Saturday, December 7, 2013

Three Firsts: Ten Pubs for Year, Four Pieces in One Week, and Two UK Journals

Trying to place work can frequently feel like head butting a stuffed rabbit. Still, this year (so far) has produced ten publications for me--a first. Also, this week, four pieces are appearing in four journals (second first), two of which are UK based journals (third first).

My recent semifinalist acknowledgement for the Hudson Prize and Black Lawrence Press for my story collection, The Survivor's Guide, has convinced me to hang in there--not that I was ever going to quit. But sometimes, I can forget that, to paraphrase Karl Ove Knausgaard in the ridiculously readable My Struggle: Book Two: “Writing is the only thing that matters.” You can read my related review here, at Trop Mag, from this past summer. 

"Our Satellite Problem" is up at the incomparable Eyeshot. Thanks to editor Lee Klein, who accepted my piece after I pulled a fast one on him. I also can't seem to forget this detail: I first sent this piece to The New Yorker Shouts and Murmurs (hint: "O.S.P." is humor), and their editors were encouraging. Although they rejected the story, they admitted they did so, "despite its evident merit." An experimental piece "Cogitations on Self" appears in a journal across the pond, Sein und Werden, for their auto de fe issue.

Since I decided early on that I wanted to be a working writer, as opposed to one who daydreams about shiny fake gold engraved plaques and hollow encomiums--which I do daydream about anyway--I suspected reviewing was one way to get readily published. Current reviews are: MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood in Review 31 (UK), and Sunland by Don Waters in the venerable Rain Taxi print issue.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Myths and Realities of Writing Every Day

I used to make a habit of writing a thousand words a day. I have done this in various weeks long or months long pursuits of a goal, but never consistently. Now, I’m content with around 500 words most days, or four out of five days. I’m doubtful of writers who claim to do their writing as if it is a job, four to eight hours a day. If you have that luxury, because there’s such a demand for your work, then more power to you--I just don’t believe you. That also might be for the factory of thriller writers, but for the literary writer--where the words are considered with regard--there’s more useful strategies.

I try to get a few pages in every day with some regularity, half of which might be channeled into an active piece aiming for publication. On a very good week, I might produce several thousand words, which is the level I think you have to be at to produce a novel with any useful efficiency. I say efficiency, because you have to keep at a novel. When you put it down for too long, you can lose the thread and the inspiration, if you had that to begin with, and it’s difficult to pick that up again unless you are a genius. The pressure comes in at this sustained level, because then you have to find the time to dedicate to the sometimes teeth-gnashing goals of a quota, in pages or word count.

For anyone who is starting out writing, the idea that you have to practice, that you have to produce every day in order to make any headway, can be daunting. It takes years to get there, but it also can happen overnight simply by vowing to write a bit each day.

Any writing can get the gears turning, though for the most part, I think this process is something you don’t hear a lot of established writers talking about: how unproductive daily writing can feel. And yet you have to get over that hump to produce the work, and remind yourself with great patience that writing is really about re-writing. For most of the last few weeks I’ve been up around 6 or 6:30, and written at least 2 pages, sometimes more. How focused was I on the story I’ve been writing? Loosely, I had an idea and wrote to that end. When I sat down to read my twenty plus handwritten pages recently this week, I caught glimpses of a Nabokov-ian spoof filtered through my own concerted seriousness to say something compelling.

Usually, or ideally and rarely, I would be burning with a story to write, and would crank it out as soon as possible--usually in the early morning. Sometimes I’ve awakened at four in the morning with an idea that I could not shake, and forced myself to write, then after an hour and a half fury of near illegible scratching on a legal pad, I go back to sleep. Some of the best things I’ve written have occurred like this. There’s something about the synapses in the morning that are unpredictable and wildly able to go anywhere, it can seem.

I imagine the reason writers don’t often talk about this process is because it’s not romantic, and doesn’t convey the heroic notion that usually puts the vocation into a hallowed and sacred act that leads to the magical writing of magnificent, well-received tomes for mass consumption--if we could all be so lucky. In contrast, that idea that one writes as a job can be equally daunting sounding. If a writer does treat it as a job, I can almost guarantee for the full four or eight hours they are not continuously writing--either that, or the writing is mostly garbage. There’s a kind of sweet spot about how much time and how much you write each day that is probably optimal, but there is no formula. Everyone has to discover their own practice.

