Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Depressurized Art

Despite the last post, the crazy robot story was accepted yesterday by a UK market called Theaker's Quarterly Fiction. I'm...pleased. Yes, let's leave it at that. TQF is a print and Kindle mag, and the issue with my story will be out in September or October.

By the end of the day, I had a fourth rejection for the opera story in my inbox, so y'know, she comes and she goes.

Last Saturday, I read half of The Sound and the Fury, and on Sunday I read the other half. If you haven't read this book and decide to read it, I strongly suggest doing it this way. The small details wove into each other much more satisfyingly when gulped all at once. Just as with As I Lay Dying, I'm not going to pretend I understood it from top to bottom, but there wasn't anything plot-wise in the Wikipedia synopsis that made me go "when did that happen?". And I really liked it. In truth, I loved it a little. The end of the second section had this brilliant idea in it, a nut that was worth building an entire novel around, but Faulkner just slipped it in as part of two characterizations, not as a central philosophical tentpole. (I think.) More of his books are in my future. a while. When I recover.

BTW, The Sound and the Fury was published in 1929. Faulkner was born in 1897. I bet a lot of writers over the last century have hated him for that.

I also read another book by Lynda Barry, What It Is, which is equally about the creative process and a poke in the back to get creative yourself. It was good, and I'd like to give it as a gift to a number of people I know, but the density of questions in it overwhelmed me. I consumed about half of a book of poetry by Carl Phillips, which gave me a new poem to add to my favorites list ("Cort├Ęge"), but which was almost too potent. "Blue" and its subtle repetitions and rhythms won't leave my mind.

And I finished a book of short stories by Elmore Leonard, When the Women Come Out to Dance. I was sorry when it was over and there were no more stories to read. I wrote on Facebook that this was the good stuff, straight to the vein, and I'm sticking with that assessment. The book also gifted me with the insight that Westerns and noirs have a lot more in common than you'd think. The only real difference is the props. Think about it.

As for writing, I did nothing last week. I'm ashamed of it, but there it is. I'm back into feeling blocked by gutlessness, a condition which is usually relieved with a combination of cranberry juice and vodka consumed while sitting in my writing chair with my notebook and putting words on the fucking page. But oh, there's all this work to do! And when the work is done, I'm tired and deserve to rest! And then there's grocery shopping and laundry and cleaning and music and movies! I'll just have to write tomorrow. And tomorrow. And tomorrow.

It's not just procrastination, not just busyness (Lord knows I'm really not that busy). It's revision. The idea that whatever I put on the page in love and heat is going to be sacrificed to the great god Revision. It makes me cower and despair.

So, instead, I've started collaging. Once I got the notion that you can make collages with detritus rather than with genuine, preservable art objects, oh, off I flew. Concert tickets and rejection slips and HAVE YOU SEEN ME pictures and completed crossword puzzles, and even a broken cell phone case - all the stuff that testifies to an experience I had but which is really just trash - it all gets glued on a medium-sized piece of posterboard and set away under the TV. I always feel so much better afterward, to a degree that's kind of miraculous. Like when you get that little piece of whatever it is out from between your teeth.

Depressurized art. It's pretty much exactly what I need. I just wish I could bring that breeziness to writing.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Killer Stays in the Picture

On Saturday I got my fourth rejection for the crazy robot story. It was returned even before two weeks had passed. In the case of this magazine, which ought to have a frustratingly slow reading process as befits its venerable reputation, and which is on the opposite coast, this speedy postal no is pretty embarrassing. A slush reader at a prominent genre magazine and a reader I like and trust a great deal both told me I should have no trouble placing this story, but I am having trouble. And I have this theory about why.

I wish I could remember the source of this insight, but at some point in the couple of years after college, I heard that most fledgling filmmakers make their first movie about a killer. Hollywood, scouting for new directors, does not want to see film-school shorts about serial killers, because they see too many of them. (I think it's kind of like "it was all a dream" to end a story - oh, honey, no.) I was startled, because indeed, the final short film I made in my senior-year production class was about a killer. Had I so little imagination?

Making mediocre movies about killers is easy, I guess. Not only can you truck in cliches and superlatives, but the stakes are automatically high. How many will die? Will s/he get caught, or escape? Creating tension in such a situation is hardly difficult.

