Lawrence Weschler

Intro from Jay Allison: If you are at a party and Lawrence Weschler tugs at your arm, you are lucky because it means that something has fascinated him and he wants to tell you about it so you will be fascinated along with him, and that's pretty much how his writing works too. It's a friendly and welcoming technique. Now, Ren is our Transom Guest, tugging at our arms to talk about the dissemination of fascinations, in both writing and sound, and riffing on the musicality of words, why he doesn't write fiction, and the way radio can sometimes astonish you. Ren was a longtime staffer at The New Yorker, has written several fine books (including the just-released collection Vermeer in Bosnia), founded the hopeful magazine Omnivore, and is director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU. He'll be at Transom for a little while, happy to converse.

Omnivore Prospectus
Download this document in PDF

Introductory Rant

Back in 1984, after I’d been at the New Yorker for a few years, reporting variously on the arts and foreign hot spots (cultural comedies and political tragedies as I came to think of my peculiar bailiwick), I received a note one morning from the magazine’s legendary editor William Shawn asking me whether I’d ever thought about trying my hand at fiction. I sent him back a reply explaining why, even though fiction was just about all I read, I could never imagine myself capable of the form, and he seemed to find my observations amusing: a week later, at any rate, he ran them in the magazine as a Notes and Comment piece (“A young reporter we know writes”) — a piece which I in turn came upon again recently when I was compiling my latest collection (out this month from Pantheon as Vermeer in Bosnia) and with which I decided to introduce the collection: “In Lieu of a Preface: Why I Can’t Write Fiction” (PDF).

The thing is, even though I still subscribe to everything I wrote there (and even though I can no more imagine myself writing fiction today than I could then, in fact even less so), as the years have passed it has become more and more obvious to me that it is the fictional elements of nonfictive narrative that most consume me (both as a reader and a writer, and I suppose I should add, in this context, as a listener). I’m not talking about the kinds of issues that regularly get stoked up into those recurrent media firestorms about whether some particular reporter has confabulated a particular source or a quote or an entire story — controversies in which the reigning inquisitors work themselves into a ferociously righteous lather at the horror, the horror of it all. Let us stipulate at the outset that reporters should be as scrupulous and fair as they can be in their reportage — although it’s worth noting that such aspirations are seldom as simple as they appear, the hyperventilating indignation of the thumbsucking commentators notwithstanding. I won’t mind taking up some of those (often pseudo-) controversies in the weeks ahead, if that’s what you want to do, but they’re not what I have in mind when I invoke the notion of “The Fiction of Nonfiction,” which as it happens is what I call the class that I teach from time to time (these days in the spring at NYU, with an abbreviated version in the fall at the 92nd Street Y in New York, and elsewhere).

Lawrence Weschler
Photo: Jerry Bauer

Here’s how I characterize the core of my concerns in the prospectus for that NYU class:

All narrative voices–but especially the voices in true narratives–are themselves fictions. The world of nonfiction writing is divided between those who know this and those who either don’t or else deny it — a division that is roughly contiguous with that between writing that’s worth reading and writing that’s not. Nonfiction texts are fictions in that they deploy the devices of fiction (pacing, modulation of voice, considered sequence of revelation, irony, metaphor, etc.) but even more so in that they are constructs (they’re composed, they’re in-formed and made up). In this seminar we will revel in the architectonic of good nonfiction writing. We will consider admirable sentences and marvelous paragraphs. We will study foundations and jointure, account for senses of spaciousness and constriction. We will examine and upend the myth of “objectivity.” We will try to determine what makes one piece of writing “true to life,” while another lies there simply dead. We will read as if writing mattered, and write as if reading did.

And here’s how I characterize the shorter version of the class:

In this course, we will be endeavoring to explore two interlocking paradoxes at the core of the nonfictive enterprise:

  1. If it is at least in part true that everything is random chaos, it is also true that the writer’s task is to discern, to discover–or, perhaps, to impose–order on all that chaos: a form, in other words, that in turn rings true. To what extent is that necessarily a fictive enterprise?
  2. When fashioning any retrospective account of human activities, it is of course the case that everything that happened had to have happened the way it did–otherwise it would have happened in some other way. And indeed the writer’s task is in part to worry out and catalog all the strands that led to its happening in that particular way. But it is just as true that as the events were transpiring, they didn’t have to happen in that way. The protagonists were at all times free to respond in some other manner. How can the writer keep not just the illusion but also the fact of all that freedom continually alive across the length of any retrospective tale?

I cite these two programmatic synopses here because they encapsulate some of the issues I propose to explore with all of you in the weeks ahead, if you’d be interested. Not that I am unwilling to delve into some of the more practical considerations involved in reportage as well — you know, reporting technique, interviewing technique, whether I prefer to use a tape recorder when I’m off reporting (actually: no), how I order my material prior to writing (you’d be amazed, you’d be appalled, I wouldn’t recommend the technique on anyone), the smartest thing anyone ever told me about the challenge of reporting (the advice, as it happens, of a marine biologist of all people, couched in the allegory of a dead sea walrus)… Just ask and I’ll be happy to explore some of that terrain as well.

But, as I say, the thing that most fascinates me in the writerly process (and by the way, that’s what I prefer to call the kind of nonfiction that interests me: not “literary nonfiction” or “creative nonfiction”–I don’t know what those words mean–but rather writerly nonfiction)–the thing that most interests me is what happens after all the interviewing and research and reporting is over and you’ve indexed your notes (oy) and weathered your blockage (double oy) (we can talk about that as well, if you are of a mind to), and at last the juices begin to flow and the sense of narrative kicks in. I am entranced by the marvel of narrative; I never cease being gobsmacked by the pull of a good tale (by the pull, I mean, almost more than by the tale itself).

And that is as true — if not more so — in radio work as it is in writing on paper. I am hardly an expert at fashioning radio pieces, though I have tried my hand in the medium upon occasion, as witness in particular three of my longer efforts, to wit…

A half hour documentary I reported and co wrote with producer Stephen Erickson for the LA Museum of Contemporary Art’s “Territory of Art” radio series, back in 1986, (material which I then revisited for my 1993 New Yorker profile of the Afrikaner poet, painter and political prisoner, a piece which was in turn included in my 1998 collection Calamities of Exile: Three Nonfiction Novellas):

Listen to “Lawrence Weschler”

The 1996 half-hour evocation of David Wilson and his marvelous Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles which Dave Isay and I fashioned for All Things Considered, based (here the process went the other way around) on my book from the previous year, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder:

Listen to “Lawrence Weschler”

A half-hour conversation between me, Ira Glass and my then eleven-year-old daughter, Sara, detailing the period, some years earlier, when we’d had a family of diminutive Borrowers living in our house and the cascade of complications that thereupon ensued, originally broadcast on the Fathers Day 1998 edition of This American Life:

Listen to “Lawrence Weschler”

From all those efforts, I have developed a sense of how doing radio work is different from doing written reportage (for starters, you have to use tape recorders!), and if you want to we can talk about that — but I’ve been more impressed by the convergences and confluences of the two media.

To get things started, I might mention two.

Ernst Toch
Lawrence Weschler with bust of his grandfather, composer Ernst Toch. Bust by Anna Mahler, Gustav Mahler’s daughter. Courtesy of the Toch Archive, UCLA.

The first has to do with the musicality of narrative. It seems to me that story-telling (whether on paper or over radio) has much more in common with music than, say, with painting. Which is to say that it is steeped in time: the passage of time (and the marvelously confounding and convoluting ways in which time can be made to seem to pass) is of its essence. Perhaps my focus on this aspect of narrative owes something to the fact that my grandfather was a composer, the Austrian emigré Weimar modernist Ernst Toch. I’ve included a profile of him in my new book, drawn from a long piece I originally wrote for The Atlantic, and if you’re curious and don’t feel like buying the whole book, the magazine article, a profile of Ernst Toch (by Lawrence Weschler), is still online.

In this context, I might note something I’ve often found odd and even a bit unnerving. For the thing is, all my prodigious genetic inheritance notwithstanding, I have absolutely no musical aptitudes per se: I can’t read music, I can’t play any instruments, I have the very opposite of perfect pitch, whatever that might be called. And yet, whenever I write or else review my own or other people’s writings (or for that matter radio pieces), almost all of my judgments about the process tend to get framed in terms of musical metaphors: questions of pacing, modulation, tone, harmonics, counterpoint. I’ll sense that a given passage is out of key, or could use a little more syncopation, or needs to shift from the dominant to the subdominant — and I don’t even know exactly what any of those terms mean, technically speaking. I have a profound sense that I am engaged in a compositional enterprise, involving the sequential deployment of material across time in a formful manner, which is to say within a transparent architectonic structure (one of my grandfather’s favorite words, by which, precisely, he was invoking the sense of architecture across time rather than space). When teaching my writing classes, I often assign my grandfather’s book, The Shaping Forces in Music, and though I can’t fathom a single one of its nearly four hundred musical examples, I understand exactly what he’s talking about on every page, and subscribe to virtually all of it, feeling I couldn’t have parsed the matter better myself. (“Architectonic,” he keeps intoning, but then he invokes another metaphor as well almost as frequently, the notion of the organic: As he wrote at one point in a letter to a would-be composer, “A composition must grow organically, like a tree; there must be no seams, no gaps, no foreign matter; the sap of the tree must pass through the whole body of it, reach every branch and twig and leaf of it. It must grow, grow, grow instead of being patched, patched, patched, unorganically.” Think, in this context, I suppose, of a tree as itself an instance of organic architectonic.) When I’m alone, typing at my keyboard, I often hear music in my head — especially as my pieces approach their climaxes — and almost invariably the music in question (when I stop to think about it) turns out to be my grandfather’s. In fact, in retrospect, there are passages of my own prose that turn out, in pacing and melody and formfulness, to be virtual transcriptions of passages from his quartets or symphonies. As I say, it can get to be a bit disquieting. (If any of you are interested, I can provide you with specific instances, though I suppose this particular aspect of things may be more fascinating to me than to others.)

Lawrence Weschler
Photo: Carol Friedman

So there’s that: this question of the musicality of narrative that both written and audio narrative have in common. And then, as well, there’s that moment to which both writers and audio artists ought aspire, the experience, as I like to think of it, of “pillows of air,” by which I mean to invoke those instances of hushed astonishment or absorption when a pillow of air seems to lodge itself in your mouth and you suddenly notice that you haven’t taken a breath in a good half minute. The sort of experience where you get lost to yourself and given over to the marvel of all creation (indeed, to everything but yourself). A phenomenon, I must say, that I tend to find more often these days on radio than I do on the printed page. Alas. Indeed, it’s been in an attempt to reclaim a space for that sort of writing that I have recently been trying to launch my own utopian magazine, Omnivore (oy, don’t get me started on the tribulations involved in such an effort, I just keep finding myself recalling Mr. Shawn’s comments back when Si Newhouse had first announced his intention to effect his hostile takeover of the New Yorker and a group of us went up to the Old Man and suggested how we ought all to just quit and launch our own magazine. “But, people,” he sighed in his tremulous whisper of a voice, “you don’t seem to understand: writers don’t found magazines. Millionaires found magazines.”)

Anyway. (Anybody out there know any stray millionaires trawling for a hopelessly utopian, desperately needed cause — let me know!) If you’re curious about my plans for the magazine, see the prefatory rant (below) I included in the prototype issue (in which, incidentally, I wax at some length on that theme of pillows of air); and if you’d like to see the issue itself, we’ve finally decided to deploy some copies for sale at a few bookstores (notably at the bookstore of the The Museum Of Jurassic Technology). But the point is — and let’s talk about this, maybe: What is it with those pillows of air? How are they achieved? What might it mean to address readers and listeners as fellow citizens, subject to raptures of marvel, rather than just as Pavlovian consumers (abject objects of the jolt-salivate-spend technology that has so come to dominate the preponderance of our media environment).

So there: enough? Does that give us something to talk about? Your turn.

