Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Moment Of Clarity

You can spend years learning how to write stories that someone will want to publish; you can analyze every story you read to the point where you draw the life out of it. One day you discover you are doing it--writing stories that someone wants to publish--and have done it.

In the process, you realize not only have you done it, you’ve done it your own way.

I don’t know if you can go so far and say you have a voice or something like that--maybe with enough work amassed you can see that, but one of the hardest things to do is to be objective about the work you’ve spent so many hours, days, and weeks on. So it’s always a surprise when someone does want it, though because you have done all the homework you shouldn’t be surprised.

The compulsion is still (for me) to go back again and look at what other writers are doing to see anew how it is done. I am always reading a lot of work, much that I am not always excited by, just to see if there is something I can learn from it (maybe, what not to do.) When you enter a dozen contests a year, the journals start arriving in the mail whether you want them or not. I usually don’t, but I paid my entry fee, and there they are. I read them anyway.

I’ve had this feeling on numerous occasions when I’m writing a story: that this one will get published. I don’t mean to sound arrogant or over-confident, but there is often a moment of clarity that seems to be the reward for the willingness to show up and do the work. That moment, out of nowhere, is sublime. And that moment isn’t exactly that certainty that it will be published, it is more a sense that “I know this story has the quality and the spark to be well-published.” Since it has happened a few times, I have to believe there is something to the notion.

In the best cases it’s when I’m writing the story, and I sense someone might connect with it; again, probably because you can recognize that quality when you read another writer (maybe 10 percent of the time) you begin to recognize that quality in your own work. Some might call this a voice and I suppose that’s what it is. I really believe this absorption in a wide variety of fiction makes finding one’s voice inevitable. You can learn and assimilate much by reading a lot and widely. It has less to do with reading “how to” books and more with reading good fiction.

On the other hand, I’ve spent months on stories that I’m quite sure will never see the light of day, but there is some reason I persevere with their doomed venture. I’ve come to learn to take my time. A story I started in May is only now shaping up, and I feel confident that it will resonate with someone. But that confidence is the best gift one gets for having written year after year when there was seemingly no one that was going to read your writing. That’s what the ten years on novel number two, forever relegated to a banker’s box of drafts in the closet, was for.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Antioch Review

Returning home from Maine this past weekend I received notice that The Antioch Review has selected "Under the Suns of a Million Everests" for publication in the Winter 2012 issue. I’m excited and immensely grateful to Editor Robert Fogarty for this honor. Talk about great company: over its seventy year history the Antioch Review has published Joyce Carol Oates, William Trevor, T. C. Boyle, Raymond Carver, Gordon Lish, David Means, Ben Percy and Ha Jin, just to name a few.
This also got me thinking about statistics, specifically my orphan statistics. It seems like you need to all but give up on a story before someone will finally take it. Initially I got reamed on this story when I workshopped it with a new group in Berkeley (a once and only workshop occasion--they dismissed me after that first meeting as “not a good fit”)--perhaps with cause, I don't remember--and it’s also kind of a funny vindication and a lesson to anyone who is in a similar situation: you don’t need to believe all the negative criticism you hear from strangers. Rather, take most of it lightly, because you may actually be onto something in your work. As I am reminded almost daily, you do have to trust your gut.
For awhile I’ve changed my strategy with the orphans, since in some cases I’d sent them out to over seventy markets. When have you reached saturation is always a question, though when very good (I’d call them top tier) journals give you a citation, it always seems like the story will eventually find a home. You think, justifiably so, that this can’t just be a fluke. A writer friend told me he just gets rejections, revises and sends out again, without thinking--for years. It takes years, in reality, but I’ve been cultivating patience for a long time, and it’s all part of deciding that this biz will make you or break you.
When these citations come back, it’s time to take seriously their advice and tighten up the story as necessary. I’d only sent this story out at the beginning of the year because I hadn’t sent it out in over a year, and in about three years, it had been to only 30 or so markets. Very slim numbers (ten a year?), however, it received a positive note once from StoryQuarterly which has stared at me every day since as I tacked it above my workspace. And, as I was reviewing some workshop notes on the story, one of my readers (Tim) had remarked that it was his favorite story of mine. I trust this groups’ opinions, singularly and collectively, so I decided to give it another chance, and on a lark sent it to Antioch Review. Voila.
As I mentioned here, it takes me an average of 35 markets to place a story (this is not counting the fluke stories that get sent out seventy plus times), and now this one is no exception. I think I liked the story so much that I somehow expected it to place sooner, perhaps, and sent it to fewer, more select markets.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Third Anniversary Toast

