the back of the bus,
inside the bathroom,
this very small illegal passenger,
on its way to Boston.
— “The Fly,” Lydia Davis
A classic short story — yes, short story — from the writer whom the Los Angeles Times Book Review has called “one of the quiet giants in the world of American fiction.” In Essays One, the reader is treated to a compilation of Davis’s commentaries, explorations, and essays that span the past 40 years. You’ll learn her influences (Rae Armantrout! Edward Dahlberg! Gerard Manley Hopkins! to name a few), walk through her process of revision via before, during and after versions of a story, and learn exactly why she does not consider the above piece to be a poem.
Pune Dracker [PD]: In the first section of the book — essays devoted to the practice of writing — we learn about your writing process when you started out and were working in the traditional short story form. It sounded like labor, and pretty unenjoyable and time-consuming. You then share how that changed as your work transformed into the flash fiction you are known for. What, if anything, has remained in your process or approach?
Lydia Davis [LD]: What has remained is that I go over a piece again and again until I don’t see anything else that should be changed or that I can change. And I put it aside if it doesn’t seem finished and I can’t figure out how to finish it. This happens even with a piece that is just a line or two long…
PD: For you, revision is equally, if not more, important, than the actual writing itself. What has your experience been with editors?
LD: Most editors don’t do much editing of my fiction. But I’ve had at least one terrific editor of an essay who managed to tighten it up and reorganize it a little here and there without losing any of its character or individuality. One magazine which I won’t identify loves to over-edit — to such an extent that the piece does change character. I’ve had to fight some little battles over that. I appreciate a good editor.
PD: When we study your work in class, the discussion always comes up — what is this? Is it a poem? You are very clear you consider many of your pieces to be fiction — and I agree that “The Fly” is a prose piece. Please share how you define a poem.
LD: It is (usually) shorter than a piece of fiction. Partly for that reason, there is more emphasis on the language per se rather than a “message” for which the language is the vehicle. Rhythm and sound are more prominent, more noticeable. In the best poems, there is no other way to say what is being said: the form and the content are completely melded.
PD: You regularly revise your journal entries as an exercise, with no intent for them to be seen. When you are writing something to be read by others, do you have a specific or general reader in mind? How can we all be more active readers?
LD: I don’t have a reader in mind, usually. I’m revising in order for the idea behind the piece of writing to be as perfectly fulfilled as possible. I read it over and over as though I hadn’t written it, to see if it works the way I want it to. As for active readers… Well, I do think sometimes we want to be very relaxed readers, and just enjoy ourselves. But for other kinds of reading, more demanding reading, we need to be in the right mood, and that is a patient mood or frame of mind. Right now I’m reading James Agee’s A Death in the Family. In this book, you are carried along by the plot to some extent, but it is also so finely written that you want to be alert to what Agee is specifically doing in the writing. I need to be in the right frame of mind to be that alert.
PD: Everyone reading this needs to study “30 Recommendations for Good Writing Habits.” In the meantime, can you share your top two “desert island” tips we can start with today?
LD: Hmmm. Maybe they would be these: Pay attention to the language itself, don’t use it carelessly or thoughtlessly, study words, read dictionaries, know etymologies. And secondly, read the best writers from all centuries and pay attention to the way they write; read more older literature than current literature.
PD: You also recommend that writers should go down to the deep level of knowing whether the root of each word we use is Latinate or Germanic. What are some words you use a lot? What words do you avoid?
LD: Of course, I don’t consider that to be going down to such a deep level, knowing the roots of the words — or rather, I think it’s part of our work as writers to know our words just as well as a painter should know how to mix paints and combine colors on the color wheel… Technique! But to answer your question… The words I use most are of course the most common words. As for words I avoid, I suppose in theory every word, even those I dislike, might have its uses. But once I was asked to pick a word I particularly disliked and I chose “jejune,” which I have never liked, because of its sound and because I keep forgetting what it means. Then I discovered that this same word was chosen (when asked by the same interviewer) by Gore Vidal as a word he especially liked. That should tell me something.
PD: You have written many stories inspired by emails — including rearranging them and incorporating single lines from them. What’s the juiciest subject line in your inbox today?
LD: I’ll take your question literally, since the subject line was in my inbox today, as it happened. It’s from a garden center on the West Coast from whom I’ve ordered plants: “Here’s the List of the Best berries to Fight the Flu.” (I’ll probably actually order from them one plant I haven’t known before: Sea Buckthorn.)
PD: What’s your favorite error of grammar/syntax?
LD: I don’t actually have a favorite error. Errors bother me and make me quite unhappy when I see them in otherwise good writers. I’m not saying we should all write correctly if we don’t want to. But we should know the difference. And if there are things we simply don’t know (which is true of all writers), then that’s where those good editors come in!
One editor of mine, early on, was fixated on the placement of “only,” which should come directly before what it is modifying, not somewhere earlier in the sentence. I simply hadn’t thought about it before. Now I’m always conscious of it. Wrong: “We’re only leaving early because you wanted to.” Right: “We’re leaving early only because you wanted to.” Of course, even this rule can be broken as you like — but you should be aware of it. Now I take pleasure in the exactness of the placement.
PD: In the collection, you share some of the (inspiringly wacky!) assignments you gave your classes over the years. What have you learned from your students?
LD: Well, I’m not teaching anymore, but I always learned from them. Either I delighted in some of their writing, which seemed so fresh and smart and startling. Or they actually thought of things I hadn’t thought of, in the subject under discussion — for instance, everything you could guess about a certain character from just a brief description.
PD: Could you send the readers of this interview off with a short prompt? Thank you!
LD: I’m going to steal one from somewhere else, I forget where: write about your childhood and a color, e.g. pink, a pink sweater you loathed, etc. etc. Include all five senses.
Lydia Davis is an American short story writer, novelist, and essayist, well-known for her literary works of extreme brevity. She has also produced several new translations of French literary classics, including Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. She is a professor emerita at SUNY Albany.
Pune Drackeris an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at The New School.
This interview was first published on March 9, 2020, at the Creative Writing at The New School blog.