The crazy robot story - spoilers - ends up with the crazy robot becoming a killer of humans, because he, uh, goes crazy. His madness is about exclusion from being human, and since the character thinks in terms of inferiority and superiority, he decides that (certain) humans are inferior and don't deserve to live. I'm proud of the killin' climax of the story, I truly am, but the thing I'm beginning to wonder is if I need to take the murder out of it. Because isn't it just another killer story? A situation where I've inflated the stakes to make things easy on me, rather than taking the hard way in and evoking the robot's struggle without such all-or-nothing tension?

Killing and other grievous harm happens pretty often in my stories, but until now I haven't considered in detail whether this is a matter of laziness rather than affinity. Perhaps I should be assembling plots with purposely lower stakes, stories that create interesting conflicts without the glitz of murder. But murder interests me. Serial killers interest me. Not because they're easy to write about (the good ones aren't), but because I find them alien and fascinating. A lot more fascinating than writer-main characters who can't seem to bed the girl or frustrated Flaubert-reading housewives dreamed up by male MFA grads.

Like anything else in writing, you can probably do whatever you want as long as you do it really goddamn well. But I imagine a lot of slush readers would pick up my crazy robot story and say, no matter its quality, oh jeez, another dang killer story, haven't we had enough of these? And that makes me wonder if I should just steer away from what actually interests me, challenge myself by writing about small quiet conflicts instead. Hopefully I wouldn't be doing this to write to the market, but instead to push myself in new directions. Those subjects just sound so stale, so inert, compared to what I most enjoy.

What do you think? Can "it was all a dream" stories work if they're that good? Are serial killers too commonplace, too easy, for a medium-good writer like me to try and pass them off?

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Revisitation, with Special Guests the Postal Service

You seem so out of context
In this gaudy apartment complex
A stranger with your door key
Explaining that I'm just visiting
And I am finally seeing
Why I was the one worth leaving

I was the one worth leaving 

If you aren't already singing along, get yourself hence.

Last night I went to see the Postal Service live at the Greek Theater. When I read on Wikipedia, of all places, that the Postal Service had mounted a tour for 2013, I bought a ticket almost immediately. I won't set forth the whole history of the band (a fairly interesting one) here, but I will say that virtually everyone I know who likes the Postal Service loves the Postal Service, me included. I actually wore out my original CD of Give Up, played it and played it and played it until it was too scratched to play anymore. When I told people this, they offered sympathetic moans that indicated not only that they could see how this would happen, but that it's quite a shame.

Every time I see live music, I'm faintly amazed that the people on stage are doing their jobs. That the job of musician and performer is one that you accomplish by standing on stage and doing what the Postal Service did last night. It's a weird job, and very difficult to get and keep, but performance is a career field like any other: there are people who are naturally good at it, and there are ways to get even better at it, skills you can learn to improve. Nevertheless, it's creation - a mysterious act - of music - a mysterious creature - before my very eyes. I get a real kick out of that.

And I wanted to see this show because it seemed possible that the opportunity would never come again. The Postal Service is a monolith of one-offing, collaboration that happens once and never again, and this tour seemed no exception. Like seeing Jimi Hendrix live, or Nirvana.

The thing is, I didn't really love the show. Ben Gibbard, fabulous talent that he is, is kind of a spaz. And there was very little in that performance that I haven't enjoyed just as much at home with headphones. Laura Burhenn of the Mynabirds, who released a miraculous first album and a thoroughly mediocre second one, was one-fourth of the performers, and Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley, who's been part of the band since Give Up and whom I know best as someone quite different


, was also there on stage. That was cool, and seeing these four people make something special happen before my eyes was cool. But I've been to live concerts that seared my skin off and seeped into my bones, and this just wasn't one of them.

Gibbard said one thing that interested me. More than halfway through, he said he was grateful to us for coming, for loving this music from so many years ago. He said that "means so much to us."

Not my picture; came from here, which opens with a nice sum of my feelings
about Give Up, albeit from someone a good deal younger than I

I really have no idea how I'd react if a project I did as a fluke with some of my friends and colleagues, meant to be a side effort away from my main career, turned out to be this thing that everyone adored. That was one of Sub Pop's biggest sellers ever. That journalists were always asking about. That influenced a gigantic swath of indie artists and assembled a subgenre out of almost nothing. That people pleaded with me for more of. I think after a while I might be tired of the whole thing, especially if people were still clamoring about it an entire decade later. It amazes me that the band decided to reunite for a tour at all, and the last thing I expected was that they would be grateful that people were still all into Give Up.

