Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Mad Scientist at the Podium

By gum, I have SO much to say here. I got workshop news and Yes news and readin' news. I shouldn't've neglected this space for so long.

Let's start with the recent stuff, and maybe go backwards in future posts. Last Friday I gave a reading at CSUN, along with my poet colleague Khiem Nguyen, and I thought it went quite well. You can see video of two of the three stories I read on my YouTube channel, or you can just scroll down a bit.

The first video includes a little of the introduction the GRS leader, Freddy Garcia, wrote about me and then read. (The video cuts in a bit late, doesn't focus right away, and then cuts out the applause and the high-five I gave Freddy when I got to the podium.) He was so thoroughly complimentary that the first thing I could say when I got to the mike was "Holy shit." He said things about me being a mad scientist, Frankensteining genre in exciting ways, finding the wounds of the reader and tracing them without flinching. (I think.) It was amazing to hear those complimentary things about me together with stuff that I knew factually to be true.

Freddy and I are in a fiction class together this semester, and this makes me simultaneously very happy and very sad. I have a big friendcrush and a big writercrush on him, but he is near the end of his M.A. and I'm right at the beginning, so I think this is the first and last time we'll be working together. Also, he's a poet (a good one), and as I've told him, I do not understand poetry and I fail at writing it, so I don't know how much use I will ever be to him as a writer-friend. In any event, that's Freddy, speaking first, and then there's me. The story I read in this first video is "Shade," which you can find in Hobart right here.

By the way, you pronounce my name exactly like it looks, cold-iron, like you wouldn't want to iron your clothes with a cold iron. But it's not Freddy's fault that he didn't know that and I wasn't quick enough to correct him. (I go by Katharine Mason at CSUN because it's my legal name.)

Then I read a second story, "Infinite Space," which you can find nowhere but in this video, because it's racked up 15+ rejections. People kept telling me after I was finished reading that they didn't know why no one liked it, because they thought it was good. I think I see why after reading it and watching this video - it's kind of samey and it ranges without satisfying - but I like it enough as-is that I don't want to pull it to pieces and re-build.

I know these videos are a little hard to watch, with just my face surrounded by a pool of darkness, but the GRS readings always take place that way, the only light at the podium and the reader blind to the 20 or so people in the room. I like seeing people when reading, but it's kinder to do it this way, especially if this is the first public reading the reader has given, which is often the case.

Also, I feel that I look a little like a full-throated bullfrog, but that's all right. I read well, and that's the point. I read a third story, too, the Biff Tannen story, but Matt's phone ran out of juice so it is lost to history.

I really enjoyed doing this reading. I enjoy reading, in general. I get nervous ahead of time, but then it goes well, because I've loved reading aloud since I was a wee girl and have worked hard to be good at it, and then I am happy and can't wait for another opportunity to read to people. Hear that, universe? I'd love to read anytime you'd like me to.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Asymptote of "Good Enough"

In about a week and a half, I'm giving a reading. It's up to me what I read as long as I fill 20 minutes. So I started mentally shuffling through my work to see what would suit. Nothing I've written in 2015 was appropriate, for various reasons, so I went back to 2014. A good story to read, I thought, might be the so-called dreadful story, which I wrote last fall about two hipsters going to Medjugorje, a site in Bosnia where the Virgin Mary appears like clockwork to a small group of religious visionaries. So I opened up the file to have a look. (I also thought I might submit it to the Portland Review, which has an open call out until December 1.)


I could not tell you exactly what is wrong with this story. Not with a single definitive noun. I think the problem is, as ill-defined as this may be, that it's just not good enough. It's unevenly anxious about itself; sometimes the writing gains confidence for a few phrases or a sentence or two, but then it leans back into effort. And the organization feels stilted even while being conventional. And some significant amount of the dialogue tells the story instead of telling the characters. And it telegraphs its Big Ideas while trying not to.

I was not especially skilled then at writing through indirection (because I was still fighting it as a necessity), and I was determined to make my point (because the point was the reason I wrote the story, not these hateful characters), and I was barking at an experimental squirrel in the next yard (while I ignored the enormous catchable literary squirrel in my own plot of ground). I was trying to make language do something instead of letting it do something.

