Friday, April 18, 2014

Write the Shit Out of It

I have the best pen pals in the world. They are scattered from New York to San Francisco, from Indiana to England. Some of them I met through my prior, anonymous blog; some I met through random internet activity (like, for example, commenting too enthusiastically on the blog of a British independent publisher); some I met at writers' events, and have grown closer to them over e-mail than I did during the week or whatever I had in-person access to them.

We have great conversations, my pen pals and me. It's the kind of conversation that makes me mad that teleporters don't exist. I write absurdly long and opinionated e-mails, and in reply I get e-mails that are exponentially more interesting than what I have to say and make me want to write even more opinionated crap, and if I'm very lucky, we keep this up for longer than a few days.

Recently, one of these beloveds was struggling with uncertainty about a manuscript. I had read something for her and given her feedback, and a couple of weeks later I offered to read whatever else she was working on. What she sent was more of the same manuscript, but she'd added on to what she'd already written by several thousand words.

The e-mail I sent her in reply was well out of character for me when giving feedback - a little voice in my head was shrieking "who do you think you are?" as I typed it - but her reply was incredibly positive. She later read what I'd written out loud to a teen critique group she runs, and their response, too, was really positive. So I felt like it might be worth sharing here.

--I read the new section closely once, and then skimmed it as a second look. I owe you an apology for not reading it closely a second time - which is *always* my practice when I'm reading for friends - but I had a good reason. It's because this is what I think and feel from reading it: stop analyzing and write. Stop thinking so hard and write. Stop sending me fragments and write the whole. Write this entire manuscript, as Stephen King advises, with the door closed, and then go back and look at it and revise it and fret over it and send it to me. What I smell from your draft and from your e-mails is you getting so wrapped around whether this project is worthwhile and/or going somewhere that you're keeping yourself from getting through a first draft, which is the single most important part of writing anything at all.

You gotta write it first and worry about it later. You'll never finish this thing if you painstake it (I just made up that verb, but it applies on multiple levels) one chapter at a time. When you're done, I'll be privileged to look at it, but not until you're done. Even if it's 250,000 words, I'll read it and I'll tell you everything I think in enormous detail - but not until you're done.

If it ultimately sucks, you'll write something else, and it will be better. In the meantime, you have to write this first. And you have to finish it. No matter what happens, it will not be a waste of time. It will NOT be a waste of time.

If my instincts are wrong about all this, and you're not planning on it being a big long project, I owe you another apology, a much bigger one, and I'll go back and read it carefully again and give you line edits and comments and etc. But I'm assuming that this is the same project you mentioned in the prior e-mail. If that's right, [Penpal], baby, darlin', you just gotta write it. Put your head down, don't show anyone what you're doing, and WRITE THE SHIT OUT OF IT.

Lots of love. And also this.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

I Mean...You Know What I Mean?

I'm not completely sure I know how to write this post. I've never taken a literary theory course, so my grasp of the concepts herein - especially hermeneutics - is based on clumsy research and hasty in-class explanations from professors. Despite these dangers, the topic has hounded me to create a blog post about itself over the last few weeks, so here we go.

A month ago, in my experimental lit class, our professor introduced the concept of "ostension." My notes say it this way:
the writer (& reader?) is hurled outside of language into a pre-hermeneutic state - the place where you know what something refers to w/o translating it into language (DFW?)
I needed more. I Googled ostension, and found only two results that actually helped instead of muddying things further: the book of the guy, Paul H. Fry, who applied the word to literary theory, and a book called (Re)Writing Craft by Tim Mayers. Much of the latter is available online from Google Books, and this is the relevant passage:
...there still exists a phenomenon called "ostension" in which the act of writing occasionally hurls the writer (and by extension the reader) into an ontologically prehermeneutic realm - a "place" where there is no meaning, only existence.
By "pre-hermeneutic," I think these people are referring to a place where there is no interpretation of language, nor any of the fuzziness and human baggage that interpretation brings to meaning. Instead, there is just an it - an ineffable whatever that really fine writing communicates directly to the reader's brain.

Have I bugged you to read "Good Old Neon" recently?* It's likely my favorite short story, perhaps my second favorite piece of writing altogether, and I think it succeeds at ostension by the time it reaches its conclusion, giving the reader thoughts and feelings that would be too confusing to explain easily in words but that are nevertheless pure and clear. (Although it might just be all the paradoxes piled on each other that create this impression.) Initially, though, the story labors in an obvious way toward clarity, to explication rather than intimation.

