Friday, March 6, 2015

The Unscary Maybe

So here's a juicy bit of news: I got to writing some things by the end of February. I played all kinds of mental games with myself to try and get going on the wikibook, but it didn't work, so instead I went back to the secret project. I'd planned to write it all longhand and then type/revise only when I was finished, but my intentions for it have changed in the new year, so I typed and revised the first two chapters (previously written) and then wrote about half of the third. I wish I could explain in more detail what this project is, but it feels like a fragile clay carafe full of magic - like the bottom will fall out if I pick it up and try to describe it, and all the magic will escape, and there will be sad trombone.

It felt good to be doing the act of writing after what has been a vexed dry spell, but it was a mixed good: I wanted to be writing the wikibook instead, and this project is weird. I set out to write it for myself, but now I'm starting to look at it with a more critical exterior eye.

In 2013, I read two books by Lynda Barry, One! Hundred! Demons! and What It Is. Both wonderful, both recommended. I don't remember which one of them had her "Two Questions" within, but I realized recently that I've kept a lesson from it in my head all this time in precisely the wrong way. Here's the first panel (and the link in the prior sentence will take you to the whole thing):

Octopi and sock monkeys seem to be friendly spirits in Barry's marvelous universe

For over a year, I've been looking at my work with those two questions in my head, together, as a barometer. I do not freak out over them or allow them to keep me up at night, and I don't think I consciously consider them when I'm drafting, just when I'm revising. Yet only if the answers are yes and no, respectively, do I believe the work is finished and/or ready to go out into the world. Most of the time, I think what I write doesn't suck, but it isn't always good. Some of the time, I think it's good - will be enjoyed by others - but to my own eyes, by my own measure of what I want to accomplish, it sucks. The distinction might sound ridiculous, but to me it isn't at all.

Barry's piece goes on to explain that for her, relearning how to enjoy making art involved forgetting these two questions, because all they did was torment her and keep her from working. So as much as "Two Questions" has helped me, I've been following the exact opposite of her advice.

I don't know that I could feel finished with a piece lacking some sort of yardstick, though, some question that I can ask and answer about the work that tells me whether I've properly finished it or not. I think the point of "Two Questions" is to allow "I don't know" to be an operative mode of creative work, to let "I don't know" be unscary. I can live with uncertainty (I think I meditated on that already this week), but I cannot work without finally considering whether what I make is going to be enjoyable for someone else. Even if that someone else is only Matt, or only my friend Kathleen, or only my friend Rob.

It's possible that this means I'm not a mature artist, that there's more letting go I have yet to do. I accept that as a possibility. As an unscary maybe.

I thought that the secret project was potentially a step forward, because I meant to write it altogether for me and to not really care whether anyone else liked it. But some of the experiments I tried in the second chapter have made my head scream THIS IS GOOD AND DOES NOT SUCK when I read over it. How can I ignore that, when usually what I get is eh, someone might like this someday?

I hate a little that this project is shifting into something more external. Not a lot, but a little. I wish the reasons that made me change my mind about the external/internal aspect of it had cropped up after I was finished, so I could cover my eyes and arrow it into the world once I'd really, truly written it inside the little bubble of what I alone want to do. But I certainly can't stop now. It's going, it's work that's actually going, and I've been starving for that in recent months.

So: onward. Twelve chapters. No prisoners.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

What Sticks

One of the better movies I've seen in the past few years is Paprika, which, if you liked the ideas in Inception, you should see. The thing that's stuck with me the most is not, according to my Google searches, what commonly sticks from this film for people. But then it's kind of a rich film. One of the main characters is haunted by recurring dreams of a man in a white shirt falling down in a red hallway. I could not find an animated gif that shows the whole moment, but this is the best I could do:


The man in the white shirt falls, or hovers, or moves backward and forward like a special effects clip from a cheap 50s movie, multiple times in the film. His hands dangle, his shirt flutters. The mustachioed man did not see enough about this man's falling to resolve the mystery within it, so tries to steam out everything he possibly can from these few seconds that he did see. Like watching the Zapruder film. Back...and to the left. Back...and to the left.

This image, of the man in the white shirt falling in the red hallway, is the best visual representation I've come across for demonstrating "unresolved". Or for showing an entire story pivoting on a central problem. Faulkner has said about The Sound and the Fury that the whole book, for him, derived from the image of Caddy's muddy drawers, and the Compson brothers looking up at Caddy in the tree and seeing them. That was the image that made him write the book (or so he said in later years); that was his man in the white shirt falling in the red hallway.

