May 28, 2010

Setting Up to Fail

I just love TED. It stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, and its site has online 20-minute talks by thinkers in all fields that talk about ideas. It is phenomenal. So much of what you get on TV and the internet nowdays is about celebrity; this site is about thinking.

Yesterday, I watched this amazing talk given by Larry Lessig, who is a lawyer and professor whose passion is copyright and the internet. His talk on laws that choke creativity here gave me so much to think about it’ll be on my mind for days. Let me try to explain.

Larry began with three stories leading to a point:
1) In the early 1900s, musician and composer John Philip Sousa traveled to D.C. to protest the phonograph because he was afraid that it would replace the actual singing by actual people ~ in other words, change our culture from a read-write one to a read-only one. Larry points out that that is exactly what has happened. We are a society of consumers of art and culture, not creators. Culture has become top-down and professionalized and the vocal cords of millions have been lost.
2) It used to be, when you owned property, you owned it from way deep in the ground on way up into the sky, but that changed when planes began to criss-cross the country. Judge Blackstone ruled that it did not make common sense because a transcontinental flight would trespass on millions of people’s land.
3) In the early 1900s, the organization ASCAP controlled the rights to all the most popular music, and then an upstart BMI came along and set up a service that took the music that was a little less popular and made it available more freely. In that battle, BMI won.

What Larry advocates for is the revival of a read-write culture, for people taking their voices back on internet platforms that support user-generated content (or usg). Specifically, places online where content can be used freely for amateur use but must be licensed for business use. What these platforms do, he says, is celebrate amateur culture. This does not mean “amateurish”; it means people being creative for the love of it, not for the money. He showed three great examples: 1) serious vampire anime set to the muppet song “Ma Na Ma Na,” 2) Jesus singing Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” through the streets of NYC, and 3) cleverly arranged clips of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair dubbed to the duet “Endless Love.”

The techniques of creativity have been democratized, Larry says. All you need is a home computer, and you can create whatever type of content you’d like. He called it “remix.” I love this: He said that it is “the literacy of this generation.” He ended by saying that our kids really are growing up in a different world. Where we are consumers of culture, they are creators. We listened to music, they create it. We watched movies, they create them. We read, they write.

However, the legal system as it is set up creates the presumption that what our kids are doing is illegal, that using content in this way is piracy. The internet is not like previous forms because each use creates a copy. Pre-internet, copies were piracy, but now, just to use something you create a copy, and that should not be considered piracy.

His final point was that we are creating a prohibition society, where in order to live we have to live against the law. Our kids are growing up with the presumption that they must be pirates in order to live.

Without making this post too much longer, I wanted to point out a few things as it relates to writing: 1) The internet has enabled writers to put their stuff out to audiences without a middleman ("disintermediation"), which means both that we are overwhelmed with content and that there are no gatekeepers ~ in both the good and the bad sense. We have control of our own voice. 2) This is exactly what is causing so many challenges in the publishing industry. 3) Remix, or mash-ups as they are called in the lit world, is not just a passing fad; they are a fact of our culture (though I would argue that they have always been around). 4) It both thrills me and scares the daylights out of me to think about how this affects my son and my daughter.

What I’m Reading Today: Started Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie for book club. Oh, how I wish I could’ve read this when I was 12! It reminds me, so far, of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, although the spunky voice reminds me of Charles Portis's True Grit.

May 27, 2010

How Writing Is (Like) a Product

Today, I’d like to think about how writing is (like) a product.

First, I want to set aside all the usual arguments: Yes, when you try to get published, you are trying to sell your work and therefore it is a product, dang that commodification of art, how much are my hard-won words worth, and so on? I want to bypass these altogether and talk about something slightly different. I want to talk about a story as product from the point of view of the reader.

In yesterday’s post, I talked about the unevenness of a first collection of stories. Experienced writers can more consistently write stories of good ~ if not great ~ quality. If you read an Alice Munro story or a Tobias Wolff story, you know it’s going to be great. If you buy one of their collections, all the stories will at least be very good, even if there’s a couple you don’t quite connect with.

So, from a reader’s perspective, the “product” ~ that which is voraciously consumed ~ is of better quality. Say we compare it to a kitchen knife or a doctor’s services. You want to know, when you buy that knife or go to that doctor, that the knife is going to stay sharp and do the job and that the doctor isn’t just doing an adequate job but his or her very best. You want the people making the knife to already have made the errors to get the tool right. And you don’t want a doctor so inexperienced that they make their mistakes on you. The same with writers ~ you don’t want them to make their mistakes on you.

Consumers usually want what they’re most familiar with unless they are those people who always have to have the new and latest. So, by comparison, readers often want what they know and like from before. This is why genre is so handy ~ you know what you’re getting. But if you’re not a reader of genre, you often go with your favorite authors because they have an established product that you know you’ll probably like.

You also want it to be easily accessed, and unless you’re a new-seeker you like it to be in the form you’re most comfortable with. In my case, for a long time if it wasn’t paper I printed it out before I’d read it, but now I’m comfortable with reading on a screen, though I do not (yet) own an ereader. I’m not opposed to it at all ~ I just thought I’d wait for a bit for the technology to be sorted out (and maybe the price to come down). But I really love the paper book!

Price is a factor too. If you went out to buy a new microwave, you’d balance what you want from that microwave with its price, and if all the microwaves you’re looking at offer the same things, you’ll probably go for the one that’s the lowest price unless you’ve heard something bad about that brand or you have brand loyalty to another. So this translates in book terms to hard back vs. trade paper vs. paperback vs. electronic. Or if you can get it second-hand or in the case of stories for free online. As a reader and a writer, you balance whether you go to an indie store or a chain store or online and then new vs. used. A very complex choice.

Consumer choices have a lot to do with identity. Who do I think I am and how does this product fit in my life? Is it something that will affirm my values or challenge my convictions? Am I the type of person who likes to stay in his or her comfort zone, or am I the type of person who likes to be exposed to new things and have my beliefs challenged? This is what marketing is all about. This last point is often the breakdown, in books, between genre and literary.