Matt pointed out that for them it ain't nuthin but a thang, since they made it and own it. I think his phrase was "eh, let's set up a tour, make some money, go home." I guess, but these songs are ten years old. I often wonder how the Rolling Stones can play "Satisfaction" ONE. MORE. TIME. without losing their damn minds, and surely this isn't that different. It's music that they made in 2003, that was finished then, from which they've since moved up and away.

No? I really don't know. Maybe Gibbard was lying for our sake. Maybe the band thinks of Give Up as a sweet pet that keeps on giving them treats rather than a random flare of genius that has become a stone around their necks.

I always love seeing evidence of artists who seem to be just as into their art as their most slavering fans are. But I thoroughly sympathize with artists who feel that once a piece of work is done, it's done, and they want to work on new challenges rather than revisiting old stuff (coughBillWattersoncough). I guess it just depends on your personality, and on the art.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Signifying Nothing

Matt inadvertently reminded me the other night of my reaction to The Sound and the Fury when it was part of our high school curriculum. He and I were in the same AP English class, and Sound was the very last book we studied. My memory is that our teacher thought it was ridiculous that the AP curriculum only allotted a few weeks to this book, and accordingly told us that we didn't have to read it if we didn't want to, because even trying to teach Faulkner in a few weeks was too futile to be borne. I still think this was a wise decision on his part; what earthly teenager is going to be able to concentrate on The Sound and the fucking Fury during the last few weeks of high school?

But I tried reading it. I read the first couple dozen pages, and I had a reaction to it that I've rarely had before or since. Usually when I don't understand a book, I feel inadequate or angry or both. I feel like I've failed - like the brain I trust implicitly has failed - but I also feel stubbornly like the author has failed. So I sit and steep in insecurity with my arms folded and my lip pooched out.

But in the case of Sound, my utter lack of ability to understand it was just humorous. It mattered very little to me that I read this book properly, because the pressure was off, and it was a famously difficult book. I chuckled and sent my insecurity straight to the dumpster. Just tried a bit to understand and then did the intellectual equivalent of laughing madly and tossing the book in the air.

I think I'll try again, though. I have successfully read As I Lay Dying and while I'm not going to pretend I understood it well, I walked away minutely different and so glad I read it.

I recently read Lynda Barry's One! Hundred! Demons! and you should read it too. It's a graphic novel memoir and it's wonderful. I also read Jennifer Egan's novel in stories A Visit from the Goon Squad, and I'm sorry to say that it didn't engage me especially. I found it very effective and interesting, but I was consistently standing back from it to admire it rather than being up close and intertwined with it. This is the eighth Pulitzer Prize winner I've read which has engendered pretty much this exact reaction.

Over the weekend I started a steampunk book that was so poorly written I gave up after 100 irritating pages. So to dive back into the genre pool, I think I'll be reading Elmore Leonard instead. Hopefully he won't use "alright" as if it's a legitimate word and, moreover, a word that was appropriate in Victorian London. I started and finished Arguments for Stillness, a book of poetry by Erik Campbell, and found it mixed. Some of the poems were so good I had to read them aloud to Matt. Others didn't offer much for me.

I also had some lovely long talks with Matt about writing and creative work in general. Since he has a creative job, he is a fount of useful wisdom about how to trudge on into the darkest of creative nights. This week, thanks to his guidance, I'm setting out to rewrite a short story about stalking which just did not work in its original form, but which has ideas that matter too much to me to junk completely. It's my first time rewriting something from scratch, rather than keeping swaths and reworking the rest. (This is humiliating to admit; I should have tried it long before now.) I expect it to be a great lesson but a thoroughly unfun process.

I'm also planning to work some on the wikibook, maybe a couple of short entries and some brainstorming about the second half of the book. I'm telling you this to keep me accountable, so that I actually do the work. Last week was productive at sending stuff out - my submissions tracker at Duotrope is bristling - but I need to make more stuff while I wait for rejections. And I can't spend any more money or time on puzzles, dammit.
500-piece puzzle, 100% procrastination

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Vale, Amicus

There are so many stories I could tell you about someone I knew who died yesterday. Too many to relate. Too many to start with. He was a friend to me when I felt very friendless; he was a mentor in ways that were too subtle and valuable for me to express.