Prospectus for Omnivore Magazine

Omnivore Magazine
Omnivore Magazine

Pillow of Air. That’s the name some of us actually wanted to use for this magazine. Well, a few of us anyway. Others of us emphatically did not. “It sounds like the name for some soft-core porn digest,” they said. To which those others of us groused, “So what would you rather call the thing? ‘Stick in the Mud?’” “No,” the hold-outs replied, “that sounds pornographic, too.” Shows you what they had on their minds. But anyway, so we didn’t.

Still, “Pillow of Air,”perfectly describes the reigning aesthetic of the enterprise — even the holdouts agree on this — in that it invokes those moments of hushed astonishment or absorption when a pillow of air seems to lodge itself in your mouth and you suddenly notice that you haven’t taken a breath in a good half minute. The sort of experience where you get lost to yourself and given over to the marvel of all creation (indeed, to everything but yourself).

The sort of moment, that is, that has proven increasingly fugitive in the temporal frenzy that has come to characterize the increasingly peg-driven, niche-slotted, attention-squeezed, sound-bit media environment of recent years. An environment wherein, as a friend of ours recently parsed matters, “the funnels and the piping, the ducts and the belts, the overall design strategies used to convey capital efficiently from the ‘consumer’ to all the correct bank accounts — all of it has become ever more frighteningly efficient.” And the method is almost everywhere the same: “A short, sharp whiff of stimulation,” as our friend put it, “ followed rapidly by a hand in your back pocket. In short: crack.”

What our friend likens to a sort of drug-pushing, we sometimes prefer to think of in terms of neo-Pavlovian conditioning: jolt, salivate, spend — move on. In either case, we are speaking of a kind of death of the soul — or, at any rate, the successive parching of the staging ground for any sort of idiosyncratic readerly-writerly communion of souls.

And we don’t like it. We don’t like being treated that way and we don’t want to have to treat others that way, either. People tell us: “Tough luck, that’s just the way the world is going nowadays, nobody has time or patience for any other way of being, get used to it. “ Well, we just don’t buy that, and we’re betting it’s not true.

Indeed, that’s the defining wager of our entire enterprise.

For instance, consider the fate of long-form pieces of narrative reportage in American magazines over the past several years. The tradition of Liebling and Hersey and Mitchell and Capote and Baldwin and (more recently) McPhee and Sheehan and Kramer and Malcolm and Frazier and all the rest at the New Yorker — but not just there. The tradition of Hunter Thompson at Rolling Stone and Mailer at Esquire, Clay Felker’s crew at New York and Willie Morris’s at Harper’s, and all of those. The sorts of pieces you might curl into, of an evening, having no prior notion that you could even become remotely interested in their subject, and through the sheer narrative energy of the writing, you’d find yourself becoming caught and then held, completely immersed, lost to the world for hours at a time, desperately eager for Part Two and Part Three — and secure, furthermore, in the knowledge that, come the weekend dinner, you’d be encountering others like yourself who’d been similarly transported and similarly surprised.

A distinctly American innovation, that — the extended, writerly, not-necessarily-immediately-topical piece of nonfiction reportage, intended for and exposed to a general-interest-magazine readership — and indeed one of the greatest contributions of American culture to world literature in the twentieth century… and now virtually obliterated, famished where not already completely effaced, especially here in America. Hardly any of the legendary masterpieces of those aforementioned masters or any of their ilk could find a home in any of their old venues, as currently constituted, or anywhere else, for that matter, in the reigning mainstream magazine environment today.

People just don’t have that sort of attention span anymore, they’re all too busy, the magazine editors will all plead in their own defense — and it is true: they don’t seem to, they themselves all are way too busy.

But is that true of everyone else as well? People sure seem to be reading more books than ever. And in other venues — radio, especially (at This American Life, for example, or among the folks at Sound Portraits or our friends over at — a felt hankering seems to be being sensed and lavishly addressed.

Hankering: that, too, might have made a nice name for this magazine. Or: Hush.
Stop rushing us. Give us time to tend to the world.

And not just in terms of writing. In terms of the visual world, as well. Don’t keep pushing and jostling us like that. Slow down, give us leave just to look and to see and to admire and to be amazed, and then to rest for a few moments, to lounge in all that splendor.

Here, in these precincts, we promise to be devoted to duration and not embarrassed by devotion.

Pebble. That was another name we’d considered. Partly on account of the great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert’s lyric of the same name, a poem we’ve in any case managed to work into this prototype issue (as prelude to Michael Benson’s Asteroids pictorial­­see page 103). A Pebble constituting, in Herbert’s conception, “a perfect creature / equal to itself / mindful of its limits / filled exactly / with a pebbly meaning.” We liked that, and also how Herbert notes the way that “Pebbles cannot be tamed / to the end they will look at us / with a calm and very clear eye.”

But on account, as well, of a passage from Herbert’s marvelous contemporary, Czeslaw Milosz, from the latter’s Treatise on Poetry, in which he notes that though you know that history is but an avalanche, still you want to be the pebble that changes the course of the flood.

That’s pretty much exactly where we hope to pitch this magazine, somewhere between the cascading megalomania of the Milosz and the abiding humility of the Herbert.
In the end though, “Pebble” struck us as a little—what?—a little fey, a little recherché? — and we settled instead upon Omnivore.

Because, finally, that’s us: we want it all, there’s nothing we won’t pause to consider, there’s nothing we won’t tarry to absorb.

So: Come. Join us. The banquet is served.


A further note on this specific issue,the one you hold in your hands. As we say, consider it a prototype. Which means, among other things, that it was printed in an especially limited edition, not intended for sale or general distribution, but rather to be passed about to potentially interested parties, colleagues, foundations, possible investors or other kinds of potential partner: a token of the kind of thing we’d like to be able to continue producing if we can garner sufficient support.

We could have done things in the more conventional manner: held focus groups and t hen worked up a statement of intent and accompanying business plan, nailed down our legal footing, lobbied potential sponsors and advertisers, secured the requisite distribution channels, strategized the mass-mailing campaign, hired on the necessary staff, and then, at length, launched out with an official inaugural issue, accompanied by a big party and all that razzmatazz.

But in the end we chose not to. For one thing, every time we broached the conventional way stations, we were being advised not even to bother: The whole thing was hopeless. The economy. The general media environment. Yada yada yada.

But then we recalled the example of the Polish oppositionists back in the mid-seventies, mired in the midst of the general Brezhnevian soft-totalitarian miasma. People like Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuron who likewise kept being advised not to bother, that resistance was futile. Then they hit upon a novel formula. If you want to have free speech, they took to asserting, just start talking freely. If you want a free trade union, form one. If you want to have a free press, just start printing something. They did. And look what they ended up accomplishing.

Not that we’re likening our situation (or the risks we face) to anything as miserable and dauntingly oppressive as theirs. Of course not — though there is something softly totalizing and conventionalizing and strangulating about the corporate hegemony currently holding sway over most of our own media environment. It’s just that their response inspires us: If you want something, don’t keep planning and theorizing and testing and strategizing — just start doing it.

We did, and so here we are.

All of which is to say, again, that this is a prototype, a provisional first stab at things. For example, we haven’t fact-checked all the articles. None of the contributors got paid. (We raised just enough money to send the thing to the printers for our extremely limited first run—and to those donors, our angels, we are especially grateful.) We haven’t yet nailed down all the things we intend to should we be able to convert this issue into an actual inaugural first issue (at which point, for example, contributors will get paid).

But we hope to be able to. And soon.

And, oh yeah, our working slogan:

Hopelessly utopian. Desperately needed.

Lawrence Weschler

Lawrence Weschler

Lawrence Weschler, a graduate of Cowell College of the University of California at Santa Cruz (1974), was for over twenty years (1981-2002), until his recent retirement, a staff writer at The New Yorker, where his work shuttled between political tragedies and cultural comedies.  He is a two-time winner of the George Polk Award (for Cultural Reporting in 1988 and Magazine Reporting in 1992) and was also a recipient of Lannan Literary Award (1998). His books of political reportage include The Passion of Poland (1984); A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers (1990); and Calamities of Exile: Three Nonfiction Novellas (1998). His “Passions and Wonders” series currently comprises Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin (1982); David Hockney’s Cameraworks (1984); Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder (1995); A Wanderer in the Perfect City: Selected Passion Pieces (1998) Boggs: A Comedy of Values  (1999); Robert Irwin: Getty Garden (2002); and now Vermeer in Bosnia: A Reader (2004). Mr. Wilson was shortlisted for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has taught, variously, at Princeton, Columbia, UCSC, Bard, Vassar, NYU, and Sarah Lawrence. He is currently director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU, where he has been a fellow since 1991, and from which base he is trying to start his own semiannual journal of writing and visual culture, Omnivore. He is also a contributing editor to McSweeney’s and the Threepeeny Review; chair of the Sundance (formerly Soros) Documentary Film Fund; and director of the Ernst Toch Society, dedicated to the promulgation of the music of his grandfather, the noted Weimar emigre composer. Once, happening upon a Portuguese edition of Weschler’s 1990 book on torture in Latin America during a photo opportunity in a Rio shopping mall, Chilean General Augusto Pinochet flipped through its pages for a few moments, whereupon he pronounced, “Lies, all lies.  The author is a liar and a hypocrite.”


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  • Ruxandra


    Seeing Is Forgetting

    Dear Ren,

    After a friend introduced me to "Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees," about 5 years ago, I became an instantly devoted fan of your work. Just want to say thank you, your writing has always inspired me to pursue writing on the arts despite the limited outlets and lack of interest in the part of most editors…

    Sometimes I feel that writing, or doing radio, rather, about people and the creative process is a pretty lonely road – focusing on the arts is often labeled as simple "criticism" or profile-writing.

    How would you suggest approaching a subject, and even your own editor, to avoid that pitfall? What has been your experience, say, in starting to write "Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders" or the piece on David Hockney’s research on the use of optics in art?

    Thank you for your input…All best,


  • Mary McGrath



    I applaud all these efforts. Yours is an important voice in the media maelstrom. I’m sure you know there’s a huge fellowship world wide that would like nothing more than to help prove your point. What can we do? McSweeney’s seems like something of a success, no? And the web can only help. Can you tell us anymore about Omnivore? Who’s helping you? Who would you love to publish? What’s the status of the project? Any bookstores in Boston/Cambridge selling the prototype?

  • jonathan menjivar


    i need a glass of water

    I have a sense that we haven’t seen a flood of posts yet because just as in your writing on the page, there is so much here to ponder. that we’re all too busy sitting back marveling to get down to the business of asking questions. that maybe writing about the pillow of air, or rather reading about it, leads to another pillow.

    so first the obvious. share the dead sea walrus allegory please.

    I also wonder about the separation of the wunderkammern you talk about in Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder into distinct categories of natural history and science and art…if that’s not somehow responsible for the loss of real wonder. not that we want to believe that mythical creatures exist, but that somehow our desire to have everything explained has in a way left us without the ability to see the real wonder of the world. because really, there are days when it feels like we should be choking on the pillows of air.

    which makes me think about this radio story, a news story about space and the hubble telescope (not exactly something that holds my attention as i scramble to catch the bus in the morning), that a friend and i were talking about the other day.

    david kestenbaum gets this guy on the train to talk about this image that all of us were seeing for the first time. and really what the whole story turns out to be is this kind of holy shit moment. that really, there is so much to sit back and marvel at. and that maybe, that holds more answers than we can imagine.

    I have questions about the musicality stuff but there are dishes to wash.

  • Lawrence Weschler



    Sorry, everybody, to be so dilatory, I’ve been on the road on book tour and hence not as immediately responsive as I’d hoped to be, and promise to try to be in the future. Also, being on the road I don’t have access to some of the files and passages and pages I’d liked to have used in responding, but that too will change in the days ahead.

    Meanwhile, though, let me see if I can try to catch up.

    Ruxandra: Thank you for your kind comments. As for the kind of art writing you and I both seem to like to try to engage, yes, alas, it can get hard to place. But not impossible, and important to keep trying. And it’s strange, because the subject is not without its inherent interest to the public at large (Americans attend museums and concerts, and spend money in so doing, to a much, much greater extent than they do sports events, and yet newpapers for example never reflect that fact, no doubt because sports teams are businesses–BIG businesses–in a way that cultural enterprises seldom are. But still.)