So I guess I’m saying what publishers and agents have been saying forever: the market forces (i.e., readers’ habits) often are in direct opposition to the interests of the writer, especially the new unknown writer (established vs. new, quality, price, name recognition, brand loyalty, format, etc.). And if we think about our own literary consumer habits ~ not huge principals that seem to have nothing to do with us ~ we know that our habits as readers/consumers are not this thing disconnected from our writing.

What I’m Reading Today: Finished Thom Jones’s The Pugilist at Rest. Amazing stories.

May 26, 2010

When I’m Reading, I Don’t Want To Be Reminded of the Author

If I ever had any doubts about Thom Jones writing female characters, I take it all back! Mea culpa. Last night, I read “I Want to Live!” in The Pugilist at Rest, and man oh man is it fabulous. It’s about a woman who’s dying of cancer (or, as in the story, “can … cer”) He takes his time, and it’s such a lovely story.

Isn’t it interesting? Reading story collections can be a mixed bag, especially when it’s a first collection, as this one is. You can really tell the stories where the writer has reached his stride, as well as the ones that were earlier attempts. These earlier attempts show the promise of what’s to come, but they aren’t unified (all of a piece) and coherent (parts in the right order all fitting together). And then you see the gloriousness of when it all comes together. Then it’s like the last two seconds of the game and your team sinks a three-pointer. You want to stand and cheer!

Which brings me to what I wanted to try to figure out today. In most cases, the best stories are those in which the author disappears. This isn’t a new idea (but I don’t remember whom I’ve heard say it). The best stories are often those stories where you’re swept away ~ you’re with the characters, who cares who wrote it? The more “underdeveloped stories” (as someone very graciously and delicately said to me recently) are constantly pulling you out of the story ~ either because of craft issues or because you’re wondering about the author. You’re pushed out of the “vivid and continuous dream.”

So I wanted to talk through how these early stories go wrong. What keeps pushing you out?

One reason could be that the details and instances in the story don’t seem to work together. They aren’t unified and coherent. An experienced writer can pull these types of things off by weaving unlike motifs throughout to where the reader isn’t even conscious of it. The experienced writer sets up what’s going to come later with little feints in that direction and little feints away. Things only seem to come out of the blue when the writer intended them to ~ and even then they’re usually prepared for.

Related to that, in a good story, everything ~ and I mean everything ~ works toward the effect(s) the author is trying to create. I used to tell my science and technical writing students: A good piece of writing is like a well-designed tool. Nothing is extraneous, and everything has a function and works toward the goals of that tool. Even if it’s just for aesthetic purposes, rather than functional. So, in a piece of writing, every plot point, every character, every description, every verb, every comma, every space, should work toward the effect.

That said, a writer should trust his or her subconscious and go with impulses, but after that first draft is spewed out, the writer should take a long hard look at his or her choices and assess whether each thing contributes or takes away. Because you can’t afford so much as a comma out of place or the reader is pushed out of the story just that little bit more.

Another reason I’m reminded of the author, I think, is because their range isn’t very broad (yet). They use the same elements over and over in all their stories. It’s like they haven’t yet worked through all those things, and they keep trying to figure them out. Eventually, given enough time, writers can get those same elements that seem so disparate to combine and really make a great story from them.

These elements are why I keep thinking of the writer. Because they keep popping up on all the stories and because I’m not pulled into the dream ~ instead of thinking, Wow, what an interesting metaphor or I wonder how this is going to fit into the narrative and character, I’m thinking, this happened to this writer.

It’s only later, after I’ve read the great story, that I’m consumed with admiration and become a little obsessive about the writer. I want to reread parts and I want to read their whole oeurvre and I do my best PI on the internet.

What I’m Reading Today: Thom Jones.

May 25, 2010

Guest Post over at Kristi Petersen Schoonover’s Blog

Check it out! I’m visiting over at Kristi Petersen Schoonover’s blog, wherein I answer the age old question: why do you write?

It’s a hard question, isn’t it?

Thank you so much, Kristi, for letting me hang with you!

What I’m Reading Today: More Thom Jones short fiction.

May 24, 2010

Making a Cliché Into a Story

I’m struggling with how to make a cliché into a story. By this, I mean, how do you take a situation that has been done so many times, sometimes well but most often badly, in all different media, and make it into a good literary story?

In this case, I’m writing a story of a teenage boy who shoots his cranked-out father in self-defense. How many times have you seen something like this in TV or read it in crime fiction? Each sentence is a booby trap of words and received ideas. Each situation has been laid out so many times, how do you make it new?

When I first began the story, I was immensely unsatisfied because it sounded like a bad crime novel ~ not a novel of a bad crime but a crime novel that’s really bad. I used that standard shock opening and then I detailed the crime and then I had him on the run. I used words like “hide evidence” and “the cops.”

So how do you get around this? How do you make genre fiction into literary fiction?

Well, I think the first thing to do is to slow way way down. You know how most genre fiction slides smoothly over the surface of things. The pace is heightened because that’s what a lot of readers like with this fiction. It moves fast. It doesn’t question reality; it affirms preconceived notions. It entertains. Which is great, if that’s what you want your fiction to do. Also, have characters think about things. Put in flashbacks ~ not indiscriminately but as they directly relate to what’s going on in the scene.

Second, inhabit the character’s body. Give the five senses. Don’t write what you see on TV ~ first of all, your point of view is way outside the story and, second, TV is not real life. Put yourself bodily into the character’s body, and give your reactions to a scene like that. Feel the tensions in your body. Smell the smells and hear the sounds and feel the textures and let the sense memories flow.

Third, question each and every sentence and each and every move. Make it real. Make it new. Hunt down those clichés and root them out. This is definitely at a sentence level – words like “the cops” and “destroying evidence” and the like. But it’s also on a larger level. Don’t have them doing exactly what you’ve read and seen in these plots before. Real life is more complicated.

Fourth, make your characters fully realized, rather than cardboard cutouts. Having them complex beings with long histories will make the job of avoiding clichés easier.

