writing on the bus

brick fa├žade, Portland, OR

I've been writing longhand on the bus, a forty-five minute ride, first on spare pages in my red Moleskine planner and then on yellow legal paper. Who knew such a thing was even possible? My rushed handwriting these days looks like something off a prescription pad, barely legible even to me. This is not rough drafting but pre-drafting. In a way, I'd rather the bus commute took hours—because then I'd see some progress. Instead, I must content myself with minutes, drips upon drops, trusting a stalactite will eventually form: proof of potential, record of history, untangling of mysteries. Sometimes I still read. Sometimes I'll put headphones on, plug them into my phone, and stare out the window at the sunrise from the bridge while crossing the river, or, once, at the back of a man's neck, wanting to lick it. (Don't worry: he was more or less my age and looked employable, except wearing a gray hoodie, his slicked-back hair dark with threads of silver, still damp from his shower.) Sometimes I'll close my eyes, rocked and jolted by the brakes, and listen to my breath, nearly dozing. It all depends on the morning.

old door with mail slot, downtown Portland

In honor of introspection, writing, and reading in public, here's a list of favorite memoirs and short-story collections from the two best literary genres. Even talented, skillful novelists one races to the finish rarely serve up a decent ending. Theater is like putting people on stilts or giving them clown noses and sending them about their day—exercises in exaggeration—while poetry, of course, has gone the way of the top hat. All that's left are memoir, film, and the short story. Both film and short stories—the good ones, anyway—are like ships in bottles, a whole life condensed into a few pages, which can only be done by someone with the soul of a poet, the ear of a musician, the eye of a painter, the wit of a playwright, and the insight of a shaman. That is art. Memoir sells better, though; everyone likes a little voyeurism, the prostitution of privacy for art.

Women dominate the short form, in case anyone's wondering. I'll be adding more titles as I remember them. They're in no particular order except for Nabokov, whom no one can top.


Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov
The Liar's Club by Mary Karr
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje
D.V. by Diana Vreeland
Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Autobiographical Novels

The Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn
My Struggle series by Karl Ove Knausgaard 

Short Stories

Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders
Tenth of December by George Saunders
Pastoralia by George Saunders
Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
I Want to Show You More by Jaime Quatro
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Binocular Vision & Honeydew by Edith Pearlman
anything by Alice Munro
The Collected Stories by Mavis Gallant
The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor
Women in Their Beds by Gina Berriault
Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr 

sunset shadows, downtown Portland

By the way, Lorrie Moore will be reading from her new story collection, Bark (now on my library queue), at Powell's downtown on April 11th at 7:30 PM. She swims in the cream atop all the published milk. See you there?

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