“Absorb Six Authors A Year”

This article was written for my other site, which features a blog dedicated solely to my pursuits in writing. It’s part of a series I’m doing of culled-together writing advices and how I’m trying to use those advices to write my first novel. This was a more personal one, so I thought I’d post it on this blog too.

Advice # 5. Fitzgerald’s [supposed] advice to his daughter Scottie —— “absorb six authors a year”

I’ve been back in America for over a month now. I have another few weeks before I leave again. I’ve found America to be a bit of a pause button on my novel; for reasons that are partially due to my own discipline and dedication, and partially the facts of my life here.

I know a lot more people in America than Asia. I have more responsibilities here, many of which are delightfully encumbered again. Some, though, are distractions that I’m allowing myself, while I figure out the process and framework for tackling the next phase of my project: editing the 400 or so pages I’ve written.

In the meantime, though, I’ve been observing the ceremony that many writers have said one must do while writing. I’ve been reading. I’ve been reading a lot. Every day, for hours. It’s been glorious—a real dream for me. I’ve always wanted to read more. Now that I am reading more, I wished I was reading more. It won’t stop, but I’m at least getting my fix.

So I think back to my advice set here and found one that stuck with me when I read it a while back and still does. And that’s from a note, quoted in the letters book (though I can’t confirm that anywhere online) that F. Scott Fitzergald wrote to his daughter, Scottie. His advice was to “absorb six authors a year”—each year.

I’ve read 31 books this year (24 of those since I quit my job in June), but here are the six authors I’ve been trying to “absorb” as Fitzgerald put it.

1. John McPhee A good chunk of my reading this year as been reading about writing and when you do that enough, several names keep surfacing. McPhee is one of them. And though his name comes up for nonfiction instead of fiction, it comes up enough for the former that it seemed worth diving into him. Between Draft No. 4 and his essays online, I’m hooked. He clearly has a genius for storytelling and his notes on structure have guided me both in my novel and in thinking about this blog.

2. Donna Tartt In April, facing a long layover in London and a longer flight to Cape Town, I went to the airport bookstore and picked up The Secret History. I had no idea what it was, or why I picked that book. I read the cover. Murder? Linguistic majors? Pretentious educated elites? I thought I was in for something like Cruel Intentions with a few more Dickinson sonnets, but what I found was a complete revelation. The book knocked me on my ass. I read all 700 pages in three days in Cape Town. And then I read her other two books and marveled at them, and then marveled at the fact that she took about a decade to make each book. I’ve absorbed no one this year like Tartt (since I’ve read everything she’s put out), and I brought my Secret History copy with me all around Asia just to have on hand, while marking it up in the marginalia like a serial killer, trying to steal as much inspiration as I can get from her structure, characters, and wit.

3. George Saunders I read Saunders a few times before this year. A short story here and there, the collection of shorts in Civilwarland. New Yorker pieces. This piece he did about the writing process. But I wasn’t absorbing him until this year when I picked up Lincoln In The Bardo and Tenth of December and starting prowling the internet for more. Why Saunders? Well he’s a master of story. Of character, too. He’s tremendous at using dialogue and details to create these characters, whether in spots of the Lincoln novel (which really pushes its own category as a novel). He’s so good at this that it makes me gush with inferiority, but in absorbing I am trying to be a student, not a critic.

4. Wallace Stegner Stegner’s a later-year addition to this list and I’ve only (so far) absorbed the first two-thirds of Angle of Repose but his influence is real. Nothing this year has made me rethink my sentences, each and every one of them, like reading Stegner. Each sentence of his seems to breath, seems inevitably itself, and creates the aura of his story. After not loving the reading of my first draft, I’m determined to mine through my own sentences with this lens and work to make each one sing. Stegner leads the way.

5. Nicanor Parra The “anti-poet” of Chile, I’ve both discovered Parra’s poetry this year and fell quite deep for it. Because he freed himself of what he saw as the shackles of poetry itself, his work can be wild, imaginative, and untamed. I dig it. Lots of other poets have been read this year (Merwin, Gilbert, Rich, Dickinson, Li Young Li, have all gotten their various stage calls) but Parra has been most the most new, the most shocking, and the most delightfully returned back to.

6. Bob Dylan Oh yes, the rock star makes the list. The only person on this list that could crank out the metallic chords to ‘Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues’, Dylans’ also the only person on the list to have won the Nobel Prize in Literature (go figure!). Dylan makes the list for being the soundtrack to many of my writing sessions, but also for being a wordsmith himself. And with the release of this this year, I’ve gotten an amazing insight to his creative process that I’ve absorbed and used as a motivator for me to tinker long and determinedly with my own art.

Elif Shafak’s Essay ‘Why The Novel Matters In The Age of Anger’

Elif Shafak with a novel essay

I believe kids these days would put it like this: this article is giving me life rn.

It certainly jarred some life in and out of me. Wow. Just wow.

I read it without knowing who the author was (I’ll get to that) and was immediately taken with the essay’s words. It, as the title suggests, deals with writing and the purpose of writers and their work, but it’s as much also about life at this time in history. Life in this world—not in a small way, in a big, big way. And whether you think we’re in the ‘age of anger’ or not, it has some undeniable proclamations. Take this:

We have plenty of “information” – and if we don’t we can always google it. Then there is “knowledge”, which, however imperfect, requires depth and focus and slowing the flow of time. “Wisdom” is harder won – I would argue that it embodies not only knowledge but also empathy and emotional intelligence….Wisdom is difficult to achieve because it requires cognitive flexibility.