There's a lot of talk about Teachers Who Matter, and how invaluable it is to find one in your life, but much of this attention is focused on grammar school educators. The time I needed help the most was in high school. I needed someone to take me seriously, to treat me with genuine respect - not respect tinged with benign, teacherly contempt. Tom Heslin, known to and loved by so many as Doc, was that someone, for me and for countless others.

He died in a ridiculous, unfair way, struck by a moving vehicle as he rode his bicycle. In my adult life I was fairly certain that I would outlive this man - he was 25 years older than I, and had aggressive type 1 diabetes - but for him to go like this was a silly, premature blunder by whatever force makes these things happen. And I wasn't ready in the least.

That truck may have been physically bigger than he was, but nothing on earth was bigger than Doc's heart. It had room for everyone who encountered him, and I feel so fortunate to have been one of those people.

Requiescat in pace.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

What It Is I Know Not

This is a great song for those hours of the morning that just slip away while you catch up with what you missed on the internet the night before. You're welcome.

Funny story. I got some shocking but useful feedback on Highbinder a few weeks ago, and one bit of information I couldn't reconcile was about me mentioning 1930s movie stars in the early chapters of the book. My reader said that he found this confusing and odd. I talked it through with Matt, and at length I realized that I was myopic about what these references meant. To me, movie stars are signposts, references that help me determine when and where I am. To others, that's not so at all. They might appear to be name-checking to no purpose, or deliberately confusing, rather than orienting the reader, which is what I intended.

I laughed about this for a long time, because that is what comes of being too obsessed with cinema for one's own good - feeling like, well, mentioning Garbo is helpful, because her American career was at its height in the 30s. How could that not be helpful? If, unlike me, the average person doesn't think about Garbo in any given week, it's not helpful. It's actually the opposite of helpful. Well, now I know.

This is Garbo. For me, the question is really how you can not think of her in any given week. 

Recent reads include Toni Morrison's Jazz, Sharon Olds' Stag's Leap, and Mary Gaitskill's Don't Cry.

Jazz: I don't know. I feel unqualified to talk about Morrison's books. I felt the same way after this as after Beloved: WTF was that? Did I like it? Am I supposed to feel white guilt? Am I supposed to feel rapture? I have no idea. It was Something, but what it was I know not.

Stag's Leap: Whoooooo. If you've ever been in a relationship that has ended (and duh, who hasn't?), these poems will bring up some stuff. What a gutsy, straightforward, marvelous collection. Even a little fun at times.

Don't Cry: Er...reply hazy. I don't think I got some of the stories, or perhaps I didn't like them. Others I liked a lot, even loved. She definitely has a grip on language that is entirely her own. Reminds me of George Saunders in a way - they don't write very much alike, but they do both write quite idiosyncratically. This made me want to read more of her work in the hope of understanding it better, which I guess is a positive reaction.

I also did a bit of reading of early Joan Didion from Slouching Towards Bethlehem. A very small bit, just a couple of essays, and I enjoyed them. I've read two? three? of her books and have not yet liked her work over the long haul, but I've put her collected essays on my Amazon wish list anyway in the hope that I will come to my senses.

Up next is A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan and a book of poetry by a fellow named Erik Campbell, whose poems (these poems, in fact) I read in Prairie Schooner and loved enough to buy his book, and then maybe I'll get back to some genre reading. I like switching back and forth between genre and literary, and it's growing easier to figure out when it's time to do so - I'm getting to know the signs of becoming exasperated with one set of characteristics or the other.


Last week was physically challenging for me, so I did a lot of lazing around and feeling impotent. I read (obviously) and I watched MST and I did crosswords, in between resting. Real work was actually impossible for a lot of that time and seemed impossible later on.

I'm putting together a short story in my head, about two women, but I haven't opened up my notebook just yet except to take notes. There's work I could probably be doing on the wikibook but I am not doing it. After a big 4,500-word release on that project, I haven't done anything else but notes and thinking, and I don't know if it's because I'm still in the Let's Fuck Around For A Few Months Before Getting Down To Business stage of the book or if I'm in the No, I've Gotten Started stage and I'm just completely denying that I need to do any work on it at all for the book to spring magically into existence.

In either circumstance, I need to work on it. Don't I end my blog posts with that imperative a lot?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Genre Urgency (?)