I think it’s also important here to trust your unconscious ~ it knows a lot more than we think. If a skunk pops into the narrative, go with it. See where it leads. If your character’s nose itches, tell us about it and let him scratch it. Maybe this aspect of his character will lead you somewhere.

I say all this, but let’s see if I can actually do it.

What I’m Reading Today: I’m three-quarters of the way through Thom Jones’s collection of short stories The Pugilist at Rest. Boy, the title story just knocked my socks off (pardon the pun). Taking disparate elements (Vietnam, boxing, epilepsy, art and philosophy, the man’s man) and putting them into the same story ~ it just works. He really explores that psyche so well. I just read my first story of his with a female point of view character (“Unchain My Heart”), though, and I’m ambivalent about it. She’s so far from me, at the beginning she doesn’t seem real, a cliché, but then as it goes on I’m more convinced. And I do think there are women out there like this character, the female equivalent of Jones's male characters. Killer last line, though: something like “She’d gone deep, now she was going for speed.”

May 21, 2010

Stoked!

I am so stoked! One of the book trailers I nominated for the Moby Awards won! Congrats, Maurice Gee and Going West and the New Zealand Book Council and Colenso and Anderson M! Congrats, guys ~ You so deserve it!

My Husband

My husband Steve comes up with the best ideas for stories and for novels. Yesterday he emailed me an idea that immediately got me going and I wrote the first paragraphs of it. This was the idea. You know how people who die and come back say that they experienced nothing but love, which some people attribute to seeing God? Well, what if someone became addicted to that feeling and sought it out? Isn’t that the greatest story idea?

Here are some of his other ideas. When Einstein died, the only person to hear his last words was his nurse. His last words were in German, and his nurse did not speak the language. What a perfect story! Another, what if a young man who had a troubled relationship with his father was hunting, walking through a forest, and he came across another man scattering the ashes of his dead son?

My husband is also a great verbal story teller. He’s one of those great story tellers that when he starts a story at a dinner party, everyone stops to listen, because it’s invariably fascinating and entertaining and also a true story. His nickname is Lurch, and over the years he’s built a great Lurch rep.

He hates ~ I mean HATES ~ to write. Each sentence, each word, is torture for him because he wants to get it right before he goes on. Because of that, I can understand why it would be torture ~ I couldn’t write that way. He went to an all-boys Catholic boarding school run by Benedictine monks, a great college prep education, and they taught him well. He’s a good writer. In fact, he’s the one who taught me about the five-paragraph essay and about topic sentences.

He does have to write for his work as an engineer, and I help him sometimes talk through structure and look over what he writes as a technical editor. Especially since that was my job for 16 years. And I’ll often ask him about technical engineering-related material.

He’s also very supportive of my writing. He asks about it ~ whether a story was accepted and whether I’ve done any writing today. If I’m feeling down, he suggests that I write because it always makes me feel better. On a Saturday, he’ll say, “Why don’t you write today and I’ll take the kids for a few hours?” When I receive a rejection, we’ve got it worked out that he says, “Congratulations!” ~ because it means I’m putting myself out there, moving forward, even if it is a rejection. He also jokes about me finally, dang it, writing that best seller so that he can be an at-home dad and putter in the garden.

He wasn’t always as supportive. When I first started writing, like any sane person he didn’t understand why in the world I would want to do such a thing, and I’m sure he resented the time and attention it took away from our relationship. Plus he had the standard suspicion that all the sciences hold for the arts, and he would tease me about it. Even now he sometimes feels a little left out of my writing.

I used to resent the fact that he refused to look at my writing. I thought of all those writer couples who had this cozy ~ if possibly competitive ~ relationship, reading each other’s work, spending their days wandering about their house and running into each other in the kitchen as they got more coffee. But Steve does not feel comfortable giving feedback because he isn’t a writer, and he knows that I might not like the feedback he gives, so he opts out of it. Which took a lot courage for him to do. Now, I love the fact that he gives me space for my writing, and he does read my work after it’s published. It’s a great arrangement that really works for us.

One final story. I began AWP this year really doubting my writing. Halfway through the conference, I was sitting in a panel in which a woman was talking about her ex-husband and how horrible he was and how he tore down her writing. Right at that moment, my phone vibrated and I glanced at it. It was a text from Steve, saying, “U r the brightest star in the room! I believe n u! l, s” Isn’t he great?

What I’m Reading Today: I just started Nathan Englander’s short story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. I’ve loved his stories for a long time. They feel like folk tales but they’re so much bigger than mere stories in the way that great folk tales can be. I mean that as the highest compliment.

May 20, 2010

Dreadfully Nervous I Had Been and Am

Today, a writing exercise, I think. I’m going to point to two words in the dictionary and write something. The words: vigil – n. keeping awake during the time usually given to sleep, esp. to keep watch or pray; saccade – n. a brief rapid movement of the eye between fixed points, as in reading, derived from the Old French sachier meaning to shake.

Strange that my vigil should come to this, this nonclimax. I say nonclimax because un refers to something done while non is in opposition, though it may or may not have occurred. It did not occur and thus was not undone, therefore a nonclimax as opposed to an unclimax.

Her face before me with its brief saccades of thought and then its fixed glance to the left, indicating in the psychology of mendacity that it is a made up thing, as opposed to a remembered thing, that comes from her mouth. What she says is this: “I do not oppose our union.” That it is a thing of the imagination, rather than of memory, tells me that she has not yet pondered it, considered and decided, it is a new thing, a new thought, therefore there is a chance at happiness yet.

But my expectation was for her flat denial or her jubilant affirmation. That she had not yet thought this thought, the thought that had vexed and fixated me for months, that I was far from her mind in our long months of separation, should indicate her indifference to me.

Yet! Yet she says that she does not oppose it. Perhaps there is hope yet.