Despite my note in class, I think Wallace's goal is not generally ostension, but that his task is using excessive language to make meaning utterly clear to any reader [who owns a dictionary]. I think one of his central concerns is trying, through maximalism, to mitigate the hermeneutics problem - the problem of all those brains, all those varying worldviews, set to the same hunk of language.** So these are kind of two approaches to the same problem: ostension, which creates pre-hermeneutic meaning through weird linguistic/architectural techniques; and maximalism, lurching toward meaning through pages and pages of skilled and seductive overexplanation.

The book we were talking about in class when this ostension thing came up was This Is Not a Novel, an experimental work by David Markson, about whom Wallace himself was quite effusive in the late 1980s. The book creates ostension through parataxis - another term I learned that day which I still haven't quite learned - placing hundreds of factual sentences next to each other in order to create a certain effect. I loved the book, finding that it made me think and feel unique things about death, the human lifespan, coincidence, art, the act of creation, etc. (It was not well-received by everyone in class.) Few of these themes were brought out specifically in the text, but all the unadorned, uninterpreted facts in juxtaposition for 190 pages meant that my mind leapt to these places nonetheless.

Incidentally, you'll get some weird shit if you Google ostension, because it
means completely different things to philosophers and folklorists. 

I recognized something like this feeling from reading Faulkner. I told Matt while we were reading As I Lay Dying in my other class that I found Faulkner maddeningly vague and yet repetitious. He doesn't give you anything like the full picture, but he repeats certain details over and over in varying ways so that you feel like you have a good grip on the situation. Is that ostension? Or is that just...what Faulkner does?

Of course, being that I can hardly recognize ostension as a reader, I doubt I'm capable of bringing it into my work as a writer. It's a high bar. Communicating right to the reader's brain is the whole point, and doing so with technique and language rather than with less expensive tricks, like a cipher protagonist or exotic backdrops, is a nice goal to have in mind for my work. By the year 2026, maybe.

*If you can't make it through "Good Old Neon," here's an article about it that communicates the essentials. I disagree with some of the author's opinions, but it's still really helpful. I feel it necessary to note that the story's continuous waltz with the theme of suicide is probably irrelevant to David Foster Wallace's actual ending of his own life. His illness was well-controlled at the time he wrote the story.

**Although not in all his works. I don't claim to know what he was up to in Infinite Jest, but I think if it was this, it was not a consistent goal for the whole text. Certainly in his nonfiction, though, and later short stories, I recognized this endeavor.

***Do not use me as a source. If you know more about this than I do, please, please, please leave comments correcting me.***

Friday, April 11, 2014

L'histoire de Pain

Yesterday I did some revisions on the bread story...did I ever name it as such in the blog? It's the story I wrote for my experimental class, which I thought turned out well and which was fairly well-received in workshop. I revised it somewhat to my professor's suggestions, and I am much less certain about it now than I was before revision.

Here's how it goes: Two people meet, fall in love, and break up, but that story is told three times in three different ways. The two people are the same, although their ages and other details differ, and essentially I put them through three versions of their doomed relationship over about 4,300 words. But that's not all! I also included text in boxes that sit physically to the side of the narrative, acting as a sort of Pop-Up Video for the story, with stuff about what I was thinking when I wrote it and also random facts about baking bread (which is a threaded metaphor for their failing, failing, failing relationship).

My professor didn't like the boxes aesthetically, and pointed out that the couple's narrative isn't really the main narrative but the stuff in the boxes is, and said by way of complimenting me that my writing is too clever by half. I disagreed with her on the aesthetic thing, but decided to try a revision with no boxes anyway. Instead, I made the text go sideways and at one point wrap all the way around the main narrative, and I included more stuff about truth, which is a central concern for me but which snuck its way unexpectedly into the story.

I already hate what I wrote anew, but Matt read it anyway and said that he thought I was closer to making meaning out of the story instead of it being mere fun. I'm going to rewrite again - maybe using a different method than the haphazard way I went about the job yesterday - and hopefully I'll hate it less and bring even more meaning into the story. I admitted to Matt that I liked the story the way it was, when it was just for fun, but I want it publishable, not merely fun, so I've got to do better.