    Criticism as such editors seem to know what to do with. And even profiles to a certain extent. But as much as possible I like to write about artists who are themselves thoughtful and (more important for my purposes) highly articulate (not all artists are, and when not, this in no way detracts from the potential splendor of their work, only from my own capacity for engaging them in the sorts of reportage I like to attempt). At any rate, I like to let the artist him or herself expound on their work and on their vantage to as great a degree as possible, but then as well to engage them with my own free associations, to stand in as it were for the reader or listener, to make the readerly experience as vividly like an actual encounter with the subject as possible.

    (Which reminds me. A general point about interviewing. I tend not to just ask questions and drill for answers. Rather I see the encounter as an exchange, and in looking back I may contribute as much and as tangentially to the conversation as does my interviewee. I assume a like-minded delight in the subjects we are discussing, and my own fresh and odd free-associations may provoke equally odd and fresh responses in my counterpart, things he or she doesn’t usually consider. The point is to get everybody off automatic pilot. Later on, I tend to elide myself to some degree, but the more active my own involvement in the original conversation, the more exciting the responses I tend to provoke. Usually, anyway.)

    Coming back to how to ensnare editors (and beyond them, listeners) in this sort of reportage… Hmmm. Well, for one thing, the lead can be very important and tends to need to be confounding and involving from the very start (take a look for example at how I launched that Jurassic Technology piece: "Get this: there’s a etc."). The piece then needs to roll along with some velocity from the outset, even though the heart of what you are trying to get at may not make itself known till well along. At first the piece may not seem to be about anything more important than the sheer fizz and pleasure of story-telling, later on it may reveal itself, from the side, as being about the most important thing in the world. But the really important things can only be approached like that, from the side (the way when you try to look at a star you have to look to its side; if you look straight at it, it tends to disappear.) I’m reminded of a terrific poem of Seamus Heaney’s, to wit:

    Seamus Heaney’s "Postscript"
    (from The Spirit Level)

    And some time make the time to drive out west
    Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
    In September or October, when the wind
    And the light are working off each other
    So that the ocean on one side is wild
    With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
    The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
    By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,
    Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
    Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
    Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
    Useless to think you’ll park or capture it
    More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
    A hurry through which known and strange things pass
    As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
    And catch the heart off guard and blow it open

    "Useless to think you’ll park and capture it more thoroughly" indeed.

    Hope all of that is useful to some extent, though I agree the challenge of placing such pieces can get difficult. Hence, Mary (and hey, Mary! hi, how’s it going?), the need for Omnivore and suchlike fresh initiatives. Alas, so far we’ve only been able to generate that prototype issue of Omnivore and till recently we hadn’t placed it for sale anywhere, we only have a few copies left and we decided to usher them quietly out into the world—as I say, probably the easiest way to order them is through the online bookstore of the Museum of Jurassic Technology — As for the venture’s longer term prospects, we are utterly hopeless but not entirely without hope, and we are trying to interest patrons of the cool and odd and vital, whose interest in turn might help focus NYU’s up till now friendly but somewhat diffuse receptivity. I’d like to base the operation at the NY Institute for the Humanities at NYU, drawing on the help of interns at the Journalism School, but am open to other cooperative arrangements and even to completely separate institutional initiatives–steal me!–such a magazine is what I’d most like to be doing. I figure we need about $300,000 to get the thing good and launched on a semiannual basis. So if anyone knows anyone, do tell. Enough of that. Though thanks for asking.

    Jonathan. Let’s see. The dead sea walrus story.

    So, as I was saying, the single best piece of advice on reporting I ever got was from a marine biologist of all people, Todd Newberry, my old prof at Cowell College of UC Santa Cruz. I was trying to compose a paper for him on some incredibly diffuse topic, I can’t remember what (the characteristics of an ecosystem, or some such), and I’d come a complete jumble, and I went in to talk to him and he said, Yeah, that kind of thing happened to him all the time, too, but it was a bit like how you could be walking on the beach some days, and you come upon a dead sea walrus and you’re curious why it died. (Now, I should say here that I myself don’t walk on beaches much, I don’t come upon dead sea walruses ever, and I could care less why they died. But okay, for discussion’s sake…) So, Todd went on, you can do one of two things. You can pick up that piece of driftwood and you can start pounding the carcass’s flanks and all you’re going to do is make a hash of yourself, of the blubber, of everything… or you can take that piece of driftwood and go over to that boulder over there, sit down, pick up that stone on the nearby ground and start sharpening the driftwood. It’s going to take you all afternoon. But toward evening, just before the sun sets, you’ll have yourself a blade, and you can return to the sea walrus and make a clean incision, perform the autopsy and in just a few minutes you’ll figure out what happened. When you’re dealing with huge amorphous issues, Todd summed up, don’t ask huge amorphous questions; spend ninety percent honing the question, because once you’ve honed the question, the issue will just open itself up to you.

    Which seems to me exactly right. Indeed, any given interview is in part an exercise in generating material but it’s even more than that an occasion for honing the question, for figuring out which is the question that will open up the story. As is indeed the case with any series of interviews across a swath of reportage. The questions you thought might work turn out to be useless, while other ones, totally unexpected, turn out to open up the world. (The way Raul Hilberg, for example, the magesterial Holocaust historian who features so prominently in Claude Landsmann’s Shoah documentary, managed to crack open the whole horrifying geode of that history by asking, quite simply, Who paid for the Jews’s train passage to Auschwitz?)

    Todd Newberry, incidentally, before we leave him, is one smart guy. He has a terrific piece on the virtues of Standing Still, in the context of birding, in that prototype issue of Omnivore. And check out his piece on Aquariums in the current Threepenny Review…( I assume all of you subscribe to the Threepenny Review, yes? If not, you should.

    Finally, a word about marvel and science, and about the disenchantment, as it were, with disenchantment: the crying need to re-enchant the world (though not by mystifying it). It seems to me that science itself is steeped in wonder–all the great scientific work begins in marvel and awe, or ought to–though I agree that how that work gets conveyed to the wider culture, and some of the technology it in turn spawns, can have the effect of deadening and distancing that sense of marvel. (Have you seen the incredible trove of space-probe photographs Michael Benson pulled together in his recent coffee-table masterpiece, "Beyond"? Talk about jaw-dropping. Talk about Pillow of Air. Check it out.)

    I guess I’m reminded of a notion advanced by the great medieval philosopher and mathematical-mystic Nicolas of Cusa. He was trying to worry out the difference between rationality and faith as ways of attaining divine wisdom, and he suggested one might consider an n-sided regular polygon with an ever increasing number of sides. Equilateral Triangle… square…regular pentagon, and so forth. The more sides you added, the closer you would get to a circle, right? A million-sided regular polygon in fact would look almost exactly like a circle. And yet, Nicolas insisted, actually, it would be incredibly far from being a circle, and getting further and further with each additional side, since of course a circle has NO angles and only ONE side. At some point, Nicolas suggested, you would have to make the leap (the leap of faith, as he termed it) from the chord to the arc. And that leap could only be accomplished in grace.

    Bracketing for a moment the religious connotations of Nicolas’s argument, it seems to me that the implications of that way of thinking for bit-knowledge versus whole-knowledge, and then as well for composition of any sort (writing, music, radio narrative), can be quite profound. At a certain point you hope that all of those bits of information will pop–POP!–into a coherent whole, a circle. And you know it will have done so when, when you tap on it, the piece at last rings true.

  • Viki Merrick


    but can you whistle?

    "there are passages of my own prose that turn out, in pacing and melody and formfulness, to be virtual transcriptions of passages from his quartets or symphonies."

    This is an open invitation. I NEED to see/hear this. It’s easier for me to whistle a thought than write it, so I’m with you half-way. What, please, are you referring to specifically? I happen to have a healthy collection of Toch cd’s at my disposal and can provide our visitors with a grand listening/reading project.

    If it were anyone else, I wouldn’t impose – but I imagine you have such examples right on the tip of your tongue, or at least I hope so. This would be an exquisite demonstration of what you speak of composition – transcending disciplines.

  • Turbo Biscuit


    a riddle inside a conundrum wrapped in a paradox stuffed in a pita tucked into a fajita, deep fried– served alongside– a margarita

    Greetings Lawrence,

    (This is such a treat! ((Do you think my title could use more syncopation?))

    Yow! I do wish that Transom had offered Monarch and/or Cliff Notz to accompany this Manifesto. They could have at least offered a digestive biscuit!( no relation to yours truly) As a relatively non-cerebral soul (by birth, not by my own choosing) it took me some time to digest this never ending feast for thought that is your manifesto. But I digress–before I move on, however, I must say it is quite unfair that you call yours an "introductory rant." Now you’ve raised the bar to unprecedented heights as far as rants go.


    Well if I had come across your course description–back in the day–I would have been the first one in line at the registrar’s office! As I will not be a student of yours any time soon could you please give us a taste of what you consider to be "admirable sentences and marvelous paragraphs."

    I’m also hugely curious about upending the myth of objectivity! But will pursue that and other curiosities at a later date.

    Many thanks for your time, Turb

  • laura b



    Hi Lawrence,
    I was chatting with a friend yesterday about why humans have a need for narrative–our attraction to stories with a conflict and resolution, a beginning, middle, and end. We didn’t come to any huge conclusions (and I’d be thrilled to hear what you have to say about the subject) but we did notice that there’s a parallel in music. I’d be driven crazy by an incomplete 1-4-5-1 chord progression (the backbone of most any simple song) the same way i’d be riled up by a story that is left unresolved or has a resolution I can’t make sense of. So what’s up with humans and resolution? Do we need the patterns to understand things? Do you know any narrative without a resolution that’s satisfying?

  • Lawrence Weschler



    Well, let’s see. Working my way backwards through some of these recent provocative (and ever so generous, thank you!) postings.

    Laura: Yes: narrative and the pull of narrative, the draw of tension and the surcease of release. Your question reminds me of the story of the great composer (was it Bach?) of whom it was recalled that he once walked into a room where someone was in the middle of playing a passage on a harpsichord; the player immediately stopped and rose to greet the Great Man, who in turn brushed right past the greeter and up to the harpsichord, upon which he summarily pounded out the resolving chord, explaining how he could never endure to be in a room with a passage left dangling like that.

    And it’s true, isn’t it, how we are all like that in a way. I sometimes feel that in much the same way that our gall bladders secrete bile and our pancreases secrete (what is it they secrete? insulin?), our brains secrete stories. We are story-addled creatures, it is through stories that we experience the world. Coming upon some fresh incident we ask, What’s the story here? We don’t ask, what are the physical properties and the quantitative indices of this particular phenomenon, we ask, What was it LIKE? And indeed, the essence of story telling is tension and release (do we love stories because they are like sex, or the other way around?) (I suspect the latter.) And yes, again, the musical is the best analog. In this context you might find a typical passage from my grandfather’s Shaping Forces of Music book suggestive (the folks over at The Atlantic posted it as a sidebar to my piece about him), to wit:

    The Atlantic: Ernst Toch’s "The Shape of Music"

    Biscuit: Gee, now I don’t know where to begin. I am still on the road and hence without my library close by, so I don’t have any of those admirable sentences or marvelous paragraphs at hand, but I can suggest a few places where you could find some, from some of the readings I like to expose my students to. Grace Paley’s deceptively miniature short story "A Conversation with My Father," for instance. Or Ian Frazier’s "Nobody Better, Better then Nobody" (and in particular the title piece from that volume, a profile of Heloise, of Hints From fame, of all people). The astonishing middle chapter from Susan Sheehan’s "A Missing Plane." William Finnegan’s "Crossing the Line," his endlessly fresh chronicle of a year spent teaching at a "colored" school in late apartheid Capetown. Or anything by Joseph Mitchell. I always save Joseph Mitchell for last in my classes, explaining to students how up till now we have been doing literature, but from here on out we are entering the realm of theology, for there is almost no accounting for how any mere human could have created anything this sublime: Get his "Up in the Old Hotel"–and ravish yourself silly with "Joe Gould’s Secret."