What I’m Reading Today: I finished William Kittredge’s The Best Short Stories of William Kittredge. I feel a kindred spirit, and we cover a lot of the same ground. How modern ranch life affects people and relationships. The Western legacy of violence. How the West is a character in its own right. His language can really soar with exquisite poetry, and when he nails a line, he really nails it. At the end of “Do You Hear Your Mother Talking?” there is a line something like “Like two parents listening for the talk and laughter of their children in the next room, just as the children listen back.” (I don’t do it justice but I don’t have my copy of the story here.) However, there’s something fuzzy about his writing. He consistently talks about what is not there, what is absent, even down to the sentence level ~ the antecedents to his pronouns are most often unclear. Also, he can be imprecise in his language, which feels very poetic but communication is not made. A very strong effect ~ when it works, as in “The Van Gogh Field” it is out of the ballpark, but when it doesn’t, it leaves me going, “Huh?”

PS The beginning of next week I'll be hanging out over at Cool Person Kristi Peterson Schoonover's blog and talking about why we write. Make sure to check it out!

May 19, 2010

How to Make Boudin Blanc

If you have not read the journals of Lewis and Clark, you should. They are fascinating and literary and it’s amazing that they had the energy and dedication to write such a fabulous account. A testament to their characters. How can you not love the line “it is then baptised in the missouri with two dips and a flirt”?

From the Journal of Captain Meriwether Lewis for Thursday, May 9, 1805

Capt. C. killed 2 bucks and 2 buffaloe, I also killed one buffaloe which proved to be the best meat, it was in tolerable order; we saved the best of the meat, and from the cow I killed we saved the necessary materials for making what our wrighthand cook Charbono calls the boudin blanc, and immediately set him about preparing them for supper; this white pudding we all esteem one of the greatest delacies of the forrest, it may not be amiss therefore to give it a place. About 6 feet of the lower extremity of the large gut of the Buffaloe is the first mosel that the cook makes love to, this he holds fast at one end with the right hand, while with the forefinger and thumb of the left he gently compresses it, and discharges what he says is not good to eat, but of which in the squel we get a moderate portion; the mustle lying underneath the shoulder blade next to the back, and filletes are next saught, these are needed up very fine with a good portion of kidney suit [suet]; to this composition is then added a just proportion of pepper and salt and a small quantity of flour; thus far advanced, our skilfull opporater C—o seizes his recepticle, which has never once touched the water, for that would intirely distroy the regular order of the whole procedure; you will not forget that the side you now see is that covered with a good coat of fat provided the anamal be in good order; the operator sceizes the recepticle I say, and tying it fast at one end turns it inwards and begins now with repeated evolutions of the hand and arm, and a brisk motion of the finger and thumb to put in what he says is bon pour manger; thus by stuffing and compressing he soon distends the recepticle to the utmost limmits of it's power of expansion, and in the course of it's longtudinal progress it drives from the other end of the recepticle a much larger portion of the [blank] than was prevously discharged by the finger and thumb of the left hand in a former part of the operation; thus when the sides of the recepticle are skilfully exchanged the outer for the iner, and all is compleatly filled with something good to eat, it is tyed at the other end, but not any cut off, for that would make the pattern too scant; it is then baptised in the missouri with two dips and a flirt, and bobbed into the kettle; from whence after it be well boiled it is taken and fryed with bears oil untill it becomes brown, when it is ready to esswage the pangs of a keen appetite or such as travelers in the wilderness are seldom at a loss for.

What I’m Reading Today: More wonderful Best of Kittredge.

May 18, 2010

Two Threads in a Story

I’ve been reminded recently of stories that have two threads running through them that seem mutually exclusive, or at least not at all related to each other. The panel at AWP for the long short story talked about it, and I read Julian Barnes’s short story “Complicity” this morning. It may be two stories running side by side (e.g., Alice Munro’s “The Albanian Virgin”) or a story and an idea (Barnes’s “Complicity”) or two characters (the story I just finished about an old man and a girl).

Setting out to try to balance two strong elements in a story is a challenge, but a very fruitful one, I think. It automatically complicates things and challenges the writer to stretch him- or herself. Often, I’ll have in the back of my mind a character in a situation but then as I’m writing a motif or theme or extended metaphor will present itself without me consciously thinking about it. I always try to work with this, especially if it arose unbidden from my subconscious because what’s buried in there is a lot smarter than I am. In fact, I have to say that this is usually how I work – I’ve got a character or a story in mind but then a theme or extended metaphor pops up.

It feels messy sometimes, though, and I have to contend with not knowing where things are going. I feel much better having things mapped out in my mind, but sometimes the best stories come when I just go with it, treading in the dark. The terror of the blank page is much greater when I do it this way. I guess I am getting better at just trusting the process, though, because it doesn’t cause me quite as much angst as it used to.

Another way to exercise this writing muscle is by opening the dictionary randomly and pointing to a word and then doing it again. I once did this and ended up with the word for a type of flowering plant and the world “adultery.” It was great fun to figure out how I could get a plant to commit adultery and to write my main character as a scientist studying these flowers.

What I’m Reading Today: More wonderful Best of Kittredge.

May 17, 2010

Morphing Death into Life

I’ve been thinking about the inevitable ebb and flow of creativity. It’s related to the state of health and to how busy life is and family problems and how many crises come your way and your mood. But because I haven't been feeling that great, it’s really been driven home about how not feeling good really affects me.

And how in the world was Franz Kafka able to write? It’s a testament to either his iron will or his mental instability ~ or both.

He was born in 1852 in Prague, then Bohemia. His father was an overbearing ass, and his mother helped his father with the business, so Franz and his five brothers and sisters were abandoned to be raised by governesses and servants while the parents worked. Two of his brothers died as babies, and later his sisters were killed in concentration camps during World War II. After college, Franz took work at an insurance company, had many girlfriends, and was twice engaged to the same woman Felice Bauer but never married her. Then he contracted tuberculosis, which he died of in 1924.

Franz published only a few stories during his lifetime. It’s amazing he was able to write at all. During the day he would write about industrial accidents and health hazards, and at night he would write short stories. Can you imagine it? Getting up early to be ready to go to your job, spending all day laboring, coming home at night and trying to summon the energy to be creative, all while carrying this heavy load of grief and guilt and hatred and love. (I bet you can.) It’s probably because of all that that he was driven to write.

