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This month I read Lydia Davis’s latest, Essays, before our arranged phone conversation. Davis’s writing voice is always articulate and persuasive, especially when she examines a range of beloved subjects, from Joseph Cornell to Lucia Berlin to the word ‘gubernatorial’. Unsurprisingly, she’s just as articulate on the phone.

These days, so much writing advice concerns process, word count, software, cover design, and whether or not to endlessly self-publicize online. A conversation with Lydia Davis ushers more important issues to the fore. At the heart of Essays is a piece entitled ‘Thirty Recommendations for Good Writing Habits.’ The essay isn’t just a set of tips. It lays out advice that could improve the life of anyone who comes into even glancing contact with literature.

Davis gently admonishes us to notice the world and seek out the correct words to describe it. Her own writing remains unfailingly exact. ‘Finding the right word is one thing,’ Brian Dillon notes in his recent review of the Essays in the New York Times, ‘taking it for a walk another. Like most writers who are called ‘experimental,’ Davis shrugs off the label—it suggests rules or protocols, when in fact she proceeds by intuition, accident and divination.’ In another New York Times review of the Essays, Parul Seghal goes even further, writing: ‘She is our Vermeer, patiently observing and chronicling daily life, but from angles odd and askew.’ That sounds about right when it comes to Davis’s shorter pieces, which often redraw the assumed shape of a story. The essays are often more direct.

From the thirty recommendations, here’s part of number thirteen. ‘If you want to be original,’ Davis writes, ‘cultivate yourself, enrich your mind, develop your empathy, your understanding of other human beings, and then, when you come to write, say what you think and feel, what you are moved to say…’

Will this approach work for everyone? Davis is a keen observer of human beings—and animals. (She published a thirty-two page book, The Cows, about three much-loved cows that lived across the street.) Some humans are attuned to the workings of the world, the weather, the light, the proper nouns that surround us, as well as the peculiarities and revelations of conversation. Then there are those who aren’t as perceptive. Most of us remain somewhere in the middle. But if we work at it, we might be able to improve our position.

How? ‘Be curious,’ Davis writes in her 20th piece of advice, ‘be curious about as much as possible. Think, generally, about how curious you are, or are not, as a person. If you are not very curious, think about why not. And try to cultivate curiosity. If you are curious, you will learn things, and the more curious you are, the more you will learn. And curiosity may lead you deeper and deeper into all sorts of subjects.’ Her own personal list is large—as evidenced by the contents page of Essays. Go find your own list of people, ideas, and words as pleasurable to say as ‘gubernatorial.’

Most of us have a list lying around somewhere. ‘But there are many more things to be curious about,’ Davis writes before listing a few of her favourite examples. ‘At the Culinary Institute of America, how do they teach the students the right way to uncork a bottle of wine? When you blow on an ant, trying to move it, and it doesn’t move, why is it so good at bracing itself? Does it have strong little muscles in its legs? Why, exactly, does power corrupt?’

Become the kind of person who tracks down these and many other answers.

Five Dials

Reading the Essays, a portrait emerges of an individual with a hugely varied set of interests, from Rimbaud to twentieth-century Dutch photographs. I often caught myself thinking, what kind of person would be interested in so many things?

Lydia Davis

Someone with a sort of productive ADD.

Five Dials

It was surprising to see where your mind went to next.

Lydia

It can be a bit of a difficulty, because it’s hard for me to exclude things that seem interesting. But then there are only so many hours in the day.

Five Dials

Essays contains a lot of advice. One recommendation is to always work from your own interests, never from what you think you should be writing. Is that something that you knew from the beginning, or is it a skill that must be learned?

Lydia

I did follow my own interests and instincts from the beginning but, of course, I was also limited by what I was aware of as possibilities. When I was in my twenties I wasn’t aware of certain possibilities. But I did still follow what I knew of as my interests at the time.

Some of the essays grew out of talks I gave to graduate students. I became aware of how young writers are manipulated, in a way. It didn’t happen when I was their age. Publishers and agents wouldn’t say, ‘Well, those short stories are all very well but now you have to write a novel if you want to stay interesting to publishers.’ They buckle to that pressure too often. The whole system is skewed away from working by yourself and being independent and confident in your own ideas.