Of late, I can't get out of my mind a friendship that had multiple stages before it finally ended ten years ago. This was a human who mattered to me significantly, but whose regard for me was, and remains, obscure. Someone who made me feel understood even as he made me feel small, someone whom I admired enormously even as I saw - could not fail to see - how self-aggrandizing and blindly privileged his behavior was. He abjectly ruined my life, and gave me reasons to keep living, at various times. God, I learned so much.

I dreamed of him just under a year ago, and when I woke up the ache of missing him was almost unbearable before I remembered everything else. Since then, he's been my man in the red hallway, falling. Of the many unresolved relationships in my life, he is the one who looms largest right now, and I haven't the foggiest idea why. Aside from seeing pictures of him with mutual friends on Facebook from time to time, he's totally out of my life, and in totting up the sums, his absence is a positive. But I feel as if I'm not finished with him. As if I have been through it, but not beyond it. In The Chronology of Water, Lidia's future husband says to her "There is more to your story than you think." It's a moment in which she's required to reimagine herself, from her bones out, and I don't think that's what I require when I think of this man I once knew. But the phrase sticks.

Like the man in the red hallway. Like the specific way my friend walked, and the texture of his hair. His huge, nasal laugh embarrassing me in a movie theater. The view of the river from his desk, where he did God knew what with the nascent internet and doled out the best music anyone will ever give me. All of the things he did not say, the pain he must have suffered under a veneer of ego. The man's hand, dangling, his slipper sliding from his foot. Have I steamed out everything I can from this relationship? Or is there still more wealth that he can give me, even in his absence?

What do I build with him as pivot point?

I don't know. I don't know the answer. There is no answer to be had right now; there is no resolution to this story, easy or ugly. If I'm ending this post in a dissatisfying way, I'm sorry, but that is how I feel about the end of this friendship. Uncertainty aches and nags, and I suspect it will even if I put it, put him, on the page one distant day. He'll stick, I'm sure, through whatever else gets resolved between now and then.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Respite and Nepenthe from Next Month's Forgotten Lore

Today, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review is set to run a sort of follow-up piece to the short story of mine they published a couple of weeks ago. It's an essay about the origins of "To-Do" and my thoughts on it, and you can find it here. (It does contain information separate from what's in this blog post.) I continue to wish I had more interesting things to say about this story; I could write hundreds or even thousands of words about some of my pieces, but "To-Do" was thunk up methodically and came out that way and that's kind of all there is to it. I had to massage out the 600 words you'll find there on Eckleburg today. Not that it's a bad essay, but...oh, never mind. Just have a look. If you want.

As always, if you arrived here from there, welcome! and thanks for visiting.

I've decided to take a break from blogging for the month of February. My statistics have been pretty flat for the last month, and I think the energy I'm using to write these posts and stress about them could be better used elsewhere for a few weeks. I've been blogging once or twice a week for over three years, so a) I think a break isn't going to kill anyone, and b) if you're new to this party, there's plenty of me to read until I return.

Last year I wrote a post about why I hate Valentine's Day, so if, in mid-February, you get curious about my take on the holiday, you can find out.

Two years ago, on the occasion of the Oscars, I wrote a post about Seth MacFarlane's appalling Seth MacFarlaneness. And no, anonymous commenter, I didn't use very precise screenwriting format, but you try doing so with Blogger.

Three years ago, I was reading Infinite Jest, marathoning Monty Python's Flying Circus, and writing the [non-]horror novel. That was a good February. Here's a sample of it.

See you in March, Adventurekateers.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Evidence

I hesitate to write this, but it's something I can't not talk about on a blog like this, which lays bare the creative process of a writer who has only small successes to call her own. A number of people reading are in a similar position, and I want to help. So here this is.

If you go to this page, you'll see that my work has been appearing online and in print for about eight years. I am actively unhappy with very little of the work you see linked there. A lot of it feels immature to me, and some of it was altered by the publication in ways of which I didn't approve, but by and large I wouldn't link to it unless I was pleased with the work and - critically - with the venue in which the work appeared.

Last spring, a new friend visited my website and then, the next time she saw me in person, she said "You've been published in quite a few places." I kind of went "Yeah," and cleared my throat and looked away. I don't feel that comfortable with the sense of myself as "published in quite a few places." Mostly the reason is the obscurity of the publications. I've never been in Harper's or The New Yorker. When people ask me if I've been published anywhere they might have heard of, I could confidently say "yes" about those places. Not so much about my actual publication record.