I didn't revise any of the too-clever-by-half aspects, because that's stylistic, and there really isn't much I can do about that. Here's a sample sentence:
The day was so crisp it could have been bagged and sold by Frito-Lay, and the sky was a jewel.
See, the first metaphor is amusing and allusive and slightly odd and risky, but the second one is pretty cliched and ordinary. That's the tension that I'm trying to keep taut throughout the whole word count. If a reader thinks the story's smarmy instead of delightful, I suspect that's kind of her problem, not mine.

I was going to try one other type of revision, where the narrative occurs in a regular paragraph and the other text is shaped in a sideways bell curve

in the margins, so it looks like my own identity as author is swelling out of the story. I don't know if that would have worked. I like the way I did it with the text running sideways and upside down - it reminds me of a cross-written letter, when people wrote over their own text to save postage

(found here, click to embiggen)

- but, after all, I'm not writing a concrete poem here; what it looks like interests me a good deal less than whether that look works for the reader.

In other news, I have some new writing to do, on a story I haven't started yet because its embarrassment of options has stumped me, but most of what's on my plate right now is revision. Yay, revision. Yaaaaay. I recently read this quote from Matt Fraction:
I can rewrite anything. WRITING remains a motherfucker I must be tricked into doing at all costs and at all times.
to which I said (to my computer), great, how about I write and you revise? Forever? Because that is the exact photo negative of me. Writing may be revising, but I nevertheless find revising unbearable.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

KerouaCobain, or A Note on Freshness

Kurt Cobain's suicide turned 20 last week. He's an important figure, but I find it slightly ghoulish the way articles and commentary on Cobain pop up like clockwork on every anniversary of Nevermind; of In Utero; of his final act, alone with a gun.

This article at the Washington Post caught my eye, because it seemed like that rarest of creatures: a new angle. But it dances around the problem of the final mix of Nevermind of which Cobain disapproved, and I'm afraid that its reading of Cobain's pre-death importance may soar far beyond reality. (I was there, and Nirvana was way famous - acting as a sort of pushbroom to the dreadful pop of the early 90s as well as glam rock and G&R-type hair metal and all else that came before - but I don't think they were famous beyond anyone's imagination, as the article has it. Probably not beyond David Geffen's.) Still, kinda sweet to think about a few generations of kids plucking out the first notes of "Come As You Are", which happens to be the only riff I ever learned to play on the guitar. I wonder very much what "Smells Like Teen Spirit" means to people born around the time it was a hit on the radio, as opposed to what it meant to me or to the Xers.

Anyway, over the weekend I listened to Nevermind for the 11,867th time, and it reminded me strongly of the last book we finished in my American Novels class: On the Road. Not because the two works resemble each other artistically (although I suppose you could argue that they do, each a yawp from its respective generation), but because each, despite its grounding in a particular time and place, offers utter freshness.

I didn't love On the Road. I found it rambling, self-centered, pointlessly repetitious, and reeking of privilege of various types. But I was nevertheless seduced by its sincerity, which is a rare quality when uncoupled from sentimentality. The voice is completely convincing, head-over-heels committed. And it feels...fresh. There's just no other word for it. It feels novel and new and unique, 60 years after its birth, after it's been made a bible by numberless masses.

Nevermind feels the same way. All the reasons in the world exist to make me bored with the record: I've listened to it 11,867 times, I heard "Teen Spirit" played and referenced and analyzed to death in my adolescence, I wore out CDs of other grunge that practically photocopied Nirvana. (This listen, I realized that Stone Temple Pilots' Core is basically a 12-track meditation on "In Bloom" with a little Metallica flavor.) Nevertheless, it's a thoroughly fresh record. It makes you sit up straighter and turn up the volume and pay attention.

Both Nevermind and On the Road have the capacity to revolutionize a young life, no matter the year. Their age seems not to have denuded their power. They're both still genuinely exciting, and they both stand quite apart from the hordes of imitative works that they spawned. It's a shame that (arguably) neither Cobain nor Kerouac was able to top himself after that one great artistic expulsion.

How does "fresh" happen? Why are there so few albums and books and films that succeed at staying fresh generations after birth? How do you quantify it? Is it inevitably linked with voice-of-a-generation works, or even just voice-of-an-artistic-movement stuff? Is it one of those qualities, like pornography, that depends on knowing it when you see it? If anyone knows, please tell me, because I'd like to be able to create fresh work. (Wouldn't we all?)

Friday, April 4, 2014

Mine and Not-Mine

Oh, journalist story. I just don't know about you.

