What I Didn’t Write in the China Book

“Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.”― Truman Capote

I left a lot of story out of the China book. I didn’t write much about my marriage and there are few references to the man who was my husband at the time. All I could do (I felt, fairly) was make the point that it wasn’t really his cup of (China) tea. I reached the conclusion when I was living in China that it was something you liked or you didn’t like and there were myriad reasons for either. I don’t think an unhappy marriage helped. Anyway, there is a ton of stories out there about failed romances. Why write another?

The book has also been “focused” by the slides I scanned and the fact that the project started as blog posts. I don’t know if the audience I would have imagined for the China book would have been the same if I hadn’t started it here for the people I know read my blog. The book is not the same as the blog posts — it’s more carefully written, ideas are somewhat amplified and some subjects dealt with more completely — but the underlying purpose is contrasting life in Guangzhou in 1982 with what I know of life there today, for foreigners, in particular.

For centuries people have gone to the Middle Kingdom and came home to write about it. There are thousands of books like mine out there in the world. I used to collect them. Some of them are beautiful, filled with old photos of a vanished China (as is mine) and a passion for China shining in every sentence. It’s because there are so many of these that I didn’t think I would ever add my sputtering story to the (wait for it, English teacher word, SAT word) PLETHORA of books already in existence.

What I couldn’t write clearly — but still hope the book says — is that China was, for me, an intensely inspiring kind of “school.” Every single day I was thrust into a world of objects, words, stories and ideas I didn’t know, didn’t understand and couldn’t identify. This was amplified by the conversations I had with Chinese friends. It wasn’t only that I was ignorant about China, I was ignorant about the stereotype into which I had walked — but didn’t quite fit.

When I came back to the US, I was homesick for China for years — writing this book has shown me that I never really got over it. During the 1980s my ex and I went to visit my grandma and Aunt Helen in Ashland, OR. They told us that when we drove back to San Francisco, where we would catch a plane, to go through Weaverville, California, and see the “Joss House.” It’s a South Chinese temple in the middle of the forest near a small mining town.

The Chinese worked in the mines around Weaverville, and they worked on the railroad, and, as far as possible, they’d brought their world with them. The Chinese in America faced a lot of racism, some of it for good reason. They brought their opium dens with them. The opium habit came to China from the British who found a market for the Indian opium and a better deal on tea. The various cultural and social revolutions of the early 20th century all but eliminated opium use from Chinese culture, but the Japanese brought it back with them in their invasion in the 1930s in the form of opiated cigarettes with which they flooded the tobacco market.

History is a convoluted mess of tangled string. When people talk about history they bring up the usual suspects — the only female painter of any importance is Frida Kahlo, the emancipator of the slaves in the US is Abraham Lincoln, Van Gogh is the great madman of painting, Michelangelo and Leonardo are the Renaissance, Harriet Tubman was the only person risking her life to bring southern slaves out of bondage. We naturally oversimplify the human drama and then think we have a bead on it, but we don’t. History is way too much for any of us — as Goethe wrote in Italian Journey. He set out thinking he knew about Italian art but when he crossed the border and looked at paintings in Verona and Padova, he wrote that far away we see only the brightest stars, but close up we see all the lesser stars (I would say the stars with less press and publicity) and they are equally wondrous.

I thought of this all the time I was working on the China book. Unlike myself at 30 in China, I now know a little something about the country’s history now. I know that in the early 20th century 99% of Chinese could not read or write. I know that most women still had bound feet. I know that famine stalked their lives and had for centuries. I know how thousands of young, educated Chinese voluntarily went to remote villages to teach and how intensely they were resisted, even killed. I know that the language was simplified so it was easier to teach. All this is just a micron of what I learned. I can’t even fathom the enormity of that ancient culture — or my own. I guess that’s the biggest lesson. It has informed all my historical novels. It’s why I write about “ordinary” people rather than the court of some king or queen.

The words of Cao Xueqin, the author of the 18th century novel, The Story of the Stone also known a Red Chamber Dream, influenced my philosophy as a writer. He wrote this amazing novel during a time when the writing of fiction was a crime in China. His family — formerly banner men, flag carriers for the emperor — had fallen on hard times. He wrote the book, he says, to entertain himself and his friends. Now — and for many past generations — there’s a whole field of study called Hongxue which means the study of Hong Lou Meng or Red Chamber Dream. I don’t think I’ve read anything as compelling, either. It’s a great novel.

And, even if Cao’s claim that he wrote to entertain himself and his friends is not true, even if it was a way for him to wriggle out of the crime of writing a novel, I think it’s a very high motive.