I'm not disparaging these publications by any means - in part because they were kind enough to print my work (and were usually staffed by very nice, very smart, very accommodating editors), and in part because I simply don't intend disparagement. I don't know if I can say that strongly enough, that I am perfectly happy and proud of the sites and magazines that have published me, and the last thing I want to do is dump on them. I'm talking about prominence, not quality. Just in factual terms, Theaker's Quarterly Fiction is a UK genre magazine with a small circulation. It isn't the New York Times Magazine. I love the Cocteau Twins, but I'm quite clear on the point that not everyone has heard of them. It doesn't diminish them.



I mean, maybe you should have heard of them, but it's not for me to judge


So I retain the feeling that I haven't really published much. Consequently, I usually sometimes feel that my writing isn't worth all the trouble and heartache and expense and so on that I go through, because I've been at this for almost a decade and I have so little to show for it. "Successful" means something different for everyone, but I know what it looks like for me, and it isn't this. In the kindest interpretation of that publication page that my brain can achieve, I'm on the way to successful.

I'm coming toward the point, I swear. Up until this month, every one of those acceptances, every one of those "we love it and we want to put it in the next issue" emails that you see reflected on that page of publications, was accompanied in my head and heart with two intertwined reactions: "Yes! I'm awesome!" and "Well, yeah, but here are half a dozen reasons why it's not a real accomplishment." Every last one. My brain has invented interminable excuses and justifications about why all those publications, all those acceptances, are actually meaningless, and offer no evidence that I write well. Oh, it's not a big deal, it's not even an American publication. Oh, it doesn't really matter, it's just online. Oh, it's nothing, it's only got a readership of a few hundred people. Oh, it's meaningless, it only pays about $20.

This is what my brain does every damn time.


Which is why the acceptance I got for "To-Do" mattered so intensely when it came this fall. Not because the accepting publication is so well-known - it, too, is obscure as wider culture goes - but because there are no cracks around this accomplishment into which my brain can seep in order to tear it down. What I mean is, the publication in question is a long-established literary magazine, associated with one of the best universities in the country, a member of CLMP, with an alumni list that includes plenty of well-known writers and a lot of people with MFAs. The story didn't get in because of its gimmicks, because it's really short or has an unusual form of narration or whatever. It's just a short story, and it had to sink or float on its ordinary merits.

When I got the email, my brain scrambled for even more reasons why my work might have been accepted by this magazine, reasons that did not include writing ability: they needed a woman writer for statistical reasons that month; they needed to say they pulled a certain number of people from the slush; they needed a story of that length or some aspect of that subject matter, irrelevant of its quality; you get the picture. I was able to turn to my brain for no, I'm not kidding, the first time ever, and say Shut up, I got this because my story was good enough, and please fuck right off.

That was a pretty good feeling. 

In mid-January, just before "To-Do" appeared, I got an acceptance I can't tell you about yet, but it was equally legitimizing. I was actually dumbfounded when I got the email. It was the result of one last wild shot in the dark before I trunked the piece for good, after many many many rejections, and this fairly fancy litmag that I was certain would reject it accepted it instead. For the second time ever, I said hey, brain, STFU. This is the fruit of my work and I deserve it. 

Since then I've gotten four rejections for other work, so, you know, the writer's life. 


Ultimately, this attitude of my publication record being not a big deal, having all kinds of excuses made around it for why it doesn't really matter, is not an attitude I can maintain any longer after this spring's appearances. What do I do with the record as it stands now? How do I position myself toward my writing, when not just my faith but the evidence indicates that it doesn't suck? 

I think the answer to this question is that my position is no different at all. I'd believed that positive evidence would make a difference to the quality of my faith in my work, but it doesn't seem to. Every time I sit down to the notebook I'm pretty sure that what I'm doing is pointless, but could be good, and that I have something to say, even if I probably won't be able to say it right. I don't think that finally gunning down Mean Brain once or twice, no matter the backup I have with me, is going to change that. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Let's Justify Solipsistic Literature

A couple of weeks ago, I read an article on Flavorwire by Jonathon Sturgeon, "2014: The Death of the Postmodern Novel and the Rise of Autofiction," and it's been bothering me ever since. I was put off immediately by its first two sentences, which assert that postmodernism is over and no writers are interested in creating in the genre. It goes on to discuss a new, or at least newly named, genre called autofiction, in which writers turn to themselves as subjects, writing novels that aren't exactly novels about the topography of their lives. Not memoir, not exactly roman à clef, these books, like My Struggle, see the world as the writer sees them and they call it fiction.

At least that's what I gather from reading Sturgeon's article. Autofiction is news to me. What it sounds like, honestly, is just narcissism, the aggrandized importance of the self. It is not a trend I welcome.