    And Viki: Well, okay, let’s see if I can come up with a few examples of the overlap between my own writing and the music of my grandfather….

  • Lawrence Weschler



    Well, okay. Let’s see if I can come up with a few examples. And since I’ve already posted the piece I did about my grandfather, maybe that’s as good an instance as any to explore.

    Take a look at the extended prolog to that piece, the overture as it were–the evocation of the Scheherazade story.

    Scheherazade had had enough — or so the story goes. She’d told a thousand tales and had no more to tell. Her sister tried to rally the poor girl: didn’t she realize that unless she took up the skein once again that night, not only would the Sultan order her killed on the spot but he’d resume the homicidal binge her tales had so tenuously forestalled, killing yet another maiden each and every night thereafter? Scheherazade, utterly drained, couldn’t bring herself to care. For a thousand nights she’d been unspooling her improvisational yarns, anxiously awaiting the promised return of her young lover, Alcazar, who a thousand days earlier had retreated into the backcountry to organize a revolution and her liberation. But by now it was surely clear that he wasn’t coming — and, hopeless, she was all told out.

    At that very moment Alcazar came bounding over the balcony ledge and rushed to enfold his lover in a passionate embrace. Just one more night, he urged her: if she could keep the Sultan distracted for just one more night, he and his men would launch their insurrection that very eve. But couldn’t he see? Couldn’t he understand? she pleaded in reply. She simply had no more tales to tell. Think of something! he called as he vaulted back over the balcony ledge. And he was gone.

    Disconsolate, Scheherazade lapsed into a deep late-afternoon drowse. All her tales seemed to rise up about her, as if in a pell-mell debauch: Aladdin and Sinbad, Ali Baba and the forty thieves, greedy caliphs and crafty viziers, flying carpets and slicing daggers, soaring falcons and chess-playing apes …

    And already it was nightfall. With a boisterous fanfare the Sultan and his courtiers came barging into Scheherazade’s quarters, avid for tales, and yanked the maiden from her storm-tossed dreams. Why, the Sultan boasted, his girl’s stories were so enthralling that time and again he’d imagined himself right there — in the very thick of the action, shoulder to shoulder with her myriad protagonists. So, Scheherazade, what was it going to be tonight?

    For the longest time it seemed that the answer would be nothing. Shaking, silent, Scheherazade strained for inspiration. None came. The Sultan’s concern gave way to anger and presently to scalding rage. Still nothing.

    Finally, at the end of her tether, Scheherazade burst forth into narrative — her own: the tale of a young girl, hopelessly ensnared, desperately longing for deliverance by a long-lost love. In the distance explosions could be heard, and flames licked the horizon, but seamlessly Scheherazade wove even these into her tale. Messengers came charging into the palace, urgent with bulletins. The Sultan, transfixed, brushed them away: nothing short of miraculous, the way this girl could spin such lifelike tales!

    On and on Scheherazade unfurled the story of her own liberation. So rapt had the Sultan become that even as Alcazar and his troops stormed into the royal chambers, even as they clamped the despot in heavy iron coils and dragged him away, delirious, he still seemed to half-believe that he was in the midst of an indescribably marvelous tale.

    Alcazar rushed forward to embrace his consort once again, in triumph but in calamity as well. Scheherazade, having given her all, had indeed told one tale too many: utterly spent, she collapsed, pale and depleted, into his arms, and — opera being opera — proceeded to die.

    It rises up ex nihilo, out of nowhere, propelled by not much else than its sheer narrative drive. The reader in a certain sense has no idea why he or she is reading this, what sort of thing it is, but they are pulled along by the narrative arc itself, willing (or so I hope) to suspend judgment for the time being. Okay, what sort of thing is this, and where is it going? And what does it have to do with anything? And then, suddenly, there at the very end (“–opera being opera–”) there’s a jarring, clanging, vertiginous seizure of clarification (ah, that’s what this has all been about!). There’s a change of register: the bottom drops out of the story, and we realize that, ah, this is going to be a different sort of story altogether–and now the race is on. And indeed the story that now takes up in earnest with the opening of the next section is in effect going to recapitulate all the themes first advanced there in the Sheherazade story (tyranny and exile, creativity and blockage, grace and release and death) but in much richer and more layered form, not as a fairy tale but as a life.

    Anyway, that narrative strategy turns out to be a straight rip-off of the first few minutes of my grandfather’s First Piano Concerto, as performed here on a recent recording by Todd Crow, with Leon Botstein conducting the Hamburg Symphony…

    LISTEN Ernst Toch’s 1st Piano Concerto (excerpt) – 3:16

    See what I mean? Or for that matter, take a look at the very end of that same piece about my grandfather. The last paragraph.

    … The next night, though, for some reason things did seem simpler. Maybe I was just being lifted higher by the music itself, as I grew more familiar with it. The vexing political context seemed to fall away, and as Scheherazade struggled through her block and into the transporting narrative, I experienced an overwhelming sense that my grandfather had drawn together all the disparate themes of his own life in one transcendant summary exaltation. Things that had seemed chopped and broken and scattered — the shards of both his life and his music — were retrospectively realigning and resolving themselves. As Scheherazade’s last aria reached its lyrical climax, I found myself remembering a letter Toch had written to a young would-be composer not long after his own heart attack — and on the verge of his astonishing regeneration — in 1949. "A composition must grow organically, like a tree," he had urged the young man to understand. "There must be no seams, no gaps, no foreign matter. The sap of the tree must pass through the whole body of it, reach every branch and twig and leaf of it. It must grow, grow, grow, instead of [like a mismatched suit] being patched, patched, patched." I could see that Toch had been talking not only about the composition of a piece of music but also about the composition of a life — and, for that matter, of a family line. And as the audience now rose in ovation, showering particular kudos on their beloved Poch, who stood there drained and pale, trembling in his triumph (for, as none of us realized at the time, he was already riddled with a cancer that would claim his life within a few months — this would be almost his last tale too), I found myself realizing how for Ernst the spiritual challenge was the same in both instances. I suddenly recalled some lines from one of the last notes he ever wrote to Lilly — the one with which, Scheherazadelike, she had chosen to conclude her oral history before herself going on to die. It consisted of a poem in which he acknowledged all the sacrifices she had made in his behalf over the almost fifty years of their life together, assuring her that he was aware of the suffering such sacrifices had often entailed — an awareness that was his despair. Yet he begged her forgiveness: it couldn’t be helped, for, as he, and she, and now I concluded by way of explanation,

    Ich treibe nicht — ich werde getrieben
    Ich schreibe nicht, ich werde geschrieben!

    I do not press, I am pressed —
    I do not write, I am written!

    See how all the themes (those same themes) are being drawn together, as if multiple strands were being pulled and pulled and pulled (arm over arm), gathered up into a single transcendent unity (“for, as he, and she, and now I concluded, by way of explanation…”) which in turn opens out onto that great spangly exhalation there at the end, which in turn subsides to silence.

    Well, that’s a straight rip-off of the ending of my grandfather’s last symphony, his Seventh, as performed here on another recent CD, by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Alun Francis.

    LISTEN Ernst Toch’s 7th Symphony (excerpt) – 1:44
    MP3: Streaming(80 kbps) | Download(1 mb)

    See? Maybe it’s just me, but I hear the cadences of the one in the other, and I swear that without even being aware of the overlap as such as I was drafting those passages, I was hearing them in my head even then. Like I say: weird.

  • Jay Allison



    I’m wondering if we at Transom should blend these elements, "this being the Internet," into a flash presentation with text or a voice over music. We shall explore possibilities.

    May I also say that the little story which begins as below–especially its tossed-off opening "I guess…"– brightened, or rather illuminated, my day. thanks.

    >I guess I’m reminded of a notion advanced by the great medieval philosopher and mathematical-mystic Nicolas of Cusa. He was trying to worry out the difference between rationality and faith as ways of attaining divine wisdom, and he suggested one might consider an n-sided regular polygon with an ever increasing number of sides… etc here: Lawrence Weschler, "Lawrence Weschler’s Topic" #6, 20 Jul 2004 5:23 pm

  • Sydney Lewis


    "is that right?"

    Just having listened to the Tour of the Jurassic piece, I feel much like the musing visitor, Mr. Lloyd, whom I quote above. Now experiencing more than a "slight sense of slippage," I imagine the Jurassic as a place in which Sun Ra would happily revive. My question is: When first you met Mr. Wilson, was there some Gladwellian tipping point in your mind? Did he awaken, strengthen, redirect your own creative process?

  • Robert Krulwich



    I wanna hear more about that Sheherazade and her boyfriend Al Cazar. He must have been mightily, mightily sad that she storytold herself to death, all so he could break into the palace, which couldn’t have been that difficult, what with the Sultan being so spellbound and all, (which, come to think of it, he probably was on all those other 999 nights as well, but damn, Al didn’t know that until it was too late).

    No, no, wait a second. He must have known the place wasn’t that well guarded if he could bound in MIDAFTERNOON (!) to tell her to think of something good for one more night. I mean, the guards must have had IDs on Cazar posted at the gates, so if security had been even mediocre he’d have been stopped. But no, he bounds in, like your average two story guy when (I’m guessing here) the sun is still up and folks are wandering up and down Sherazade’s street doing their midafternoon thing, and NO ONE stops him, going in or coming out. Not the guards, the pedestrians, Sultan Security, nobody.

    So now I’m wondering: was it really necessary to have the woman tell that many stories? I’m thinking NOT. The Sultan was transfixed for, what? 1000 nights is, like, almost three years!
    Three years Al waits?

    I’m thinking, that’s too long. Especially in a town you can bound in and out of any afternoon.
    No, there’s a lot more going on here then you know Lawrence Weschler, if I may call you that.

    You should re-report that story. There’s a Pulitzer or a Peabody waiting there to be won. You can be the man.

    Yeah, the prose was perfectly pitched, muscially spectacular…but what about the reporting? Hmm?

  • Lawrence Weschler


    That’ll learn me…

    …to tell Robert K that I’m feeling a little lonesome out here on  But yeah, operas seldom make altogether too much sense: I can’t think of a single one about a reporter (and now we know why).  (Though just watch all the reporter operas that we’re now going to find out about.)
         As for Sydney’s question about the tipping point at the Jurassic, hmmm, I think it’s rather a case that David Wilson has contrived a space where he has you the visitor to his museum balancing on the edge of tipping all the time, and yet never quite doing so.  It’s a pretty magical space in that regard–one to which (pillow of air) I suppose all story tellers at times aspire (I know I do) (Wilson just manages to levitate there longer–I’d go so far as to say pretty much perpetually). 

        I suppose in a sense David Isay and I were trying to recapitulate that experience aurally: my book had been to books (or so I hoped, so I attempted) what that museum is to museums, and in the same way we tried to create a radio piece that would be to other radio pieces…etc:  A place where you could never be quite sure–nor ever quite want to be. As with one of Auden’s great last poems (in "Thank You, Fog"):

    The archeologist’s spade
    delves into dwellings
    vacancied long ago,

    unearthing evidence
    of life-ways no one
    would dream of leading now

    concerning which he has not much
    to say that he can prove:
    The lucky man!

    Knowledge may have its purposes,
    but guessing is always
    more fun than knowing. (…)  

    I will tell you one funny story, though, the best review that book ever got.  It had been out for about six months when one day a fellow showed up at the Museum, burrowed away in the back halls for about two hours, eventually surfacing back at the front where he confronted the guy manning the desk.  "Excuse me," he said, "are you either David Wilson or Lawrence Weschler?" he inquired, and when informed that  it was indeed David Wilson whom he had the privilege of addressing, he leaned in further and whispered, conspiratorially, "Come on. Tell me the truth: Does that guy Weschler really exist?"

  • Robert Krulwich


    Oh I see…

    I see. So what you’re saying is the Sultan’s palace, being real old, like maybe 1,000 years old, has no doubt fallen down and been buried by sand and rocks and stuff and even if you were to go out there and dig and dig and dig, there’d be NO pottery chips, or any old tablets to shed light on why this poor Sheherezade woman would have to story herself to death. Only this "Auden" guy "guessing" what happened. Probably being paid by Cazar’s great, great grandkids to deflect suspicions from old Al.
    I’m not fooled. Al killed Sherry.

