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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Saturday, May 28, 2016

Every undergrad has tried to write like Lucia Berlin; few can do it

They say "write what you know," and every undergrad writing student, every grad student for that matter, has tried to do that: I'll do a really short piece about a guy I've observed in the Laundromat. About a family dinner conversation. About me and my sibs watching a carpy show on TV. About my time in the hospital. About my first job. A series of letters to a friend during my first year at college. About my first dance, kiss, sex. About my favorite/worst teacher. And so on. And it's not that easy - 99.9 percent of these are of no interest to anyone but the author, at best they're warm-up exercises. But Lucia Berlin brings them to a much higher level of achievement almost every time. Somehow, when she writes about her experience - the list above touches on some of her stories, and all of her stories seem to be about the vagaries of her life - she's not much of one for invention, it seems - the stories always have significance and resonance: we recognize ourselves in her stories (sometimes) or we fully identify with the narrator (author) and come to understand her life, so different from ours, from most, a life full of pain, suffering, bad decisions, and tentative recovery. I don't have a clear sense of the chronology of her stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women, but I'm guessing they appear in roughly order of composition or publication? It would make sense because the stories in the last third seem more reflective and more developed - she really at that point in her career seemed to be trying to make sense of her life experiences - not just a cri de ceur but a looking back, recherche des temps perdu, or maybe de vie perdu.

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