Where the writer comes in here is a quasi-antidote, quasi-burdensome state. Shafak goes on about the purpose of a writer, but also the responsibility. And not just the writer, to readers who stand behind these writers and read despite the times.

But let’s get back to the writer. Because she is unbelievably accomplished. I felt silly gushing over her words, reading it the first time like it was some amateur’s essay.

Here’s her wiki page:

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Again, wow.

So, what does she have to say about the novel in the age of anger. A lot. And you should read the full essay. I’ll post just a few favorite parts of it:

Here is where the novelist must speak up. For writers, there is no “us” and there is no “them”. There are only human beings with stories and silences. The job of a writer is to rehumanise those who have been dehumanised.

The novel matters because, like an alchemist, it turns empathy into resistance. It brings the periphery to the centre, it gives a voice to the voiceless, it makes the invisible visible……The novel matters because it punches little holes in the wall of indifference that surrounds us. Novels have to swim against the tide. And this was never more clear than it is today.

Novelists need to speak up about the dangers of losing our core values: pluralism, freedom of speech, minority rights, separation of powers, democracy. Benjamin believed storytelling had to turn information into wisdom. Today a bigger challenge awaits writers: how to turn misinformation into wisdom.

What does all this mean?

Well it’s quite personal for me as I’ve set out to write my first novel. And I think about WHY I’m writing the story I’m writing and what I’m adding to a conversation in this age. I have these answers (I’ve explored some on the blog for that novel here)—but there’s a bit of an outrage to Shafak’s essay that resonated with me that has nothing to do with my novel. Something that deals with the revolutionary-ness of our time. My novel attempts to humanize some who have been de-humanized, but the characters (mostly white, mostly middle-class or above) are not the ones being most de-humanized in today’s world. Not even close.

So there’s still that resonating in me that my work isn’t solving. So I think about where else to explore these thoughts. My other places of recording thoughts and broadcasting.

And here’s one thing I’ll note in relation to all of this: I haven’t posted anything political in nearly two years.

By political I don’t necessarily mean our political system, but I’m using it here as an descriptor in which an article provides an opinion and then uses itself as a method of convincing a reader that that opinion is correct.

Why the wait? Why nothing after two years? Well, I’ve been trying to do more listening. More questions, less talking. I’ve been writing, just not posting. Not finishing with answers, but prompting questions with new questions.

I might be ready to share some of that but that remains to be seen. The first priority is listening to the wonder that Elif Shafak espoused, and working on my novel.

As she put aptly in her essay:

A writer’s job is not to try to provide the answers. It is neither to preach nor to teach; just the opposite. A writer must be a student of life, and not the best student either, since we must never graduate from this school, but keep asking the most simple, the most fundamental and the most difficult questions. In the end, we leave the answers to the readers.

So perhaps there will be more from here. Perhaps not. Either way, I’m proud to be working on my writing in this time and age. It is my skill and my best way to explore questions as I work on being my own “student of life”.

The Geography of You, Reader


wise blood o'connor book coverUnsurprisingly, I think a lot about destinations. A lot about geography. This comes naturally to a traveler; and for a long time I identified as a traveler. In even the slightest of caged-in moments, I still do.

Some of this came swelling up my stomach recently as I read W.S. Merwin’s lines: ““we travel far and fast/and as we pass through we forget/where we have been”

These lines pained me in a small way; thinking that the destinations of the past might not have the hold they once did. That travel is tied to a being-present(ness) and it becomes a series of moments that center around the current.

Anyway, it got me thinking about destinations, like I said.

And all of this got me thinking about another time, one from earlier this year. It was in a moment where I had a fleeting obsession with my own geography. Of my very particular geography. And it happened in Bali, in March.

It happened in Bali because while in Bali, amid doing the things one normally does in paradise, I read Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. Why I made this decision, I don’t know, but since I didn’t find any bookstores flying from Manila into Bali (late at night) this book was what I was going to read at my villa—or on the beach—for the next 4 days. And that I did.

While reading, a gulf occurred to me. A rather meaningful one too, or at least I thought so at the time. Wise Blood is the story of Hazel Motes, a vet returning home to the South, sometime in the early part of last century.

Through the story, he takes his disenfranchisement with certain cores of Catholicism to bat—by way of oratory and persuasion on the less intelligent. As it unwinds, it drives him to murder. In between all of that is a slew of creepy characters, copycats, and more Biblical allusions than one could mark properly in marginalia.

For me, it’s not O’Connor’s best, but O’Connor’s best is some of the best there is. But this isn’t a book review. So here’s why all of this matters.

Wise Blood is dark, ominous, and foreboding. There’s not a happy step in it. And I read this in perfect 89º weather, with a pool, the ocean, fresh fruit, yoga, beautiful people, you name it. Paradise.

Even more, Bali isn’t just all aesthetics. It itself has religious roots, though far from the ones Hazel clobbers with his sloppy proclamations. It is the Hindu foothold of Southeast Asia; a place whose beauty is owed to the various gods, whose rice paddies are in pious symmetry. The landscape a sort of prayer, or ode, of its own.