The most interesting writing projects, for me, have come about through experiment. It may spring from the thought: should I try this? But often that is enough to get the notes down on paper that will spark to life. The Literary, the blog you are reading which I started three years ago--begun before the first groans of the greatest recession of our era--was just such an occasion. I’d wanted a place to post reviews, news and thoughts about the one subject that never ceases to excite my enthusiasm and obsessions. Incidentally, for someone who used to start things he couldn’t finish, a blog is the ultimate tool for procrastination.
When I assess the writing on this blog, it isn’t necessarily a lot of work for a three year period, though it has accumulated to a decent book length draft. I may not post as frequently as I should, if I am thinking about numbers and getting hits. But since I haven’t been thinking only about numbers and hits, I’ve tried to be diligent, consistent and tactful in my writing. This process takes more time than I can usually anticipate, considering my ambition. Having a web presence is better than none, perhaps, and this blog has helped me land more work and place pieces that I might not have otherwise attempted. The Literary has kept me on my toes when I’ve detoured from fiction. In retrospect I’m pleased with the material in this blog, and can say that I set out to do exactly what I have done with it. Thanks to everyone who has commented or sent me a note over the years.
Since art is long, money expendable, and the economy is like an unfortunate roller coaster ride, for now I’m going to keep looking forward and offer a third anniversary toast.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Publication Trail

The paths a writer takes to publication can seem a unique combination of good luck, hard work and randomness. The following two items are from “22 Things I Learned from Submitting Writing” by Blake Butler at HTML Giant that resonated with me:

“9. If you really want to publish a book one day you will publish a book. The time that you spend getting there is kind of wonderful. Don’t cut it short. The emotional range is valuable.

22. No matter how far you get there are always going to be more people who don’t understand you than do. There are hundreds of thousands of books and all of them are important to somebody, and most of them most people have never heard of, and there’s a reason you’re related to those people.”

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Demystifying the Writing Workshop Ideal

When in the dark night of my literary soul I sometimes wonder, what if I had gotten into Iowa? I console myself with this thought: I might have gotten into Iowa if I had tried, later (in other words, if I applied now). I know I have the confidence for it now. But it’s a stupid question. Still, I often wonder what I’ve missed for opportunity for having not gone to a “better” school. Is all of my praise of my school something like the kid who is happy on Christmas morning with the particular shape of his lump of coal?

With these things it can seem like sour grapes. But I don’t think I’ve failed to exceed even my own initially meager expectations, so why look back with anything resembling regret now?

At Iowa, they must insistently focus on getting their writers’ work placed--a clear commercial approach that really had nothing to do with where I went for my MFA. There it was almost a defiantly anti-commercial, as if it was shameful to aspire to literary success.

In equal ways I’m resentful of my prior unsuccessful attempts to get into good MFA programs (by good I mean, perhaps the top ten on the US News listing), and yet glad I ended up with the experience I did. Likewise, with those Stegner people--I think about a former colleague applying every year and wonder when he’ll just start trying to write better and do what he can to get his work published. I don’t admire his blind persistence (to be a Stegner, or not to be, that is the question) because it assumes that lottery quality of it. Yet is the fact that a Fellow who has produced nothing but mediocre novels, and got in the year I last applied, make me wonder if in fact it isn’t unlike a lottery?

And yet if it is a lottery, I’d sometimes much prefer the odds of having gotten it; yet what does it say for all of the successful Iowa grads I admire I can think of an equal number whose work fails to excite (not only me, but the book world public,) and whom must have initially been greeted with the kind of bated breath and expectation befitting a Nobel candidate?

This all comes from someone who looks at himself as exceptional, of course, though probably not in ways that most people care. I consider that what I’ve been able to produce has been exceptional, and for whatever reason I didn’t have the grades, the pedigree, or the proper ass sniffing tolerance to get into an Iowa. I certainly dashed expectations of my imminent failure when I got accepted into the University of Michigan architecture program and became one of the sort of elect there--and I didn’t work nearly hard enough at what I should have then. And I’ve been floating on my U of M laurels ever since.

Maybe the question isn’t, is Iowa great? so much as, can Iowa open doors? Absolutely.

Just the tenor of these Kevin Brockmeier notes makes me believe Iowa is a cut above. The impression I have is that apparently all of these writers get publication contracts out the door--so it’s pure prestige to go to these programs. And knowing now what I do, I might have tried harder to get in. Because once you get in, that’s where you will forever be associated, besides all of the connections you will make in a good program, all of the opportunities to advance, and the name of the school you will forever talk about.

If someone says it doesn’t matter where you go to school, guess again.