If I think very long about Franz, it makes me very sad. It also makes me think that I have nothing to complain about but also that all writers are kindred spirits under the skin. The only way to survive is to create. And this strikes me as a wonderfully positive and life-affirming thing.

What I’m Reading Today: "Ash" by Roddy Doyle in today’s New Yorker. Wonderful, of course. It links global crisis to personal crisis but it doesn’t feel gratuitous, and it has that subtle, wonderful uplift at the end.

May 14, 2010

To Make a Long Story Longer

The best thing happened to me yesterday! I opened my mailbox and there was a nice hefty manila folder inside. I always love getting literary magazines in the mail, and I get a lot of them. The first thing I do is search the list of names on the back cover or in the table of contents to see who I know who’s in it. More often than not, there’s someone, and I get to brag about them on the blog or on Facebook and email them or post on their Facebook page: You rock!

Yesterday, it was me in that list of names! My story “The Body Animal” came out in Talking River Double Issue #27/28. I am so thrilled. (You can only read it in hard copy, though, so order today!) The reason I’m mentioning it, other than shameless self-promotion, is because this story has had a long history, and I thought I’d tell you about it.

I wrote the story in 2003 shortly after grad school. I remember starting it on the computer and getting stalled, so then I went to the library with a notebook and I wrote through to the end, the last three-quarters of it, in one sitting. I revised it, and then I was in a writers group at the time and they read it. The comments I got back were: “Wow, this is really dark” and “The girl in this story has some sort of mental disorder.” I have to admit, in a long history of dark stories, it’s probably my darkest.

Then I began sending the story out in 2004. The first place I sent it was the New Yorker. Now, don’t be shocked, and I’m going to resist being embarrassed as I say it. It all goes back to my haystack theory of publishing ~ I didn’t expect it to be published there, but it’s part of the process of letting people get used to your work. Also, Deborah Treisman said in an interview that she doesn’t get nearly as many submissions from women as men. I say: You’ve got to have hubris to be a writer. You won’t believe it though ~ I got the “despite its evident merit” email on the story! (In recent years, the line “despite its evident merit” has been revised to “in spite of its evident merit.”) This note has sustained me through dark times, let me tell you.

Between 2004 and 2008, I sent the story to 22 places. Of the 22, eight were form rejections, five asked me to submit something else in the future, two included nice notes, one was an acceptance, I withdrew five, and one I withdrew but then they sent me a note asking me to submit in the future.

These were the nice notes I received. Sean Meriwether of the now-defunct but wonderful Outsider Ink very graciously told me, “Closer than the last. I look forward to the next.” The Missouri Review, who’s sent me so many wonderfully encouraging notes, said, “Although we could not accept your work at this time we did enjoy the concept you explored with the body/self conflict. We especially liked the line: ‘As if the self and the body were the same thing.’"

Then one day in 2008, like many other days, I opened the mailbox and there was one of my little SASEs. A rejection. I opened it and, no!, it was an acceptance, a form letter that said, “Talking River is pleased to accept ‘The Body Animal’ for publication in a future issue of our journal.” Woo hoo!

So a year went by and I hadn’t heard anything. So I emailed Talking River. Nothing. There’s no phone number on their website, so after talking with a few people at Lewis and Clark State College I tracked down the number for the editor and we talked. He was very nice. Apparently, there had been an editor previously and things had gotten way behind schedule. The current editor thought that my story would be out in the fall of 2009, if I still wanted it to be published in Talking River. Needless to say, I did. Bird in the hand, and it's a great mag!

Still nothing. I called back in late 2009. The editor said that he was very sorry. They were trying to catch up. It would come out in the spring of 2010 in a double issue. So I’ve been waiting by the mailbox for it, and here it is!

A funny side note. I was telling my friend Chavawn, who’s also a fiction writer here in Laramie, the story, and she said, “That exact thing happened to me too!” A story was accepted at Talking River and then took a while. We were hoping our stories would be in the same issue.

So, finally, I’m so glad that Talking River is back on track, and I’m so grateful that they didn’t just pull the plug on me and on this wonderful journal. Kudos!

What I’m Reading Today: More Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life. So good.

May 13, 2010

Elysium

Finished a story today and sent it off. Bliss. Absolute heaven. And I think it's a good story.

What I'm Reading Today: Relatives are visiting, so not much reading time ~ other than reading and rereading the story to revise it.

May 12, 2010

Explicit

I'm thinking today about how writing is making your subconscious explicit and how stories do not feel like you proactively make them but rather like a concretion of found objects excavated from deep sediment layers.

May 11, 2010

The Single Greatest Characterization You’ll Ever Read

From Ron Hansen’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford:

He was born Jesse Woodson James on September 5th, 1847, and was named after his mother’s brother, a man who committed suicide. He stood five feet eight inches tall, weighed on hundred fifty-five pounds, and was vain about his physique. Each afternoon he exercised with weighted yellow pins in his barn, his back bare, his suspenders down, two holsters crossed and slug low. He bent horseshoes, he lifted a surrey twenty times from a squat, he chopped wood until it pulverized, he drank vegetable juices and potions. He scraped his sweat off with a butter knife, he dunked his head, at morning, in a horse water bucket, he waded barefoot through the lank backyard grass with his six-year-old son hunched on his shoulders and with his trousers rolled up to his knees, snagging garter snakes with his toes and gently letting them go.

He smoked, but did not inhale, cigars; he rarely drank anything stronger than beer. He never philandered nor strayed from his wife nor had second thoughts about his marriage. He never swore in the presence of ladies nor raised his voice with children. His hair was fine and chestnut brown and recurrently barbered but it had receded so badly since his twenties that he feared eventual baldness and therefore rubbed his temples with onions and myrtleberry oil in order to stimulate growth. He scisssored his two-inch sun-lightened beard according to the fashion then associated with physicians. His eyes were blue except for iris pyramids of green, as on the back of a dollar bill, and his eyebrows shaded them so deeply he scarcely ever squinted or shied his eyes from a glare. His nose was unlike his mother’s or brother’s, not long and preponderant, no proboscis, but upturned a little and puttied, a puckish, low-born nose, the ruin, he thought, of his otherwise gallantly handsome countenance.

