Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Esteemed Nicaraguan Novelist

My review of Sergio Ramirez’s A Thousand Deaths Plus One is in the new print edition of Rain Taxi:

"[...]The two short stories that open each half of the book link the cultural figures (in the novel) and provide a skein of themes that the novel elaborates upon . . . Ramirez channels a style similar to what W.G.Sebald conjures in his works of remembrance and soi-disant history."

Here is the link to the actual review.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Character, Not Plot

"I feel strongly that action is generated out of character. And I don't give anything a higher priority than character. The one consistent thing among my novels is that there's a character who stays in my mind. It's a character with complexity that I want to know better." --Marilynne Robinson (Paris Review Interviews, IV)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Gravy. Or Icing.

Flaubert suffered for his art. Why does this seem disingenuous? Is it really believable that Flaubert approached his writing so detached from the end results, as indicated by the entries that Barthes quotes in his essay, “Flaubert and the Sentence” (New Critical Essays)? For example, Flaubert writes: “...I don’t want to publish anything...I work with an absolute disinterestedness and without ulterior motive, without external preoccupation...” It’s the hindsight of those quotes, the literary pillar that Flaubert eventually achieved, that make them seem bold, the fly in your face convictions of a rebel. The last one I quoted was written when he was 25, before he had achieved any measurable success. Flaubert, libertine and bon vivant extraordinaire, had what seems a cushy life in which he did as he chose--and probably paid for it, too. And he wrote with some conviction, and passion.

Publication, though maybe not the end result of passion, in some way helps ensure it. Far from having major success, however, how many writers spend years without any idea if anything will come of the work? Maybe there is a keener knowledge that in fact if one toils long enough the learning curve could suggest that they might come to know at least “how” to get published, or why a piece can get selected or not. Like any set of rules, if one can follow them enough (conform, to be more precise), and manage to offer something with originality or spark that can touch a nerve, or tap into the collective consciousness, perhaps, they are already ahead in the game.

But to go back to Flaubert. The error in retrospection is to say the author knew what they were heading toward--fame, or public recognition. There are legion writers who struggled and suffered for their art--and maybe this idea has been overplayed. Maybe masochism is a point of pride in literary production. Think of Doestoyevski, and his life; on the other hand there’s Tolstoy--though I’ve been made aware his life wasn’t all comfy at the end. But then Beckett, who worked so hard to achieve what he did but, from the evidence, didn’t enjoy the fruits all that much.

Years ago, I believed I was suffering for my art (writing), but was really suffering for reasons that had nothing to do with writing. Does this lessen the possibility that I’m creating anything of lasting value now, since I don’t feel like it is such a struggle anymore--or that the struggle isn’t so much about the art as it is a sense of legitimacy?

There can’t be any certainty, period, about literary posterity. Why bother. One should just do a good job for the same reasons they would do anything with love, skill and proficiency--because that way of working carries an intrinsic reward. Along the way, perhaps if you are lucky you figure out how to live while you’re at it, and how to live well, even, because in the end you’re not going to see what comes seventy years from now anyway. The rest, is gravy. Or icing.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Writing Every Day

The first thing people have been asking me when I mention the novel I’m working on, is, “Do you use an outline?” I have an unpleasant visceral urge when I hear that word because I’m reminded of many years ago in school when we were told to do an outline for our essay that was supposed to be based on this pyramid thing which I won’t even try to explain as it’s probably ubiquitous for anyone who’s been part of the American educational system in the recent past. (I don’t know what they use now. I don’t doubt the pyramid is still in use. There’s something structurally sound and formidable about pyramids; it’s not entirely clear that that applies to the products that imitate it, however.)

I don’t know if I’d write if I couldn’t surprise myself with what I write. For me, an outline becomes a foregone conclusion. Maybe the outline I use is an amoebic idea in my head. Maybe I’m kidding myself, but realistically, I can never really know what I’m going to write until I write it.

If I try to write the idea down without actually writing the totality of the thing (in other words, actually writing down the scene that I have the idea for, rather than the shorthand of the idea), I may never write it. It’s best for me to start writing.

I grew up with a terrible unease about writing and my abilities as a writer until college and the passion for reading took over, but by then I believed I wasn’t a writer, even though I admired writers. I wasn’t yet able to imagine myself as one.

Interregnum: years in an architecture practice (of the building kind) that now funds a writing career. Success?


I was trying to explain to a friend the other night that for me, writing is now alchemical. I have spent enough time with words and in school hashing over words that they are in my blood. There’s a point where things topple over into a realm that I can’t rationally explain. Maybe this is what the best writing ultimately achieves. I think about the ten thousand hours notion, and am pretty certain I’ve done my ten thousand hours. (This is of course Malcolm Gladwell’s idea.)