I’m not sure writing isn’t ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration. I think because I have experienced the inspiration driving the writing, I’m inclined to believe anything less is wheel spinning--though wheel spinning can indicate that the mechanisms are at least working.

When you generate this much writing, at some point you have to realize its potential. At five or six thousand words, is it going to be a story you pursue or not? And then, further, are you working on a story, or a novel, or something else altogether? I’ve put some much editing time into even relatively short pieces, that I know a novel takes a yeoman effort. In the futile seeming generation of all of this raw material, you might begin to think it is all a waste of time.

It’s not a waste of time. All writing can lead to this next story or article that will, or could, be the piece that pushes you to the next thing. That’s largely what writing is about, having the faith to continue on in absolute uncertainty. This is easier to consider in thought than practice, but it’s true.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Double Barrels: Political Humor and a Double Review

It's been a good few weeks for placing work. This week, my satire, "Kim Jong-un's Unread Spam Emails to Obama" is appearing in The Higgs Weldon, assuring that I'll never step foot in North Korea. Also, a double review of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle: Book One and Tao Lin's Taipei is to appear in Trop Magazine, assuring that I'll never undertake reviewing two books in one piece again without being paid an extremely exorbitant sum. Also, I've updated my website publications page.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Misspent Youth Chronicles, Vol. II

A further dispatch from Misadventures in Deconstruction, the latent memoir of my tragically impressionable apprentice years in architecture, appears in Glint Literary Journal. "Abandoned" portrays the time tested game of cat and mouse occurring with that unknown quantity, the dorm mate, in my case a future hopeful Nobel economics candidate.

Go here to read the one published prior to this. You might laugh, you might even cry.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Gary Lutz and Postmodern Sentence Poetics

The ideal writing does not necessarily make for ideal reading. At first blush, this can be the effect of a Gary Lutz story. The immediate, visceral appeal of his stories, with their emphasis on the dynamics of word sounds and affinities, suggests an objective beyond  storytelling. Traditionally, the fiction writer deploys a series of hooks or leads or clues--items that convince the reader that something is being gained (or learned, deciphered, comprehended, gathered, earned, etc.). It usually is not enough to be beautiful (though it can be) or unusual (though it can be), but in the standard approach, the reader can fashion certain objectives from the work. The motivation for understanding implies that the writing supplies objectives.
In practice, the goals of fiction are often geared toward the writer’s construction of a prose puzzle, something from a complicated and unquantifiable internal dialogue, which can encompass more than the traditional signposts. This is how I read Lutz’s stories.
I began to think about form and the gymnastics of sentences in reading Gary Lutz’s essay about writing in The Believer “The Sentence is a Lonely Place”. Lutz, a student and proponent of Gordon Lish, discusses his preoccupation with words and sentences; Lutz doesn’t even consider story, in fact. It’s all about language. But in reading this piece, with its extreme emphasis on technique, I kept thinking, “balance.” There is the inevitable question of where, when and how much? We’ve all read prose that’s too wound into its own self-consciousness to be readable, which returns the ball to the reader. Most folks will check out if they don’t “get” it. Beyond the verbal endspiel, the reader’s experience can go by the wayside. But is it even necessary to think about this? I ‘d guess Lutz would say this is what his work does. But for its often cryptic seeming effect, he creates something almost esoteric in the form of a short story. At least this approach forces a writer to become more attentive to the words. Is that ever a bad thing?
I suspect a lot of these processes Lutz talks about in the essay happen as much accidentally, through careful and religious editing, as they would when they are consciously deliberated. In other words, much of his method could be achieved by a writer’s paying careful and systematic attention to the sentences’ and words’ deployment.          
There might be a common line here between poetry and storytelling. Lutz clearly revels in the formality of sentences. But it also feels like his writing has a strong influence from poetry. The process of writing poetry--to oversimplify far too much--is often grouping sympathetic words before a sentence is declared; this is also a Lutz technique. Lutz’s writing reminds me of my experience at Goddard studying under Carla Harryman--and trying to understand her process--and some of the investigations with writing that I undertook at her behest. Which sent me to the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry for a refresher course.
Regarding post-modern poetry, the writing is often a preoccupation with form, of process versus a final product; finding a form that fulfills the promise of the language. Not to oversimplify, but understanding some of this work can enact its toll on even a patient, attentive reader. This does not make it good or bad-- insularity is always somewhat inaccessible.
The following is a sampling from several of Lutz’s stories:

                “The house was mostly beaverboard and ungroomed carpet and concerted backdate appliances.” (1)
                “The youngest, a boy, was a little loose and unfortified in what he knew. He called the floor “the ground” and did not so much walk as trifle his legs forward: there were negligences, even criticisms of the filled world, in his lawless progress toward the table where supper could no longer wait.” (2)
“It was a period, understand, of rationed, grating embraces, and then one day she came out with a baby, sprang it on me in a bassinet upstairs. I know I must have eventually confused the thing with mock holidays, and lonely toilet drills, and homemade cereals that just sank in the milk, and I know I must have stood the kid up in front of uncles and ball-rolling aunts, and then she vanished with it into her vague-faced, waiting family.” (3)
“Afternoons, the sky volunteered its birds and its sun-showers. We would be out on the patio again, each with a rubble of white chocolate in a ruffled paper baking cup. The one skymark was a radio tower, laddery and ablink.
Anything, she kept demanding, is the seat of passion.” (4)
(1) and (2) “Fingerache”; (3)“Femme”; (4) “Uncle”: Gary Lutz, I Looked Alive, 2008 Black Square Editions & The Brooklyn Rail, 2010

I don’t always comprehend Lutz’s work, which is perhaps, naively, what I find so compelling about it. Or I get it insofar as I get the process by which he creates it, and I can derive my own understanding of it. In an interview in New York Tyrant, Lutz says this about his work: “[...] I like writing that’s capsular, conclusional--writing that gives you the precipitate of experience and not the experience itself. For me, the residue is usually more interesting than whichever person, place or thing the residue might be residual of.”
                That what Lutz writes are nominally stories with their words’ careful rubbing together, tend to enlarge their writer’s status in a sea of traditional expressions of the form. A reader might get the impression that this language work is somehow saying more. It could be. It is definitely saying it differently. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, it is impossible to put words together without sense. Why shouldn’t a writer aspire to deploy words in such an interesting, intensive manner?

Interested in reading more? Check out the latest posts here.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Misadventures In Deconstruction

An episode of my misspent youth attending architecture school, in my unpublished memoir Misadventures in Deconstruction, will be published next month in The Bacon Review. Thanks to TBR. This piece, entitled "Storage Room" answers the question about just how ineffective I could be in the workplace.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Against Personal Experience

After toiling for years to heed the ridiculous, self-satisfying exhortation of blithe creative writing instructors all over the planet to “write what you know,” I must finally confront that, when it comes to fiction, alas, I am incapable of this.

If you want to write fiction, this is the first rule of thumb to throw away. 

When I began to write seriously in my early twenties, I had not done much living. I was a fanatical daydreamer. And so when something significant happened to me, I tended to recycle it for weeks and months afterward. Meanwhile, not living, I attempted to prove I was a writer by re-visiting this experience that someone had bestowed on me out of pity, kindness or a morbid curiosity. I wasn’t yet capable of going for what I wanted, due to a crippling fear of rejection. Let me rephrase: I was incapable of knowing what I wanted, so I couldn’t begin to go for it. So I just sat back and thought up poetry about my latest, usually too brief, adventure. I thought about it as fictional fodder, while rarely straying from the straight line I had to take to get to and from work each day.

This is not to say how I’m suddenly experienced-up, but I have had uncountable life experience since twenty years ago, experience that puts to shame the efforts I toiled so earnestly over for far too long. This might seem to be me throwing out the baby of my life’s experiences with the bathwater, but the mellowing reflection of age coupled with experience has contributed to my ability to write fiction by giving me the wisdom of discernment. It’s of no service to fiction to become agenda driven.