Writer vs. Reader

Truman Capote 1981 Robert Mapplethorpe 1946-1989 ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/AR00212

Here’s the deal, readers. 

I have read. I have a fucking masters in literature. And before that? A bachelor’s in literature. I’ve written hundreds of papers about literature, a masters thesis, papers for academic conferences and I’ve taught literature. I don’t have a PhD in literature because, honestly, at that point it’s literary criticism and I don’t see the point of that. Enough was enough for the MA and it would have cost me $28k and three years of my life to pursue something that wouldn’t have improved my chances to get a good job.

There’s a moment in life when that is the important consideration. 

In 1981 a friend gave me a book of Chinese poetry and inscribed it saying, “Maybe this is something you HAVEN’T read.” And I hadn’t, but I did and found the most informative poem of my life. It’s “Don’t Go Out of that Door” by Li ho.

In the article I linked to my earlier post today is a pretty funny statement. I’ll quote it here.

Jean-Claude Carrière: There are books on our shelves we haven’t read and doubtless never will, that each of us has probably put to one side in the belief that we will read them later on, perhaps even in another life. The terrible grief of the dying as they realise their last hour is upon them and they still haven’t read Proust.”

I’ve read Proust. Heaven help me, but I have. That’s WHY I found Carriére’s statement so funny. How did I find Proust? University library, oh, you mean, well honestly, how would you know you died? Proust’s prose is as slow as death.

Stream of tedium.

There are important questions writers need to answer about themselves that no reader has to think about, most important (to me) is, “Is this the way I WANT to write?” You have to read your own work with the eyes of a WRITER to answer that question. 

There was a day, a moment, when that hit home. I was on a blind date some 10 years ago. I had driven to the Panikin in La Jolla to meet a man with whom I’d corresponded online (yes, a dating site, OKC). I took a draft of Martin of Gfenn with me. Unfortunately for him? For both of us? He was late. By the time he arrived, I was immersed in my manuscript and sickened by it. Every irrelevant motion of Martin’s life was expounded in laborious detail, almost “Martin turned right, and walked down the corridor putting one foot in front of the other, left right left right left right left right left right until he reached the refectory at which point he stopped putting one foot in front of the other and stood still thinking about whether he should put his right or his left foot over the threshold.”

Almost like that. The book (at that time) was 520 manuscript pages long. Once I’d read it like a writer, it was about half that. 

Seriously. Do you, as a reader, need to realize anything like that in YOUR writing and go, “Fuck, this is so bad, I want to die”? You might react to a book that way, but it won’t be YOUR book.

I never had to think that thought back when I was a reader. I was unaware that writers make choices about who they are in a paragraph or sentence or (yeah, sometimes it’s this small) word. Why? Oh baby, let me tell you. 

Words have sounds and implications. They have the power to resound, imply, and allude. A word can destroy a sentence and, like falling dominoes, take the paragraph with it.

I was facing a really poorly written novel (mine) with a good story and what could I do about it?

I’d written it not as a writer, but as a reader thinking of the story. A writer has to think about conveying the story so the reader can surrender, not noticing the conveyance, feeling only that the world in which he or she momentarily exists is real. A writer has to provide an experience. The reader has to be able to enter the words, the sentences, the paragraphs and forget they’re there.

It was at that moment — on that blind date — that I became a writer not a reader. As for the date, it went like this.

“What’s that?”
“My novel. It’s so bad. I don’t know what to do.”
“Do you want a coffee?”
“I think I have to go home.”

“To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.”

Truman Capote

Luckily, I found a teacher — or he came to me in my sleep. I dreamed of Truman Capote and he told me I was a good writer. I wasn’t a good writer. I was shit. I didn’t know what to do, but here was Capote appearing repeatedly in my dreams and here I was. 

I read everything Capote wrote and I read it not as a reader, but as a writer. ❤


Truman Capote Dreams

What is the best dream you’ve ever had? 

Well, there is more to dreams than good dreams and bad dreams. Some dreams are prescient; some dreams are teachers, conveying important information — at least mine are. In 2009, I had dreams of Truman Capote. It was quite bizarre because I had not read his work since the ’80s. I liked it then, very much. I guess it had lain quietly in my subconscious mind until, after a hiatus of five years, I took up my novel, Martin of Gfenn again and read through it, grimmacing all the way.

In the first dream, he just appeared. I was startled and woke up. That was that. But “he” came back…

I was in a huge room, like a gym or shopping mall. All around were stores (strange). I had rolls of butcher paper on the floor, cups of tempera, colored pencils. There was a commotion in the distance, so I got up and went to see what was going on. A man came in, wearing black clothes, a trench coat and so on like a photo of Bob Dylan taken by Richard Avedon; I had recently seen. This was NOT Dylan and this man wore a brimmed hat. It was a short, chubby guy in his fifties. He came right up to me and put his arms around me. I knew it was Truman Capote.