I need sufficient disorientation to have to write my way out of something. In my daily writing practice, I find that I can cover ground I didn’t plan on covering because my approach relies on a fair amount of misdirection, intuition and perhaps mysticism. There’s a great moment of reading something over months later and not remembering that I wrote it. It’s even better when the work gets published; though I usually see things wrong, just as often I find things that I’m surprised by.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Novel Detour

The reason for my absence from here: I’ve been working on a new novel, the first I’ve started since finishing my MFA three years ago. What I decided to do differently this time is largely about process, avoiding the pitfalls of my past forays into the novel. I think the MFA practice was useful because it forced me to think about producing writing, if not every day, at least weekly. My practice now is to write for at least one hour every day, usually in the morning. The goal is to produce at least two manuscript pages (or about 500 words), but on really productive days, I can write three times that amount. I find that the discipline, even in the face of limited inspiration, will yield results. After all, the daily production, since it is part of a larger piece, doesn’t necessarily have to make it into the novel. Since August 8th I’ve written perhaps 200 pages (The actual number is about 20,000 words per month; that’s two, fifty page legal pads per month--I’m just enough of a Luddite to write long hand). The ultimate goal is to produce a 100,000 word draft of the novel which I hope to have by the end of November. Then I’ll undertake the long effort of taking it apart, re-writing, re-shaping, and structuring the novel.

An hour per day. That’s it. I can work more on it if I want, but I often find I’ve said my piece in the bit of writing I did and I don’t want to force it. On some days, it is hard work, there is a feeling of forcing it. But sometimes even that bit of writing can lead to some new angle on character.

I came to this approach from writing short stories more or less religiously over the past three years. In my process for a short story, I came up with an interesting idea and explored it in writing. I wouldn’t usually rework the draft until I had a quantity (usually two or three thousand words, maybe more) to work with. I’m counting on this with the first draft of the novel. After a few weeks I find I’ve forgotten what I wrote a month ago, and I’m often surprised by where it takes me.

So much about being a writer is, like any job, “showing up”--I’m sure this sounds like the most obvious comment, but it’s true. You have to face the blank page every day and begin to put words down, however arduous, however difficult. What finally made me decide to work on a novel is that an interesting idea from a short story I had written suggested it, and once I began writing, a series of characters came to life. Once characters are in my head, they usually won’t go quietly.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Wisconsin Review Publication

At long last the Spring 2009 issue of Wisconsin Review is out, where my story “The Edmonton Farrell” can be found. Here’s the link to their page where this wonderful journal can be ordered.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Writing And Empowerment

I have always known and accepted for myself that a high standard is the only one I'm interested in pursuing. Short of getting a message out (what this blog attempts to do), writing--fiction in particular--should aim to be art.

I don't think this is so for the general population of wanna-be writers, a group I no longer include myself in. I think, because of the fame that is sometimes attached to the writer, this is the reason some people pursue it, maybe even the only reason. The fallacy and folly of this idea is well stated here, in a blog entry from the Guardian.

I've always believed that my work is going to be recognized, someday. At this point, that could sound like I expect fame and success--on the first count, I don't; on the second, I think I have found success. I simply believe that being committed to one's art is a very salutary thing. It allows me to practice more in the Buddhist sense of the five powers: faith, diligence, mindfulness, concentration and insight (thanks to Thich Nhat Hanh "The Art of Power" for that description). I need to do it more than I need to expect any reward from it, though sometimes I do expect some reward from it, strangely enough.

I'm annoyed for being ignored when I see work that I was up against that I feel isn't worthy and is singled out for praise. Often, the taste makers have an agenda that I couldn't fit into even if I wrote "As I Lay Dying." It's just the way of the business end of submitting fiction to a vast, prejudiced public. You will get lucky, you will occasionally be flattered by an editor who loves your work. I don't need to be financially supported by my writing--apparently, writers who are are few and far between--nor does this determine for me if I am successful. But I've often thought this prevents me from really risking anything. The circularity of thinking that this sets me on doesn't change my reality. Nor does the idea that many (most?) writers have day jobs. Or they teach. Not a pot of riches there, although the satisfaction of seeing your students succeed is a reward of its own which I've experienced. So whenever I feel misled, maligned, or still undiscovered, I'm grateful that I have a career that I enjoy and can use to foster my writing career. In the economics of 2009, I may actually be setting a trend.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Some Great Advice

Annoyingly pretentious, or maybe just ornery? I enjoyed the Annie Proulx interview in the latest Paris Review  (unfortunately, to read the entire interview, you need a subscription) and decided to crib from it whole quotes because she says some great things about writing short stories. I've added my thoughts in parenthesis.