Five Dials

This advice comes from someone who basically invented her own form. That takes bloody-mindedness.

Lydia

I like being bloody-minded.

Five Dials

In the Essays you discuss a version of Rimbaud’s Illuminations translated by John Ashbery. You note that the translations in the book appeared in literary journals one by one. They were done slowly, ‘as translations ought to be’. What are the benefits of slow, ongoing translation?

Lydia

I’ve certainly seen it both ways. I’ve seen, as they say, the slow, meaning you work hard on one poem that may be only twelve lines long or sixteen lines long. You work on it, come back to it, and look at it again a couple of weeks later, and so on. You’re giving it a lot of attention over time.

I’ve also seen the opposite, where one translator will try to do a 200-page book of poems within a year, or within a half a year, or something, and just go at it the way you might translate something more pedestrian.

I remember once having a choice. I can’t remember who the poet was—it was a Scandinavian poet.The choice was to either buy a collection done by one translator or another collection done by quite a few different translators. That was the one I chose because I assumed each translator had given whatever poems they translated more time and attention than the one who had done them all. It maybe wasn’t fair. Maybe he or she took ten years to do it. Lots of time and attention are needed for a poem.

Five Dials

Time and attention seem to be ongoing themes in the book. You mention you let some pieces of writing sit by your side for a while. You return to a story, finding ways to see the language anew. That seems to be a translator’s lesson that can apply to your fiction writing.

Lydia

Yes, it really is. You’d think I’d be very practised by now and I could just write a couple of paragraphs that wouldn’t have any problems at all, but that isn’t true. It’s not at all true.

Sometimes the problems only show up after a while.You read it over and you say, ‘Oh boy, I repeated this word three times in this paragraph.’ You have to let it sit until it’s not quite as familiar to you, and then read it again. It goes against the times we live in, but I even reread my emails. I’m not the only one out of my friends. But not everybody takes time to make sure they’re decently written.

Five Dials

Another theme that came across in the Essays is your love of specialized language. As an example you list the Beaufort Scale, a measure that relates wind speed to observed conditions. Number 4 on the scale, for instance, is ‘raises dust and loose paper; small branches moved’. Are you enamoured with other specialized language? Is there anything that’s caught your eye recently?

Lydia

It’s more that any word that is new to me jumps out. New words are interesting to me. I can give you an example. I read the TLS a lot and I’m always finding new words. These words happen to be from two articles on natural history. Cladistics was one. Cladistics. And the other is mustelids. Mustelids, which I think are a carnivorous mammal. I haven’t looked up either of these yet, that’s why I can’t tell you.

I love a word that I don’t know because it’s just a group of sounds, and yet I know it has meaning, a meaning hidden within it. Each new word opens up a new little world.

Five Dials

You also see possibility in the digital world. You mention the poetry of spam emails.

Lydia

I had to stop myself from just copying out all of the scam emails I would get because the language was so interesting to me. Even the dramas: ‘You’ve inherited a hundred million dollars’, ‘My husband died of cancer’ and so on. That’s not contrived language. It’s sort of like finding treasure.

Five Dials

There’s something in spam constructions that even a practised writer could not come up with.

Lydia

There is very beautiful language that’s deliberate on the part of the writer, so I don’t want to eliminate that.

Somebody I was reading the other day was quoting Shakespeare in a very interesting way. They were using the word ‘slenderly’. It’s from King Lear. It’s Regan talking about her father. ‘’Tis the infirmity of his age, yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself.’ Meaning he doesn’t know himself very well now, but he only but slenderly knew himself in the past. You read a word like ‘slenderly’ and it bursts in on you as new, even though it’s in Shakespeare, and if you had studied your Shakespeare it wouldn’t be so new.

Five Dials

Just to be clear, you had to stop reading spam emails because you were too interested in them?

Lydia

I was starting to put together a long piece. I was trying to paste together, collage together, the material from a lot of scam emails that I was getting, to make one fantastic, crazy story. But I think two things stopped me. One was I got a better spam system where something stopped these messages. But also I thought, maybe everybody’s getting them and maybe it’s just too familiar and it’s really not going to be so interesting, even though I could have made something out of them. Maybe it’s just too recognizable.

Five Dials

I would happily read any spam email book you publish.