This was odd enough to be remarkable (at least to me, which is why I’m writing this at all). Why so? Because it left me with a central question: the criteria for any good literary essay. And the question is this: what does the reader’s geography mean to a story?

So let’s start here: I don’t have the answer. And I don’t expect to find one in the next few hundred words, either. But let’s see where we get.

Undeniably, we’re colored by our landscape. Our moods, our smiles, our tone are all affected by the seasons and the views we’re in at any moment. Wallpaper matters, you know. And I’m confident the same can be said for any reader. Even the best reader, so absorbed and engrossed in some text, is textured by setting. Think of any time your room is too warm, too cold, or too loud. These change you as a reader.

So we know there’s an effect. The question is on the magnitude of the shading.

And so I’m looking for the longball here. I’m thinking about the effect of opposites; reading something totally antithetical to surrounding. And it’s not the actually effects of my surrounding worth examining here, it’s the geography of place. I can’t change the settings on Bali like I could on my air conditioning.

First, my thoughts are on the escapability of your two worlds. A book is easily escaped, at least tangibly, simply by closing it. You have, then, no access to anything further, and all that you could bring up are (a) already read pages, based on your memory, or (b) a memory of your feelings while reading the preceding pages.

Your limited in your geography in a similar fashion. You see what your eyes see. You feel what your heart feels; warmed by sunlight, calmed by the tide, or disturbed by something jarring. You can know more by hearing about a place, but cannot go beyond knowledge—into experience—until your senses grab hold of your surrounding.

So we have equalization there—in one’s exploration of each of these facets.

In the comparison of physical geography and literary geography, one of these is easily defeated, however. The world of a book ends in totality when that book is closed; even really if you’ve kept it in your mind. It exists only in the worlds on the page—while the real world one occupies is created based on the five (or more, definitely more) senses. One would need to lock oneself in a room with no windows and walls of concrete to escape ones real geographical surroundings—and even if one did, that stale room would then become one’s geography. You cannot escape place. You can likely escape words (can you language?), and certainly someone else’s.

One last point is about contributors. We can say that, with varying degrees of effect, an author is affected by her geography. More suitable critics than I can pick where those effects take part in one’s story. But the author does not know the readers’ geographies; and cannot predict. This puts one at a disadvantage if we can assume, and I think we can, that a reader’s geography plays some part in the experiential part of being an audience.

The author can provide instructions on reading, which may mitigate this mystery. We see this in music sometimes (the Stones’ Let It Bleed came with the very specific instructions of “Play this LOUD”, for example) but it’s not often, it holds no guarantee of instruction following. AND it might impose a limitation in story that many authors are not interested in.

Going back to Wise Blood, I cannot imagine O’Connor penning these words on a beach, and likely can’t imagine her imagining her reader reading her words on one. We know, from its history, that part of it was written in Iowa, part in New York, and others in other inland places of high Americana. No Bali listed on that part—nothing foreign, no Indian Ocean tide. The terrains seem light years apart.

I think this is where the geography question gets most interesting. It’s intriguing to me to think about reading southern catholic gothic (some call this the “grotesque” in O’Connor’s works) in one of Earth’s most beautiful places. It’s even more bewildering to think of O’Connor trying to hold the idea of her book being read one day in such a diametrically opposed setting. That for me holds the most substance.

For now, I think that’s where I can take this. I’d add in an urge to any reader to reflect on their environment. Where are you reading this now? How is that changing your reading of even this? On the other side, authors must somehow come to grips with the mystery of what any future readers setting will (not might) be; and then somehow sacrifice some truth of their story to the whims of geography.Book-reader

Waxing [Literarily]: Travels with Charley {John Steinbeck}

There’s been much debate on the reality of what happened with John Steinbeck in 1960. His book, Travels with Charley in Search of America, details some (of his/not his) journeys through that year and came out shortly before the revered author won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

The journeys published involves a trip around the country in a large van, with a dog that takes on a character of his own. The subsequent investigations have painted this as untrue. Journalists stake claim of its impossibility. The Steinbeck camp supposedly hasn’t exactly back it up as true, but won’t do anything to wound the reputation of one of American’s native scribes.

The question is: does it matter? For journalists and literary historians, it does. For readers, it does not. Unless you decide to take Steinbeck’s words as gospel for the land — a point he himself refutes, resists, and rustles with during the entirety of the book. For the reader that pays attention, this becomes evident and the “truth” no longer matters. It, like all of its ilk before it, is a story.

Of course, it’s a certain type of story — it’s a travel story. And with many of the travel stories of our days, it reads as more of a collection of essays comprising a story, than a story from someone like Steinbeck’s production. By the end, it’s not the story (man rides around the nation) that matters, than the conclusions it reaches or questions it proposes.

The story’s plot is simple. Steinbeck puts himself in a van and journeys America — a country he so often is billed as representing. But for all of his truth in fiction, so he claims, what is the real truth that lay undiscovered? Trips through the Northeast, the Great Plains, Montana (he loves Montana), and down the West Coast are meant to bring that. Each larger area gets a chapter — each chapter filled with a character or three meant to represent that area in some, sometimes totally stereotypical sometimes atypical, way.