On sentences: "A lot of the work I do is taking the bare sentence that says what you sort of want to say--which is where a lot of writers stop--and making it into an arching kind of thing that has both strength and beauty. And that is where the sweat comes in. That can take a long time and many revisions. A single sentence, particularly a long, involved one, can carry a story forward. I put a lot of time into them. Carefully constructed sentences cast a tint of indefinable substance over a story."

On reading: "You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different worlds on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write."

(I've been preaching about reading for years.)

On how you know when a story is finished: "It is impossible to answer. You just know. I suppose it's the thing Hemingway referred to as the built-in shit detector. I think one develops a built-in shit detector through a wide reading of other people's work. And if you  can't see the ghastly bits in you own writing you shouldn't be a writer. It's a pity that his shit detector failed him in later years."

(I agree on all counts--anyone remember "The Garden of Eden" (which I enjoyed anyway)?)

On revisions: "I once heard Ha Jin say that it was not uncommon for him to do more than thirty drafts. I do not usually do so many..."

(I think thirty could be overdoing it, but when Ha Jin and I share space in the same table of contents, I promise I'll eat my words.)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Must I Write?

There is something almost self-defeating and pointless to the idea of producing art for a market place. One must either already be established or they have to get established, taking some slow road to publication through journals or the proliferation of web outlets. Blind optimism and dogged determination are the factors that must reign because if you don't want complete obscurity, you need to try to fit yourself in.
I can be accused of hyping (maybe too often) the books that the major news media hypes, while generally overlooking the obscure, humbler publications that are put out by little known publishers. But on occasion, browsing a bookstore or a review site, I come across a work by accident and the writing to me is as original, interesting and compelling as the hyped one I set out looking for. I take heart in that. If the New York Times Book Review christens a book by making it the front page review, and everyone falls in line, that doesn't necessarily guarantee book sales or even that the book in question merits the attention--I always wonder about the back room machinations of those choices. Was it one top editor's favorite read that week or did the publisher promote it with enough advertising money to make it appealing? So many of these books then never catch on, so what does that author do?  
Authors are inclined to have to do their own hype and marketing strategizing, whether they are in a featured NYT book review, or published by the Unknown press (I suppose self-publishing comes into this, too, although the lack of an extrinsic vetting process leaves me dubious about self-published writing). I can surmise that in the realm of promotion, at that point the writer probably simply wants people to pick up their book and read it. If there are only a handful of fiction writers making a living at their writing, what is the point of trying to do it? Well, I go back to my original motivation, and I feel like if it's art that you are creating, that can sustain you in and of itself. Maybe not. Still, I've decided to play the game but I keep my eye on why I'm doing it--it's that call that Rilke suggested in "Letters to a Young Poet":
"Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all--ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write?"
Writing in the web sphere, it's second nature for me to develop a constant stream of ideas about how to promote my work. For me, this is a combination of curiosity and fascination with this technological medium at my fingertips, but I recognize this can also be a huge resource drain. Yet I always remember when I didn't have this outlet, not so long ago. As distracting as it is, I keep it in check and have to pull back on occasion to remember my artistic calling and goals. I suppose if I had the publishing world clamoring to my work, I wouldn't get so caught up in the notion that I'm writing this and someone out there can read it if they like. Sometimes that's enough.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Comforting Statistical Analysis

Though I was mediocre in mathematics, I have a secret love for numbers. Since I embarked on writing short stories and publishing, I've compiled some statistics.

In two years of submitting short stories to dozens of journals, I've had ten stories published (This is not counting non-fiction, commercial articles and book reviews). That's an average of one publication every ten weeks, or roughly every seventy-three days. In terms of overall numbers, for every piece picked up for publication, I had to send it out to an average of 35 markets--markets meaning, distinct journals. It also took approximately 6.9 months for a single one of these stories to be selected. 

Numbers like this can make the reality comforting; I actually went for an entire year (2008) without a single acceptance (although several pieces appeared in 2008, having been accepted the year before), and had a string of three acceptances within a six week period this year. In fact, it actually may take more than a year for a story to be picked up. Some remain orphans.  

This doesn't account for those stories that were accepted multiple times; I admit this has happened more times than it should have, which either indicates I'm submitting too many or I'm not waiting long enough to find out if the story is going to be placed where I want it.

My point is that if you are writing and submitting your work, patience and persistence are key. I'll always stand on these factors: make it perfect, send it out, and don't wait or worry if it isn't picked up immediately. If you are diligent and your writing is strong, the story should (I'd rather say, will) find a home. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Wood Says So

After reading James Wood's "How Fiction Works" months ago I started accumulating ideas and was attempting to articulate them when I came across this article in The Nation which convinces me I am on to something and should eventually post my thoughts on Wood and realism. Until then I quote directly from this well written deconstruction of James Wood's problem (well, one of them, anyway) by William Deresiewicz:

"Wood's critical authority has become so daunting, it seems, that even he is afraid to challenge it. His argumentative method rests far too heavily on hand-waving, and while he is superb at turning a phrase, the fact that something sounds good doesn't guarantee that it makes any sense. Wood never stops to ask himself what his favorite formulas actually mean: characters who feel "real to themselves," who "forget" they're in a novel and so forth. These are obviously only metaphors, but metaphors for what? What, for that matter, does "lifeness" mean? And to what extent is Wood willing to take responsibility for his assertion, near the end of How Fiction Works, his new treatise on novelistic technique, that we should "replace the always problematic word 'realism' with the much more problematic word 'truth'"? Is something true (or beautiful, or good) just because James Wood says so?"

