Monday, June 22, 2015

Guest blog post up at Superstition [Review]

The Literary is fast approaching seven years old in August. When Superstition Review asked me to write a guest blog post, I was given carte blanche to write about anything I wanted. After four fits and starts, some of which made more sense in a different context, I hit on a novel idea. In honor of the seven year itch, I decided to write about--this blog. That piece, "From Journal into Blog: Seven Years of Writing on Writing", is available hereBut this brings up something more important I want to say.

In the ten plus years that I have attempted to craft words, I have never found so welcoming and encouraging a literary journal as Superstition Review. First of all, they saved from mild obscurity a story that had made the rounds so many times it was like a bad date you keep reminding yourself to forget (though I remind myself, this had nothing to do with its merit as a short story). And after it resurfaced, I realized that yes, I still love that story as I love a little all of my stories, long after they’ve been published and more or less forgotten. Then S[R] allowed me--asked me if I was interested, rather--to sit and promote my novel at their table during AWP in Minneapolis this past April. And finally, they asked for a guest blog post! Great folks.

So, I’m extremely grateful to Trish Murphy and the staff at Superstition Review--check out the photo from AWP, above.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Variation on the Writing Path: Part I

When I first began writing, on my own, with no teachers, no schools, no resources other than the friends I gave pages of carefully formatted prose to, I didn’t know even the tip of the iceberg when it came to the business of writing. In fact, it might be said that finding the resources for tapping into this information were scarce. This has been nearly 25 years ago. It’s often a wonder to me that, coming as far as I have, there are young writers starting out now who have all of these resources at their fingertips thanks to the internet. The writer’s path is much more deliberate now if you choose it, since writing has essentially become popularized, a desired career in itself, though the irony is of course, in order to really excel at it, it requires hours of solitude and discipline, commodities that would seem to be lacking in the culture that so fetishizes the writer as the kind of ultimate creative force. In other words, so many taking part in it seem to be heavily versed and immersed in the social media that invokes this conversation, that I begin to wonder--how do these people actually put any time in for writing? (The truth of this of course is that a writer doesn’t normally spend their allotted time--be it 8 hours a day or more if they are fortunate or supported, by writing--at writing; though social media, even if I were a full time writer, would still be a draining time suck to me).

I didn’t begin sending workout until probably ten years ago, already well a decade into my pursuit of writing; I’m not sure I even knew or understood before then that this was a regular thing that aspiring writers such as myself should or could do. Maybe part of this was really fear of rejection, though I genuinely think I had no concept that you would simply write a story and submit it to one of dozens, if not hundreds, of journals (now it is accurate to say, thousands, as there must be this many markets out there). If I scratch the surface, I might have erroneously believed that any fiction, like journalism and essay writing, was solicited. On the other hand, I’m not certain I had any familiarity with literary journals. I do remember my writing group talking about one of our members being “ready to send a story around.” I recall a distinct feeling of, “How dare he? That work isn’t worthwhile.” Or, at seeing the kind of hand made xeroxed “journal” they were in, I didn’t want anything to do with it. I’m sure I knew of institutions like the Paris Review, but again, I assumed anyone who wrote for them was approached by an editor and commissioned, possibly. So again, my pre-1997 approach to a literary market place was to imagine it as an off limits, almost hallowed place that for some reason I didn’t feel I was worthy of. As much as I began writing short fiction as a piece I might submit--and because it fit the writing group aesthetic--I’m not sure I was interested in it as much as I was a novel I’d been working on for years, which was known as Passenger. I was geared toward being a novelist, though one who had no apparent connection to the outside world (!).

When I applied to the top five or six graduate programs for an MFA in creative writing in ‘97, I remember being miffed by the letter from Brown University. It had said something like, “Most of our applicants have established themselves through publication in literary journals…” and my feeling then was, frankly, f___ you, Brown. Though the writing was, essentially, in the letter, it would still be a few years--at least seven--until I finally began to send work out to literary journals. This would only happen after moving to San Francisco, bathing in the light of the burgeoning writing community, amoebic and otherwise, that was suddenly, everywhere. Zyzzyva was one of the prominent journals I knew of--I’d picked up discarded copies at the local thrift store and pored over the work Vollmann had in them. Also, my boss had played on a softball team with Howard Junker in the seventies; he had encouraged me to send Junker stuff, calling his number at work and telling him I was going to do so. All I ever received were rejections with “Onward” on them. (Zyzzyva, by the way, has really become an elitist establishment literary journal since Junker left; their objective is to be a NY-arriviste-centric publication, or maybe another hyphen to add is--Bay Area elitist.)

Soon, I took a writing class or two at U.C. Berkeley Extension, with the hopes of applying again. I applied for the Stegner after learning about it from reading Stephen Elliott, and of course, I pursued the top programs again. After this, my second failed attempt at grad school applications, something must have clicked. I took a writing class at the Writer’s Salon with the wonderfully encouraging Linda Watanabe McFerrin, and thereafter, I began to submit my work to journals whose names were coming up among fellow writers. Now, to be shamefully honest, I only took the class because I wanted and needed someone to write me a letter of recommendation. Miraculously, or because I had genuinely showed promise, I asked Linda for this on the second class meeting, and she was happy to do it for me. But again, I was already looking down the road before I’d even had the tools to get my vehicle there. This time, saying to hell with my elitist aspirations, I applied to Goddard, a low residency program in Vermont, and got in. I was ecstatic.