Does this sound vague and impossible? Good. That's how I feel about getting better at writing.

Asymptotes keep surfacing in my life over the last several months. There was this one about mastery, and there was one in Ojai which I can't remember now but which was a major point of enlightenment for some of the other women, and there was one in my theory class which I also can't remember. (It has been a difficult autumn.) This morning as I was thinking about the slush I read when I briefly ran a litmag, I realized that slush, too, is an asymptote. Submitted stories vary in quality from super-duper crappy all the way up to good enough to publish. A whole lot of them are almost there, but not quite.

My Medjugorje story has very good sentences, it's well-proofread, it's got a nice moment in the lyric register, it has good craft and a lot of work behind it. It's clear in reading it that I am a thinking person and a pretty good writer. But the story is Not Good Enough. The distance between the Medjugorje story and Good Enough is short, but takes exponentially more effort to cover than the distance between it and super-duper crappy.

In the course of workshopping and trading stories with writer-friends, I read a lot of stories like this, that are smart and thoughtful and good, but not good enough. Not worth reworking. Worth trunking as a lesson and writing something else. I wish there was a way to say this, kindly, to a writer - this is good, but it's not Good Enough, so try something else and don't waste any time trying to get this one published. I wish there was a way to say I encourage your talent and craft and perspective while still saying this one's a loser, pal. I would have wasted a whole lot less time on stories I loved throughout the past decade if someone could have done that for me.

So I'm not going to read the Medjugorje story next Friday (the 20th, at CSUN, if you want to come. I'd love to see you there). And I'm certainly not going to send it to the Portland Review. Waste of time. I might try rewriting it someday, because I still think Medjugorje is an interesting place to set a story, and the idea of a cynic being inspired by the faith of followers, rather than by some flash of light from the sky, still strikes a bell in my mind.

Ultimately I've decided to read a story that I retired from submitting after too many rejections. I reread it this morning, and I feel confident about reading it aloud. I may be too close to see what's wrong with it as clearly as I can see what's wrong with the Medjugorje story (clear as mud, that is). But it's a personal favorite and it's representative of what I like to write about. In case it bombs, I'll also read some stuff that's been editor-approved. And I think the Biff Tannen story. Because why not?

Friday, October 30, 2015

Your Friday Yes: Play Your Ukulele

I may have gone on for an additional minute longer than I needed to in this video. Oh, well.

(My t-shirt says "One Tough Cookie" at the bottom, and it is my favorite t-shirt, but I rarely wear it so as to preserve it as long as possible.)

The feedback on this video indicates that me not actually playing the uke was a disappointment. I tried to record myself playing "Call Me Maybe" (a friend of mine is in a "Call Me Maybe" situation this week and I wanted to surprise her), which is fun, but has a difficult chord transition in every single bar. So it wasn't a song as much as it was just a bunch of inconsistent chord-playing. And my voice sounded terrible. I used to sing in choirs in high school and college - I was never amazing, but never on the level of terrible. Either my pitch has seriously declined in the past twelve years and I haven't noticed, or the mike on my webcam is really bad, or the song just isn't right for my voice. I'm thinking about trying to record a different song and putting a link into the video.

Regardless, what I said still goes. Go make something. Make a macaroni necklace. Make a paper doll. Make a collage. Just make something that doesn't have to be good, and believe me, it'll be easier to make things thenceforth.

That's all I got. I'm knackered. Happy Halloween.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Primordial Blobbery

Since we moved out of the 1970s in terms of the fiction syllabus provided to me this semester, a lot more light at the end of the tunnel has become visible. In three weeks, I read John Haskell's I Am Not Jackson Pollock, Dubravka Ugresic's Lend Me Your Character, and Karen Russell's St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. I loved all of them, for totally different reasons, and the first two gifted me with a plethora of ideas, and such an open-ended horizon, for what I can/want to write in the future.

That horizon will have to wait, though. School is not finished killing me.