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

They Don't Sell

The chair analogy, sort of disparaged (see my previous post, Crafting a Chair) in this review of Wells Tower's "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned". In contrast to what Deborah Eisenberg is saying, I was considering that the craft of a work of fiction wasn't at the expense of creating "something that has been transcribed from a revelatory vision." Tower, who very well may be related to me (Tower was my father's mother's surname), probably couldn't ask for more superlative reviews, and maybe that's why the New York Times and New York Review have been all over this collection of stories. Cue here what every critic says of short story collections? "They don't sell." That may be true, but I'd happily take the kudos Mr. Tower is getting (it helps to have McSweeneys and The New Yorker behind you). I may just plunk down my $24 plus 9.5 percent tax (CA) just to disprove them (but then again, I'm part of that five percent or whatever it is consumer group). And I think, the best story writers do with characters what Eisenberg lauds about this one: "[They] aren't copies of anything, they conform to no formulae, the world they live in is the one we live in, and we encounter them, thanks to the author's skill and conviction, as only one particular writer could offer them up." 

But from the evidence of another reviewer, and the examples from the above review, I wonder if Wells Tower may be committing the cardinal sin of playing god, indifferently paring his nails in the face of the terrible beauty he's created. As I recall, a lot of people were turned off by Raymond Carver for this kind of deft and illustrious craft.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Short Story Openings

I never intended to become a short story writer. In grad school, I didn't even bother with short stories, knowing they were the slow road to publication in the shadows of the more prestigious novel publication. Every serious writer usually wants to be known as a novelist, ultimately. There's just a stigma to short story writing. Of the successful short story writers I can think of, I'm sure there is still some ambivalence for them in that they have staked their reputations, however unwittingly, on short fiction.
Nevertheless, here I am. I did set out to publish as much short fiction as I could two years ago when I saw that the traditional approach to attempting to get a novel published (get an agent, get a book deal, etc.) was taking forever. So I decided to work on a level that I could see the results, and I'll admit, I am further along in two years than I could have dreamed. Awards, publication, a life changing trip to Thailand, and meeting some amazing writers along the way have been some of the payoffs. I think I can say I now know a little something about writing short fiction.
When I began, I had no idea what to do with a short story. I did what I always do, I make the attempt, and I try and try until something happens. This involved reading a lot and experimenting. If nothing was going to happen within a few months with those first stories, I thought for sure I'd know I had failed. My first serious attempt was "What You Catch a Glimpse of, Forget as Soon" (available to read in pdf here, page 44) which was, in my mind, not so much a story as an exorcism of energies around so many things I was struggling with at the time. That story just carried me in the writing of it, and I thought it might resonate with others. It did. Along with that story I tried to revive some earlier stories (mostly unsuccessfully) and took a chapter from my thesis novel and transformed it into a story which then received a place and was picked up (for a time, by two magazines--see here) and got me invited to Thailand. As for "What You Catch a Glimpse of", it received enough favorable response that I saw that it had something in it that worked. When it works, you try it again, maybe altering it a bit as you go. But this is about how to begin.
Story openings
The first problem is always the beginning (not necessarily the first problem you have writing a story, but the one you have when you want to get it published). This is a successful example in journalism, of a beginning, also known as a lead:
Back in the heady days of the dot-com boom, casual Fridays seemed to lead to casual weekdays and, in short order, a re-definition of the entire concept of "dressing for success." Call it the anything-goes dress code, where flip-flops and Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirts were often the sartorial norm for highly educated, well-paid professionals in the Bay Area.
("Dressing for Success: Follow the Dress Code to the Top." The San Francisco Chronicle, Jobs Section, 8 April 2007.)
That's a zinger of a lead, that first sentence, and it's what propels a reader into the piece. The same approach can be applied to short fiction. That opening has to start a fire of some kind. Here are some examples of first sentences (in bold) with their follow up sentence or sentences, more or less at random:
Underwater, there are many ways to die. This was the first thing I learned. Today we are doing our safety checks. The scuba instructor points to the board, he goes down the list, nitrogen narcosis, he says, carbon monoxide poisoning, hypothermia, air embolisms, the bends, blackouts. My son suffocated in the womb. The cord was stretched too tight and he died. I have a pain in my ears every time I dive. I can't go past ten feet without feeling the pressure in my head. The doctors say that in the womb babies learn to breathe liquid before they learn to breathe air. I think it's beautiful to think of my son this way.
(Urban Waite,"Open Water", Agni)
I could say, for example, "There is no amount of money that will bring the six-year-old girl back to life, but even so, our company will provide a reparation to the family." I could say these words in English, Hindi, and Arabic—but not Urdu.
(Matthew Quick, "Do Not Hate Them Very Much", Agni)
To go back to my own stories, this is what I devised for openings:
There are gestures, unmarred by the words put to them after all has failed. When Y. stopped you from talking to apply lip balm to your dry lips. Or she sidled up to you to read what you had written for her. When you lay on the grass together she put her head on your chest and curled her body around you. In the night you watched her sleeping, you heard her teeth tapping as if taking little bites of number twelve spaghetti, so quietly. Her hand gripped your shoulder. Gestures cannot be undone, incomparable.
("What You Catch a Glimpse of, Forget As Soon." 21 Stars Review, March, 2008.)
The last words I called to Maren, My darling, please take hold of me!
In the water she did not hear me.
("It Was a Tree That Saved Me"Evergreen Review, Issue #115, January, 2008.)

