Few writers are equally at home in the realms of fiction and nonfiction. Excellence in one field is often mere competence in the other. Lydia Davis is one of those rare cases: an ambidextrous author who is just as capable of bowling a reader over with a short story as she is with an essay. In 2009, “The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis” brought together some of the best of her short fiction. Now, 10 years on, Davis has cherry-picked her finest essays, commentaries, and lectures on reading and writing for “Essays One,” an indispensable compilation of nonfiction.
Sections on visual artists include pieces on the work of Joan Mitchell and Joseph Cornell, plus a fascinating examination of early-20th-century tourist photographs of Dutch life. Davis’ literary subjects range from familiar names (Stendhal, Rimbaud, Thomas Pynchon) to writers who are less well known — or, in the case of Lucia Berlin, criminally overlooked. It would be heartening to think that the 2015 essay Davis wrote as the foreword to “A Manual for Cleaning Women,” the posthumous collection of Berlin’s bravura short stories, played a key role in the author’s reappraisal. Here we find one masterful short story writer paying her respects to another: “Berlin’s stories are electric; they buzz and crackle as the live wires touch.”
A section on miscellaneous topics sees Davis meditating on everything from memory to millennia to the Shepherd’s Psalm. However, the book’s standout essays are those that are grouped under the heading “The Practice of Writing.” Beyond this off-puttingly dry title are a variety of incisive and informative pieces about Davis’ craft. In one she explains how she started out: who she read, what she wrote, and how she made the transition from stories that cleaved to an established, traditional form to the more inventive and less restrictive “short-short story.”
Other essays reveal unlikely inspiration for stories or poems. Whether entries from Kafka’s diaries or excerpts from Flaubert’s letters, snatches of dreams or the content of a group e-mail, Davis juxtaposes her source material with her writing and invites us to compare and contrast. Of particular interest are the pieces that focus on the nuts and bolts of the creative process. A short but effective essay traces the journey from the first draft of one of Davis’ stories to the final version. The longer, meatier highlight of the book, “Thirty Recommendations for Good Writing Habits,” constitutes an in-depth, invaluable master class.
Throughout, Davis reinforces points with useful examples, attentive close readings and numerous pearls of wisdom: Prose writers should read poetry. All writers should learn a foreign language. Note-taking is crucial: “If you take notes regularly, sitting in an airport, for example, you can ‘grow’ a story right then and there.”
There is little here on Davis’ other main occupation, translation. That, though, will be covered in a second volume of essays. More good things will come to those who wait.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Lydia Davis.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 512 Pages, $30.