    But enough. It is time to get back to real life at the Museum of Jurrasic Technology.

  • Sue Mell



    Was travelling with very little web access for the first weeks of this discussion (quite the universe of catching up!) but was reading some of Vermeer in Bosnia along the way and was struck by the difference in feeling? tone? voice? rhythm? (something distinct to my ear but that I found hard to quantify) between the more personal/reflective pieces like the ones about your daughter or the one about the Tina Barney portraits, and, say… the profile of Roman Polanski (which, by the way, I devoured!). The pieces about your grandfather seem to sit in yet another spot. Obviously these are different kinds of pieces that grow from differing perspectives and approaches but I wonder if you could talk about your own sensibilities in terms of these differences—do you secretly prefer one to the other, in what different ways do they excite your creative impulses, is one a relief or respite from the other, would you liken it to playing different instruments, or to composing symphonies as opposed to chamber music or, well…to what? And, also, in what ways were your rhythms and your narrative/writerly voice affected by the additional element of audio that is radio? Did you at all find radio to be in essence a musical instrument that you could play where the piano had eluded you or does it seem closer to you to composing?

  • Lawrence Weschler



    Krulwich, what can I say?  I do have a distant whispy memory of a book of feminist criticism of opera which had the wonderful title “Thirteen Ways to Kill a Woman,” or anyway something like that, for killing the woman does seem to be what most operas end up being about (and most operas have been written by men).  But yes, enough said.

    Ms. Mell: Hmmm, different voices, different occasions, and also, one might surmise, different points in my life, the Vermeer in Bosnia collection drawing on over twenty years of efforts and yet attempting to worry out the common threads and themes (passion and the repression of passion, light, wonder, exile, the workings of grace, the movement  from being a son or grandson to becoming a father).  But yes, I do see what you mean about the voice being different from piece to piece.  I suppose what  the voices have in common is a certain quality of address, something along the lines of, “Hey, get this.”  (I think that’s even how my Jurassic radio piece actually starts.)  There’s a certain (studied) casualness across an assumed equal space (a space between equals), as if the reader and I were sharing a ride on a train and simply started up talking: the assumption that if I found something interesting you might well , too, provided I told it right.  (And it is indeed the case that as I am engaged in a writing project, unlike many writers, I do rehearse the story, as it were, over  and over again, telling it to guests and semistrangers, studying their response, trying to get the cadences right) (driving my wife crazy).  Having said that, though, yes, there are indeed different sorts of efforts: impromptus, preludes, nocturnes, improvisations, full throttle fugues, out-and-out symphonies.

    And as you will have noted, the metaphor is to composition rather than performance.  Or rather, I don’t see myself playing an instrument (the typewriter keyboard) so much as (like any composer, I imagine) playing the audience, orchestrating (or choreographing) the audience’s response–albeit with the audience conceived as an intimate, an audience of one.  And yes, this felt even more the case when I was doing radio, which as has often been said is a wonderfully intimate medium.

    Along these lines, I will note one of my favorite radio moments ever, which just happened to occur in one of my own pieces (believe me, I was just the incredibly lucky conduit for the moment).  It occurs about halfway through the Breytenbach  piece (some of you may also remember it from a reworked version that appeared on a prison-themed episode of This American Life).  Breytenbach is talking about his time as a political prisoner on the death row of a Pretoria jail in apartheid South Africa (he himself had not been sentenced to death but the authorities were keeping him there as part of a wider campaign to drive him crazy). 

    I’ll link to the specific passage in a moment, but two things to note at the outset:  First, the gorgeousness of Breytenbach’s voice.  As it happened, all three of the protagonists in my “Calamities of Exile” collection (Breytenbach, the Iraqi Kanan Makiya, and the Czech Jan Kavan) were afflicted with gorgeously sonorous voices.  I say “afflicted” because I’ve come to suspect that if you too had a voice like theirs, and that was the voice with which you talked to yourself, you too would do anything that voice told you to do, and you too would get into the sorts of calamitous disasters that they managed to get themselves into.  And second: note how in this passage, which we recorded in a Paris café, Stephen Erickson and I start by establishing the setting through a whole sequence of aural cues (the sounds of traffic, clinking silverware, shuffling waiter, etc.).  This is in part so that later on we can edit in and out of his story, without having those ambient noises intrude and confuse the listener.  But it’s also in keeping with one of my favorite pieces of writerly advice,  I believe from Flaubert, who said that whenever  launching out on any new scene the writer needs to note three specific particulars (that drape, that candlestick, that umbrella stand) in order to establish the palpable three-dimensional reality of the scene, a three-dimensional space within which the characters can now move about freely.  The same rule applies to radio.  Voices are not disembodied, they rise (precisely) out of bodies, bodies which need to be placed in space. 

    Okay, so anyway, here’s Breyten talking about the nights on death row in Pretoria:

    LISTEN Breytenbach on Listening in Prison (excerpt) – 3:44
    MP3: Streaming(96 kbps) | Download(2.5 mb)

    In prison, Breyten suggests, you learn “to see with your ears.”  And then, by the end of the passage, he is describing how all the prisoners lay awake at night, listening as the condemned man who was scheduled to be executed the next morning sang his last, and how there in your cell, you could actually hear everybody else alone in their cell, straining to listen.  Which is what I call a perfect radio moment, for as it gets broadcast out (talk about pillow of air!) you find yourself leaning in to listen, lost to the world,  and then you suddenly become aware of how all over the listening area, there are others just like you, stilled, hushed, leaning in to listen….  Which is why Erickson and I then feathered in that extended pause, a rest, a pillow of silence.  Silences in radio, as in any form of narrative (music, fiction, nonfiction), being among the most powerfully affecting compositional devices.   (So long, and only so long, as they’ve been earned!)

  • Nubar



    Ren: Sorry I haven’t posted earlier. There are lots of us "readers" out here who are enjoying your time here at Transom but can’t quite get it together to write something. I saw a copy of your magazine Omnivore and wonder whether such a beautifully produced magazine can be sustainable in the world, especially given what’s going on in magazines these days? Hope to see you soon!

  • Jay Allison


    organizing thinking

    I was reading Richard Ford’s novel "The Sportswriter" during your time here and in one of the few passages about writing, he says,

    >"What I’d like to do as I lie here, and before the day burgeons into a glowing Easter, is put together some useful ideas about Herb, a detail or two to act as magnets for what else will occur to me in the next days, which is the way good sportswriting gets done. You hardly ever just sit down and write it cold, staring at an empty yellow sheet expecting yourself to summon up every good idea you’ll have ready at the first moment. That can be the scariest thing in the world. Instead, what you try to honor is your random instincts, catch yourself off guard, and write a sentence or an unexpected descriptive line–the way the air smelled one day, or how the wind lifted and tricked off the lake surface in a peculiar way that might later make the story inevitable. Once those notes are on record, you put them away and let them draw up an agenda of their own that you can discover later when you’re sorting through things just before the deadline, and it’s time to write."

    Ren, what are you thoughts on that? Is that close to the way your organize your thinking/writing/memory?

    (Incidentally, a few chapters later, Ford has this description…"This is Walter’s sister, this woman! Wicker basket. Healthy shoes. Roosevelt bio. … She is some miserable Montessori teacher from Coshocton. A woman with a reading list and an agenda, friends in the Peace Corps, an NPR program log deep in her Brazil bag. A tidy, chestless, Pat or Fran from Oberlin or Reed, with high board scores.")

  • Michael Benson


    Breytenbach, the absence of narrative

    Hi Ren, and thanks for the plug of my book, Beyond. Yes indeedie, everyone out there should run out and buy it, and if they do they will also get a great afterword by you, Ren – but you already knew that!

    Anyway, I’m just back from doing what I try to do every summer, namely touring among the innumerable amazing islands of the Croatian Adriatic. They are amazing for many various reasons, and are by and large incredibly beautiful, but last weekend we went to one that your Breytenbach jailhouse story links to in a strangely inverted way: Goli Otok (Naked Island). I should say that this was no pleasure trip: Goli Otok was Tito’s prison island, most notoriously where Yugoslavs who were thought to still harbor allegiance to Stalin after Yugoslavia was expelled from the Cominform in 1948 were sent. Yugoslavia, recall, was non-aligned after Tito refused to obey commandments by Stalin just after the war, upon which Stalin expelled Yugoslavia from his coercive (to put it mildly) alliance system. He couldn’t easily keep the Yugoslavs in by force, just to simplify, because the Red Army hadn’t liberated Yugoslavia, the local Partisans had. (Balkanologists will here wince at the crude caricature.) Anyway, not to get into the finer points of Balkanology, it’s one of the less remembered facts of the dismal 20th century that one of the harshest prisons within communist totalitarianism was Tito’s – and that the people who were imprisoned there were actually communists of a stripe suddenly not convenient for a suddenly (and embolismically) independent Yugoslav communist party.

    So why “Naked Island”? Because it is almost entirely without vegetation, since the Bura wind blows so much salt spray onto the island, particularly in winter, that very little can grow there. So what you have is an immense limestone mountain rearing itself out of the blue Med. Shockingly beautiful, too, in the way Andy Warhol’s pastel-colored electric chairs are at first pleasing to the eye, until you get closer…

    How does this apply to Breytenbach? And specifically to this idea of _hearing_ those multiple ears listening? Well, this place is an eerie ghost-town, with multiple structures simply abandoned to the sun and wind: all the narrative seems to have been either pounded or leeched right out of it. What’s left isn’t silence, it’s a kind of echo of an echo. The place is dotted all over with examples of forced labor, such as huge piles of stones in the glaring sun that appear to have very little reason for being there, other than as by-products of exercises in bone-breaking futility. And indeed that is what some of them no doubt are: I am not nearly as educated as I should be about Goli, in part because there is so little that has been published, and plan to get what materials I can this fall, but I do know that the death toll there was very high, and that (as in the sadistic camps run by the Serbs in Bosnia during their genocidal rampage there in the 90’s) the prisoners were savagely forced to “discipline” each other, and that one of the favored activities was to order the prisoners to transfer piles of heavy white rocks from point A to point B in the deadly noon sun – and then back. So the apparent futility of those piles of rocks was probably no illusion.

    Well, the “nice” thing about the Breytenbach story is that the unnamed condemned prisoner’s voice was in fact ultimately heard – and not just by the teller, of course, or the other inmates but by all of us who have heard his story (thanks in this case to you, Ren). So apart from the fascination of the mechanism, meaning the function of prison-house listening, and the grim poetry of it all, we also have a sense that this soul has been heard: witness has been given (you get that kind of sense, don’t you, in the Inferno: in the end, at the very least, those messages are conveyed to the living: souls are heard).

    Well, on Goli, what you hear now is either that echo I mentioned or the whistling of the Bura, that same wind which brings so much salt to the island that there is very little there but rocks. That’s the "song" on offer. The people have long gone, their stories are gone, the pain they endured is gone (or rather, was passed poisonously down to new generations elsewhere – meaning a mainland now traumatized by the wars of the 90’s). So all the narratives appear to be very well hidden. Goli, unfortunately, missed its Breytenbach (or Varlan Shalamov, or Primo Levi… Speaking of which, has anyone out there read Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales? Because you should).

    But back to you – and sorry to be such a wind-bag (well, maybe literally this time: I can still hear that ferocious keening wind)…

  • Lawrence Weschler


    Signs of life amidst the doldrums

    Hey, signs of life! Things were getting a little doldrummy there, as I guess is to be expected around the Ides of August, but it’s nice to have some new visitors, especially folks with such nifty contributions.

    Let’s see. Working my way backwards. Benson! What a fantastic radio piece you’ve got gestating there, Tito’s penal island—and somehow I feel it’s a radio piece rather than a film, your status as a filmmaker notwithstanding. That wind, your description of the scoured rockface: that’s all we’d need, and we couldn’t see it better if we could. Now you need to track down one or two survivors and then layer in their testimony. Wow.