These openings throw you into the world of the story, and clue you into what the story is about. I would even go so far as to say they encapsulate their stories. How?
Underwater, there are many ways to die. : A man who attempts to master his fear of dying after his own son dies. To take it a bit further, the parallel to the unborn child's experience is metaphorically related to that opening sentence.
I could say, for example, "There is no amount of money that will bring the six-year-old girl back to life, but even so, our company will provide a reparation to the family." : A truck driver rationalizing an accident in the urban strife of the Iraq war complicated by ethnic divisions.
There are gestures, unmarred by the words put to them after all has failed. : A man coming to terms with a relationship in light of reflection and self-knowledge.
The last words I called to Maren, My darling, please take hold of me! : A man loses his partner in a tsunami and wanders the beach looking for her.
This is a good approach if you have a powerful story to tell and you want it to be read--isn't that what all short stories should aspire to? I'm not saying short story openings can always be interpreted this way, and I doubt every writer would agree with this approach, but if I can find examples of it in a handful of successful stories, then I believe it must have some truth.

Interested in reading more? Check out a recent post, on Philip Roth's First Person Point of View in Operation Shylock 

Friday, May 1, 2009

Metamorphoses It Was

A very short fiction, "Seven Dreams Under the Knife", is now available to read online, here

Never knowing whether to call this a short story or a poem, or unclassifiable, I submitted this piece under many forms--so thanks to editor John Burgess at Snow Monkey for taking it on. Also, to read some of my submission drama, look at my March 22nd post here.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Crafting a Chair

When I'm working on short fiction, invariably I have half a dozen books lying open--a kind of loose reference to see how an accomplished writer evokes their magic in a turn of phrase or when utilizing tone--if only to remind myself what I'm attempting to do with my 6500 word story that is on the fourteenth draft, the fifth title change, and contains more mixed metaphors and false sentiment than a Harlequin romance.
The books I'm looking at (at the moment) are Paul Theroux's The Collected Stories, Ian McEwan's The Comfort of Strangers, Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth and Norman Rush's Whites. You can't go wrong with such a stellar selection (one of these is a novel, and McEwan is about as masterful with tone as Yehudi Menuhin). Or maybe you can.
The best writing looks effortless because maybe it is--for a master. For the rest of us, I think reworking a story beyond reason becomes apparent in the reading. I can't tell how many times I've had a story idea that I worked and reworked to the point where I should have simply put the thing out of its misery. Too many to count. I'm sure this is the case for a lot of writers starting out, and once you find your "method" or at least a method that works, you shouldn't linger any longer in the workshop than you have to.
Chris Abani once told me writing fiction should be like crafting a chair. I interpreted his words to mean you go into the workshop with a clear objective in mind. Maybe you pick up where you left off the day before, and you can see this chair is going to take a few weeks. But you are working to get it finished. Hopefully it will be beautiful when you are done. It's not about mass production, in other words. Too often I compare my story to another writer's story as that is what it suggests to me--in other words, it's a kind of copy cat style--trying to replicate what another writer has done successfully. Which is both the danger and solace of returning to those reference works. You can try too hard with a story to make it fit into a mold that it will not fit into--and the organic growth of the story isn't there. 
There isn't anything wrong with imitating a successful story, as long as what you end up with is distinctive enough to stand on its own. Once it takes on that life it will never (or rarely) be compared to what has gone before. But the best stories I've written, the ones that have gotten me notice and acknowledgment from editors and readers are definitely not the ones that I am still working on after nearly two years and more than twenty or thirty drafts. (And is there a limit? Maybe seven or eight solid drafts. If you can't get the story down in the first two or three, maybe the idea is half-baked and you should let it sit until you can finish a first draft.) On the other hand, the best ones are written in a kind of fever of inspiration, where I took the trouble to commit it to paper. In a sense, I felt as if I had to write it. I'm grateful for that. I think you can force inspiration, but it's sweeter when you can trust it to come to you, eventually.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Philosophy Made Me

