One of the best pieces of advice I ever received on writing nonfiction was this: become an expert on something. A good nonfiction writer is really just a very serious editor; the world is spread out before him and he sculpts away all the negative space until he is left with a tiny nugget of information or interpretation. And we, the readers, love having someone point to the great things under our very noses. That's why books like Salt and Blink and Stiff and Better and Cod and Andrew Jackson strike the public so hard. Someone is pointing to this thing and saying hey, look at this! Cool, interesting, and important! Add this grain of sand to your ever-expanding information age knowledge!

Fiction writers, lucky ducks, are experts on the worlds and characters of their own invention (I happen to be reading Ender's Game and it's shocking how the world, like all good fictional worlds, feels not only real but inevitable, obvious).

I say all of this because today I am reassessing my expertise. My life thus far has been devoted to learning in a disorganized way. I made a study of studying for a while, and then of having adventures, and then of reading and writing (which is cheating because I read and wrote about zillions of different things), and of getting and quitting jobs, of course, and then of friendship and laziness and all sort of things.

So I am left, these days, with a fact that many memoirists know: the only thing I am an expert on is myself. And not a terribly interesting version of myself, either, but still, there I am, putzing around waiting to be investigated. Montaigne changed the writing world with his observations about himself and thousands of others have not shied away from the self as subject. But today, I hesitate. I'm tired of myself. I want to look outward to this very interesting world.

And so I search for new expertise...

Writing at Home

Tonight I am at home. Also in my home are, as I can see from a random look around, a cactus, a kitten, an overdue and crooked tree, a book on human anatomy, a recently completed puzzle on top of a table with too many chairs around it, and a stack of written but unsent letters. This will all become important later. Tomorrow at the Twain House we are having a writer, Anne Trubek, come to discuss her book A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses. I am currently midway through the book (as well as, as we discussed back in September, three or four other works) and find Trubek's skepticism interesting. She harshly posits that our cultural interest in authors' homes is little more than a mundane, cloying interest in irrelevant aspects of a writer's life. Trubek says that the books are all that matter.

At first glance, and as a happy employee of The Mark Twain House, I rolled my eyes. Come on. We visit writers' homes because we want to see that they, too, were human, a part of history, and could emerge from their historical moments to create something enduring and emotional. The way we create heroes out of our writers is the same way we create heroes out of any historic figure, and although of course we can never really know a complete person once the myths are made, no one would say a person who's changed history or literature isn't worth considering. And writers have the special benefit of handing over a voice. Often it feels as though they are speaking directly into our ears, saying this is who I am, this is who I am. That's what makes reading feel magical: the brain-to-brain transfer over vast swaths of time. It's amazing, really.

On the other hand, the devil's in the details. The fact that I listed two plants and a puzzle in my earlier selection makes me sound a lot homier than I am. Now I'll tell you that the plants are all dead or near dying and that should your perception. Or what if I had told you that in my house I had a completed puzzle, a completed Rubik's cube, a huge amount of IKEA furniture, and a hand-built computer? Makes me sound like I have good spacial reasoning. But I don't. Greg built all that stuff for me. (I helped with the puzzle. Along with twelve other people.) Or I could mention in some letter that I am drinking a glass of lemonade and, a hundred years down the line, somebody might be throwing an annual lemonade-themed birthday party because that's the only drink I ever mentioned in a letter.

It's just so easy to find evidence of any trait here in the middle of the room. Lazy: unsent letters, tons of beer bottles in the recycling, unmade bed, deployed recliner. Compassionate: rescued kittens, sympathy cards, pullout couch, open digital picture of a wounded friend. Dumb: seltzer next to computer, cheap stupid novels, misspelled words, pathetic bank account and receipts for unnecessary items. Smart: books and diplomas and whatnot. Socializer: texts and notes and missed calls and thousands of emails. Lonely: well, I'm the only one here right now, aren't I?

The point is, our objects can never fully represent us unless we fully represent them. And that would be exhausting. I can't point to everything I have, remember everything I once had, or describe everything I want. And yet these may be the things that someone uses to create a memory or a myth about me.

Faced, as I often am, with the impulse to list things, I will try and keep in mind that it is all part of one story. A story of myself, and my life, which I cannot completely control, but which I can edit carefully before I invite the skeptics in.


Whose story is my story?

Yesterday I posted a short article I wrote for the Star-Ledger about the differences between Twain biographies.  Today, at work at the Twain house, I was given a little article in a Norwich paper to refute.  (The article states that Hartford was irrelevant to Twain's writing.  Very easy to refute, in my opinion.)  Doing my preliminary research for my rebuttal, I had a conversation I've had several times: "Now if you've got to read one biography, read the Kaplan.  This is the one.  Unless of course you want the early years.  Then it's not the one."

"Oh, yes, I've got to get to that new one.  Dammit.  So much to read."

Here are the Twain biographies I feel like I should read before I can consider myself an expert-- wait, forget expert-- before I can consider myself the most basic of Twain scholars.  Kaplan's, Powers', Fishkin's, this new one about the early years that I can't remember the name of, Twain's own Autobiography (of which there are several versions, and certain parts aren't really true), and his nonfiction The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, A Tramp Abroad, and Life on the Mississippi.  Most of these books I've read parts of to find out what Twain thought about music or New Jersey or ghosts.  Keep in mind, I just reviewed Loving, Shelden, & Trombley's biographies.  And the letters.  Oh, my, the letters.  There are approximately 5,000 and I have learned that they can be used to prove anything.

What I'm wondering is how much we read about a person before we can really know them, or at least speak for them.  You have to imagine the people of the future sifting through blogs and facebook posts and writing contrasting books (and facebook posts) about what they may have wanted or believed.  Or maybe none of that matters; maybe all you need to know about Twain is contained within Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  And how many biographies before we feel we've really made a decision as to who he was?

That last thought, though, is silly.  We have already decided who and what he is to the culture: important and hilarious.  The rest is possibly just an excuse to spend more time with and understand a man who is collectively admired worldwide.  You have to hope that when you, dear reader,  write your memoirs, letters, emails, and what have you, that future generations will see that that isn't the complete version of yourself.  That you are worth uncovering again and again.  That any human life is so complex as to be studied for centuries, and the more details that are available, the more fuel there is to draw new conclusions.  That there is no final word on you.

My Old New Jersey Home

Yesterday my parents came for a visit from New Jersey.  We headed over to a classy Derby party, picked a horse that sounds like a discount grocery store, and went home with some cash.  The last time I bet on a horse, I was in the Off Track Betting facility out in the wastelands by Bradley airport.  The horse was named Spanky Fishbein and I made a few dollars that day too.  Sometimes the various ways we can experience the same thing truly amazes me. Then, this morning, I found that the Star Ledger published a short review/essay about Twain I wrote for the museum.  Thanks, New Jersey!


Last week I found out that I am one of sixteen recipients of a Writers Fellowship from the Greater Hartford Arts Council.  I'm stunned and honored.   Now that I am essentially a public artist instead of a private one, I launched this little website to keep track of my life as a writer.  I plan to use it to both keep up with my professional progress as well as toss up little excerpts of what I've been writing, reading, thinking, and doing as new writing fuel. Please don't hesitate to comment on any and all posts.