The stories that have clogged my files for years and that I can’t seem to revisit, and have otherwise given up on, are usually stories that derived from re-imagined experiences. Either someone I knew was the basis for a major character, or I had written the story with some goal of a more glorious outcome. These stories often involved a vague longing to re-right (rewrite?) an episode that embedded itself into my psyche, though it is certain I have long since forgotten why. Perhaps in my avid attachment to the sources, I’ve never been able to remove myself from the material enough to make convincing fiction; these narratives never make the leap in my imagination that would allow them to leap off the page. They never achieve the necessary estrangement which would prevent me from piling the narrative under layers of sub-conscious psychological baggage--which seems unavoidable when I base a story or character on something or someone I know. This taints them for consideration, and I stop short of believing they have any more merit than of personal exorcism.  This is not to say it cannot--or should not--be done, it is just that I find it nearly impossible. I need to trick myself, then trick everyone else. If I can’t pretend I’m not using my own experience, the story is dead in the water.

On the other hand, the material, or the event the story is based on, must have been compelling enough to get me to write and work on it for so long. But this impulse was just inexperience, and being unwilling or unable to try anything else.

File these efforts under Apprentice Work.

Truth is I put a lot of time in on stories like this, and some of them might be passable, even good now. I might be far enough removed from their source material to not be hindered by whatever compelled me to write them initially. I have frequent dark nights of the soul to debate about this. I often think how I have already “wasted” seven or eight years writing this way, but I am guessing it all helped in the long run. So far, for me, writing fiction from my own life is a failed enterprise, mostly. In compiling a story collection to submit to competitions, only two of the stories are loosely based on personal experience.

Almost without exception, the stories I’ve had success with have originated in news events, non-fiction accounts, documentary, or straight up imagination. Whatever their sources, they all end up going through the imagination mill. It is much easier to make things up this way; my imagination is more agile than my recollection or regeneration of past experience. Which highlights another flaw in writing from life. It’s difficult or nearly impossible to break something from a fixed recollection. If it never happened to you, you are free to explore myriad possibilities. By their very nature, stories from life try to contain some experience that is not containable, and thus, the element of freshness and the unusual is probably lacking, having not been discovered in the writing. If I don’t make the discovery in the writing, it is unlikely the reader will, either.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Shadow is Substance

Many thanks to Burningword Literary Journal for selecting “Object/Multiple Singularities/Be Here Now” for publication in their quarterly, upcoming on April 1st. This piece was inspired at my alma mater Goddard and the Pratt Center Library's bunker-like lower level on a snowed in January day several years ago.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Literary Index

Number of page views since inception: 10,025

Year by which The Literary posts are projected to reach three digits: 2013

Average number of hours per week spent on blog: 6.3

Estimated average hours lost for writing of fiction: 1404

Number of short stories unwritten since blog began: 11.7

Number of novels: 1.3

Number of blog posts written, edited and abandoned before posting: 81

Number of reams of paper used in writing of blog: 3.28

Number of times per month that I get a sudden inspiration to write a blog post: 2.7

Percentage of posts that get written: 35

Slices of Tartine chocolate tea cake that inspired blog posts: 7

Cups of coffee consumed during writing of blog: 585

Hours spent preparing coffee: 48.75

Minutes per day that I am distracted from paying work by writing blog: 87

Earnings lost since blog inception: $86,627

Number of books read: 328

Number of books reviewed in part or whole: 27

Percentage of books read that were reviewed: 8

Number of reviews I’ve written for specific journals that I’ve had to withdraw because the editor was unresponsive: 2

Number of writers who were my roommates at Goddard and who have had their novels turned into an eight times Oscar nominated feature film this year: 1

Degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon now: 4

Percentage of The Literary index that actually shares any resemblance to “Harper’s Index”: .07

Chance that anyone at Harper’s will ever know or care that I used their trademark feature in my blog: 1 in 4,239,351

Number of times per interview that Fresh Air’s Terry Gross subjects her guest to an annoying question: 2

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Re-upping Indie Credibility

The estimable Spork Press will be going live in March or April with three experimental thematic pieces I wrote: “Ejection Seat”, “Shine”, and “Ski Patrol”, proving to me that it’s never too late to re-up my indie credibility. Gravity has a lot to answer for.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Submit or Bust

Print is still--and maybe always will be--the coveted realm of publication, so it seems odd that print journals are more and more striving to banish hard copy (aka snail mail) submissions. From a recent attempt to put together some mail submissions, my cursory survey indicates that the tide seems to be going this way.

