan of her writing.

But when I picked up a copy of her writing textbook, Building Fiction, I jumped from the back of the bandwagon straight up into the driver’s seat, because, gang, that is one fantastic writing text! It’s my go-to book on the craft of fiction, edging out even the ubiquitous (and also excellent) Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway. To be fair, Burroway’s is probably still a stronger text for, say, a graduate workshop, but for the home bookshelves of begining and advanced writers alike I have never found a better, more precise or insightful text on the craft of fiction than Building Fiction. When I took some time away from the classroom a couple of years back and lived overseas, writing practically in a vacuum and trying to make the best of what I’d learned up to that point, Kercheval’s book was indescribably helpful. That’s the mark of a great text: not just one you learn a lot from but one you actively return to and still find useful years down the road.

So when I found Kercheval on Facebook, through a few other mutual friends from writerly circles and the Wisconsin community (Kercheval teaches at UW-Madison), I leapt at the opportunity to reconnect, and she’s proven a great addition to my Facebook newsfeed. In addition to the cool writerly posts she adds, I also get her thoughts on Wisconsin politics (of national importance, people, and because I used to live there and still have friends and colleagues there, I like to keep tabs), her experiences teaching down in South America (she’s become quite the fútbol fan), her writing ideas, even her advice on how to pack for a research trip to Europe (carry-on only, if you can believe it — the woman is amazing!).

Which leads us to these two books. Not long ago, Kercheval revamped her website and, through Facebook, offered free books to the first several people to visit her site and make a comment about the new look. I leapt, people!

Once I was on the list, Kercheval suggested she surprise me with the title(s), which I was very okay with because I love her work and would be happy with anything from her catalogue. And that’s how I wound up with these two books in the mail today — a novella and a memoir! Both are books I’ve been itching to read, so I’m terrifically psyched about this.

Want to explore her work yourself? Check out her website yourself! The writing community is invaluable, gang. Connect with it!

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12 thoughts on “Jesse Lee Kercheval sent me mail

  1. There is a reason (well, there are reasons) I limit my outreach within the writing community. Fear of influence. I don’t want to adopt attitudes that belong to someone else, much less do I want to let my writing style or method be governed by what I’m reading. I’m aware that my style has faults but I want to find them out for myself (or let a publisher’s editor draw them to my attention). I’m aware that my method is haphazard and inefficient, but there are plausible reasons for that. But at least it’s mine. ‘Lupa (published) wasn’t influenced by anyone else; ‘The Everywhen Angels’ (currently with a pubisher who asked to see the manuscript) wasn’t influenced by anyone else, unless you count the friends who told me that if I was that good I should quit bitching about JKR and set a fantasy story in a school and make it not turn out like H**** P*****; ‘Wade in the Water, Children’ (wip, stuck) isn’t influenced by anyone. That’s the way I want it to be.

    Sorry, I’ve taken over your thread. This isn’t ‘about me’.

    It must have been very nice to get that package. She has an interesting site and writing CV. 🙂

    1. You know, I kind of disagree, slightly. I’ve heard musician friends joke/complain about other musicians who claim to be free from influence, because — their theory goes — EVERYTHING is influence. The stuff you love, the stuff you hate, the stuff you ignore on purpose, the stuff you hear in the elevator as background noise and don’t even realize you’re hearing it: it’s ALL influential. And I think that writing is much the same way, especially since all writers are also readers. Or, all good writers are, anyway. I think it’s definitely too easy to get sucked into the trap of imitation, something my friend (a writer AND a musician) Ryan Werner and I have discussed at length. But none of us works in a vacuum. Not really.

      Which is to say: now I’m curious who IS an influence on your writing! 🙂

      1. Well I kind of disagree with myself too, to an extent; I must be influenced by something – it’s impossible to avoid it, and I am a good imitator and parodist so I must be naturally susceptible – but on the other hand I am very conscious of the deliberate avoidance I spoke of above.

        I think you must read my writing and decide for yourself who is an influence on it.

