Thursday, November 11, 2010

Guest in Progress: Michelle Brafman on Literary Matchmaking

Michelle Brafman and I met several years ago, and our paths keep crossing at various literary events. Most recently, it was at a book party this summer when she told me about her interest in literary matchmaking, as aptly described below. When I followed up to ask if she’d like to write a guest post, she matched me up with Homestead by Rosina Lippi…so she really means business! (I was less deft, ham-fistedly insisting she read We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver simply because that's the book I tell everyone they need to read.)

Literary Matchmaking
By Michelle Brafman

I met my husband through my friend Amy, a skilled matchmaker who was much better at identifying the man who would complete me than I was. I've since tried to repay my karmic debt by playing cupid, without success, so instead I've strived to become an accomplished literary matchmaker.

First, let me define a literary match. It's the book that will crack your heart open and follow you around for days. You'll find a way to mention your literary match while discussing the mundane, a killer sale at Macy's, Metro delays, or today's NASDAQ. David Grossman describes this phenomenon in his essay "Books That Have Read Me" in recounting his discovery of Bruno Schulz's The Street of Crocodiles, "I read the book over the course of one day and night in a total frenzy of the senses, and my feeling -- which now slightly embarrasses me-- will be familiar to anyone who has been in love: it was the knowledge that this other person or thing was meant only for me."

There's more than one way to find a literary match. I've stumbled upon matches at the library, bookstore, and through blog posts like Work In Progress's guest piece by Rebecca Thomas. Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them is also a wonderful resource. My best writing instructors have implored me to read outside of my comfort zone. The right book at the right time can forge a new pathway in my brain by modeling a technique or an effect just out of my grasp. Under duress, I read Aleksandar Hemon's The Question of Bruno, and I'll be darned if two weeks later I finally fixed a short story I'd been endlessly revising by trying one of Hemon's inventive narrative structures.

My favorite way to find a literary match is through a literary matchmaker. They come in all forms, but they share an ability to listen articulately to the stories you tell, on and off the page. After my walking buddy and writer Melinda listened to me describe the precipitating event in the novel I was writing, she told me about the fatal snowball thrown in Robertson Davies' The Deptford Trilogy. I immediately inhaled the book and came away with a sense of the resonance I was seeking with my own snowball. My friend Margaret, a former professor and matchmaker extraordinaire, would scribble suggestions of stories at the bottom of my critiques. She introduced me to many works, including filmmaker and writer Neil Jordan's Night In Tunisia which she intuited would help me bridge the gap between my filmmaking and emerging writing skills.

Now I teach creative writing, and I find myself scrawling similar "you might want to read . . . " notes on my students critiques. Of course I have my stand-bys -- Lorrie Moore's Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? for the coming of age novel, Tillie Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing" and Jamaica Kincaid's' "Girl" for the interior monologue-- and if they're brave enough to try the omniscient point of view, I direct them to The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman by Andrzej Szczypiorski (compliments of Margaret). My heart starts pumping wildly, however, when I've gotten inside one of their stories and found their Bruno Schulz or Robertson Davies.

At the end of the semester, I distribute a list of my matches to the class. I don't expect to hear from my students about my selections, but I hope they'll stumble upon my match at some point and discover the message I've placed in a bottle. If a student asks for a letter of recommendation, I'll peek back at the book I suggested, and he or she will materialize right in front of me.

Recently a friend pointed out that I often respond in a conversation with the question, "Do you know what book you might like?" Guilty as charged. I often find myself scanning my internal library for a narrative that responds to an experience they've shared or a writer who I think will make them laugh or perhaps entertain them during a long plane ride.

Amy, whom I met because she was coincidentally reading a favorite book of mine at the time, The Lover by Marguerite Duras, is modest about her string of successful matches. But I tell my children that they wouldn't exist had it not been for Amy. I don't pretend that my literary matchmaking can rival her feat. The right book, however, can midwife a living, breathing story or novel that if you're lucky will become someone's literary match.

Resources: (David Grossman) (Francine Prose) (Jamaica Kincaid) (The Beautiful Mrs. S.),,9780143105145,00.html (Bruno Shulz)

About: Michelle Brafman is a writer and teacher. Her short fiction has received numerous honors including a Special Mention in the 2010 Pushcart Prize Anthology, and she's hard at work on her first novel, Washing the Dead. She teaches creative writing at George Washington University and lives in Glen Echo, Maryland, with her husband and two children. For more information:


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