I drafted the journalist story in late February and early March. It got just under a month to ferment before the first real revision, because after writing it I went over it again and then again across several days. Then I couldn't stop thinking about it, which meant it was not becoming a foreign object ready for (somewhat) objective study. So I knew it needed more time than usual for a revision to be decent at all.

Yesterday I spent a couple of hours revising it at last. It has given me distinctly divided feelings. I know there's something there thematically, and I think there's something there character-wise. In places, the writing feels like it's singing. But on the whole, the story feels like it's just not coming off, and that feeling might be springing from a variety of weird places.

Maybe it feels strange because it's actually good. Unfamiliar because it's unintuitive: not the kind of story-of-my-heart that I can't seem to place in magazines, but a story-of-my-hands that's a piece of craft, instead. (Or because it's actually not good - it seems like it's not coming off because it's not coming off.) Maybe it's because it's part of the blended thing I talked about in that fermentation post -
meld[ing] a methodical sort of writing that I've been developing in my exercises and in the hot springs story with the disturbing, sex-and-violence-focused work that produced the stories I love that keep getting rejected
- which is not how I've written up to now, but is perhaps a better way for me to write moving forward. Or maybe it feels strange, just practically, because there's an awful lot of cursing (even the C-word), but I'm also writing about tender and difficult places in these characters' lives.

Or maybe it isn't working and I need to rewrite it.

I dunno. The piece is exciting for me to work on, but it's also quite confusing, because it doesn't feel like one thing or another. Mine and not-mine, good and not-good, subtle and obvious.

This probably isn't very interesting. It's just the only thing writing-related that's really happened lately. Spring break is next week - which, incidentally, divides the semester into a ten-week block and a four-week block, which really? That's poor planning, to me - and I made a list of all the things I want to do. Revise one story, start another, read the next book for 478 (Leviathan, which itself is an interesting prospect because I didn't like the one Auster book I've read (Moon Palace, which felt static and overly New Yorky and just...boring) but this book has one of the best first lines I've ever read ("Six days ago, a man blew himself up by the side of a road in northern Wisconsin.")) and get to work on my final paper for the same class, etc etc. It's a wildly unrealistic list. This weekend, though, I've got to get the journalist story into shape enough to give it to a non-Matt reader or two, to find out what the hell it is I have here.

Want the first line? I'm really happy with the first line. It's not good the way the Auster line is, but its sensations are exactly right.
A torn-up lotto scratcher blew about the brick walkway leading up to Charlotte’s house.

Monday, March 31, 2014

I'm Not a Screenwriter, and I'm Okay with That

Last Thursday I went to a poetry reading on the CSUN campus. It was very interesting. The poet founded a small press in the 1990s that has since become quite successful (I'd heard of it long before now), and she seems to be pretty active in the Los Angeles writing community.

What there is of one. Something I keep hearing from various sources as I go to more events like this is that L.A. is not at all a literary city. That there just isn't much here for writers who are not screenwriters, and the city values books and literature much less than it does the biggest motor of this town: films.

We can't stop here. This is L.A. 

I am not a professional writer yet, and I don't go to more than a few literary events per year, but I feel a kind of mild disagreement with this attitude and assessment. No, L.A. is decidedly not New York, but the entire publishing industry is headquartered in New York. It's a bit like saying there isn't much of a film community in Washington, DC. No, there isn't, but that's not what DC is for.

I'm reminded a little of a woman I met in an online workshop who resided either in Texas or somewhere in the Midwest, I don't remember. She lived in a small and boring community, so she said, and she felt that she couldn't write interesting work unless she up and moved to New York. Things happen there, she said, and nothing happens in small towns.

I really, truly thought she was crazy. Some of the greatest books come out of pastoral settings; some of the most memorable literary situations come out of small-town living rooms. To Kill a Mockingbird, Madame Bovary. All of Jane Austen. In Cold Blood. Alice Munro! You can live a really boring life in New York and write meaningless fiction, or you can live a very colorful life in Nowhere, Nebraska and write remarkable fiction. (Is The Hudsucker Proxy better than Fargo?) Thinking that you need an infusion of New York to make your fiction worth reading seems to me like thinking you need a different mixing bowl to make a better cake. Making good cake is so not about the vessel you mix it in.

