Swimming With Books

A writer's reading journal, & sundry other notes.

Michael Chabon on writing

with 4 comments

Manhood for Amateurs

After enjoying CK Stead’s memoir I was in the mood for more writing memoir, so was pleased to find Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs on the biography shelves of Cummings Park Library. I took it to WOMAD where (because of its title, I guess) it was twice mistaken for the reading matter of the sole male in our group.

Chabon is a marvellous, energetic writer, lively and hyper-engaged with the world and his own mind.  He’s quick with metaphor, often cramming several into the same sentence, and seems as intent on entertaining us as a circus ringmaster.

I think the book deserves a slower, more considered reading than I gave it – I was after some easy distraction – but part of my tendency to skimread in the latter half of the book did arise from a heretical feeling that I was reading something not completely unrelated, in tone, to an Oprah magazine. If you’ve read more than one copy of that magazine, you may be aware that from every experience must come a lesson: something to take away with you that will inform the rest of your life. (You may also suspect, as I do, that the magazine is copy-edited by an automated cheerleader: I haven’t sat down and analysed the style but the tone never differs from article to article.) Maybe it’s just that he’s a huge personality, whose writing has an overwhelming flavour, and I probably did do the book a disservice by reading the essays fast, all at once. But I got a little bit fed up with him, towards the end.

But Chabon’s essays are often very moving, and I wanted to read large chunks of the book to friends with children who fiddle with Lego and lack wilderness to play in, or who make mistakes.  He’s brilliant, and incidentally provides more evidence towards my (fairly obvious) thesis that if you want to be a writer, it helps to be an optimist (about writing, at any rate).  In ‘XO9’, he makes it sound rather desirable to possess a dollop of OCD-inclined DNA:

When I consider the problem-solving nature of writing fiction – how whatever book I happen to be working on is always broken, stuck, incomplete, a Yale lock that won’t open, a subroutine that won’t execute, yet day after day I return to it knowing that if I just keep at it, I will pop the thing loose – it begins to seem to me that writing may be in part a disorder: sheer, unfettered XO9.

Yes, in part, perhaps, the ability to keep on going when there is no rational reason to do so: pretty much the opposite of any guarantee that the story will work, that it’ll succeed, that it’ll demonstrate that your mind is not repeating itself, that it’ll help pay the mortgage. Knowing that if I keep at it, I will pop the thing loose.

Chabon also comments on his difficulty with writing women. He resents this difficulty from a feminist perspective: why should it be so hard, seeming ‘to endorse the view that there is some mystic membrane separating male and female consciousness’? I appreciate that he notes that he does have difficulty, that he doesn’t necessarily get it all right when he seeks to ‘create in my fiction living, fiery female characters to match the life and fire of various real women I have known’.   I can’t imagine Nabokov or Flaubert making that last statement.

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Written by Susan Pearce

April 9, 2011 at 3:53 pm

4 Responses

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  1. I once read that Chabon said that each of his books starts with a ‘yearning’ rather than a character or a story. And I thought ‘yes!’ That’s how it is for me and it was so nice to have someone agree and put a name to it.

    Rachael King

    April 11, 2011 at 1:07 pm

  2. Hi Rachael, yes, that’s an excellent description. And it’s always a relief to hear another writer say something of that sort, and to be reminded again that your own involuntary, somewhat similar writing method is not completely mad.

    Susan Pearce

    April 11, 2011 at 3:15 pm

  3. I love the idea that writing is a disorder – I definitely think it is, because intellectually I can’t come up with any reason why I write – I don’t have an *important* story to tell – but I am compelled to do so anyway! Fascinating about his inability to write woman characters as well. Do you think that’s true? Or do you like his woman characters? I am writing from a male perspective at the moment, and I am worried that I am getting it all wrong!

    Sarah Laing

    April 17, 2011 at 10:17 am

    • Hi Sarah. To be honest all I remember about Chabon’s novels is really, really enjoying them. I do love his approach (i.e. persistence) and am thinking of tattooing it on the back of my writing hand.

      Susan Pearce

      April 17, 2011 at 4:58 pm


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