    That ongoing theme of hearing the listening reminds me in turn of a great passage in Homer, or rather specifically in Christopher Logue’s marvelously sinewy contemporary rendition of the Iliad (“War Music”)–an extended simile slotted into the description of the battle raging around a particular hero’s corpse:

    Try to recall the pause, thock, pause,
    Made by axe blades as they pace
    Each other through a valuable wood.
    Though the work takes place on the far
    Side of a valley, and axe storkes are
    Muted by the depths of warm, still standing air,
    They throb, throb, closely in your ear;
    And now and then you catch a phrase
    Exchanged between the men who work
    More than a mile away, with perfect clarity.
    Likewise the sound of spear on spear,
    Shield against shield, shield against spear
    Around Sarpedon’s body.

    Talk about a perfect radio moment, avant la lettre! Bracket for a moment the beauty of the metaphor, how once again Homer has recourse to an image of industrious peacefulness to characterize a scene of battle mayhem. Think about what’s going on here: The blind bard is struggling to convey a battle which actually took place five hundred years earlier (as if on the far side of a valley) and he experiences it as sound; Logue for his part is struggling to hear that twenty-five-year-ago singer’s tale clean; and we in turn (in the silence of our reader heads) are trying to see it clean for ourselves, to hear it true. And, yes, the vision is sound. Pretty amazing.

    As for your question, Jay. Terrific passage that from Richard Ford (with him of course one would be hard-pressed to find one that wasn’t.) As it happens, my method, such as it is, is quite different from that of Ford’s Sportswriter—not that I particularly recommend it. After I’ve been out reporting and come home with my brace of filled-up notebooks, I sit down to index my notes—by hand, on three-holed notebook pages, labor-intensively (and nowadays, I admit, what with all the search features on computers, virtually cromagnonly). First notebook, first page, first item gets an index entry, or two or three—each a separate labeled page based on where I might think to look for it in the future if I needed that detail. Second entry, same thing. Page after page after page. Day after day. Stupid. But there you have it. The index for a long profile can end up running two hundred pages—and ends up having its own index.

    By that end though, I’ve completely reviewed my material (now with The Question—see above–more firmly in mind), I’ve already begun to notice and note rhymes and nifty passages (a whole subcategory), and most importantly, when I finally will be ready to write, I won’t need worry that I’ll be derailed looking for particular passages. I know where everything is. (Fact-checkers love me.)

    The thing is, though, by the time I’ve finished the index, I’m bored out of my mind with the subject. And never will be interested in it again, as a subject. At least not with that first flush of excitement. I wilt into abjection, I can’t focus. My eyes are magnetized south and the empty page before me is magnetized south and everything else in the world is magnetized north. (Why is there dust? What makes water wet? Fascinating.) Hopeless. Horrible.

    I procrastinate. I play with blocks. I have lots and lots of blocks, wooden blocks, and you should see the palaces I construct. Not giving the subject the slightest thought. Awash in pure formfulness. Puzzles and revelations surrounding structure. Days pass. Weeks, (Obviously somewhere in the back of my mind, I am sorting out structural issues regarding my writing as well, but not consciously.) At length, palace-building all the while, I begin to thrum around about structural questions in the piece: what if I led instead with X? And, hey, wait, it’s weird, but that P section rhymes with the T, S could go before P, and we could flip M and N…. Hmmm. And this sort of thing becomes more and more interesting to me. Presently compellingly interesting. (The polarities reverse, and now the empty page is magnetized north and the rest of the world south: The house is burning down? Who cares.)

    And the sap starts to flow. But again, around these structural concerns. And the real thrill comes—and it always does—when purely structural considerations turn out to yield up previously unforseen or unnoticed aspects of the subject at hand. This happens every time, because it’s true: Truth is beauty and beauty is truth!

    When I finally do start writing, now, I go very very fast. (The index comes into its own!) My pieces, even though long, tend to read fast—the voice straightforward and straight ahead, as if we were having a conversation. (Voice simply being what happens when you breathe through structure. You build a vaulted larynx, and then you breathe through it.)

    Does that make sense? I don’t recommend this method, it’s fraught with self-loathing and self-doubt. But it seems to be how I have to do it myself.

    And Nubar! Hey, how’s it going? Omnivore? Oy. Aye. More. Later.

  • Nubar



    I’m well. Looks like brother Morris is keeping himself busy, no?

  • Michael Benson



    Say Ren… Ren? Are you out there? How’s the book tour going?

    I wanted to ask you what may well be an irrelevant question, but it comes out of sheer day-to-day frustration at the current political situation. And by that I mean, of course, an election which probably really _is_ the most important in memory — just as the hype has it. And that is, to what extent are you active politically, in your writing and in your ‘real’ life? (I did read your editorial in the LA Times focusing on Bush’s campaign website theme of "compassion" — the one where a visitor is hypertexted to a series of pictures, in all of which Bush is seen genially interacting with people of color — that was a good one.) How do you balance the competing pulls of compelling subjects that aren’t inherently overtly political, at least in a day-to-day way, and the outrage you must feel over this abysmal administration? Or is outrage not the right ‘motor’ for you? To what extent do you let ‘daily’ politics ever intrude on what you are writing? Do you think allowing them to intrude overtly might give the writing an unacceptably short shelf-life?

    My own sense of these things lately is that there’s already so much out there, in print and on-line media and the "blogosphere," that in a way all viewpoints are already covered several times over… Maybe there’s just no real space left, or rather an infinite amount of space with infinitely diminishing returns. Which, given the polls, doesn’t make me feel a whole hell of a lot better!

    Cheers, Michael

  • Lucy Raven


    fleeting artifact on a cold day

    dear lawrence,

    i think our mutual pal calhoun has been trying to connect the dots for a spell, but i was excited to learn about the transom forum so thought i’d say hello here first. chris was kind enough to give me a copy of omnivore last spring, and it occurs to me now after reading through this message board that another dragonline through your work (besides musical composition) might be the sonics of devour. by this i don’t just mean the worrying through or breaking apart, and further apart, of a scene when writing about it (though the thoughts on this above are powerful and lovely), but a full devastation of said scene/moment/memory/sound that blasts all its parts beyond recognizability as a collection of components and keeps going until it reaches a release point into: silence/wall of noise/white noise/confusion/clarity…

    in an exhibition at the mattress factory in pittsburgh last year, james turrell installed a piece called gasworks where one person at a time laid down on an extended drawer coming out of a white sphere in the middle of the first floor. the drawer was then shelved flush into the interior of the space for 10 minutes, where a succession of light flickers began. suspended mid-sphere without any boundaried visual frame or depth of perception, the lights took over completely, like the lights you see racing past your eyes when they’re closed, to the point where only blinking very hard and telling myself "my eyes are now open" could i apprehend whether they were open or closed.

    though strange reportage, climaxing with the nasa spokesman’s nytimes quote "something has clearly gone wrong," yesterday’s failed nasa mission to intercept a spacecraft containing the earliest atomic matter spent months hurtling through space to then wait patiently (nearly 1000 nights!) in the spot where the earth’s and the sun’s gravitational pulls cancel each other out to get the story it came for. the cancellation of pulls was not a negation, but where the only version of the atomic genesis we’ve thought of is purported to begin.

    as much as the metaphors of composition seem to reach toward the pillow of air, so, it also seems, does that hunger to vaporize it all, whether that means hurtling or waiting. the hunger, or desire (you do call it a pillow…), is much of what compels me in your lines of questioning regardless of subject, evident even when it’s sipping cokes in LA watching the cars roll by.

    but then…
    what does omnivore have to do (or not) with capitalism?

    …that powerful pull that refuses to cancel out…


  • Lawrence Weschler


    in re Lucy: mmmff & ppfff

    (In inverse order)

    Thank you for that. My first associations, bounding off of your last, are of course, to Rebbe Karl M., in his Manifesto, to wit,

    "Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.”

    All that is solid melting into air, indeed.

    As to the Turrell association, yes there indeed as well, As you may know, Turrell made an important appearance in my first book, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, my midcareer biography of California artist Robert Irwin. All the way back in 1968-9, Irwin and Turrell had been collaborating in a series of perceptual investigations, nesting themselves (one at a time, for extended hours at a time) in light-and-sound dampened anechoic chambers or huge white ping-pong ball type ganz felds. “For a few hours after you came out,” Irwin recalls (p. 128-9) “the trees were still trees, the houses were still houses, but the world did not look the same, it was very, very noticeably altered…. You really did become more energy conscious, not just that the leaves move, but that everything has a kind of aura, that nothing is wholly static, that color itself emanates a kind of energy. You noted each individual leaf, each individual tree. You picked up all the sorts of things you normally blocked out….”
    Elsewhere (in the catalog to Irwin’s 1993 MOCA retrospective), I’ve tried to characterize an odd aspect of Irwin’s beatific ambition that seems to me true of Turrell as well (and maybe even to some degree of me?), to wit:

    “If you spend any time with Irwin, you’re likely to notice that he has two quintessential gestures. He’ll be rolling along, expounding at length, and then, at a certain moment, he’ll bring his hand up, thumb and fingers bunched together, like a tulip, which he then proceeds to open out, in a blossoming-his whole face opening, his eyebrows riding up his broad forehead, a bemused grin spreading across his face. It’s an easy, breezy gesture of openness and release. You’ve got to keep your sense of humor, he may say; at a certain point, you’ve just got to let things go. The tulip opening. All I’m saying-ppfff, the tulip opening-is that the wonder is still there. Then, at other times, his entire being will seem to focus, to concentrate: his face will scrunch up, his eyes will narrow, he’ll seem to throw all his body weight behind his arm as it screws an imaginary anchor into an invisible massif before him-a gesture gritty with determination. In fact, sometimes he’ll even grunt-mmmff. I mean, either you’re going to do it or you’re not going to do it, and if you’re going to do it you’ve got to get in there and-mmmff-do it. You’ve got to take all that and somehow, man-mmmff-you’ve got to nail it. You really have to bite the bullet if you’re going to do philosophy; halfway doesn’t count for anything and there are no excuses. There are all sorts of excuses, and good ones, for not beating the shit out of yourself, but if you’re going to pursue certain lines of thought, take on certain tasks, well-mmmff-you’ve really got to make the commitment.
    “I talk about Irwin’s contradictions, and, in a sense, this is one of the core ones. Because here’s an artist who tries time and again to nail down beatitude. He wants to take all that bliss, all that serenity, all that wonder, and-damn it-he wants to batten it down. He wants to batten it down tight and then-ppfff, the tulip opening-to simply let it go.”

    As for the silences beyond the release point, yes, but as any composer can tell you, there are silences that are merely dumb, silences that withhold sulkingly and mean nothing–and then there are the silences that are earned, that have been built up toward and couched into a context, and that hence resonate, welling forth, and those are the only silences that matter.

