In The Middle: On Crots, Markson, Writing & Wine by DS Levy

“Writer is pretty much tempted to quit writing.

Writer is weary unto death of making up stories.”

So begins David Markson’s This is Not a Novel (Counterpoint Press, 2001). This anti-novel wastes no time with background, exposition, or scene-setting, but rather notes down individual statements of fact about well-known writers, musicians, and artists. Markson locates these building blocks of narrative in luxurious white space or crots. The negative space is the place where I can stop, breathe, reflect.

Reading the crot is like finding a desperate note in a bottle.

“In composition, a crot is a verbal bit or fragment used as an autonomous unit to create an effect of abruptness and rapid transition. Also called a blip.” (

This Is Not a Novel does not rely on narrative convention: characters, plot, theme, setting—all the expected fictional elements readers expect:

I’m drinking chilled Moscato.

Does it really matter what I’m drinking? Do you even care that I have a life beyond these words? Aren’t words enough? Would knowing more about the writer make you more interested in reading my words?

Answer: No. I do not consider myself an interesting person.

Someone is pulling someone’s chain here.

It’s a perfect evening, a still evening—until as the day waxes into the night, some dumbass starts mowing his lawn. Then … a percussive explosion.

Earlier this evening I wrote:

How to describe a perfect evening on the back porch drinking Moscato while sitting with the dog—he in his chair, me in mine. The pale blue sky. The still maple trees reaching up. Birds tweeting, twittering. The humming of the neighbor’s AC. Tires licking the pavement down the street. Otherwise, Friday night in the city. Still as still can be. That’s a cliché. But how else to say it? I have never experienced a stillness like this before. The evening is so perfect it brings tears. I’ve thought of moving from this place I’ve called home for sixty years, but how could I? This place, this perfect, perfect place.

You see what I mean? How words fail me when I’m trying to be writerly?

Like Markson’s narrator, I’m tempted to quit writing. I am always tempted to quit writing. I am wary of making up stories. How many stories are there to make up? What haven’t you read? How do I tell you what I’m feeling, what this (cheap) wine has done to loosen my tongue?

The sky is turning silver-pink. The lawn mower is thankfully still. A bird chirps its last heavenly call—for what? To whom? The Moscato kicks in, bringing on a nocturnal feeling of melancholy and gloom. (Not gloom really, I’m exaggerating for the sake of writing, trying to pull you in, trying to make you like me better.)

I don’t want you to know everything about me. I have secrets. I’ll keep them, maybe make you work for them. Or not.

The writer David Shields says the best thing F. Scott Fitzgerald ever wrote was The Crack-Up, a collection of essays about the ups and downs of the writing world whose main essay begins: “Of course all life is a process of breaking down …”

Carole Maso.

Sarah Manguso.

Maggie Nelson.

Anne Carson.

Some of the writers who use crots to writeBut didn’t I say I’m tired of writing? Or just tired of traditional storytelling?

Carole Maso’s sister was a professional tennis player. I was standing (or sitting) beside her when she said so. I was one of many who had gone to hear her talk about her writing in The Barn on the Bennington College campus. It struck me as odd, someone so ethereal as Maso to have a sister whose feet depended on solidness of ground, whose feet were planted on an asphalt, grass or clay tennis court.

Maso had told us she was writing “etudes.” I didn’t know what that meant, but I sure as hell remembered that her sister was a tennis pro.

The mind and the heart hear what it wants to hear.

Wizard of Oz: As for you, my galvanized friend, you want a heart. You don’t know how lucky you are not to have one. Hearts will never be practical until they can be made unbreakable.

Tin Woodsman: But I still want one.

Mary Ruefle also sometimes writes in crots. Also, Eula Biss.

You can go swimming in white space. Dive in, paddle around. Think, wonder, dream, imagine, lose yourself.

White spaces are a place to float before swimming on toward shore.

I never understood “transitions.” The need for them seems so … traditional, old-fashioned. Why build a bridge when you can knock one down? Isn’t the pile of ruble worth more than easy access?

Markson’s anti-novel is about the “travail—and all too often tragedy—of the creative life” (book jacket blurb). He reveals much about the way various well-known artists have died.

Markson died on June 4, 2010. His children found him dead in his bed. He had cancer. As per his wishes, his entire personal library was donated to the Strand Bookstore. He was born in Albany, New York.

Markson’s later novels are, in Markson’s words, “literally crammed with literary and artistic anecdotes” and the “nonlinear, discontinuous, collage-like, an assemblage.” (Wikipedia)

There are many people I don’t trust, but I always trust collage, which seems like watching a mind play tennis on the page.

The beauty of collage is that there is no true beginning, middle or end. Each crot is a beginning, middle and end, and the overall arc of the story has no end or beginning, only a middle.

An ongoing middle, the way life is really lived, or at least how we imagine it, never understanding where we’ve come from or where we’re going until it’s (usually) too late.


DS Levy is a writer from the Midwest. Her essays and short fiction have been published in Brevity, The Pinch, Hippocampus Magazine, Gravel Magazine, Pithead Chapel, the Alaska Quarterly Review, Columbia, Santa Fe Writer’s Project, and Little Fiction, among others. Her website is, and you can find her on Twitter at @122cats.

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