I like it when I see me

It's pretty cute for me to criticize what I see as a narcissistic turn in contemporary literature here on my blog, subject: me. But I've been bothered for a while by novelists who put on airs (or have airs put on for them) about their genre-bending fictional tendencies when writing about their own barely disguised lives. I am definitely interested in the triangular tension between reality, truth, and fiction (in fact, it's one of my primary concerns as a writer), but from what I've read, these novels aren't standing at the same intersection I am. Really what they seem to be doing is an exercise in very accomplished navel-gazing. Is that so revolutionary? Is that so worthy of all this study and praise?

Sturgeon says that it's not just a conversation between fiction and reality, and that these novels "redistribut[e] the relation between the self and fiction." Mmkay. The central idea is that the self is made up of fictions, stories, that we tell ourselves about ourselves and others from birth to death. Well...yes. That's the nature of the brain, that it is not an indifferent camera. And it's also the twisted magic of the human experience, all the in-betweening and mitigation of reality. It's not magic that needs a mirror of self-importance to be witnessed.

It's possible I'm just stung by this assertion of the death of postmodernism. I think postmodernism is still worthy, and still has new directions in which to develop. Wallace's work is not finished; his endeavor - which I'd argue was welding a humanist approach to the random, teetering sculptures of Pynchonian postmodernism, trying to show that it is possible to live with heart and authenticity in a culture that is fractured and demanding and wholly simulacrafied - not fully laid to rest. So...fuck it? We just throw all that out and read thousands of pages about some Norwegian guy's completely ordinary life instead of trying to say something of worth about the internet?

No, no. I, lover of Proust, should not be so rude to My Struggle when I haven't read it. But I did not need a Flavorwire article to tell me that this culture is veering away from mutual connection and toward the mirror. I guess I just hoped that literature would not take the same path. I had hoped that post-postmodernism, or whatever you call DFW's work, could bleed sincerity through absurdity, could communicate a human core to our merry, tragic, impossibly splintered experience of postmillenial life. Yet, apparently, literature's solution is just to turn a camera on the author, and thence will come all wisdom.

Ugh.

Somewhat related is this review from The New Yorker, which doesn't quite argue but does present the idea that the possibilities of fiction are exhausted. Or at least that getting tired of putting together fictional plots and characters is something that happens to writers. I'm thirty-three, not fifty-three, and I've been writing seriously for only about seven years, not twenty. But I feel, as a knee-jerk reaction, that if you find it too tiresome to put something into fiction which you can sum up in a single conceptual word, something may be wrong with you, not with fiction itself.



Maybe I'm too bourgeois, or haven't spent enough time wearing black berets and smoking, but fiction seems limitless to me. The blandest realism can spawn worthy intellectual pursuit; look at Bovary. As you add elements beyond realism - fantasy, like García Márquez, or odd narrative strategies, like Faulkner, or odd textual strategies, like Joyce, or or or or - you get more moving parts, more to work with. How can all those various add-ons not be enough, in a career so infinitesimal as a human lifespan grants? If an intelligent, thoughtful novelist can find no way to create interesting work other than looking in the mirror, then I think our culture is in a lot more trouble than anyone suspects.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

We Interrupt This Self-Promotional Blog to Bring You a Navel-Gazing Post

On Friday, January 9, I had a really, really weird day, full of dizzying highs and dreadful lows. It contained lots of news about writing, this day, none of which I can share with you here, and it was impossible to get to sleep at a decent hour that night. Inside my head, seventy-six trombones led the big parade, and the quiet bedroom was so noisy that I had to get up and go to my computer.

I put in earbuds to block out the intermittent sound of an amorous pair with some manner of connecting wall to my living room, and then I set to work, because my head was just too loud to do anything else. I wrote a short humor piece that I'd been contemplating for about a week, and then I wrote a longer thing about Star Wars that was already visited upon you. It felt good to write; January has been quite lucky with regard to the other thing, the publishing thing, but the writing thing is the better thing. It seems like I have to forget this, over and over, in order to remember it, over and over.

Because despite my ambitions, I haven't written a word on the wikibook since the semester ended a month ago. I've read a bunch of stuff - DFW and Edith Wharton and Richard Todd and lovely Georgette Heyer and Antonia Crane - but I haven't written anything that pushed me out of my comfort zone. Not to be too plain, but December fucking sucked, and it's taken me these first two weeks of January just to exhale and get over it.

Pictured: Me (left)

It hurts that I've failed to get started as I'd planned to, but if I've learned nothing else about the way I write, I've learned that all things come in their own time. I'm finished feeling shell-shocked and exhausted and have started feeling restless, so I hope to set a rhythm in the next month that includes several hours a week of writing. And I'm staring down nothing at all except the wikibook: no short stories, no genre fiction, no Highbinder sequel. Wikibook. Or bust.