  • Lawrence Weschler


    and in re Michael B: (questions of politics)

    As to your question, Michael B:

    Sure, one wishes that American presidential campaigns would be fought out on the basis of issues, that the American electoral system were capable of generating authentic issue-based differences—how we ever got into or what we ought to be doing next with regard to the mess in Iraq, say, or the desirability of universal health care, or the disquietingly rampaging polarization of wealth in this country over recent years and what ought be done about that–upon which the electorate could then be called upon to render decisive judgment.
    But for whatever reason–the fact that both parties draw overwhelmingly on the same corporate sponsors for the gargantuan amounts of funding required by their ludicrously extended campaigns, that both seem to feel the need to rush to the middle in search of the ever narrowing band of swing voters in swing states (rather than boldly staking out in search of the millions who don’t feel the process engages their needs enough to justify their voting at all), that the Democrats in particular always seem to cower at the prospect of such vivid engagements—such issue-oriented races just don’t seem to be in the cards.
    Instead, what we get are ever more bizarrely stylized supposed tests of presidential “character”—a sort of real-life version of those so-called “reality shows,” in which the contestants are thrown ever more perverse and unlikely and irrelevant challenges and viewers get to judge them on the basis of how they perform under the humiliating stress. Gennifer Flowers, say, or “What would you do if your own wife were raped?”
    This time around, it seems evident that people have all sorts of doubts about George W. Bush, and given their druthers they might well prefer someone else, but the question has become (or rather has artfully been made to become) whether John Kerry has what it takes, whether he is fit for command in this time of crisis.
    In this context, the Democrats had hoped that their candidate’s record of sterling service in Vietnam would put any such doubts to rest (indeed that presumably bulletproof resume was likely the most decisive element leading to his consensus selection as the party’s standard bearer). But suddenly, this past month, through a brilliantly orchestrated campaign of scurrilously outlandish and unsubstantiated slurs, that record has itself been called into question.
    And here’s the thing. Sure the slurs have had their impact, but far more dismaying has been watching the candidate respond—or rather, fail to respond—to the slurs themselves. The subtext of the past several weeks in the minds of many voters, and especially in the minds of those swing voters, has been: if Kerry can’t even deal with these morons, how the hell is he going to be able to deal with Osama Bin Laden?
    Thus, though the ludicrous aspersions don’t call his authentic character into question, the way candidate Kerry chooses to deal with them really does say something about that character and his fitness to lead. (At least in the “reality TV” parameters within which this election is being fought and will likely be decided.)
    How one wishes he’d do something, anything, that for instance he would just lumber up to the podium one morning, face the cameras sternly and…
    …well, I’m sure I wasn’t invited onto Transom’s webpages to dilate on what I personally wish Kerry would say. I’m sure everybody has their own ideas, ideas which would likely be more at home on some other blog.
    But as for the wider issue, I tend to agree with you, Michael. Surely as far as this election goes, there is already plenty and more than enough out there by way of information (the glut of information itself being an aspect of the gaggingly effective regime of repressive tolerance, just as the endless campaign requiring such astronomical budgets is itself a way of marginalizing anything but the most corruptly financed politics). At this stage, I worry, nothing you or I or anybody else writes will make much difference: Kerry himself, I doubly worry, may be the only one who can pull this thing out. Aye.
    Speaking more broadly, though, yes, I do see myself as a deeply engaged politically, but once again, at an angle, not head-on. (See the Heaney quote above, entry #6). I don’t write about issues, I tell stories that in passing adumbrate ways of thinking about issues, and more to the point, I hope, force readers to think about those issues in the first place. Thus, for example, my reporting out of Latin America in the 80’s, when I was trying to find some way of writing about all the torture going on down there, torture in which we as taxpayers were deeply implicated but we as sensible (sensitive) individuals really didn’t want to spend time wallowing…. I bided my time, trawling for a way in, and eventually came upon two narratives (one in Brazil and another in Uruguay), adventure stories in which torture victims, faced with imposed amnesties protecting their onetime tormentors, nevertheless found a way of getting even—thrillers, page-turners, steeped in uncomfortable material that the reader couldn’t help but absorb on his/her way to finding out what happened next (always the best lure), material incidentally that proved more and more (rather than less and less) confounding, all the simple answers falling relentlessly away (always a good sign). (The two stories were eventually yoked together in my book “A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers.”)
    My other method, I suppose you could call it, is the kind I demonstrate in those McSweeneys-type convergence pieces (the subject of my next book, “Everything That Rises,” due out by summer 2005). The sort of thing where I notice an odd rhyme—how for instance Slobodan Milosevic on the cover of Time physically looks exactly like Newt Gingrich on the cover of Newsweek—which then opens out onto a wider vantage, the fact that the careers (from rise through fall) of the two Pillsbury Doughboy Messiahs, as I took to characterizing them, were remarkably similar. That sort of thing can be fun, and again, you can pack a considerable wallop striking like that tangentially and from the side.

  • daniel ferri


    architectonic structure, heard vs. read

    Please, what do you consider the "architectonic" differences between narrative written for radio vs. narrative written for the page? How is the narrative structure aimed for the ear different from that aimed at the eye?

    How would the musical patterns of rhythm and time vary from work produced for one media vs. the other?

    What makes many (most) plays a bad read but a good listen?

    Some radio writers work translates well to the page but some others does not, and there are page writers whose prose is alive when read and others whose prose falls dead on the ear.

    Are those differences elements of overal structure (as you allude to in your comparison of Shaharazad and your grandfather’s music), or of internal structures such as patterns of rhythm, assonance and percussion within paragraphs and sentences, or might those differences something else entirely?

    Reading your introduction I was quite excited about hearing more about those things, the elements of "writerly" radio.

    Please sir, more about that stuff.

  • Jay Allison


    We hope…

    We hope you’ll keep going and we’ll delay our publication of the Transom Review until things are quiet in this topic. We’ll be introducing the next Guest in a week or so, but don’t let that slow you down…

    Summer is over; back to school!

  • Lawrence Weschler


    The architectonics of sound and page

    Aye, Daniel, how frustrating to be getting to these issues just as our little conference seems to be coming to an end (pace Brother Jay). For, yes, the mysterious alchemy of how words play on the page versus over the air has long fascinated me as well, and every single one of your questions could open out onto a seminar. (I for one would be loath to claim any special authority, and I’d love to get responses and intimations from others as well, for here—as readers, as listeners—we are all on an equal footing.)
    But several thoughts suggest themselves, ways into the terrain. For example, when we read to ourselves do we “hear” the words, or rather do we feel ourselves steeped in silence? There’s a marvelous passage near the outset of a John McPhee piece (“L.A. vs. the Mountains” from his Control of Nature book), where he’s describing a tremendous storm lashing a canyon, and the experience of the family living alongside the drainage creek which should have been raucous with the noise of the rushing torrent…but wasn’t. “It’s unnatural sound,” writes McPhee, “was unnaturally absent.” (In other words, there was some sort of blockage up above which would presently explode into a mudslide.) But the thing I love about the passage, is the eerie absence of sound which somehow, synaethesiacally, replicates the silence in our own head, hunched there by the pool of lamplight at midnight, as we read the passage.
    Conversely, is there no visualization in the sound experience of radio? I am thinking especially these days when editing on the Mac literally projects the oscilliscope shape of each individual word onto the screen, and you can move the jagged bundles about, snipping out the stammers by sight!
    Why do some things read well in our heads but not over the radio? I think here the issue is indeed probably more one of the rhythms of the words and phrases within individual sentences than the wider structures of paragraphs and chapters. And, too, we breathe differently in our heads than through our mouths: I have perpetrated sentences intended for reading to oneself—long, loopy extravaganzas: clauses curling in on themselves and then opening out onto wild digressions before doubling back all over again—that I would never attempt to read out loud. Or rather, when I do attempt to read them at readings and the like, I literally end up winding myself. Though, I assure you, they do work on the page.
    So go figure. But what a great subject! Anybody else have any ideas? Quick, before Brother Jay lowers the boom.

  • David Willems


    oh a whole sack of questions and things!


    Like the others, I too want to thank you for repeatedly opening my eyes to wonder. Perceiving my perceptions as it were. Or floating on a pillow of air after reading the irwin piece, or Boggs, or Mr. Wilson…

    I’ll throw out a bunch of things, feel free to address or ignore any of them:

    First, the end of your last posting, addressing the spoken versus the written word. Like anything, for some mysterious reason I find the right instrument sounds best with the right music.. in the way that I can read PG Wodehouse or David Reese’s "My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable" and laugh outloud, but when I see Wodehouse adaptations on TV or try reading aloud some of my favorite passages, they always seem to fall flat. I think the mind creates an idealized voice (shades of Plato?) often, that cannot be grasped outside of one’s own head. Sometimes the reading outloud works best. I think in the case of David Sedaris, his pieces work best outloud.. or in a blending, I can read his pieces using his voice in my head and it works better.

    Some questions:

    What novels / art / music / film / rooms etc.. have most created that sate of wonder in you? That sense of slippage? Anything you’d recommend?

    I seem to fall into obsessions for brief times and burn myself out quickly on them (I’m also obsessed with obsessed people).. Of recent note, Bruno Schulz, WG Sebald, and VS Ramachandran’s "Phantoms In The Brain" have all got me floating.. Music-wise, Albert Ayler’s Greenwich Village concerts and Dolphy’s Out to Lunch album… like a door in my head opening. A documentary on Andrew Goldsworthy, and a Tom Friedman art book…

    What is the aversion to beaches?

    What philosophy books would you recommend to a person wanting to delve in?

    Thinking a lot about Robert Irwin’s idea that the purpose of art would be to make people so aware that everything around them has the potential to BE art.. that it’s ultimate purpose would be not to have to exist anymore. Art has done its job of "enlightening us".. opening the eyes.. pillow of air.. that it can wipe its hands and walk into the desert.

    The Melosevic and Gingrich resemblance reminded me recently how I was struck by the cover of Sting’s last album and how much his face looks like late photos of Samuel Beckett.

    Thanks again and keep up the incredible work. Your new book is incredible.

    – David

  • David Willems



    I was just listening to that Prison episode on This American Life, and the selections of the callers into Ray Hill’s Prison Show I think are definitive proof (though maybe beyond tangibility) of the power of radio and the human voice. The voices of these people talking to their loved ones in prison is something that pure text could not convey. In the same way the isolated sounds of the "Conet Project" recordings (secret codes transmitted over HAM radio) have an eerie qaulity that mere transcription (numbers and letters) could never achieve.

    – David

  • Lucy Raven


    so nearly noiselss, yet so unanimous

    dear lawrence,

    yes, seeing is forgetting has been a very important and affirming book for me and i quite often think about passages in it. among many that recur with increasing relevance is irwin’s assertion that he did not know at many stages of his career what the next step or phase would be, and the progression of stages could never have been predetermined but were an organic byproduct of putting one foot in front of the other. the analogy to walking here, pacewise, seems akin to the winding sentences you discussed above that work on the page, but sometimes less smoothly when spoken aloud. sebald, rebecca solnit, benjamin . . . all come to mind as peripatetic enthusiasts whose prose is loose enough for meandering and the slippage into memory or daydream but still moves strongly toward what’s a step ahead. before they set out it would be impossible to predict the course they’ll travel. do you think there’s a pace adjustment necessary on the part of the audio producer/speaker when creating a sound piece? what about the pace of the listener? i wonder how differently we listen when sitting in a room, walking, in the car (or other such activities where you’re moving while sitting still . . .). it seems like a lot of the magic of radio happens when there’s room for the listener to move around a little, but where does (should ideally?) that movement occur?

    check! re: the silence distinctions. thanks for that. i’m ever amazed that those silences *in anticipation of* as the "unnatural" ones discussed above, can so immediately intrude upon your very innards and at once connect you to its source outside the body.

    i love the irwin passages you chose to respond with and the km of course. it’s shivering to read. as for mfff and pfff: i think these might need to be emblazoned on either side of my future cape.

    a couple sentences of agee’s notes from let us now praise famous men, came to mind in response:
    "…for now, that in the same instant it seems was so enchanted still, there is a nearly noiseless trembling of every leaf of the vegetation of all this part of the world, so delicate a turning in fright of sleep as that needle which records a minute disturbance on the far side of the thick planet, and so nearly noiseless, yet so unanimous, it is the indistinguishable and whispered sigh of all the genereations of the dead, the crumbling of a world-long wave so distant, that one yard more removed, could not be audible: yet that shuddering: that of a body hopeless standing, though the air is mild: does not break, but rather intensifies the waiting (this is happening not only here but in a stripe, a few miles wide, straight up through Canada, and down the Andes): the air darkens to black violet, and the stars refresh: and casually, and with rending triumph, the signal is delivered on the dush: the sure wild glittering yell of a rooster; light on a lifted sword."

    it’s worth nothing that in the preface to the book, agee writes, "the text was written with reading aloud in mind. that cannot be recommended; but it is suggested that the reader attend with his ear to what he takes off the page: for variations of tone, pace, shape, and dynamics are here particularly unavailable to the eye alone, and with their loss, a good deal of meaning escapes. It was intened also that the text be read continuously, as music is listened to or a film watched, with brief pauses only where they are self-evident."

    can’t wait to see your new book. thanks for this great forum, and to jay and transom too!