Lydia

It’s still there. The material is still there somewhere in my computer.

Five Dials

In the Essays you stress journals are essential to a writer’s life. You describe your journal as your other mind: ‘. . . what I sometimes know, what I once knew.’ When did you realize their importance?

Lydia

It’s like the old story. My uncle gave me a diary when I was twelve and even though I didn’t write in it faithfully, beyond the first five days, it did start a habit because there it was and that was its purpose, whether I wrote in it every week or every month or even every year.

The first one lasted me quite a long time. I never stopped after that. I write inconsistently. Sometimes it’s every day. I now have multiple notebooks: a gardening notebook, and a health notebook, and a progress on the second book of essays notebook, a reading notebook, and a travel notebook. They’re all over the place.

I do think it’s a circular relationship. In other words, if you write it down, it makes you more alert to the next idea, the next interesting thought, the next thing you might overhear or read. If you don’t write it down, you’re less alert and less likely to notice and remember.

Five Dials

You mention it’s important to revise work that may never see the light of day. Why?

Lydia

It’s partly just that I don’t like seeing a sentence that isn’t as good as it can be, when I see the obvious change that it needs. The revision we’re talking about is not laborious. It’s quick. That word should be changed to this. It’s a good thing to do because then you’re always in the habit of revising and you’re always improving.

I don’t like seeing it not right. Even if it’s in a list, or something I might throw away eventually, I’ll still underline a title, for example, because titles should be underlined. It’s a sense of how things should be. It’s not so much a pedantic school marm-ish correctness. It’s the beauty of the way things should be.

Five Dials

You don’t want to let sentences slip past. You want to make sure they’re beautiful?

Lydia

Or: this sentence doesn’t have to be beautiful in itself, but there’s a greater beauty in fulfilling what it wants to be. It actually could be an ugly sentence, but the beauty is that it fulfils what it wants to be, what it should be. Do you see what I mean?

Five Dials

I liked the idea that it’s not necessarily for public performance. Enacting this ritual again and again to sentences that may never see the light of day helps all parties, helps the sentence, and helps you as well.

You mentioned that sometimes a notebook entry wants to become a story. Has it become easier over the years to spot the sentences that deserve to go on to something more?

Lydia

I guess it has. I try not to let this whole experience of writing a story be laboured, ever. I don’t particularly worry. In a sense, I let the story be more active than I am. If it wants to be a story, it signals it pretty loud and clear. Of course, some say they want to be stories and I shape them into stories but they fall flat. They are stories, but they’re not all that interesting.

Five Dials

That’s their fault.

Lydia

It’s not a foolproof little interaction. Although I do come back to them if I think, well, if I did write it, there must be something there. Sometimes I come back and try to find out what it is.

Five Dials

In the Essays there’s a four-page section reflecting on a short excerpt, a ‘translation from the Cheremiss’ by Anselm Hollo which, in total, reads:

i shouldn’t have started these red wool mittens
they’re done now
but my life is over.

Lydia

I think that all sounds right.

Five Dials

You mention how those lines ‘defy assimilation’. You said that you find that quality exemplary. What does defying assimilation mean to you?

Lydia

Maybe the quick translation would be ‘become familiar’ or ‘become natural’ or predictable or expected, something like that. Something strikes you at first, but then on second reading you’ve already got it and you’re not really surprised by it any more. My example from Shakespeare, ‘slenderly’, would probably keep on surprising me, for example. It would keep striking me as strange and fresh and new. That’s what the poem did. It kept striking me over and over again.

Five Dials

It struck in an emotional way, too, by the sounds of it. It changed as you read it at different times in your life.

Lydia

Yes. And then I wrote a story very closely modelled on it, but it’s not in a book yet. It’s called ‘Improving My German’. It’s very similar to that poem. I won’t try to quote it but it’s about improving my German all my life so then I’ll die with better German. I guess I was going for the same shock somehow. The end comes. We usually don’t want to think about it much, but I do think about it, quite a bit actually. But I won’t go into all that. I didn’t hesitate to model my little story on that poem. I think that’s a perfectly good thing to do. Anyway, that’s what I mean by not assimilated.

Five Dials

Were you always drawn to fragments? Or did that come after reading writers like Mallarmé and Joubert?