  2. Stealing shit rules. The real post-modern idea is that, in such an era of information saturation, all work is a collage of what we take in both on purpose and accidentally. Your play isn’t just a combination of your life and your theater influences, but, rather, those two things, the songs you listened to on Spotify, the videos you watched on Youtube, and everything you streamed on Hulu the other day–including the commercials. It’s like Chekhov’s ashtray schtick updated by a hundred years or so.

    1. I love how often that ashtray example comes up between us.

      I’m thinking now — especially in light of Walt’s comment — that the REAL concern is about stealing style and voice or, worse, not having a style or voice of your own. It reminds me of that article on writers NOT to read that you and I debated a while back. At the time, you advocated staying away from some writers, and you made some good points about how to recognize the moment when you lost yourself on the writing and just starting sounding like whoever you were ripping off. Do you remember what you said back then? I don’t recall if it was in email or a comment on Facebook or here on the blog….

    2. Aha! Here’s the conversation I remembered: https://snoekbrown.com/2010/05/17/to-read-or-not-to-read/

      The comments I remembered you making that are most relevant now were these:

      First, about the author/book list to avoid (and the list you added yourself): “Some of these I’ve experienced personally (Carver, High Fidelity, the Rabbit books) and others I’ve either guessed at or dealt with in workshops, but it’s all dangerous.”

      And later, as a kind of rebuttal-to-self: “I’m not saying those books or any of the ones I mentioned shouldn’t be read, and in that respect I also totally disagree that people should avoid these books or even writing in the styles these books are written in. [. . .] Where the danger comes in is exactly where you place it: using the cribbing as the style instead of an influence on the style.”

      Any follow-up thoughts?

    3. “The real post-modern idea is that, in such an era of information saturation, all work is a collage of what we take in both on purpose and accidentally.” – In the business we call that ‘intertextuality’. Even I embrace it, but (to you, Sam) does that denote ‘influence’ in the strictest sense? I wonder.

      1. Indeed. This kind of continuing cultural thread in expression is a feature that is acknowledged in post-modernist writing, criticism, and analysis. I even coined the term ‘intermetricality’ to compliment ‘intertextuality’ http://mairibheag.com/2012/02/15/intermetricality-a-definition/

        But the ‘influence’ I was referring to earlier was more like the kind where one would get a reaction such as, “Well the more you read through MM’s book the more it’s obvious she has spent her life reading Isabel Allende…”

  3. Glad I happened onto this thread because I’m both sampling style and genre and trying to rise above them. Am working on Michael Erard’s essay in The New York Times Sunday, “Escaping One’s Own Shadow.” (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/29/escaping-ones-own-shadow-in-writing/) He refers to “structural priming,” that what you read or write “prime” you to repeat them when you’re acting automatically.

    I’m through my Elmore Leonard phase–maybe–and entering David Mitchell in “Cloud Atlas.” Wonder what that’ll do to my wirting.

    1. Oh, good references, Walt! Of course, this seems to speak directly to M’s concern about influence: that we stop sounding like ourselves and just wind up writing pastiche.

      I remember when I was in grad school and sat in on a classmate’s creative thesis defense, one of our professors advised him to pick a writer he admired and read only that writer, with the express purpose of imitation. I balked, and it was all I could do to keep from shouting out, “Screw that! If you’re going to write, write like yourself!” (One of the reasons I kept my mouth shut was the realization, in that moment, that I didn’t know at the time what my own voice was, and I suspected my classmate didn’t either.) I still feel that way to some extent, so I totally get what M is talking about.

      On the other hand, there is Robin McKinley’s excellent piece on how she learned to write by engaging in Tolkien pastiche, and Hemingway’s (awful, but for him, useful) semi-parody of Sherwood Anderson that today reads like full-on parody of Hemingway himself. And one of my favorite writing texts is Delbanco’s The Sincerest Form, which is all about imitation. So it’s definitely a legit way to go about learning.

      How much is too much, though? That might be a good question to consider!

      1. “Of course, this seems to speak directly to M’s concern about influence: that we stop sounding like ourselves and just wind up writing pastiche.” – Glad you noticed! 🙂

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