  • Lucy Raven



    why are sections of my msg showing up in italics? unintentional…

  • daniel ferri


    More specifically,

    Dear Lawrence,

    You wrote:
    "I am thinking especially of these days when editing on the Mac literally projects the oscilliscope shape of each individual word onto the screen, and you can move the jagged bundles about, snipping out the stammers by sight!"

    Could you take it from there please.

    I assume you had to transform those literary narrative elements when you adapted your book into your museum piece for the radio. Please take us along on that "Mac experience." How were your thought and sensory processes different as you transformed the passages which had first been written for the page? Is that something you thought about as you did it?

    Did you use different parts of your brain?

    What are the elements of auditory narrative you searched for? How were they different from the narrative elements used when you wrote page prose? Just whose bastard child might radio storytelling be? I’m curious about how the DNA mixes.

    I can’t write with any music going. It gets in the way of the notes the words are trying to make. I mouth them, type like Jerry Lee Lewis crouched at the piano, hum and scare the cat. The sounds are part of the semantic. I don’t know if a page writer, except maybe Dylan Thomas, would be shape shifter enough to understand why anyone would curious about how the whole thing could work in the absence of hearing it.

    Since you are a page writer who also does radio you might, like a stroke victim, be able to open a window for us to peek at how those disparate parts of the brain work; which parts must turn off or on in order to let us swim in either media.


  • Lawrence Weschler


    Give me a couple days here

    Gosh, all this excitement here at the very end. But I don’t have time to write tonight as I am packing for a West Coast book tour (Seattle, LA, Berkeley). I will do my best to get to a computer in the days ahead, though, because there are all sorts of wonderful things floating about here that I’d like to take up. Jay, how much time will you give me?
    PS I’ll be at Elliott Bay in Seattle on Monday, at the LA Public Library on the evening of the 23rd, at Cowell College of UCSC on the evening of the 24th, Sonoma State on the evening of the 27th, and in Wheeler Auditorium at Berkeley on the evening of the 29th, generally discoursing on serentiy and terror in Vermeer, and beyond–in case any of you would like to further pursue any of this in person. But I’ve got to get off now or I won’t get out of my house at all!

  • Lawrence Weschler


    Wrapping up, signing off

    So, a few last riffs in the nick of time, I guess, as we go off the air…(Jay tells me that tomorrow we will be history).

    But Daniel, starting (or, rather, continuing) with you. The actual mechanics of moving from the page to the tape (or the Mac). For starters, the obvious thing to note is that in each of the three pieces I offered up at the top, I was working in collaboration with a master audiotician (as opposed to, essentially, by myself). Ira Glass…Stephen Erickson…and (in the case of the Museum piece) Dave Isay. And in each case theirs were the master strokes of editing and pacing and experience that rendered the transformation possible. I wish we could include them in the discussion (and specifically addressing your questions).

    But with regard to the Museum piece in particular. To begin with, what was involved (and this was true with the other pieces as well, come to think of it) was first and foremost a labor of compression. Twenty-five minutes is a royal swath of radio time, but it is still a tight squeeze compared to the, say, 20,000 words I had to luxuriate in with the book version of Mr. Wilson. All sorts of details needed to be shaved away. And yet, there is at the same time a thickness to the auditory space that is not there in the thin stream of prose: one can (and in this context absolutely needs to) overlay three or four sound themes simultaneously—a doorbell ringing, my wrapping up one passage in the narration while at the same time a new voice is introducing a new one behind my narration, with perhaps some music conveying emotional continuity from elsewhere as well. So it’s tighter, but at the same time thicker, in terms of content.

    In terms of my narrative voice, you will have noted how in my writing I often tend to unfurl long, looping, billowing sentences: they read clean and often even quite fast, but there sure are a lot of words. In fact, it turns out, many of those words are there to modulate the tone and even, curiously, to speed things up (connective phrases that signpost the readerly experience and, thus clarifying things, race the reading along). It turns out that read out loud, oddly, these same signposts slow things up, clot up the experience. Furthermore, they are the sorts of things that can be replaced, precisely, with modulations in literal tone of voice, aural tones that words on a page can’t themselves replicate. (Note: the only “literal” tonal device we have in written prose is italics—and italics indicate a shift in voice to a different register, something you can actually do in reading a passage out loud.)

    I found myself having to record several different takes of the same narration—speeding it up, heightening the drama or dampening it, slowing things down, shifting the emphasis, louder, quieter, more deadpan, more abashed –all under Dave’s expert direction. And it occurred to me that this process was not all that dissimilar to the noodling I myself had been doing with any individual sentence back when I was originally writing the piece: only there all I could do was add or subtract or recraft phrases and bundles of words (usually ending up adding to the total number of words in my effort to affect the modulation I was trying to achieve). Similarly, we would take raw material from interviews with other people, or overheard conversations, and cut and mold them toward the desired effect (this being not all that different from what I myself had done with such material when I was crafting the original piece, except that here too we could play with sound effects on top of simply the meanings and associative connotations of individual words).

    I suppose the main thing to be said is that the key notion, both in writing and in audio work, but even more so in audio work, is the musicality of the narrative: its compositional integrity, its melodic freshness and surprise.


    Lucy: Walking, yes. Letting your ears go for a walk: but giving them the space to do so—space that has to be created, breathed out into the imaginative world.

    And Agee, yes. And take a look again at the prolog to his “Death in the Family,” that amazing evocation of Knoxville 1915. (Ira: have you ever tried to craft a radio version of that passage for TAL?) And then look at what Samuel Barber did with it! Talk about musicality.


    And finally David W:

    Recommendations—where even to start? Well, in no particular order, beginning with writing. Grace Paley’s “Conversation with my Father.” The poetry of Wislawa Szymborska. Any and every sweet word ever put to paper by Joseph Mitchell (especially “Joe Gould’s Secret”). The poetry of the late Czeslaw Milosz (“Campo dei Fiori,” “Preparation,” that Minneapolis Airport poem) or Auden (especially the late Auden, the stuff in “Thank You, Fog”) or Zbigniew Herbert (“Report from the Besieged City”) or Nazim Hikmet (“Things I Didn’t Know I Loved”). Speaking of things I’d forgotten how much I loved, Camus’s Lyrical Essays. Jamaica Kincaid’s harrowing “A Small Place.” The middle chapter in Susan Sheehan’s “A Missing Plane.” William Finnegan’s “Crossing the Line,” and that incredible two-part surfing piece (the last few issues of the NYer before Tina Brown’s arrival). Rachel Cohen’s “A Chance Meeting.” Rebecca Solnit’s biography of Eadweard Muybridge, “River of Shadows.” The single greatest novel of the past twenty years, hands down: Jose Saramago’s “Blindness”(talk about voice!).

    Philosophy? I recently had occasion to dip back into the Bibliographic essay at the end of my biography of Robert Irwin, “Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees,” and I have a whole program of suggestions there, mainly continental and shaded toward the phenomenological. To which I might add Hannah Arendt’s essay “On Thinking.” And Bruce Duffy’s novel of Wittgenstein, “The World As I Found It.” Great title.

    Art? As it happens I’ve recently been coming under the thrall of a series of artists’s films and videos. Ewa Sussman’s astonishing evocation of Velasquez in “89 Seconds at Alcazar.” Sharon Lockhart’s deceptively simple but ultimately completely mind-blowing film of Japanese peasants spreading yellow hay across a black-loamed field. Peter Hutton’s ravishing Icelandic landscapes in “Skagenfjorden.” Bill Morrison’s rhapsody in liquefying celluloid, “Decasia,” or any of his other recent films (especially “Light is Calling”). And David Wilson, over at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, has recently started making films again, mainly visible in the new fourteen-seat Borzoi Theater at the Museum itself, and they are entirely sublime.

    Writing about art? Again, where to start? But a good place to wind up is with Edward Snow, whose “Study of Vermeer” and “Inside Bruegel” are two of the most thrillingly evocative reads (and readings of) that I have come upon in years.

    And new radio stuff? Well, through PRX I’ve become addicted to “Pop Vultures.” I have a huge crush on Kate Sullivan, as does my daughter Sara (of Borrower fame). Which is to say that we are both going to be glued to in the weeks ahead as she takes over the guest hosting duties from me.

    Can’t think of a better reason to be ceding this felicitous podium. But not before thanking all of you for dropping by over the past several weeks and peppering me with such great queries and responses; and especially not before thanking the whole crew (Jay, Viki, Josh, et al) for putting up with my haltingly lurching attempts to master (or at least not be utterly overmastered by) this terrific new medium of theirs.

    Over and out!

  • Jay Allison


    Thanks to Ren

    I’ve loved this last minute dash over the finish line, arms outstretched.

    Ren, you’ve been a wonderful guest. We will get to work on your issue of the Transom Review right away because we think that many people will want to print it out for better pondering. Screen perusal is fine, but some of your postings here make a person want to hold them in hand for heavier consideration.

    thanks again…

  • Michael Joukowsky


    Marta Feuchtwanger

    My grandparents, Waitstill and Martha Sharp are mentioned in your oral history of Marta Feuchtwanger. My grandparents were representatives of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee who did rescue work in France in 1940. They worked to help rescue Lion and Martha Feuchtwanger, escape France to Portugal and eventually into the United States. My family is in the process of seeking Yad Vashem recognition for my grandparents. We are scheduled to meet with one of the judges this Thursday. I would very much appreciate an opportunity to have a short conversation with you regarding your recollection of your conversations with Marta. I am curious about anything you may recollect regarding her account of my grandparents assistance to she and her husband. She tells you in the interview that they were left in the hands of my grandfather by Varian Fry who needed to return to the US to secure more funding. To be honest, we are compiling evidence that it was my grandparents and not Varian Fry who has been credited with it that rescued the Feuchtwangers. We have a copy of the pertinent parts of the transcript of your interview, but it would also be helpful to have something in writing from a living person that verifies the story as told by Marta. Your input in this process could be critical to its success.

    Would you be willing to help us by putting something in writing? Please email me for my contact information. Thank you.

  • abdul wahab



    i need a prospectus. accounting and finance

  • Liz Galloway



    Lawrence, did you by any chance spend some childhood years on a street called Gilmore in Van Nuys, CA ?


    Liz Galloway

  • Liz Galloway



    Lawrence, you lived on Gilmore Van Nuys and went to Birmingham, did you not? I’ve always suspected it was the same Lawrence Weschler! I lived down the street from you until 1957, our mothers were friends. I know this is a serious website, but I couldn’t resist asking.

  • Vasile Toch


    Toch family

    Dear Lawrence

    My name is Vasile Toch, I am a sculptor and architect living in Edinburgh, Scotland. My family originated in Transylvania and I have reasons to believe that we are related.
    I had no other contact details for you so I used this site.

  • Vasile Toch


    Toch Family

    Dear Lawrence

    My name is Vasile Toch, I am a sculptor and architect living in Edinburgh, Scotland. My family originated in Transylvania and I have reasons to believe that we are related.
    I had no other contact details for you so I used this site.

  • Vasile Toch


    The Fiction of Nonfiction

    I have read with interest your Manifesto.
    Truth may be considered as being a rather transitory matter in the context of "the depth of perception – time span" relationship but by passing the nonfiction through a poetic filter, fiction helps the truth in lingering with us for a little longer.

    Vasile Toch, Edinburgh, Scotland

  • Denes Ilona


    looking for mr weschler

    Mr Lawrence Weschler wrote one of my favourite books: and that is no small accomplishment. I want to translate him into Romanian, how do I get in touch with him?
    Ilona Denes

  • Denes Ilona



    Hm… you mean this is a way to start a dialugue directly with Mr Lawrence Weschler? I am no computer wizard… unfortunately.

  • David Hapgood


    lecture series

    For NYU, I run a modest series on ‘Critical Issues in Global Affairs’. Meets always on Sundays 11-1. Pay is $200 plus lunch. Now signing up winter 08 series, which runs six Sundays from Feb. 3. Topic ‘Torture in LA’ is my first choice, but your current interest is always possible. If at all interested, let’s talk.
    David Hapgood

  • bradjohns



    its great, go look at if if you havent already

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