The story is nice, if not overdone. The real strengths of Travels is in its witticisms — which is to be expected from Steinbeck. At varying times, Steinbeck, elder in age and wise in experience, leaves bits of wonder along his journey, found or already known. These are the jewels of the book, and perhaps the jewels of journeying at large. It’s a short collection of gains that make up a wholly intangible growth.

Some examples he leaves you with:

We value virtue but we do not discuss is.

It’s bad to have one’s myth shaken up like that

It seemed to give the journey a design, and everything in the world must have a design or the human mind rejects it. But in addition it must have purpose or the human conscience shies away from it.

You get the picture. Steinbeck drops these in his book like you’d find truck stops punctuating the highway on the long stretches in the middle of the country. They’re his resting thoughts, the truths that stay in the wind somewhere even as your van passes by.

For a travel book, particularly one of such a long drive, Travels is short. It reads quickly and can feel like a shifting dream (assuming that others dream of spending time with Mr. Steinbeck like this author). It’s not the kind of deep, penetrating book that he has elsewhere in his oeuvre, but it’s a fun romp that filled the author with substance in his elder years. And it wasn’t the substance of fictional characters in fictional places. Or perhaps it was. And perhaps it never mattered. Substance is not reserved for the living and it’s not reserved for one fixed place. If you go searching for it, you’re bound to find it, like America, it just comes in bits and pieces, littered in  small towns and big cities.

Waxing [Literarily]: The Hotel New Hampshire {John Irving}

I’m going to start with a metaphor. We’ll have to see how long I can carry it for.

Reading John Irving is like having your mom do your laundry for you.

Okay, how far can we take this.

For one, Irving, and though I’ve read a couple of his pieces, I’m going to stick with The Hotel New Hampshire here.

So maybe it should be: Reading The Hotel New Hampshire is like having your mom do your laundry for you.

It’s neat & folded — Irving is a master storyteller. He’s almost too good at the literary conventions of bringing something up (a metaphor, a mantra, a detail) and having it reappear later in a seemingly innocuous way. He plans. He folds. Things are not arbitrarily thrown around. There is not a sock in the middle of a few t-shirts.

In THNH, for instance, we get the Berry family, all seven of them, each with their quips, but those fold so neatly into each other. The whole family knows the same sayings — “keep passing the open window” — and everyone seems to have their perfectly fitting take on each situation. The nuances almost come to be normalized and by the end, each person has found their fitting end. Irving makes sure of it.

it starts messy — the character’s nuances may come to be predictable at times, but it doesn’t start all easy like that. The book dives into strange forms of homosexuality, rape, incest, blindness, prostitution and, although barely, anarchy. Of course, that’s on top of the usual literary staples — death, love, loss of innocence. As with all good laundry, this batch is pretty wild before it hits the machine. Full of spunk, dirt, sweat, and well, any other substance that make its way into a hamper. In TNHN, we’re guided a narrator in love with his sister, obsessed with weightlifting and curiously incurious about exploring sexuality because of point one there. He’s surrounded by writers, suicides, blindness, bears and, well, somehow makes sense of it. See below

it gets the best treatment — this ain’t your corner laundromat. This is mom’s house. She’s got all the good stuff. Good detergent. Fabric softener. Color refreshers, stain removers, a good lint catcher. Everything. Those clothes have never seen such good days.  Which is kind of how Irving gives us, John, our narrator. He may be surrounded by a story of stable lunacy, but it all works out and along the way Irving gives you that great treatment. Literature, languages, advice from disappearing shamans, some one-liners to remember, more than a few moments that completely break your heart, and enough hints of the future for you to contextualize the book’s present. It’s a nutty family in the hands of a most capable author.

it’s warm, but just for a minute — see note about the moments that break your heart. Early character deaths. Favorite character deaths. Blindness. Sadness. It’s a warm story of a family staying together, loving each other, helping each other go through the worst of the worst, but it fades. Like your favorite blue shirt.

Okay, starting to lose the metaphor.

I’ll leave it there. The Hotel New Hampshire had two reviews I had before I picked the book up. One called it a farshot and nothing was believable. The other said that if you suspended belief you should suspend your heart too, since its twists and turns were sure to break it.

Both were true.

Is it Irving’s best? No. Garp was better and I still haven’t read much more. But this is good. And it’s lengthy and break-up-able as you read and yes it will break your heart. But you’ll come back to it after it does. After all, mom isn’t going to always do laundry. Take the chance while you can get it.

Waxing [Literarily]: William Boyd’s ‘Waiting for Sunrise’

I was looking for books that took place in Vienna shortly after the turn of the 20th century. I had read the LA Times book review of Franzen’s Kraus Project and was particularly interested in his assertion that “Our situation looks quite a bit like Vienna’s in 1910, except that newspaper technology (telephone, telegraph, the high-speed printing press) has been replaced by digital technology and Viennese charm by American coolness.”

I hadn’t thought that another time in history might echo what we’re experiencing now. I wanted to dive in. And I wanted to start with fiction.

Some searching led me to William Boyd’s 2012 novel Waiting for Sunrise which obviously wasn’t the best for my project (only the book’s first third takes place in Vienna) but it seemed an easy read and I had never read a book by Boyd.

I dug in. I rather enjoyed his bit taking place in Vienna. It did give some of the cultural overview that I was looking for — what with the charm that Franzen mentioned and psychotherapy being all the rage. There’s one cheap bit where the main character, Lysander, runs into Dr. Freud, but we’ll excuse that.