Four of his molars were crowned with gold and they gleamed, sometimes, when he smiled. He had two incompletely healed bullet holes in his chest and another in his thigh. He was missing the nub of his middle left finger and was cautious lest that mutilation be seen. He’d had a boil excised from his groin and it left a white star of skin. A getaway horse had jerked from him and fractured his ankle in the saddle stirrup so that his foot mended a little crooked and registered barometric changes. He also had a condition that was referred to as granulated eyelids and it caused him to blink more than usual, as if he found creation slightly more than he could accept.

He was a Democrat. He was left-handed. He had a high, thin, sinew of a voice, a contralto that could twang annoyingly like a catgut guitar whenever he was excited. He owned five suits, which was rare then, and colorful, brocaded vests and cravats. He wore a thirty-two-inch belt and a fourteen-and-a-half-inch collar. He favored red wools socks. He rubbed his teeth with his finger after meals. He was persistently vexed by insomnia and therefore experimented with a vast number of soporifics which did little besides increasing his fascination with pharmacological remedies.

He could neither multiply nor divide without error and much of his science was superstition. He could list the many begotten of Abraham and the sixty-six books of the King James Bible; he could recite psalms and poems in a stentorian voice with suitable histrionics; he could sing religious hymns so convincingly that he worked for a month as a choirmaster; he was marvelously informed about current events. And yet he thought incense was made from the bones of saints, that leather continued to grow if not dyed, that if he concentrated hard enough his body’s electrical currents could stun lake frogs as he bathed.

He could intimidate like King Henry the Eighth; he could be reckless and serene, rational or lunatic, from one minute to the next. If he made an entrance, heads turned in his direction; if her strode down the aisle store clerks backed away; if he neared animals they retreated. Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them, rains fell straighter, clocks slowed, sounds were amplified; his enemies would not have been much surprised if he produced horned owls from beer bottles or made candles out of his fingers.

He considered himself a Southern loyalist and a guerilla in a Civil War that never ended. He regretted neither his robberies nor the seventeen murders that he laid claim to, but he would brood about his slanders and slights, his callow need for attention, his overweening vaingloriousness, and he was excessively genteel and polite in order to disguise what he thought was vulgar, primitive, and depraved in his origins.

Sicknesses made him smell blood each morning, he visited rooms at night, he sometimes heard children in the fruit cellar, he waded into prairie wheat and stared at the horizon.

What I'm Reading Today: I've been savoring Steve Almond's Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life for a while now.

May 10, 2010

Writers Are the Translators of Their Childhoods

I recently watched Charlie Rose’s interview with New Yorker editor David Remnick about his new book The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama. One of David’s points in the book (which I have not read) is that one of the reasons why President Obama is so good at what he does is that he is somewhat of a shapeshifter, able to balance the needs of his audiences and strike just the right note, and also he is able to translate his background into the national narrative.

That last point really struck me: That one reason President Obama is so effective is that he is able to translate his childhood, both during his speeches and also in his memoir Dreams of My Father. It reminded me that the best writers do just that too ~ they translate their childhoods for a larger audience.

I used to be ashamed to think about writing stories based on my childhood. First, my childhood was not exotic, I thought. I was a hick, and where I was raised was not extraordinary in the least. I have since come to realize that I may be a hick, but there is come cache to being one, and when I travel if I say I’m from Wyoming the other person will invariably have a story of going to Yellowstone Park or traveling across the state. And they will remember me because I am from Wyoming, and if it’s a conference I often will be the only person there from Wyoming. I also have since realized that the way I grew up is in fact very exotic and very much out of the norm.

Second, I was ashamed because everyone’s first novel is thinly disguised autobiography. I was going to be different. I was not going to do what everyone else did. (I also wasn’t going to do that second-person story that everyone writes, for the same reasons, but then I did and it’s a darn good story, if I say so myself.) But I have come to realize that it doesn’t matter how close your stories are to your life. All stories are autobiography, even if the facts and characters do not seem to come from the writer’s life. They are emotionally truthful. What matters is that the writer is honest and gets as close to those things in the past that torture them. Those are the best stories. If that means they closely match your life, so be it.

Some of the best art comes from people moving away but then writing about that place they left. You’ve heard of many writers who no longer live where they grew up but they set all their stories there. They can do it in a way, with a perspective, that someone who still lives there cannot. (The same can also be said for people who move to a place and then write about it; they are in a unique position to have perspective and to translate for the people back where they come from.)

And I love the point about President Obama translating his life into the national narrative. Books, like people, can transcend their humble roots and shoot to national prominence. You can’t set out to write a classic ~ you can only write specifically about a certain place and certain characters. But your story is the story of other people too, and what happens to you can be the story of a generation, and so by telling your story you are telling the national narrative.

What I’m Reading Today: Nathan Englander’s “Free Fruit for Young Widows,” in this week’s New Yorker. A story about very specific things that is deeply philosophical. A fabulous example of opening and closing with murder yet the story is not sensationalistic in the least and is about so much more. It’s hard to put all this into words. And to find enough superlatives.

May 7, 2010

Steve Almond Will Save Your Life

I once thought Steve Almond was two people, and this is why.

It's July 2007 and the first morning of the Tin House Writers Conference. This is my first conference ever, and I'm scuttling along the sidewalk just waiting for them to accost me and toss me out on my ear: "Tamara Linse, you don't belong here! Go home." But I'm determined, until that happens, to meet as many people as possible.

The sun is shining brightly as I come out of the morning panel and I'm just thrilled to be alive. I see a nice young couple with a little baby in a stroller unloading in the circle drive. I stop to offer to help with the luggage. They've got it, so I walk along beside them as they make their way toward the check-in.

