Mailbag: Odd Ones Out, Leaving the Atocha Station

The week’s mailbag is finally back, readers! It’s time I got back to your thoughtful comments and kept the dialogue going here at Writerly Life. It’s been a busy summer here with many family obligations keeping me from writing and blogging as much as I’d like to, but that’s no reason to be lax about these two important things. So let’s take a trip back today, readers, to my post about looking for the odd one out in your fiction, and my review of the quite astonishing book, Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner.

About looking for the odd one out, Felicity said:

Whilst I don’t like rules, perhaps we all conform to this and don’t know it! Interesting read. Felicity Fox

Thanks, Felicity (and welcome to the site). I think writers have a distaste for rules in common — it can sometimes seem soulless to follow a rubric or formula when writing. However, it’s surprising how many rules and conventions in storytelling there really are. We rely on these rules for audiences to understand our stories. And things like pacing and suspense tend to follow very strict rules. So it’s useful to know about them — and then break them thoughtfully!

Stacy said:

Very sound advice – thank you. I think this will help with the chapter that’s been haunting me for weeks. It is about an “odd” occurrence with which I was having trouble. Your insight has helped unstick my mind.

Thanks, Stacy. A little insight into the structure governing our own stories can often help get us going again — rules like the odd one out rule are like scaffolds that can hold our story up, getting us to the next page when it’s difficult.

Readers were interested to hear about Ben Lerner’s book, Leaving the Atocha Station. It’s still one of my favorite books that I’ve read this year, and an absolutely fascinating wrestle with modernism and post-modernism. Mary said:

This sounds like a good book, BLH. Normally I don’t worry about whether or not ‘ART’ is one thing or another, but I’m regularly quite moved by it. Sometimes I’m moved to profound emotion, sometimes I’m moved to slam shut a book & toss it over my head–but moved all the same.

Would you consider doing a column on ‘modern’ & ‘post-modern’ art, i.e., what these two terms mean? I’m confused. If something is modern, is it not the most current? How can anything be ‘post’ or ‘after’ modern, if modern IS the current form?

Thanks, Mary. I agree that I’m in the modernist camp — I find art deeply moving all the time, and am resistant to this anxious, distancing, intellectualization of it. I think Lerner is on that side too — he’s just showing the anguish of his character’s self-discovery.

I would be happy to write a post about what “modernism” and “post-modernism” actually mean, and what the difference is — I’m actually teaching a college course on this topic in the fall, so most likely you will see quite a few posts on the topic. Look out for that soon! If I have to sum it up in one sentence right now, though, I’ll whet my readers’ appetite by saying that modernism questions whether it is possible to depict reality in art, and post-modernism declares it impossible, dealing only in the fact of art’s artificiality. So, readers, it’s time to take a side: can art really truly capture real life? Or can it only approach and simulate real life, in a vanishing asymptote of approximation?

Michael Washburn said:

What does the narrator, Adam Gordon, say at the end? Something about himself reading the originals of poems, Theresa reading the translations, and the translations becoming originals? To me this was not just another of the novel’s endless solipsistic musings, but an acknowledgment that the perception, or mental reconstruction, of reality, has a reality of its own and becomes a final answer to solipsism. “I can’t tell you for certain what happened — but I can describe the sensory experience of someone who was there.”

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Michael. I think you are talking about the fundamental question of modernism and post-modernism as well. Both of these artistic movements acknowledge the strange disconnect between real life — what’s Out There, really happening — and our fumbling little efforts on the page or canvas. I think science, particularly neurology, is following the lead of modernism as well these days, acknowledging that a great deal of the world we think we know is a question of subjective and often faulty processes in our brains.

I love it when science and art intersect! Until next time, readers.


  1. mary brady says:

    I’ve been away so long I can’t believe I found myself quoted here! Time truly is subjective–and relative. (Because the speed of light is the same for ALL observers, the only alternative is to allow space & time to be ‘relative.’ Hence, time can dilate, space can contract. You just have to slap your forehead–it’s so obvious.)

    Anyway, glad to be back, BLH, & thank you for the definition of modern/post-modern! Two thoughts:
    –originals vs translations: I took Arabic poetry in college & my Arabic instructor often began reciting poems in the native tongue. He’d stop suddenly & say: ‘I hope my Arabic did not offend you!!’ We assured him we were fine with hearing it–we just didn’t understand it.

    He said, “Yes, this is so sad. Reading these poems in translation is like viewing a beautiful carpet from the underside…”

    I always think about that when I read translations.

    science meets life–‘Black Hole Theory’ holds that all the info that goes into a black hole is also ‘collected’ on its event horizon & thus is NOT lost (info loss would violate a law of physics similar to energy conservation). This notion leads theoretical physicists (ineluctably) to maintain that, likewise, we live in a holographic universe. All the info in the universe is contained at its ‘edges’ & beamed inward to us like a hologram.

    Such physicists point out that since atoms are mostly empty space, it is not surprising that all the info that ‘describes’ the universe could fit on it’s edges. Of course, the only atoms we know about are those that make up baryonic matter or ‘stuff like us.’ We don’t know beans about dark matter or dark energy.

    Here is a rough distribution of the universe: dark energy: 70%, dark matter: 25%, invisible atoms: 4%, visible atoms: 1%. We know that those 1% atoms are mostly space.

    So–we don’t know much, really. But it’s fun to speculate!

    Re: modern/post-modern: it seems that these ‘modes’ of art
    should just live alongside one another, right? MUST we choose one mode only?

    If it is fun & interesting for the artist to create art of either mode, the artist should do so. If it is fun & interesting to viewers or readers of art to ‘consume’ what an artist creates in either mode, they, too, should do so.

    We are all just passing the time here on earth until we die, right?

    L&K, MaryB

  2. Stacy Lyn says:

    I’m going to share your site with my daughter – and English major who loves, loves, loves post-moderism (much more than her mother).

    To answer your question, and this, of course is only my humble opinion, everything is an approximation of a thing except the thing itself. I’ve written a lot about this because I struggle with the whole concept. This post expresses my sentiment – I couldn’t adequately express in words the beauty of a cloud.

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