I was considering taking the spring off from school in order to work at my job (in an office) and work at my job (at my notebook), but I felt so discouraged about that idea, pushing the start of graduate school off until 20damn16, that I took Matt's advice toward the Middle Way and I'm only taking one class. I'll take another one in the summer, and then I'll finally be eligible to enroll for the MA.

Now that I'm two years in and almost there, I confess to feeling some uncertainty about my choice. CSUN has so thoroughly exceeded my expectations that I'm not wavering about that aspect, but the idea that I should've tried for an MFA instead keeps nagging at me. In terms of school suitability, I can't avoid moving locations in order to do an MFA, and I can't see my way to that. Anyhow I don't work well in unstructured school environments, plus I'm not interested in being competitive with other writers, so I struck the idea of an MFA from my vision of Writer-Me.

But still. Would I have better opportunities? Would I learn better or more useful ways to write than I have in the past two years or will in the next two years? Would it look better on my mental resume? Am I going to wind up talking myself into an MFA anyway, or even a dreaded PhD, because I won't feel finished when this is all over? Will I wind up penniless and school-addicted, unable to adapt to life outside a classroom, unable to write without a workshop group, unable to read without class discussion? Should I quit now, now that I've reached a place of mild confidence as writer and reader (even though I know there's more to learn, as there infinitely is), and I'm not yet totally broke? Or is it too late? Am I already irrevocably lost to the ivory tower?

Pretty good card, actually

Rgh. Whatever.

On another note, I know there are a few folks reading who are DFW fans. If that's you, get Karen Green's book Bough Down. (NB: I looked for it in every indie bookstore I visited for about six months before I gave up and ordered it from Amazon.) She's his widow, and the book is more or less about her grief. It's also one of the most fascinating books I've read in the past five years. It's uninterested in whether you as reader/viewer get what she's trying to say; it's inward-looking, personal, in a way different from most everything I've ever read. Not obtuse, like so much literature, but personal; it's not that she's toying with whether or not you understand, but that it's completely clear to her what she means and if you can't understand, well, you're just not her. Like unexpurgated Anais Nin, but distilled, with a sharper wit behind it. It's also deeply, deeply sad, and unnerving, and finely wrought. Get it, and maybe get a magnifier for the collages in it at the same time.

Maybe my January hasn't been wasted after all. A good book is a salvation and a blessing, is it not?

Monday, January 12, 2015

Links to Real Good Stuff!

Some good luck scattered across 2014 is coming to fruition in quick-time harch this month. Today, my short story "To-Do" goes live on The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, which is frankly a personal triumph for me and a pretty nice thing professionally as well. You can read it here for free. I hope you like it.

Also this week (!), Kzine, a Kindle-only genre magazine, publishes its 11th issue, which includes "On Conti Street with the Kintner Dame," by yours truly. This story has about as much in common with "To-Do" as two-toed sloths have with Picabo Street. It's a lot of fun, though, and it sits in good company in the magazine. The issue is available at Amazon here. I think it's a free read for Prime members who have a Kindle.

In case you're not convinced enough to click through, here's a little bit about each story. "To-Do," which I've called the grandma story once or twice on this blog, is, in brief, about a fairly awful woman biting off more than she can chew.

You go, little turtle! (You're not endangering children, like Lily is.)

Writing about her was challenging and satisfying, as was writing about the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts many years after I lived in it. I tried to make the story slightly different than the norm visually, and to (maybe) trash some reader expectations for the rhythm of a 3,400-word piece. Other than that slight push toward experimentation, I haven't got a lot to say about this one. I worked hard on it, but writing it wasn't a mystical creative experience.

"Conti Street" came out of a dream I had about a band composed of zombies. When I wrote the dream down in my notebook, I thought of just doing a throwaway line in some story about how if zombies formed a shoegazing band, no one would even notice they were zombies. But then I had another dream about a strange silver coat with magic powers (which I as dreamer never quite sussed out). My determination to write a goddamn noir story already formed a chemical reaction with those ideas, and Jean-Jacques McHugh was born. I want to write another one with him, but I haven't written a lot of genre stuff lately and I'm kind of discouraged from the get-go. I loved writing "Conti Street," and nearly everyone to whom I gave it loved reading it, but I had a hard time placing it. Most noir magazines today, I discovered, want gritty-ass modern noir instead of old-fashioned Philip Marlowe stuff. Me, I love Chandler, but it's possible that I love parodies of Chandler just as much


, and I hope "Conti Street" walks the line between the two as lovingly as I intended.

If either of those stories has brought you here, welcome! Make yourself at home. Leave a comment. Have a drink. The bar's open and I can be pretty talkative.