I got to be in the company of a lot of amazing people last week. In addition to chatting folks up for a piece in progress on the president and race, I spent some time at the Associated of Writers and Writing Programs conference. I haven't been to AWP in over 15 years. The last time I was there, I heard Yusef Komunyakaa read and had a physical reaction. He was that good.
Anyway I felt a little strange at first, given that many of the people there are either students in writing programs or teaching in them. I've had a foot in that world since my college days when I was aspiring to do an MFA in poetry. But if writers are wizards, poets are that secret order wielding amazing powers that no one really understands. At the time, I felt I had neither the talent, nor the work ethic, to really be good at it. And so I moved over to literary journalism where I still work the rhythm of words, and enjoy license to ask all my deep-felt questions. And so here I am with you.
But I enjoyed myself quite a bit and got to spend some time in the company of some truly amazing writers--Melissa Febos, Josh Wiel, Lily Tuck, Peter Mountford, Skip Horack, and my old friend Thomas Sayers Ellis. One thing I've been thinking on is the limits of technique. I got to hang a bit with Matt Johnson and we were batting around the thing that makes a book come "alive." Like, your research can be perfect, your language beautiful, your characters carefully drawn, and yet when you put it all together, the automaton is still cold on the table.
This is scary. I mentioned this yesterday in comments--writing fails all the time. And writers often can't even see it coming. Some of us were discussing how important it is to have action high in your book and understand plot. And yet I feel like Ragtime doesn't get started until about a third of the way in. But then maybe that's because the architecture is gorgeously executed. Matt says that he thinks of it as "incantation."--that you are trying, through an accumulation of spell components to summon up the world. And either the spell works, or it doesn't.
Common always struck me in that same way. Technique-wise, he's a lot harder for me to nail down then, say, Black Thought, Gza, Raekwon or Rakim. But riffing off yesterday's coffee, and this notion of space, he really has the Chicago incantation down. "Now I roll in a Olds with windows that don't close" or "The world is cold, the block is hot as a stove." What he's doing is a kind of impressionistic take on Chicago.