“It should be you,” I said, “this place couldn’t do better than to hire you as Writer in Residence.” Ah, my mall was a school.

“It could be you, honey.”

“No,” I said, “my work is invisible.”

“Not to me,” he said. He went off to work in his corner and I continued working in front of some stores.

Later, it was time for us to go to the homes where we were being “housed.” Mine was horrible. It was an upper and lower room. The lower room was peopled by an immensely cranky and obese woman, her severely retarded, nearly vegetable daughter, and her son/husband — and a lion. When I went down to this room — after being assured I’d be able to live with the lion — the first thing that happened was that the lion grabbed my arm and bit into it; not hard, not all the way, but it didn’t let go. I looked at it; it was smaller than a tiger and I thought to myself, “Why are you worried? You’re a tiger.” It was a smart thought to have because at that moment I was no longer worried about the lion at all, in fact,  I loved it.

At some point the family took the daughter up for dinner — they did this by grabbing her by the hair and dragging her around.

And so in the dream I continued to paint and think about writing. I was surprised by Capote. Everyone there — in the mall — was both writer and painter. He was very kind and protective of me and constantly treated me as if I were something precious both to him in a subjective sense and in an objective sense; as if my work were worth attention for its own sake.

When I woke up I was surprised Capote had appeared in a second dream.

I did some thinking about this. “A Christmas Memory” is the most perfect story I’ve ever read. I’d recently seen the documentary of Hunter Thompson  showing him copying The Great Gatsby over and over again. I thought of that in relation to my problems with Martin of Gfenn. Maybe I needed to do something like that; learn to write by copying a truly good story, perfectly written, like practicing a piano score. Maybe that diligent attention to technique is what I was missing.

But I was not sure. What was Truman Capote trying to tell me??? I wondered if it could it be this? “Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.”

The upshot was that I spent that summer reading everything Capote wrote. I had more dreams and an experience that shed some light on the context. I went to my 40th high school reunion. I had only gone to one other reunion, my tenth where I was hit on by the hottest girl in school, an experience that — since I’m straight — was nothing but surreal. I was being offered the fantasy of every guy in my class. One event was returning to our school. It was so intense for me — it brought back not memories but realities of those years, that experience. At a certain point I walked to the hallway where my locker had been. I was stunned; the “mall” in my Capote dream had not been a mall. It had been my high school. I remembered feeling like a failure back then when we put on “The Grass Harp” and I neither got a part in the play or the chance to do the publicity graphics. I did get to spread butcher paper out on the floor and paint banners… Whoa. I got a copy of The Grass Harp and read it. I was stunned by its beauty. My dreams had given me the teacher I needed and I set to drastically edit Martin of Gfenn, cutting its length by half.

Wind surprised, peeled the leaves, parted night clouds; showers of starlight were let loose: our candle, as though intimidated by the incandescence of the opening, star-stabbed sky, toppled, and we could see, unwrapped above us, a late wayaway wintery moon: it was like a slice of snow, near and far creatures called to it, hunched moon-eyed frogs, a claw-voiced wildcat. Catherine hauled out the rose scrapquilt, insisting Dolly wrap it around herself; then she tucked her arms around me and scratched my head until I let it relax on her bosom–You cold? she said, and I wiggled closer: she was good and warm as the old kitchen. The Grass Harp

Resonant (for me) Capote quotations:

A conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue. That’s why there are so few good conversations: due to scarcity, two intelligent talkers seldom meet.

Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.

I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.

I was eleven, then I was sixteen. Though no honors came my way, those were the lovely years.

Sometimes when I think how good my book can be, I can hardly breathe.

News from the Writing Front – Capote vs. James

formal-writingI met a nice woman from Germany  just before Christmas, a colleague, who teaches writing in English. She is a bit nervous, possibly shy (I don’t know). I don’t think we click, but… When we first met the subject of my having written a novel set in Switzerland (Martin of Gfenn) came up. She emailed me later and said she’d be interested in translating it. I told her it would be on speculation since I have no money and the book doesn’t make any money because the people who might want to read it are not in this country and I teach so much I don’t do all I should to market it. She asked for a chapter so I could see what she did. I figured if it happened, I’d split my take 50/50.

She did great — I enjoyed reading her translation. It’s a simple novel. I wrote it in a very (she calls it) “minimalist” style. I did this intentionally so people for whom English isn’t their first language could read it without relying too much on a dictionary and because I think the style fit the story. I am sure there is also an element of personal taste in there.