The Vienna part paced nicely. It introduced a love interest, some shady characters and a psychotherapist, all tying Lysander to Vienna while he had a woman waiting for him back in London (his home). Of course, too, he was there to solve a problem of, well, not being able to get it up — so we have some personal strife to add to the drama.

And drama we get as the Vienna part comes to an end. Lysander is accused of rape of his new Viennese mistress and love interested and he must flee thanks in part of the shady character he met earlier. Alright, alright, a little more a thriller than I bargained for — but I should have expected that with Boyd.

The rest of the book dives into WWI London (and Geneva for a bit) and some politics surrounding that. There’s a spy plot, more drama added as the Viennese love interest finds herself in London and a whole lot of belief that needs to be suspended as the plot unravels.

Fine. It had been a while since such an easy read (in terms of the depth of the text) found its way into my  hands and I think all in all I rather enjoyed it. Boyd has some lines, certainly has the ability to tell a story and resolve it as quickly as it needs to be (it’s only a few hundred pages) and still give some reasons to empathize with Lysander.

Overall prognosis: Ehhh, why not? Wouldn’t suggest it, but wouldn’t tell you to put it away later. 

David Sedaris’ heartbreaking reflections on his sister’s suicide

From The New Yorker (Oct. 28, 2013)


In late May of this year, a few weeks shy of her fiftieth birthday, my youngest sister, Tiffany, committed suicide. She was living in a room in a beat-up house on the hard side of Somerville, Massachusetts, and had been dead, the coroner guessed, for at least five days before her door was battered down. I was given the news over a white courtesy phone while at the Dallas airport. Then, because my plane to Baton Rouge was boarding and I wasn’t sure what else to do, I got on it. The following morning, I boarded another plane, this one to Atlanta, and the day after that I flew to Nashville, thinking all the while about my ever-shrinking family. A person expects his parents to die. But a sibling? I felt I’d lost the identity I’d enjoyed since 1968, when my younger brother was born.

“Six kids!” people would say. “How do your poor folks manage?”

There were a lot of big families in the neighborhood I grew up in. Every other house was a fiefdom, so I never gave it much thought until I became an adult, and my friends started having children. One or two seemed reasonable, but anything beyond that struck me as outrageous. A couple Hugh and I knew in Normandy would occasionally come to dinner with their wrecking crew of three, and when they’d leave, several hours later, every last part of me would feel violated.

Take those kids, double them, and subtract the cable TV: that’s what my parents had to deal with. Now, though, there weren’t six, only five. “And you can’t really say, ‘There used to be six,’ ” I told my sister Lisa. “It just makes people uncomfortable.”

I recalled a father and son I’d met in California a few years back. “So are there other children?” I asked.

“There are,” the man said. “Three who are living and a daughter, Chloe, who died before she was born, eighteen years ago.”

That’s not fair, I remember thinking. Because, I mean, what’s a person supposed to do with that?

Compared with most forty-nine-year-olds, or even most forty-nine-month-olds, Tiffany didn’t have much. She did leave a will, though. In it, she decreed that we, her family, could not have her body or attend her memorial service.

“So put that in your pipe and smoke it,” our mother would have said.

A few days after getting the news, my sister Amy drove to Somerville with a friend and collected two boxes of things from Tiffany’s room: family photographs, many of which had been ripped into pieces, comment cards from a neighborhood grocery store, notebooks, receipts. The bed, a mattress on the floor, had been taken away and a large industrial fan had been set up. Amy snapped some pictures while she was there, and, individually and in groups, those of us left studied them for clues: a paper plate on a dresser that had several drawers missing, a phone number written on a wall, a collection of mop handles, each one a different color, arranged like cattails in a barrel painted green.

Six months before our sister killed herself, I made plans for us all to gather at a beach house on Emerald Isle, off the coast of North Carolina. My family used to vacation there every summer, but after my mother died we stopped going, not because we lost interest but because it was she who always made the arrangements and, more important, paid for it. The place I found with the help of my sister-in-law, Kathy, had six bedrooms and a small swimming pool. Our weeklong rental period began on Saturday, June 8th, and we arrived to find a delivery woman standing in the driveway with seven pounds of seafood, a sympathy gift sent by friends. “They’s slaw in there, too,” she said, handing over the bags.

In the past, when my family rented a cottage my sisters and I would crowd the door like puppies around a food dish. Our father would unlock it, and we’d tear through the house claiming rooms. I always picked the biggest one facing the ocean, and, just as I’d start to unpack, my parents would enter and tell me that this was theirs. “I mean, just who the hell do you think you are?” my father would ask. He and my mother would move in, and I would get booted to what was called “the maid’s room.” It was always on the ground level, a kind of dank shed next to where the car was parked. There was never an interior stairway leading to the upper floor. Instead, I had to take the outside steps and, more often than not, knock on the locked front door, like a beggar hoping to be invited in.

“What do you want?” my sisters would ask.

“I want to come inside.”

“That’s funny,” Lisa, the eldest, would say to the others, who were gathered like disciples around her. “Did you hear something, a little whining sound? What is it that makes a noise like that? A hermit crab? A little sea slug?” Normally, there was a social divide between the three eldest and the three youngest children in my family. Lisa, Gretchen, and I treated the others like servants and did very well for ourselves. At the beach, though, all bets were off, and it was just upstairs against downstairs, meaning everyone against me.