As I read this article, "Against Readings," in The Chronicle Review, it reminded me of my own literary beginnings, which really began with philosophy. 
While studying fiction in grad school for creative writing, there was an expectation to treat the books we were reading as academic exercises. But I felt there was something alienating with literary interpretation; as much as I would have liked to have considered I had the potential to undertake that work, I had always preferred my own approach: unhindered reading, culling from a well of intuition, and drawing my own conclusions. I discovered that my advisors--steeped in and perhaps blinded by their academic backgrounds--often had a hard time with my open approach. 

Unless one is incapable of thinking deeply, carefully and thoughtfully about what they read, I have never understood why any approach other than a self-interpretive one makes sense. I think this rings true for someone like me who indoctrinated himself in philosophy out of curiosity and circumstance. Stuck every Saturday at the mall for two hours, after boredom with video games (or I ran out of money), I wandered the aisles of B. Dalton's and found The Myth of Sisyphus, Walden, the Tao te ching, Being and Nothingness, and Bertrand Russell's The Conquest of Happiness (believe it or not at a ripe fifteen). Eventually, there were generous readings of Emerson and William James. After the enlightenment of half a dozen courses that touched on these subjects in my undergraduate years, I ended up with some clever misinterpretations of Derrida via a whacked out architecture curriculum with undigested bits of Foucault thrown in for good measure until, searching for solace amid this despair, I finally discovered literature capital L (Henry Miller, Thomas Mann, Borges), landing in a no man's land of my own making. But I wouldn't have gotten there without philosophy. 

Early on there was no one to talk to about what I was reading--that would have to wait for college and some surprisingly astute teachers--I didn't know anyone who had read these works, and I wasn't finding copies of them in high school. I was secretly proud, and quietly uncertain, but somehow affirmed to have discovered my own rejected thoughts in their alienated majesty in books written long before I was born. 

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Little Book

To someone who considers himself fly-by-night with grammar--or more aptly, as if a proficiency with grammar is a bit like dowsing for water--this critique of Strunk and White's esteemed little book is highly entertaining. Besides which leaving me further clueless on the subject.

International Super Hype

With the economic meltdown there is constant talk of the publishing world collapsing, but you wouldn’t know it to read the reviews. The latest big books are still promoted and heralded--winning prestigious prizes in France, no less, a sure sign of literary inflation--and bid upon at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and the book lovers get caught up in these things (I am one, usually). The latest hype is for Jonathan Littell’s, The Kindly Ones (at the Complete Review here, another here, and Laila Lalami's L. A. Times review, here.)

I've read the glowing and scathing reviews, encomiums and apercus, enough to be marginally intrigued to look into the book. The publisher's (Harper Collins) page provides a generous sample to read. Along with the mixed reviews, the opening pages were enough to put this reader off.

Ruth Franklin’s review in The New Republic sums it up: "The Kindly Ones is not an important novel, because it fails absolutely to add anything of significance to our understanding of its subject [...]"

It's subject is a one size fits all Nazi cog (to use Franklin's term) who yet revels in his twisted personal depravity, explaining his complicity in the mass killings because he's just like every other human being on the planet.

My distaste for the subject matter and its execution are clear. Franklin talks of the Nazi functionaries: “They were, the overwhelming majority of them, unremarkable men, "small cogs" in a killing machine, who showed little initiative of their own but were prepared to obey orders unquestioningly and then go to dinner.”

Franklin talks about how we want to attribute to men capable of this behavior the embodiment of “absolute evil.” But there are shades of gray, maybe what Littell is attempting to portray; the only problem is that it Littell's character sounds like he is clearly over the edge, definitely not in a kindly margin. (For some reason this called to mind an interesting spectacle on Nightline a few weeks ago where Deepak Chopra squared off with two Christian fundamentalists to argue, “Does Satan Exist?”) 

I think what unnerves about the subject and its fictionalization is that it’s taking the crime of the century and treating it as if it were something less than what it was. This can be seen to attempt to diminish the crime through the humanizing of (one of) its proponents.

However, when it’s said that truth is stranger than fiction, there is a resistance to fictionalizing an event that should have never happened. Any sympathy for such a character is seen to ameliorate or apologize for the horrific reality. Unfortunately, that’s also what makes it a controversial--and challenging--choice.