"Your baby is so cute!" I say. I squint to try to determine the sex. Just to be safe, I say, "What's her ... his ... name?"

The woman, who is very pretty and very nice, says, "Her name is Josie."

I bubble, "Oh, she is so cute. You know, I've got three-month-old twins myself back in Wyoming. Their grandma came out from Nebraska to help their dad with them."

They exclaim about oh-my-gosh twins and I introduce myself. The woman introduces herself as Erin and the man introduces himself as Jeff. (I'm saying Jeff, but I can't actually remember exactly what his name is.) We continued walking and talking and in my mind I'm trying to fix people's names, as I always do: "Okay, this is Jeff and Erin and their little girl Josie. Jeff. Erin. Josie."

The next day, I come across this other couple ~ a father, a mother, and a cute baby. The man looks vaguely familiar, and I could swear I've met the woman before at the conference, but I've been introducing myself to everyone and it's all a blur. "Hi, I'm Tamara," I say.

"Hi, I'm Steve," the man says, "and this is my wife Erin and our daughter Josie."

Being the rocket scientist that I am, I say, "Oh! Did you know that there is another mother and baby here named Erin and Josie? What a coincidence!"

You guessed it: It was Steve Almond and his wife and daughter, and I had assumed that the first man I had seen was Josie's father, rather than just a friend helping out. Those assumptions, they make an ass out of u and me.

All throughout the conference, I hear great things about Steve Almond. "Oh, I'm in Steve Almond's workshop, and do you know what he said?" Then they proceed to tell me something that sounds so smart I am reminded of how little I know. So I'm having Steve Almond jealousy.

Then, he gives a talk about how to write about sex based on his great essay "Writing Sex" (that's in (Not That You Asked)). He opens by reading some really bad sex writing and everyone is laughing so hard their sides hurt. Then he assigns us an exercise to write really badly about sex. Everyone titters as they scribble away at their pads. Then he starts calling on people to read what they've written. The first person he calls on is a writer from New York. She hasn't written bad sex, but instead she's tried to write something poetic and beautiful. He tells her that she hasn't followed the assignment and, frankly, it sounds like a masochistic rape fantasy. I think, ooooooo, don't mess with him!

So a couple of years later I get a flyer in the mail for a fabulous conference in Florida (The Writers Institute in Miami) in which I can work with Steve Almond for a very reasonable price. I'm thrilled but a little afraid but I take the chance. He's so smart and funny and his writing is so fabulous, how could you not?

I cannot express how fabulous he was ~ and is! It was a short conference, and his class was only three days, but I got more from than I have in many other places. On the last day, he gave a talk about the realities of being a writer that brought tears to me eyes and inspired me beyond belief. Then I read (Not That You Asked) on the plane home, and I was riveted and it kept my usual flying phobia at bay the whole way home!

Can you tell I'm a Steve Almond groupie?

Since then I've worked with Steve in a number of settings and each time I've learned so much. He's one of those people who is so respectful of both you and what you're trying to do. I take to heart his dictum to follow your shame ~ that's where the good writing lies. Don't be coy and withholding with your reader; suspense comes from the actual events, not from withholding vital information. Also, don't try to be writerly; tell the truth and good writing will come.

So now Steve is out with a new book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life: A Book by and for the Fanatics Among Us, and I encourage you, urge you, extol you, exhort you to drop what you're doing and go buy a copy right now. For a delicious taste, go to Steve’s website, where you get an overview with excerpts and the soundtrack, or go to The Rumpus here. Don't do it for me; do it for yourself because it will truly knock your socks off.

What I’m Reading Today: Deliciously immersed in New Yorker stories.

May 6, 2010

We Take Our Encouragement Where We Can Get It

So I took one of those quizzes on Facebook, the one called "What Do You Write?"

Here's what they told me.

Non-fiction. So you write life as it is. You don't like to create things that are fake; you like to emphasize what is real. You evoke empathy in the reader and force them to feel what is real, not what is fake. You are a brillant writer and enjoy writing about other's lives and your life as it really is. "My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way." - Hemingway


I love this! I like to think I am a realist (though in fiction, not nonfiction). And them putting Hemingway in there?! Oooh! And to be told (by something probably only slightly more accurate than a horoscope) that I'm a brilliant writer?!

I'll take it!

What I'm Reading Today: More wonderful Stoner.

May 5, 2010

Caviar

I love New Yorker stories. However, up until now, I’ve been hit or miss about reading them. I don’t subscribe to the magazine, but I read the stories online and at the library or when they come out in Best American or O’Henry and in author’s collections. So I’ve decided I’m going to try to read them all going back a couple of decades. It would be great to read them all to 1950, though that’s pretty ambitious.

I don’t have the time to dedicate to hanging out in the library to accomplish it, so I’ve subscribed to the digital edition. Let me just say: What a boon to people like me! I have a very specific reason to get it, I don’t want all that paper (not to mention the green aspect of it), and it’s inexpensive. I can access it pretty much anywhere I go. It’s interface is so functional and has all the things I need.

One of the reasons I’m doing it ~ other than for pure pleasure ~ is to improve my writing. I continually strive to do better, and this is a great way to do it. Mimicking the greats is an age-old creative learning device, and it’s fun!

The stories also do what great stories do, in that they spark ideas for my stories. Sometimes it’s content but also structure or style. This morning, I read Janet Frame’s “Gavin Highly,” and since then I’ve been having so much fun on a story about a cranky old hired hand and a girl who are working together one summer. Mine will be nothing like the wonderful childlike story "Gavin Highly," but the inspiration is more than enough.

What I’m Reading Today: Well, New Yorker stories, of course!

May 4, 2010

Ambition

My diaries are a testament to the optimism of self-improvement. They are exhortations to lose weight, to work harder, to spend less money, to be better.

Not that I keep a regular diary. I use them to figure things out when I’m really upset or to assess progress and to set goals. When I’m really upset or faced with a huge life-altering decision, I’ll take to my diary and I’ll write through it. I’ll write down the pros and cons and consult my heart and come to a decision. I’ll think it through on paper. Likewise, when I feel stuck or feel really down on myself, I’ll write about my feelings and then set goals to try to do better.