This time, because I was paying, I got to choose the best room. Amy moved in next door, and my brother, Paul, his wife, and their ten-year-old daughter, Maddy, took the spot next to her. That was it for oceanfront. The others arrived later and had to take the leftovers. Lisa’s room faced the street, as did my father’s. Gretchen’s faced the street and was intended for someone who was paralyzed. Hanging from the ceiling were electric pulleys designed to lift a harnessed body into and out of bed.

Unlike the cottages of our youth, this one did not have a maid’s room. It was too new and fancy for that, as were the homes that surrounded it. Traditionally, all the island houses were on stilts, but more and more often now the ground floors are filled in. They all have beachy names and are painted beachy colors, but most of those built after Hurricane Fran hit the coast, in 1996, are three stories tall and look almost suburban. This place was vast and airy. The kitchen table sat twelve, and there was not one but two dishwashers. All the pictures were ocean-related: seascapes and lighthouses, all with the airborne “V”s that are shorthand for seagull. A sampler on the living-room wall read, “Old Shellers Never Die, They Simply Conch Out.” On the round clock beside it, the numbers lay in an indecipherable heap, as if they’d come unglued. Just above them were printed the words “Who cares?”

This was what we found ourselves saying whenever anyone asked the time.

“Who cares?”

The day before we arrived at the beach, Tiffany’s obituary ran in the RaleighNews & Observer. It was submitted by Gretchen, who stated that our sister had passed away peacefully at her home. This made it sound as if she were very old, and had a house. But what else could you do? People were leaving responses on the paper’s Web site, and one fellow wrote that Tiffany used to come into the video store where he worked in Somerville. When his glasses broke, she offered him a pair she had found while foraging for art supplies in somebody’s trash can. He said that she also gave him a Playboy magazine from the nineteen-sixties that included a photo spread titled “The Ass Menagerie.”

This was fascinating, as we didn’t really know our sister very well. Each of us had pulled away from the family at some point in our lives—we’d had to in order to forge our own identities, to go from being a Sedaris to being our own specific Sedaris. Tiffany, though, stayed away. She might promise to come home for Christmas, but at the last minute there’d always be some excuse: she missed her plane, she had to work. The same would happen with our summer vacations. “The rest of us managed to make it,” I’d say, aware of how old and guilt-trippy I sounded.

All of us would be disappointed, though for different reasons. Even if you weren’t getting along with Tiffany at the time, you couldn’t deny the show she put on—the dramatic entrances, the non-stop, professional-grade insults, the chaos she’d inevitably leave in her wake. One day she’d throw a dish at you and the next she’d create a stunning mosaic made of the shards. When allegiances with one brother or sister flamed out, she’d take up with someone else. At no time did she get along with everybody, but there was always someone she was in contact with. Toward the end, it was Lisa, but before that we’d all had our turn.

The last time she joined us on Emerald Isle was in 1986. “And, even then, she left after three days,” Gretchen reminded us.

As kids, we spent our beach time swimming. Then we became teenagers and devoted ourselves to tanning. There’s a certain kind of talk that takes place when you’re lying, dazed, in the sun, and I’ve always been partial to it. On the first afternoon of our most recent trip, we laid out one of the bedspreads we had as children, and arranged ourselves side by side on it, trading stories about Tiffany.

“What about the Halloween she spent on that Army base?”

“And the time she showed up at Dad’s birthday party with a black eye?”

“I remember this girl she met years ago at a party,” I began, when my turn came. “She’d been talking about facial scars, and how terrible it would be to have one, so Tiffany said, ‘I have a little scar on my face and I don’t think it’s so awful.’

“ ‘Well,’ the girl said, ‘you would if you were pretty.’ ”

Amy laughed and rolled over onto her stomach. “Oh, that’s a good line!”

I rearranged the towel I was using as a pillow. “Isn’t it, though?” Coming from someone else, the story might have been upsetting, but not being pretty was never one of Tiffany’s problems, especially when she was in her twenties and thirties, and men tumbled helpless before her.

“Funny,” I said, “but I don’t remember a scar on her face.”

I stayed in the sun too long that day and got a burn on my forehead. That was basically it for me and the beach blanket. I made brief appearances for the rest of the week, stopping to dry off after a swim, but mainly I spent my days on a bike, cycling up and down the coast, and thinking about what had happened. While the rest of us seem to get along effortlessly, with Tiffany it always felt like work. She and I usually made up after arguing, but our last fight took it out of me, and at the time of her death we hadn’t spoken in eight years. During that period, I regularly found myself near Somerville, and though I’d always toy with the idea of contacting her and spending a few hours together, I never did, despite my father’s encouragement. Meanwhile, I’d get reports from him and Lisa: Tiffany had lost her apartment, had gone on disability, had moved into a room found for her by a social-service agency. Perhaps she was more forthcoming with her friends, but her family got things only in bits and pieces. She didn’t talk with us so much as at us, great blocks of speech that were by turns funny, astute, and so contradictory it was hard to connect the sentence you were hearing to the one that preceded it. Before we stopped speaking, I could always tell when she was on the phone. I’d walk into the house and hear Hugh say, “Uh-huh . . . uh-huh . . . uh-huh . . .”