As with any book, there is probably a great deal of calculation for the writer to write what might be controversial, what might catch on. If you’ve got the ability, then you tackle it. I understand this. This is the scaling of a great peak. You don’t take it on unless you can stay with it. So, no criticism to the writer his accomplishment there.

In this case however, I'm grateful to let the reviewers wade through this 900 page monster.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Short Story Purgatory?

A. O. Scott’s piece in the Times, “In Praise of the American Short Story,” trumps out yet again a silent consensus that the short story has been getting short shrift for far too long--note that’s the “American” Short Story. But to keep mentioning the denigration of the short story only ghettoizes it some more. The tide is probably turning as these things do, over time.

For those of us in the trenches of fiction writing, short stories are the best--maybe the only?--game in town. It’s the one way to get yourself published though it doesn’t necessarily lead to the payoff of a novel’s reception. As for success? I think writing a good story and having it recognized is quite rewarding. I think because a story is short and has so many venues, as well it doesn’t have a single designated venue, it is looked down upon. But short story writing is where writers begin if they want to be published. It isn’t always the case that writing short fiction will get noticed, but there are many writers I admire who started out with short fiction and have largely become known for their novels (Philip Roth, Norman Rush, Paul Theroux, Ian McEwan, Denis Johnson, Junot Diaz, to name a few). With a short story, if it appears anywhere at all, it’s usually in a journal of which there are thousands upon thousands, or it appears in a collection that is the sum of parts, i.e., what is considered inferior to a novel.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Under the Knife

Prescriptions for writing abound. “Eliminate repeated words.” “Never write a boring sentence.” These come from the Gordon Lish school of writing via n+1. In the Lish arena, the student would be asked to read their piece aloud until they came to a boring sentence--called out by the master with great mocking fanfare, undoubtedly--and the student would be forced to sit down.

In my fiction, I was eliminating repeated words because it seemed like a good idea at the time. Also, I had an editor once return a story with repeated words circled. As for never writing boring sentences, it’s never easy. Of course you can hold up these ideas to the point that you lose the sense of the writing, if you had it to begin with.

And that seems to be a prescription, too, to be clear about what you are going to write before you begin.

Another good idea might be to eliminate as many words as possible--I’m not talking about repeated words, but excess words--avoiding wordiness. Maybe you pare it down and rewrite it a few times. I’ve sometimes shied away from this procedure, if only because a first draft sometimes has a rhythm inherent in the linkage of sentences as written. Perhaps even a poetry.

Why is it that poetry is so often invoked in fiction writing--what does it mean exactly? I suspect I have a bias against poets because they can be so precious about their work, romanticizing their little gulag. Poetry is rarely exciting, to me. Poets seem like the martyrs of the writing universe.

Yet, I like poetry in fiction, if I understand it correctly.

What does it mean to say a fiction writer’s writing is poetic?

I look at E. L. Doctorow, because I’m reading Loon Lake at the moment. Besides the actual use of a kind of verse in the novel (although I’m not sure if it’s bona fide verse, in the sense that it’s made up for a fictional work), here is a passage that I would say is poetic:

“They were hateful presences in me. Like a little old couple in the woods, all alone for each other, the son only a whim of fate. It was their lousy little house, they never let me forget that. They lived on a linoleum terrain and sat in the evening by their radio. What were they expecting to hear? If I came in early I distracted them, if I came in late I enraged them, it was my life they resented, the juicy fullness of being they couldn’t abide...”

This also happens to be the opening to the novel. Which is where you are going to notice poetry and in a sniff decide if this is a book you should read, should a reading of such be your thing.

It’s not a fellow writer’s thing. He occasionally laments how writing is literary or maybe that’s too literary because he believes he is secretly a blockbuster writer who has a commitment to providing airport fiction as he sees this as the only way to break in to publishing.

I don’t get it. Those airport reads bore me. But I’ll also admit that sometimes the literary stuff bores me, too. The problem with those (non-literary) books is that there’s no love of language. Maybe there’s a bit of craft in storytelling--there would have to be, it seems--but generally the work feels mired in a lack of spirit.

Getting back to revision...How do these approaches necessarily lead to good prose?

The Lish school as I’m calling it seems to approach the writing on the level of sentence and word choice, which is fine, but what happens when you need to stretch your legs--which is where all good fiction should inevitably go? (this can be argued, and I’ll shortly contradict myself...) I think of this because another writer who I’ve been looking into again lately (leave it to the NYTimes to get me to dust off my shelves), Donald Barthelme, seems to write in this style that Cheever had a hilarious comment on (“The stuntiness of Barthelme disconcerts me. . . . Blooey. It’s like the last act in vaudeville and anyhow it seems to me that I did it fifteen years ago” (this in the Bookforum review of Cheever's ouevre)). What is it about this style that feels like McSweeney’s co-opted as if it were a province of their (some might say) elitist identity? I think this is what we talk about when we talk about being clever. It’s whatever no one gets, or gets in only their way, but that a clever writer can imitate enough so that only a select few think they get it. So many journals claim and decry cleverness in equal measure, that it ruins it for those writers of us who don’t necessarily look at what we do as trying to be clever; maybe that’s the point, that if you actually are good at what you do, not everyone is going to get it. They’re only going to see you as a wannabe... Maybe I’m hypocritically doing the same thing criticizing McSweeney’s.