Lydia

I started out by thinking that I had to write a traditional narrative short story, which is quite a bit longer. It’s not fragmented. I tried to write poems. I did write poems when I was young. They weren’t terribly good. I suppose I was more drawn to shorter forms than longer forms.

I noticed that when I was teaching writing, I would give the students all different exercises and make them all do the same things, but some of them were absolutely novelists and some of them were absolutely writers of very short things. The novelists would try, heroically, to write something small but that wasn’t their nature. They wanted to write at length. That was interesting to me.

I can be very long-winded. That’s natural too, but somehow I must have been attracted by the short form. I know I was reading Kafka’s Parables and Paradoxes and I was enjoying the Diaries, very short bits. It always did interest me, how much you could do with a very short couple of sentences. I wasn’t so interested in writing some kind of great worldview, an immensely long novel that contained all of society and all of current events.The crystallization of language, of poetry, did interest me, what you could do with just a few words. That’s still kind of amazing to me.

Five Dials

I have one last question about the practical tips. You say that after a session of writing, leave some clear time in which you can note down what your brain will continue to offer you. Why is that important?

Lydia

It has a lot to do with the interplay between conscious work and unconscious work in your brain. There was a very useful writing book, whose name I’ve forgotten now, that I used to give to students. The author had an interesting pattern of conscious versus unconscious. In other words, conscious writing and organizing and then unconscious and less controlled writing. It has to do with allowing the less conscious and controlled part of your brain to continue to work. I find this happens all the time and it’s very important. I’ve been working on something, and then I stop because I’m going to make lunch, but my brain doesn’t stop. That’s why I feel the advice is crucial, because if I went to the kitchen and turned on the radio or started talking to someone, then this couldn’t happen, it would not be possible.

But if I don’t do any of those things, then, as I’m making the sandwich, or whatever, my brain will continue to work on what I was working on and come up with another idea or a better phrasing or an expansion of a sentence.

This doesn’t happen all day. It will die down after half an hour or an hour. So I do think it’s important. Somehow, even if your conscious thoughts are ‘What am I going to have for lunch?’, some other part of your brain is still working.

Five Dials

I know you’re constantly listening for pieces of overheard dialogue. Are there places these days where you can find such conversations?

Lydia

A couple of answers to that. I’m not going to be flying any more, for the foreseeable future, because of the carbon footprint. I made that decision back in the spring, probably inspired first by Greta Thunberg and then by a friend who decided not to fly any more.

So that means I’m not in airports where I used to listen. I am in train stations, now and then. I’m on trains where I listen. Last night I voted and I listened from the little booth where I was filling out my voting slip. I was listening to the election inspectors. They’re people I know from the community. I was hearing them telling each other stories.

I guess I am always listening, not necessarily copying down. But I’m also on theVillage Board here. I’m on the Board of Trustees in the village, meaning I’m on the little tiny governing board of this little tiny village. When I’m in the meeting, which happens every month, I do absolutely write down things people say, phrases they use or terms they use. Like when you mow the side of the road I think the machine is called a long-arm mower, or something like that. I’ll write down ‘long-arm mower’. It’s really anything that strikes me and interests me, I write down.

Five Dials

I find it’s a survival technique sometimes. It allows you to get through these circumstances. You’re paying attention. You’re picking up things. You’re not intensely bored by life, no matter what.

Lydia

I’m not bored in these meetings.

Another thing that fascinates me: one sentence can reveal so much about a person. I once had students do a writing exercise based on an example that’s in Peter Handke’s diary. There’s a section about a woman slipping her foot back into her shoe in a restaurant. As an exercise in economy and character depiction in fiction, I’d say, ‘Let’s list all the things you can tell about that woman from that one gesture.’ We would come up with a very long list. What does she do when she gets home? She obviously takes her shoes off right away, and so on. We know so much about her from the one gesture in the one sentence. That always amazes me.

Five Dials

I remember being on a tube train in London and watching a man across from me pull a long blonde hair from his coat and look at it for a second and then let it drop on to the floor. When someone reads your work, they start to see the world differently too. Your stories seem to say: that’s all it needs to be. A story can exist, just like that.

Lydia

That’s a good one.

Five Dials

You’re helping people view the world.

Lydia

That’s good too.

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