And I don’t have “a diary.” I just write things out in my writing notebooks as I go along. Turn to a fresh page, put a date, and start.

Someone getting to know me just through my very sporadic entries would think I am totally neurotic and I hate my husband and Life Sure Got Me Down. But my diary entries serve a very specific purpose: they focus me.

Which brings me to what I wanted to talk about, which is writerly ambition.

These diaries show my ambition to do better, to do more, to get ahead. Yes, I will admit it: I am ambitious. Oooh. It feels kind of wrong to put it in black and white, but there it is.

No matter how much they protest, writers who make it (however you define that term) are ambitious. Scratch their oh-I-really-don’t-care-about-all-that-stuff surface, and you’ll find someone who is deeply committed and competitive. It takes ambition to stick with it for yet another 10 years. It takes ambition to read other writers’ works to see how you can improve your own. It takes ambition to send that novel out yet one more time after the twenty-third or sixty-fifth rejection.

How established writers show it is another matter. Some hide it deep under very gracious manners, while others treat every other writer like night soil because they feel threatened. But it’s always there.

There are lots of specific examples, but I’ll just touch on one. I was just reading Lillian Ross’s 1999 “amplification” in the New Yorker of her controversial 1950 profile of Ernest Hemingway. She writes that he was more straightforward than most writers about his ambitions:

All writers yearn to be considered the best. Some conceal the yearning; others deny it. Hemingway, more than any other writer I’ve known, was forthright about this wish, and as touching as a child.


Lillian mentions how Hemingway had strong opinions about other writers, and he talked about them a lot in their letters. He was honest. He wasn’t afraid to talk well about someone he admired nor to dis someone he didn’t like. But he was also encouraging to young writers.

So, I guess I would just say that it is okay to be ambitious, even necessary. It’s a part of life, this desire to do well at what you love. However, since I seem to be in an exhortational mood, I would urge you to use it to fuel your creativity, rather than to tear down fellow writers.

Now I’m off to write my 10-year, 5-year, and 1-year goals.

What I’m Reading Today: John Williams’s Stoner. I had heard about this book for years, but I had resisted it because I thought it would about someone who smokes pot and other things, and (with apologies to the excellent Denis Johnson) I wasn’t in the mood for that type of book when I came across it. Turns out, it’s about a young man who grows up on a poor dirt farm but then goes to college and the affect that that has on him. I picked it up solely on the recommendation of Steve Almond. And, boy, is he right! Quiet and elegant, not to mention close to my heart. Just take this excerpt. The main character Stoner is telling his parents he will not be coming back to the farm after college:

He listened to his words fall as if from the mouth of another, and watched his father’s face, which received those words as a stone receives the repeated blows of a fist. … His mother was facing him but did not see him. Her eyes were squeezed shut; she was breathing heavily, her face twisted as if in pain, and her closed fists were pressed against her cheeks. With wonder Stoner realized that she was crying, deeply and silently, with the shame and awkwardness of one who seldom weeps.


WOW.

May 3, 2010

The Curse of the Writer

There are many pros and cons about being a writer, but one of the challenges is that it takes you over like the aliens in the movie The Puppet Masters (based on the Robert Heinlein novel by the same name).

The movie starts innocently enough. Something strange lands in rural Iowa, and special agents go to investigate. But then the locals are being taken over by sluglike aliens, the Puppet Masters, who insert their tentacles into and control over people’s minds. The aliens also infiltrate the intelligence organization, and it looks like they’re going to take over earth.

The main character, an intelligence agent named Sam, sacrifices himself. He becomes possessed by an alien so that the agency can understand it. While under its control, he is aware of himself but is totally committed to the aliens’ cause. After the creature is removed, his mind is still warped by the possession.

Writing is like that. The more you write, the more you commit yourself to the writer’s life, the more it takes you over and controls your mind. It alters your very take on the world, and here’s how.

I was driving to the post office the other day. To get to the post office, you drive right by the city offices and by the police station and the jail. As I rounded the corner, court must’ve been letting out. Lawyers and other well-dressed people were going to their cars, and a group of eight or ten prisoners in black and white striped jumpers were being taken back to the jail from the city offices/courthouse next door.

It feels wrong to use the passive in this case. Sure, the prisoners were escorted by policemen and their hands were cuffed behind their backs, but they were not head down in a grim line. They looked like, say, a class of kids that are walking together from one place to another. The prisoners were in a loose bunch, not in a line. They kept their distance from each other like kids who don’t know each other well. One prisoner was a short slender woman, and she was joking with the other prisoners. You could tell by the way she twisted her body in its jaunty step and the way a couple of the other prisoners were looking at her.

What did I immediately do when I saw this scene? I started composing a story. I wondered: Who is this woman? Would she be pretty or would she look like a crackhead? Why was she there? Was someone in the group her boyfriend? These details wound round and round.

And I immediately started composing a story. The first line: “Jenny was a school teacher and a crackhead.”

This is the curse of being a writer. You don’t just experience life; half of you is always questioning it, and sentences start to form in your mind. Themes start to emerge as you consider details and words. You are immediately taken by the situation and swept away. You want to write a story!

This wouldn’t be so bad, but details come at you all the time. Everything seems appareled in a celestial light, to borrow a well-worn phrase, and you want to capture it, express it, follow its winding path to see where it goes.

At least a couple of times a day (when I’m in my writing) I’m seized by the opening sentence of a story or essay. I want to immediately go and start writing. This would be so interesting, I think. It becomes almost a compulsion.

So I really try to not let my mind go on something unless I have time for it and I really want to write it. So, for example, I have two things I know I want to write today: this blog post and a guest blog post for a friend. Already I’ve got the first sentences and the ideas and the structure in my head. The tentacles of these stories are in my brain and pushing me forward!

What I’m Reading Today: I’ve been working on a friend’s website so I haven’t had much time to read.