At NYU last Thursday, Deborah Eisenberg read from “Cross Off and Move On,” her short story published on July 12 by The New York Review of Books. In his introduction, Darin Strauss compared her to V.S. Pritchett and Grace Paley. She is “that rarest of birds, a writer who writes only masterpieces” and “an artist of near perfection, a near impossibility” given that the short story is such a difficult form.
(witness my terrible photog skillz)
After she read, Darin asked her some questions:
Notes for my reading list:
On politics in writing: Perhaps prompted by the presidential debate the night before, Darin asked Deborah about what the role of politics in writing should be. She noted, “American writers are urged to be apolitical,” but it’s hard not to write about the world, as our rapidly shrinking world means it’s become “harder and harder to find a purely private realm.”
“Fiction,” after all, “is about you and the world.”
But meanwhile, “The writer’s job is to dismantle her or his preconceptions about the world.” You need to be able to write what the story demands. Deborah brought up Faulkner’s story “Barn Burning.” Faulkner was a conservative, she said, but that story was so “radical” it makes him look like a “Trotskyite.”
An audience member brought up George Orwell’s work as an example of “didactic” political writing that works, and Darin joked that in fiction, “Anything that works is good and we don’t know why.”
The Audience Q&A:
On the evolution of her writing: Deborah noted that her writing has indeed gotten “denser” over the years - now there’s a “proliferation of stuff that’s mashed into the pages.”
Certain things have gotten easier. “It gets easier to control the language - you just get more comfortable using a difficult, rather ungainly language.” At the same time, writing has become more difficult because you don’t want to write the same thing twice. Once you do something, “it’s like you’ve burned through it. It’s not available to you anymore.”
At heart, the writing isn’t coming from conscious decisions. Deborah said writing comes from the unconscious. She isn’t actively trying to pin down an idea. “I, frankly, have never had an idea in my life!”
Did I mention her sincerity and humor and hyperbole were wonderful?
Writing is hard work. Deborah said she doesn’t sit around waiting for inspiration. “I’m never inspired, but -” (and here she tried to give us hope) ” - mostly things don’t work and every once in a while something comes alive.”
It’s a long road to a masterpiece. One story will typically take a year. A story that just wrote itself would have been “Revenge of the Dinosaurs” (listen to it at ArtOnAir.org here) which she wrote over five months in 2003 in “a complete rage.”
And multi-tasking is out of the question. “If something is kind of bugging me, I have to discharge it before I’m allowed to go on… Working on two actual living things has never happened to me. I hope it will one day.”