Of course, certain stories can't but be told in New York (or Miami, or Bangkok), and that may have been what this writer was trying to say: that she wanted to tell New York stories but didn't have any experience with life in that city. Which would be fine; if she just plain didn't want to write Munro-type stories, then she probably did need to move to New York. But that wasn't really what she said.

Anyway, from my admittedly limited perspective, the L.A. writing community doesn't feel very small or neglected. Some truly great and unique writers have made this city their subject - Didion, Pynchon, Chandler. Writerly defensiveness about not fitting in to L.A., with its focus on film, seems a bit misplaced to me. For instance, I know that finding a workshop group or a space for your work or readings to go to is not hard. There aren't dozens of indie bookstores around, but those that exist have events all the time. A significant handful of MFA programs are spread across the city, and there are terrific foundations and rent-a-carrel places where you can connect with other writers. Saying that this town squeezes out fiction writers and poets seems to me a defeatist way to look at living here, when in fact opportunities are everywhere. And you get the chance to be a Didion instead of being one of a zillion just like you.

Mostly, I feel that if you want to be a New York writer, with all the benefits available from living in the city where most American books are born, maybe don't live in L.A. If you want to live in L.A., this is the lit community you have available to you. Why complain about it? It's your family, and your family kind of is what it is.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Down with Schlub Stories

I'm still reeling from seeing an exhibition of the work of James Turrell this past weekend. It made things different, in my head, not just in how I think about art and perception (you know, little things) but in how I think about memory and impermanence and other existential stuff. It was not an ordinary experience.

So I want to write about something else entirely. Last summer I read two books of short stories that I'll be recommending for years to come: Mary Gaitskill's Don't Cry and Jincy Willett's Jenny and the Jaws of Life. Neither is perfect, but neither is ordinary. Gaitskill is a strange, prickly writer, embodying strength and control and keeping the reader at a definite distance. She is not interested in making you happy, but sometimes, before you're finished with her story, the earth will move. Willett is even more original, and harder to parse, but her work is slightly more personable. It still leaves you turned totally upside down, baffled at what you just read but urgently turning the page.

During my UCLA Extension fiction class last semester, we read a lot of short stories that all felt exactly the same (to one another, not to my description of Gaitskill and Willett in the preceding paragraph). Let's call these "schlub stories." They were about blue-collar guys, many of them drinkers, most of them pathetically flawed, going on some kind of escapade that ends either badly or without a resolution. I understood that the instructor wanted to teach what he knew best, what he felt best qualified to interpret, and what he liked. But the sameyness of these stories seriously got on my nerves.

Gaitskill and Willett rocked me, fascinated me, and I have no idea how they accomplished what they did. The schlub stories didn't, on the whole, work any magic on me, and I could hardly distinguish the voices from one another, even if they were written by completely different authors years apart. It was reasonably easy to tell how these stories were built, how they manipulated the reader along the journey.

Couldn't I learn more from reading stories on the edges of the map and breaking them down than I could from stories that are extremely technically proficient, but right in the literary middle?

There's also the problem of who was represented in this selection of fiction. Even if the stories hadn't all seemed exactly the same, their writers definitely did. In ten weeks, the only fiction we read by a woman was Dorothy Parker's "Here We Are" (which was presented as a novelty of form rather than of interest as content), and every single writer was white. Those of you white men out there reading this may not know it, but the white male perspective is actually not the only perspective that exists on human life.

"But Kat," you say, "stories like 'Rock Springs' and 'Bullet in the Brain' are supposed to be universal." Uh huh. Get this: the white male perspective is not universal. Okay? It's one perspective, and it's not mine. I want to hear from other people. Even people whose cultural perspectives I hardly understand at all. I didn't like Life and Times of Michael K, but I appreciated having a different experience. I did like Things Fall Apart and The God of Small Things, and again, I appreciated having a different experience.

I guess that breaking down a Willett story would be too complicated for a basic-level fiction class for which anyone on the street can sign up, but that doesn't excuse the lack of diversity. I guess that teaching nearly all white male writers was easier for the instructor, but that doesn't excuse the lack of variety in the stories. It was so disappointing to read the same story over and over and feel left out week after week. I suspect we - and that "we" includes the instructor - would have learned a great deal from reading challenging, enigmatic stories at least once or twice. I've learned an awful lot in the last couple of years reading books I didn't understand.

So that's part of why I doubt I'll be going back to UCLA Extension for more classes. I'm getting better and more diverse education at CSUN.