I’m noticing a lot more online only submissions from journals that used to take mail submissions, and I’m of mixed opinion about this. Since print publication is the coin of the realm, it seems counterintuitive to have the work processed electronically by quality print journals (Willow Springs, Sycamore Review, Gulf Coast, among many others). Many charge $3 for this service, through the dominant submission site, submittable (which had the unfortunate name submishmash for awhile, which is how I thought they probably felt about the deluge they were asking for with this system). After signing up and using the service for a few journals, I didn’t realize until recently that one password would allow access into a system that offers no indication of which journals it serves, knowledge which could have spared me confusion and inevitable password headaches. When using submittable, you see a list of your submissions in a spreadsheet, the name of the journals you have submitted to with the annotation of either “Received” or “Declined.” Some must also see “Accepted,” of course. Many of the smaller or less profile journals use the system, though without a $3 charge.

The $3 may seem no more than a nominal charge considering how much an actual mail submission costs: postage, anywhere from a dollar to two or more, envelope, return envelope with postage, and printing paper, as well as the time involved. In a sense, these journals are getting the money you would otherwise spend to send a hard copy.

For all the time investment and inefficiency of snail mail, I prefer it because, like the lowly and costly journal in paperback form it aspires to, it puts something substantial and tactile in hand. It won’t evaporate with one key stroke. It is, more and more, put into a recycling bin when it fails to impress--but its chances of being a felt presence on an editor’s desk seem more comforting to me, maybe because it materializes something that came out of my mind.

As for the electronic format, if the work is only published online and not in print, it can have a brief, lowly half-life when someone hacks the journal’s website and destroys hundreds of writers’--and editors’--work. This happened with a journal I had work in, which I’ve never been able to confidently call published because the website is gone. There is often this notion that work committed to the world wide web is public forever, but somehow, it’s never the work that you might want to be available.

I am warming up to the electronic transition. But not much. I don’t particularly like reading on a screen, though I have adapted to it out of necessity. At one time, I absolutely refused to send work by e-mail or through online submission sites, though I now accept that this is the future.

The argument is made that online submissions are greener--which may be true--but I think there’s something more insidious going on against the writer, which highlights the plight of the marginally published.

As there are presumably more writers submitting work in this form, it is also easier now to send work. This can make rejection so much more efficient for journals. Because there is less paper for them to wade through, it is easier to ignore. The slush pile has become the melting polar ice cap. It’s going away and no one will miss it until it’s too late.

Online submission systems might tempt harried and overworked editors to skim over possibly good work. If the work is unknown, what are the chances that it will be that good, anyway? You can almost see the logic to this assessment. Of course, this can just as easily happen with snail mail. When you have toiled and edited your writing to a careful finish, it can feel like nothing to submit and pay your $3; if it’s this expedient to send, just image how much more likely the work could get passed over merely because there’s too much work for editors to read through. The numbers reality: there’s likely more good work out there, too. Maybe now more than ever, it is all about luck, or almost crazed persistence on the part of the writer to land a publication.

If journals don’t banish snail mail, they are making it much more difficult to submit this way, often instituting exacting guidelines to follow. I find them to be an intentional annoyance, and sometimes lose track of them when I’m putting work together to submit. If I miss something when I mail, such as accidentally forgetting to address a piece “Attention: Fiction Editor,” I don’t really fret about it that much. But often, these journals’ requirements can come to sound like the red M & Ms of a diva pop star’s dressing room requirements: “Never address us as ___.” “Under no circumstances, should you ever do X.” How low do you need to bow and scrape? You will because you want them to consider your darlings. Or maybe you’ll give up and hit send when you realize how much more work snail mail requires.