Thing is, all the ideas dislodging from the soil and floating up and moving around, they're all interesting but unformed. I've taken notes, asked myself questions, created little tadpole blobs of associated words. I have a blob about Kathy Ireland, a blob about a specific memory of laughter, and a long essay-blob about my brain. I've done justice to none of these ideas and honestly, I don't even know what one of them means. They're blobs. They're not even really things yet.

There's a more shapely blob I've had in my head for about two years about Roland Barthes. It's not fiction, it's scholarly, and I'm not in any position to be advancing a scholarly idea like it in the format it deserves. But it won't let go, and I am wise enough to beware of the blob. It creeps. It leaps. It glides and slides.

The point of all this is that it's good that school is not finished killing me. I need time for these ideas to gestate, time for them to sink out of the primordial blobbery and solidify. I'm impatient to return to writing rather than schooling, but all things in their own time, I think. That's what I'm being told. Time is being given to me in different ways than I want it, but we don't get to choose how time works on us.

And the other point is that this is what school is good for. The laughter idea is going to be a big deal if it comes together the way I suspect, and it never would've floated up from the muck if not for what Dr. Chatterjee said when I was sitting in class on Monday night. I never would've read John Haskell and thought you mean I could just do this and call it a short story? if not for Dr. Haake's unusual method of creating a syllabus. Education is no small help.

Other news. I meant, but failed, to post on Sunday that it was St. Crispin's Day, and the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. I mentioned this in my Your Friday Yes video, which I also did not post timely in this space.

So there's the video, and here's the St. Crispin's Day speech from Henry V. My original idea for last Friday's Yes was to read the whole speech into the webcam, and I think we can all be glad I came up with a different idea.

There's more to say, but I'm out of time. Natch.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

OCTOBER 21, 2015

It's today. It's the day every Back to the Future fan knows. It's the day Marty goes into the future.

I am so excited. (The Cubs better win the damn World Series.)

To celebrate, I'm posting a piece of fiction I wrote, in fun, to try and understand the perspective of Biff Tannen, who is up there with Gene Hackman's character in Unforgiven for no-holds-barred villainy. I hope you enjoy it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Publishment at Hobart!

Wow and double wow! My fiction is presented today at Hobart online. You can read "Shade", which runs just over 1,000 words, here.

I am so pleased and honored to be featured at Hobart. I love what they do, and it's been a goal of mine to have a piece there since around 2008. So, kids, follow your dreams. You can reach your goals. I am living proof.

I wrote this story as an exercise in the fall of 2014. It was well-received by the class for which I wrote it, so I fiddled with it a bunch to smooth off its rough edges and sent it out. It was rejected, the editors said, because the ending was too abrupt; I consulted with a writer-friend, she told me what was going on there, I fixed it, and voila. It isn't always so easy, but I got lucky this time.

The impetus was a warehouse like the one described in the story that I saw by the side of the highway. I was driving back into Los Angeles from the Santa Clarita area on highway 14, and I saw the lower legs and skateboards of a clutch of teenage boys buzzing around under a corroded roof. The story was not fully formed after I saw the warehouse, but the characters of the boys were, almost. (Who would go way out of town to a dangerous warehouse to skateboard? These boys, that's who.)

The social divide between two of them in particular came later. For Ray I was thinking of a boy I knew in high school whom I desired largely because he wasn't rich and preppy like the other boys. But for the pair of them, Ray and Colin, I was thinking of how young people can misunderstand the differing values of privilege and popularity when they're still in the closed terrarium of high school.

And that long long long sentence when Ray falls off his skateboard? I'd been reading Absalom, Absalom! and wanted to see how long I could make a sentence, whether I could make a single sentence draw the reader into the emotional peak of the story and then pull her back again.

I hope you enjoy "Shade". If you do, c'mon back here tomorrow. The timing of this week means I'm posting again on Wednesday, and there will be fiction then, too.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Your Friday Yes: How to Do the Twist

What it says on the tin.

The thumbnails were all bad, so I just went with the dorkiest one

Next week I'm going to post on Wednesday and Sunday. Sorry for the change in plans, but it's to the good. There will be surprises. Less cute ones than me doing the Twist, but surprises that I hope you enjoy nevertheless.