In addition to the two boxes that Amy had filled in Somerville, she also brought down our sister’s ninth-grade yearbook, from 1978. Among the messages inscribed by her classmates was the following, written by someone who had drawn a marijuana leaf beside her name:
Tiffany. You are a one-of-a-kind girl so stay that way you unique ass. I’m only sorry we couldn’t have partied more together. This school sux to hell. Stay
-fucked up
Check your ass later.

Then, there’s:
I’m looking forward to getting high with you this summer.
Call me sometime this summer and we’ll go out and get blitzed.

A few weeks after these messages were written, Tiffany ran away, and was subsequently sent to a disciplinary institution in Maine called Élan. According to what she told us later, it was a horrible place. She returned home in 1980, having spent two years there, and from that point on none of us can recall a conversation in which she did not mention it. She blamed the family for sending her off, but we, her siblings, had nothing to do with it. Paul, for instance, was ten when she left. I was twenty-one. For a year, I sent her monthly letters. Then she wrote and asked me to stop. As for my parents, there were only so many times they could apologize. “We had other kids,” they said in their defense. “You think we could let the world stop on account of any one of you?”

We were at the beach for three days before Lisa and our father, who is now ninety, joined us. Being on the island meant missing the spinning classes he takes in Raleigh, so I found a fitness center not far from the rental cottage, and every afternoon he and I would spend some time there. On the way over, we’d talk to each other, but as soon as we mounted our stationary bikes we’d each retreat into our own thoughts. It was a small place, not very lively. A mute television oversaw the room, tuned to the Weather Channel and reminding us that there’s always a catastrophe somewhere or other, always someone flooded from his home, or running for his life from a funnel-shaped cloud. Toward the end of the week, I came upon my father in Amy’s room, sifting through the photographs that Tiffany had destroyed. In his hand was a fragment of my mother’s head with a patch of blue sky behind her. Under what circumstances had this been ripped up? I wondered. It seemed such a melodramatic gesture, like throwing a glass against a wall. Something someone in a movie would do.

“Just awful,” my father whispered. “A person’s life reduced to one lousy box.”

I put my hand on his shoulder. “Actually, there are two of them.”

He corrected himself. “Two lousy boxes.”

One afternoon on Emerald Isle, we all rode to the Food Lion for groceries. I was in the produce department, looking at red onions, when my brother sneaked up from behind and let loose with a loud “Achoo,” this while whipping a bouquet of wet parsley through the air. I felt the spray on the back of my neck and froze, thinking that a very sick stranger had just sneezed on me. It’s a neat trick, but he also doused the Indian woman who was standing to my left. She was wearing a blood-colored sari, and so she got it on her bare arm as well as her neck and the lower part of her back.

“Sorry, man,” Paul said when she turned around, horrified. “I was just playing a joke on my brother.”

The woman had many thin bracelets on, and they jangled as she brushed her hand against the back of her head.

“You called her ‘man,’ ” I said to him after she walked off.

“For real?” he asked.

Amy mimicked him perfectly. “For real?”

Over the phone, my brother, like me, is often mistaken for a woman. As we continued shopping, he told us that his van had recently broken down, and that when he called for a tow truck the dispatcher said, “We’ll be right out, sweetie.” He lowered a watermelon into the cart, and turned to his daughter: “Maddy’s got a daddy who talks like a lady, but she don’t care, do she?”

Giggling, she punched him in the stomach, and I was struck by how comfortable the two of them are with each other. Our father was a figure of authority, while Paul is more of a playmate.

When we went to the beach as children, on or about the fourth day our father would say, “Wouldn’t it be nice to buy a cottage down here?” We’d get our hopes up, and then he would bring practical concerns into it. They weren’t petty—buying a house that will eventually get blown away by a hurricane probably isn’t the best way to spend your money—but still we wanted one desperately. I told myself when I was young that one day I would buy a beach house and that it would be everyone’s, as long as they followed my Draconian rules and never stopped thanking me for it. Thus it was that on Wednesday morning, midway through our vacation, Hugh and I contacted a real-estate agent named Phyllis, who took us around to look at available properties. On Friday afternoon, we made an offer on an oceanfront cottage not far from the one we were renting, and before sunset our bid was accepted. I made the announcement at the dinner table and got the reaction I had expected.

“Now, wait a minute,” my father said. “You need to think clearly here.”

“I already have,” I told him.

“O.K., then, how old is the roof? How many times has it been replaced in the last ten years?”

“When can we move in?” Gretchen asked.

Lisa wanted to know if she could bring her dogs, and Amy asked what the house was named.

“Right now it’s called Fantastic Place,” I told her, “but we’re going to change it.” I used to think the ideal name for a beach house was the Ship Shape. Now, though, I had a better idea. “We’re going to call it the Sea Section.”

My father put down his hamburger. “Oh, no, you’re not.”

“But it’s perfect,” I argued. “The name’s supposed to be beachy, and, if it’s a pun, all the better.”

I brought up a cottage we’d seen earlier in the day called Dune Our Thing, and my father winced. “How about naming it Tiffany?” he said.

Our silence translated to: Let’s pretend we didn’t hear that.

He picked his hamburger back up. “I think it’s a great idea. The perfect way to pay our respects.”