Now, you’d have to be living under a rock, or perhaps on Mars, to not recognize the vastness of literary culture that is pervasive in 2015. I think it can make people who are not familiar with it or not all that interested in literature imagine it as a career or vocation that is readily available to anyone should they so desire it. And the culture itself doesn’t help to dispel this mythology, making genius writers of everyone from a promiscuous geriatric memoirist writing about her year of abandon, to an autistic child writing inspirational self-help.

Interested in reading Part II: The MFA? Check it out here.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Life of Reading

I recently finished volume four of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s beguiling and satisfying My Struggle. I was reluctant to get to the end, feeling the immense, possibly false affinity that I get as a reader, believing I’ve found a friend in the writer. (It didn’t help that I pitched him my novel when he was at City Arts and Lectures, and he graciously heard me out.) Eventually, I had to finish the book. But what I realized is that, while reading My Struggle, I had no desire to read anything else.

Now I’m in that strange predicament of looking for another book to whet my reading appetite, and am randomly reading five books at the same time because I cannot entirely give myself over to one as I sort of like them all a bit, and am still unsure where I stand with any one of them. I find myself in that space a lot, probably because there isn’t one book I am wrapped up in. In fact, I’d say I usually read several books at one time, as if a model of my mind and thought process. If a book is good enough, I’ll make the time to read.

I find it hard to just read any book--the time and usefulness trade off is too considerable for me--though I know a lot of people on Goodreads and such that seem to read a lot and varied and widely. I guess I just trust that everyone reads all of the books they claim to read as they indicate on social media, but perhaps this is a facade. I have a hard time not being honest about what I have or have not read (Ulysses: read; Infinite Jest: 4/5ths read; Magic Mountain: One third read; Moby Dick: read; The Brothers Karamazov: half read) Did I read enough of these novels, or do I intend to finish them some day? There’s something of a moral complacency I feel, as a serious writer and reader, by copping out as I must have, and probably will, on so much of my serious literary fiction reading. And then there is the question of which unread masterworks I still, one day, intend to read.

I don’t usually give up. In the case of many of those aforementioned books, I began reading them years ago, and it was years ago when I stopped reading them. My tendency is to find a reason to finish a book: guilt, having to review it (or wanting to), or simply because I like it. Maybe I would be more equipped to see them through to the end, now--or maybe not.

Much of the time I’m doing wide reading hoping one of the books will catch on, though because I’m reading fiction and non-fiction simultaneously, much of what I choose to read then is based on my mood. If these five books I’m considering now had the Knausgaard magic, I’d love them, too. The odd thing is that My Struggle is comprised of 450 page volumes, of which I’ve read four. I can’t quite get through any of the other long works I have had on my night table for awhile (Murakami’s 1Q84 and Vollmann’s Imperial, though I dip into them occasionally.)

I’ve also made a habit of reading toward reviewing, and so I gravitate toward books under 150 pages since I can probably read them reasonably fast. Also, if I am to review it, I will read it right away, even if this means forcing myself to finish it, which might mean that the book is a slog, and thus I probably shouldn’t review it. I usually won’t review it then if I can help it, because somewhere along the line I decided if I can’t say anything nice about a book, I shouldn’t say anything at all. I’m actually wondering if I should reconsider this approach.

When I solicited a number of name authors who I’ve had glancing acquaintance with (which might be considered low level stalking) to read my novel ImpossibleLives of Basher Thomas, in the hopes of getting them to blurb it, they all said one of three things. Either a.) they didn’t read other writers’ work for the purpose of blurbing; b.) they only read their students’ work; c.) they were too busy, etcetera. I got the distinct sense that, having not heard of me, or not remembering me, rather, they were afraid of reading execrable work. So they nip it in the bud. As it is, I happened to have read much of these writers’ work, so in some way, you’d think they might have been willing to humor me, but alas, no.

I’m not one to be given recommendations to, and in this I take heed when I try to recommend a book to someone. I’ll only recommend a book if asked, usually, and then I tend to pile on caveats. I somehow don’t want to be responsible for someone’s bad reading experience--though if that reading experience is good, I’ll gladly take credit. There are some people I naturally can suggest books to, possibly because I’ve had success getting them to read a book I recommended (and they, either truthfully or just playing along, loved it too.) The last book I recommended to so many people was David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Even with that book, I came to feel I suggested it to a few too many people who were not prepared to read a 500 page novel, and couldn’t appreciate the language and story, among dozens of other possible reasons why I liked it so much. There are some friends who have read so much and in such synchronicity with me and my reading, that I might take their recommendations--or used to--without question. Now I’m so selective that I just rely on my gut and a strong sniff test. There are some people who recommend heartily to me a book, going so far as to give me a copy, and rare is the occasion when I will actually crack the thing open and read it. There’s some guilt in not reading it, but not too much. I’m usually already busy reading several other books.