I saw this story on NPR this morning and stashed it away to read later, after I’d attended to my own literary chores.

When I circled back on it, the parallels made me smile.

In the piece, author Jeffrey Eugenides writes that his sure-fire cure for writer’s block is to open up Saul Bellow’s Herzog and read a random page or paragraph:

It always works. Right away I’m restored to full alertness and clarity. Style, in literature, has gone out of style. People think it’s just ornament. But it’s not: The work that goes into a writer’s style, the choices that are taken, the cliches that are chucked, represent a refining of thought and feeling into their purest, most intelligent, most moral form.

The reason that Herzog can deliver, no matter where Eugenides turns, is that it is chock full of the main character’s letters to others — friends and ex-wives and newspapers and dead people, each a gem unto itself. Eugenides observes that Bellow, “the supreme realist, discovered in Herzog a new form — the self-reflexive epistolary novel — without any of the obscurantism or self-preening of so-called ‘experimental’ novels.”

The parallel is this: I just slogged through a section of my own work that includes a string of letters, and I found it difficult to find the voice of the character writing them. I pushed on and finished them, but there are parts of every undone work that the writer knows must be recast, and that letter chain is one such part. Perhaps I’ll read Herzog in the interim and learn from a master how to better do it.

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