“Consider Writing an 86 Proof Sentence.” – Charles Baxter


Saturday, I drive to Vermont with my friend Tayari, to Bread Loaf. The mosquitoes are terrifying. At a cocktail reception, as we take turns outside spraying ourselves, Sigrid Nunez advances a theory that this is because the bats are dying and are not eating the mosquitoes anymore. All up and down the Eastern seaboard, the rise in temperatures has promoted a fungus that is killing the bats. Leaving their noses white.

I think of the stories of bald eagles driven to eat the young blue herons, because there are fewer fish, but say nothing.


Sunday, Charles Baxter delivers a brilliant lecture to the crowd on lush styles, entitled “Lush Life”, and inspired partly by his hearing the Sarah Vaughn version he heard, while waiting in an airport lounge. He was taken by the lyrics, and points out the song was written when Strayhorn was 17. His thesis is that we have taken to a default ironic and stripped down mode as a way to survive the lies fed to us by advertising, the media, our government.

Later this will explain to me why Twitter exists.

Also, novels, stories, essays, in that light, seem suddenly like acts of resistance.

He describes a lush style as being born often when the writer tries to combine the past and the present, to mix times. I see it briefly as a slowly sifting Black and Tan. I have two realizations. The first is that this is what has been so hard with the second novel, the reader’s relationship to time. The second is that the first novel solved for this by using the present tense to describe events in the past, and openly so. And that this may be why I like it.

In the afternoon, he returns with Thomas Mallon and their editor, Dan Frank. There he says something about how with long fiction, so often the problem comes over time that for mulling it so much, you can’t recall what is on the page and what is not.

This is something I’ve also noticed but have not articulated. I want to hug him for reminding me this is true. Because we love writers for when they can stand in the face of a thought and not reject it, pulling it out of the fire.


By the time Luis Urrea and Randall Kenan read, I feel as if I have been gone for several days, but it is just a day. But my mind keeps being blown, and that becomes some other way of keeping time, a sort of personal calendar of realizations with days that last for just an hour or 45 minutes.

Luis Urrea’s reading is like a lesson in how it matters to really love your audience. Not just for paying attention to you, but to love them because you just love them, out of your helpless and enormous heart.


I convince Sigrid Nunez to enter the barn dance. This moment counts as a day lasting approximately 40 minutes.


I keep thinking about the bats and the eagles. Another theory is put forward, that it is just a wet summer. This is quickly adopted. But is not any less upsetting, because the wet comes from the melted North Pole, as we are a closed system, and by ‘we’ I mean, ‘we on planet Earth’. The water had to go somewhere. All of this rain, this is the North Pole on the move, coming to us daily in storms.


The Rob Cohen and Natasha Trethewey reading is like several of those days of short duration because of the mind blowing apart. And then the waiter reading afterwards is electrifying. I discover two favorite new writers, Reese Kwon and Vanessa Hua, and fall in love with Jennine Capó Crucet. By now we are in what you’d call Monday, approaching evening and the bonfire party in the woods as if on a train that will take us there.

It occurs to me that it is not just the mind blowing apart and settling back down, like leaves kicked in the yard. It is also that each of these readings is an experience of a writer playing with time, of insisting on the manipulation of it to describe the world. And so yes, I’m just walking across the campus, going to readings and having a beer or a coffee, but also an interdimensional traveler, with worlds invented and then disappearing around me.


I check the news periodically. It is disappointing. In the rest of the world, 12 men with guns at a town hall for the president. How long do you think they would have been able to stand there during the Bush administration? That these men are not in Guantanamo already feels like an improvement they are immune to feeling.

As I also may be, but for different reasons.

I feel the default mode of ironic skepticism surround me and then let it drop. I will do as Charles Baxter recommends. And despite the horrible things, the excellent work and the friends here make the world seem more beautiful than I knew.


Sigrid, it should be said, is a sprite. Also, that Tayari Jones had magnificent hair.


At the bonfire, I stand with someone who tells me about the Perseid meteor showers the week before. He watched them here.  It was the first time he’d seen them.  He is a poet and it would be stealing a little from him to say more of what he said.  So, imagine you are listening to someone describe seeing a shooting star for the first time—someone who doesn’t feel the need to make a wish. You are listening as his delight, and the world feels new again.  It’s as if the night really could erase not just the day but all of the days, all of the wrongs, all of the things we have seen that hurt us or simply won’t conform to our will.  As if this night has some power all other nights did not. The stars above us, as we look at them and he talks, they are like the newest things, but they are always there, or, for our lifetimes. It is, of course, an illusion, born of lack of sleep, of having a beer in the woods like a bandit chieftain, of being an interdimensional traveler atop one mountain in Vermont. But it is beloved, and we’re not alone.


In my apartment, as I make coffee for Tayari on what we know as Tuesday, she observes how it feels as if we’ve been gone some longer time. But the flowers I bought Saturday are still good, as is the basil, waiting beside each other on my counter.

Hunh, she says. And nods her head.


  1. I just finished reading Diaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and, when asked, I described it as lush in language and deep in sadness. And funny and fast. I also compared it to 100 Years of Solitude, one of my favorite books I came to on my own as an adult.

    While I can’t say if Diaz’s lush style has anything to do with collapsing past and present time (although, on reflection, I think it could be), I have a strong feeling that a writer or narrator’s use of the lush is a full-out way to deal with persistent pain, the throb. And lushness and pain are like sugar and salt in the same mouthful, heightening the sense of each other.

    The last few pages of “January’s Cathedral” in /Edinburgh/ are like that, and other parts of your novel.

    And I love Baxter’s /Feast of Love/ for such moments. The release.

    Is lushness akin to what Blake and the Romantics called the ecstatic? I think so.

    1. Jane, I think you’re right. And thanks. I mean, I did notice in Baxter’s essay an affirmation of certain of my aesthetic choices. Even as I also understood what was happening better.

  2. This makes sense to me. I learned to communicate by watching sit-coms, so when I talk, my default style is smart-ass fast and superficial. Writing forces me to slow down, reflect. I watch past and present come together, as if they’re stuck in an elevator. My goal is to help them make eye contact and get beyond small talk.

  3. Oh, Alex, this broke my heart. Because it ws so beautifully written. And because I wasn’t there!!! I’m particularly sad to have missed yet another brilliant lecture by Charlie Baxter. He just keeps ’em coming–it’s a little scary. The one he gave when I was there as a fellow in 2005 became something I cited in EVERY SINGLE class I taught thereafter. I even built a reading course around it.
    Anyway, thanks for sharing. I’ll try to dry my eyes now and be glad that you got to be there.

    1. Aw, Martha. Thank you. Meanwhile, the lecture will be online—Bread Loaf is putting the lectures on iTunes.

  4. Alex! The shooting stars! How could I have forgotten the shooting stars! Thanks for this flashback to all that is right in the world, except, of course, for the bugs. Though, I’m tempted to say I miss even them.
    Miss ya, brother.

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