“If that’s the case, we could name it after Mom,” I told him. “Or half after Tiffany and half after Mom. But it’s a house, not a tombstone, and it wouldn’t fit in with the names of the other houses.”

“Aw, baloney,” my father said. “Fitting in—that’s not who we are. That’s not what we’re about.”

Paul interrupted to nominate the Conch Sucker.

Amy’s suggestion had the word “seaman” in it, and Gretchen’s was even dirtier.

“What’s wrong with the name it already has?” Lisa asked.

“No, no, no,” my father said, forgetting, I think, that this wasn’t his decision. A few days later, after the buyer’s remorse had kicked in, I’d wonder if I hadn’t bought the house as a way of saying, See, it’s just that easy. No hemming and hawing. No asking to look at the septic tank. Rather, you make your family happy and iron out the details later.

The cottage we bought is two stories tall and was built in 1978. It’s on proper stilts and has two rear decks, one above the other, overlooking the ocean. It was rented to vacationers until late September, but Phyllis allowed us to drop by and show it to the family the following morning, after we checked out of the house we’d been staying in. A place always looks different—worse, most often—after you’ve made the commitment to buy it, so while the others raced up and down the stairs, claiming their future bedrooms, I held my nose to a vent and caught a whiff of mildew. The sale included the furniture, so I also made an inventory of the Barcaloungers and the massive TVs that I would eventually be getting rid of, along with the shell-patterned bedspreads and cushions with anchors on them. “For our beach house, I want to have a train theme,” I announced. “Trains on the curtains, trains on the towels—we’re going to go all out.”

“Oh, brother,” my father moaned.

We sketched a plan to return for Thanksgiving, and, after saying goodbye to one another, my family splintered into groups and headed off to our respective homes. There had been a breeze at the beach house, but once we left the island the air grew still. As the heat intensified, so did the general feeling of depression. Throughout the sixties and seventies, the road back to Raleigh took us past Smithfield, and a billboard on the outskirts of town that read, “Welcome to Klan Country.” This time, we took a different route, one my brother recommended. Hugh drove, and my father sat beside him. I slumped down in the back seat, next to Amy, and every time I raised my head I’d see the same soybean field or low-slung cinder-block building we’d seemingly passed twenty minutes earlier.

We’d been on the road for a little more than an hour when we stopped at a farmers’ market. Inside an open-air pavilion, a woman offered complimentary plates of hummus served with a corn-and-black-bean salad, so we each accepted one and took seats on a bench. Twenty years earlier, the most a place like this might have offered was fried okra. Now there was organic coffee, and artisanal goat cheese. Above our heads hung a sign that read, “Whispering Dove Ranch,” and just as I thought that we might be anywhere I noticed that the music piped through the speakers was Christian—the new kind, which says that Jesus is awesome.

Hugh brought my father a plastic cup of water. “You O.K., Lou?”

“Fine,” my father answered.

“Why do you think she did it?” I asked as we stepped back into the sunlight. For that’s all any of us were thinking, had been thinking since we got the news. Mustn’t Tiffany have hoped that whatever pills she’d taken wouldn’t be strong enough, and that her failed attempt would lead her back into our fold? How could anyone purposefully leave us, us, of all people? This is how I thought of it, for though I’ve often lost faith in myself, I’ve never lost it in my family, in my certainty that we are fundamentally better than everyone else. It’s an archaic belief, one that I haven’t seriously reconsidered since my late teens, but still I hold it. Ours is the only club I’d ever wanted to be a member of, so I couldn’t imagine quitting. Backing off for a year or two was understandable, but to want out so badly that you’d take your own life?

“I don’t know that it had anything to do with us,” my father said. But how could it have not? Doesn’t the blood of every suicide splash back on our faces?

At the far end of the parking lot was a stand selling reptiles. In giant tanks were two pythons, each as big around as a fire hose. The heat seemed to suit them, and I watched as they raised their heads, testing the screened ceilings. Beside the snakes was a low pen corralling an alligator with its mouth banded shut. It wasn’t full grown, but perhaps an adolescent, around three feet long, and grumpy-looking. A girl had stuck her arm through the wire and was stroking the thing’s back, while it glared, seething. “I’d like to buy everything here just so I could kill it,” I said.

My father mopped his forehead with Kleenex. “I’m with you, brother.”

When we were young and set off for the beach, I’d look out the window at all the landmarks we drove by—the Purina silo on the south side of Raleigh, the Klan billboard—knowing that when we passed them a week later I’d be miserable. Our vacation over, now there’d be nothing to live for until Christmas. My life is much fuller than it was back then, yet this return felt no different. “What time is it?” I asked Amy.

And instead of saying, “Who cares?,” she said, “You tell me. You’re the one with a watch on.”

At the airport a few hours later, I picked sand from my pockets, and thought of our final moments at the beach house I’d bought. I was on the front porch with Phyllis, who had just locked the door, and we turned to see the others in the driveway below us. “So is that one of your sisters?” she asked, pointing to Gretchen.

“It is,” I said. “And so are the two women standing on either side of her.”

“Then you’ve got your brother,” she observed. “That makes five—wow! Now,that’s a big family.”

I looked at the sunbaked cars we would soon be climbing into, furnaces every one of them, and said, “Yes. It certainly is.” ♦

In Argentina and so it must be Borges…..

“A writer – and, I believe, generally all persons – must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.”