I never thought of “Seven Dreams Under the Knife” as clever. I had a woman run away from me when she read it. (How’s that for intrigue?) But this is also a woman who had plastic plants and scant aesthetic taste and thought my minimally appointed rooms here in the Mission resembled Van Gogh’s room at Arles. Initially, I was flattered by these revelations; upon reflection, I’m guessing that it was a perception of “cleverness” dogging me.

Maybe I could have stretched my legs on that piece, but after all the prescriptions about revision, I considered it done. I saw it as a gem that I didn’t want to do anything more with than see published. Which, however humbly, it is, finally.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Story Known As

I'm pleased and astounded by this news--my story, “Seven Dreams Under the Knife,” was picked up by Snow Monkey for their May 2009 issue--this makes three publications in six weeks

This piece has taken an interesting route to publication. Initially I’d sent it out to a reception of wariness and general incomprehension. One journal offered that it generated "a lot of discussion." This is when it was titled “Metamorphoses”; I often felt criticized as if I’d co-opted a title from Kafka (it was more of an homage). Rather than getting discouraged, however, I persevered. I changed the title twice before I settled on “Seven Dreams Under the Knife” which says exactly what the story is about. 

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Words Are Expendable

One of the most important lessons I retained from my advisors was the idea of revision. That this work is almost as important as the actual writing. Some might say it is the writing. But how much is too much revision--and, how do you know when a piece is finished?

I don’t know when a story is finished--maybe you rush it and finish it and find it’s not quite right. You could live with it for a year or two and then, nagging, is the idea that you left a loose end. I had this happen recently, and even after I had the story published, I recognized I could have fleshed it out a bit more. On the other hand, there is often a fear that something you’ve created is maybe perfect, so why mess with it? I keep about 3 or 4 banker’s boxes full of old novel drafts, and I sometimes come across an early version that feels, if only for an (illusory) moment, superior. How is that draft 370 pages and the current one 270? What did I cut out?

I think a writer can get too caught up in the ideas of is the writing perfect (or perfect enough) to submit to some outside critic (which is what submitting work to journals is), and I suspect this is why a lot of writers starting out don’t submit their work. I’ve made a habit of it. I know my work, in a sense, and when I’m satisfied with it, I’d like to put it out there. Is this merely a confidence game? I don’t know that I’ve become so hardened to criticism, I certainly welcome it, as I’m trying to communicate my art to the world.

I think there is something to the confidence you gain when you begin to have work accepted for publication. Passing muster with an advisor in grad school (and ultimately with a thesis-which means at least three people have read the thing) is where it began for me. I wasn’t merely workshopping the writing, (which maybe serves a more self-acknowledging function--you don’t need this group other than to validate your gut instincts.) but now complete strangers are reading and commenting on my work. The danger then might be that you get soft or less critical.

I developed this idea that I should make the writing as perfect as possible before I sent it to my advisors, rather than worrying if it was “finished”--because I found that the more I pushed myself to tighten whatever I had, the closer I got to seeing what it was, what it wanted to be (note: yes, I believe the writing aspires to something we can’t entirely grasp--I often say, “let the writing be what it wants to become,” because of the other block that says, “I don’t know what to write.”) I do this with most of my fiction, and I am trusting the process.

As for those old drafts, there is something to be said of striking while the iron is hot. If I didn’t love the writing enough the first time around, there’s probably a good reason it didn’t make the cut.

Words are expendable--another thing we hoard as precious in our apprenticeship.

Maybe another truth is that I didn’t have the patience with the writing initially. I have plenty of half-starts, some I’d consider very good, but they just don’t inspire me enough to keep returning to them, trying to figure out what they need to become. In some ways the fiction is alive, like a plant, and if you neglect it too long, it withers.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Neverending Iraq War

It's been a lucky few weeks for my fiction submissions, and perhaps in conjunction with square root day (3-3-09), I've received word of another publication, for "What We Have Seen Waiting for the War to End," in Homestead Review

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Absurdist Shipwreck Tale

I'm pleased to announce that Wisconsin Review has picked up my short story, "The Edmonton Farrell," to be published in their spring issue, 2009. As a friend pointed out to me, they only accept twelve stories a year. The timing is apt, as it allows me to continue my application for an NEA grant--not that I necessarily have a chance, but why not?