Once upon a time I liked the intricate lavish prose of Dickens and James, but not any more. A journey that began with Thomas Hardy, traveling to Theodore Dreiser and then to Ernest Hemingway and ultimately Capote cured me. At a certain point I lost interest completely in reading fiction (except Philip K. Dick). I came to like the clean language and action focus of non-fiction in novels; the journalistic touch that Hemingway brought to fiction and the fiction touch that Capote brought to journalism had equal appeal. That is nothing but personal taste. I also knew what I wanted my writing to DO.

When Martin of Gfenn was longer I sat with a chapter at a coffeehouse one afternoon. I read through it and it seemed that every breath and every step of Martin’s existence was accounted for in my story. It seemed to me to go on and on and on. I couldn’t tell at that point if my feeling was because I was sick of it, I’d worked on it too much, or if really it was over written. Later I decided it was over written and I went at it with a hatchet.

Capote said he believed in the scissors more than the pen when it came to writing well. I definitely adopted that philosophy.

So, today I met with “my” translator again. I gave her a copy of the novel. It was a very strange experience because she was hyper-critical of things I feel are not her business, for example saying she was “disturbed” by a situation in which she was confused (the characters are outside making plaster then inside putting it on the walls — I didn’t have them “walk inside” and she was disoriented by where they were). Since the moment for that kind of criticism has long past (the book is published) I thought, “So?” which I didn’t say. I just said, “Read the whole book. It may work better for you as a whole rather than just a few pages did.”

“It’s your style, I think,” she said. “I prefer Henry James.”

I understood everything then. “I love James, but I’m pretty much his opposite,” I acknowledged, regretting having bought this woman a book. She won’t like it, and she doesn’t “get” me.

“What about the Schwyzerdütsch?” she asked, “I can’t write that.”

“I don’t think it existed in the 13th century,” I said. “I’ve read several bits of medieval German poetry — minnesangs — written by men in ‘Switzerland’ (a non-existent place in those times) and men in Austria and the Rhineland. I didn’t see any difference.”

“That might be so. I didn’t think of that.”

“Well, you know, read the book if you want to and if you decide you like it, then we’ll see, OK?”

I segued from that to the classes we teach and then the interview was over.  I am amazed again and again at the incredible complexity of people and that the whole time, talking to me, she appeared nervous. From this convoluted interview I understand that she doesn’t like my writing and felt hesitant to say so. It is so true; one man’s noise is another man’s symphony.

I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods. For instance, there is a brownstone in the East Seventies where, during the early years of the war, I had my first New York apartment. It was one room crowded with attic furniture, a sofa and fat chairs upholstered in that itchy, particular red velvet that one associates with hot days on a tram. The walls were stucco, and a color rather like tobacco-spit. Everywhere, in the bathroom too, there were prints of Roman ruins freckled brown with age. The single window looked out on a fire escape. Even so, my spirits heightened whenever I felt in my pocket the key to this apartment; with all its gloom, it still was a place of my own, the first, and my books were there, and jars of pencils to sharpen, everything I needed...


At the little town of Vevey, in Switzerland, there is a particularly comfortable hotel. There are, indeed, many hotels, for the entertainment of tourists is the business of the place, which, as many travelers will remember, is seated upon the edge of a remarkably blue lake—a lake that it behooves every tourist to visit. The shore of the lake presents an unbroken array of establishments of this order, of every category, from the "grand hotel" of the newest fashion, with a chalk-white front, a hundred balconies, and a dozen flags flying from its roof, to the little Swiss pension of an elder day, with its name inscribed in German-looking lettering upon a pink or yellow wall and an awkward summerhouse in the angle of the garden. One of the hotels at Vevey, however, is famous, even classical, being distinguished from many of its upstart neighbors by an air both of luxury and of maturity. In this region, in the month of June, American travelers are extremely numerous; it may be said, indeed, that Vevey assumes at this period some of the characteristics of an American watering place. There are sights and sounds which evoke a vision, an echo, of Newport and Saratoga. There is a flitting hither and thither of "stylish" young girls, a rustling of muslin flounces, a rattle of dance music in the morning hours, a sound of high-pitched voices at all times. You receive an impression of these things at the excellent inn of the "Trois Couronnes" and are transported in fancy to the Ocean House or to Congress Hall. But at the "Trois Couronnes," it must be added, there are other features that are much at variance with these suggestions: neat German waiters, who look like secretaries of legation; Russian princesses sitting in the garden; little Polish boys walking about held by the hand, with their governors; a view of the sunny crest of the Dent du Midi and the picturesque towers of the Castle of Chillon.