Last time on The Fictator:
11. One of our exercises was to write down the question at the core of our work. I had a very hard time with this at first, although eventually I came up with an answer. But more on that in the next post.
This was in the context of the workshop I attended at Esalen. Along with the question at the core of our work, we had to set down the universal question in the work (the first question is what does the work mean to you; the second question is what does the work mean to the rest of the world), other experiences that collide with the story, something in culture/history/mythology that resonates with the story, how many layers there are in the story, and, finally, "who are you really?". Right. Simple stuff.

I haven't felt the same kind of urgency to write the novels I've written as Cheryl spoke about over and over. The name of the workshop was "Writing from the Urgent Place/The Story You Have to Tell" and part of the reason I was eager to sign up for it was the nagging feeling that I don't write from a particularly urgent place. Going through them one by one, I remember my motivations for everything I've written, back at least to my terrible superdramatic stories in high school about the cool best friend I never had, but I would scarcely call most of those motivations urgent.

I could point to stories I've written and tell you that this or that one felt urgent. The boy-on-garbage-scow story is the most recent example. That story felt necessary, felt like a part of me that had to be excised and put on the page. But the boy-and-mom-in-crisis story, and a fun noir story about zombies (the two that I've finished most recently - one literary, one genre), they didn't feel urgent. They felt good, like I was practicing my craft and pressing up the hill toward my goal, but they didn't feel like I was tearing something out of me with my fingernails and grinding it into the page. I do feel compelled to get the ideas out into the world that I put in my books and stories. But as I listened to my co-workshoppers' passion, cranked up to 11, about the work they want to complete, my feelings about the novels I've written seemed tepid.

Am I doing it wrong? Should I keep seeking that urgent place? If I didn't write, I would shrivel up on the inside and my sanity would be threatened. But I wouldn't die if I didn't complete a particular project - I'd just move on to another one - and that was the kind of urgency everyone else was talking about.

I would like very much to hear from other genre writers about this issue. Writing Highbinder felt necessary because I wanted so much to bring Berra to life, wanted everyone who read the book to love her as much as I love her. But I didn't feel like my life depended on being able to set her down. Pam said in the very first session that those were the stories she loved most: when it felt to her, while reading, as if the writer's life depended on writing it. No project I've tackled has felt so urgent as that. Am I not meant to be doing this? Or am I just doing a different thing than finding a story under my own skin?

As I looked back, I didn't see a single thread connecting all my work that could be called a core question that mattered to me, the person, rather than me the storyteller. I see themes that are similar: disappointing, manipulative, or absent parents is the most consistent one, but betrayal and sexual deviancy seem to be interesting to me too, and women or girls in severe peril appear over and over. (I have explanations for some of these themes but not others.) I thought long and hard about this core question thing, and finally I wrote down the issue at the heart of the wikibook, which also sits at the center of the other big literary project I've conceived, one I know I'm not ready to write yet.

Truth. The nature of it, the fallacy of it, the value of it, whether or not it matters in a life story.

Unsurprisingly, this is an issue at the heart of my life in the world, too, but I don't see it as having appeared in my other novels so much. The novels I've written have been about their stories and their characters, not about a literary question. Yet I just can't see this as being the wrong way to have written them. I wanted to write about Berra, about Elaine, about Rose and Eliza and Jackson, about poor prickly Fiona, even about Jessamyn. When putting their stories together, I didn't want to write about truth, or about what it meant to be alone, or about how to go on when it seems impossible to go on (a sampling of other core questions). I just wanted to write about what happened to them.

Am I doing it wrong?

Monday, July 8, 2013



Just in case you didn't read the last post or forgot or something, I was at the Esalen Institute last week at a writer's workshop with Cheryl Strayed and Pam Houston. Big Sur is foggier and chillier than you'd think.

All week I composed pieces of this blog post in my head, trying to figure out what I was going to say and what I was going to keep to myself about this experience. It would have been a lot easier to write this if I'd still been at my old anonymous blog; I went through an interesting emotional arc from Sunday to Friday, and I'd love to have the chance to decompress about that in thousands of rambling words. I also have a lot to say about experiencing Esalen, not all of which I'm eager to set down under my real name.

So rather than trying to write the most exhaustive or illustrative post about the experience, I'm going to use a technique I learned from Cheryl, and make a list.

1. I am so much more enthusiastic about rewriting now than I was at the end of last week. About the prospect of writing a scene four different ways, even if it takes precious time. I think the way they made us do a pile of exercises and then only mentioned some of them again, leaving the others to be washed out to sea (or expanded upon in one's own time), helped enormously with the feeling that effort expended on writing is disposable, should be disposable, in order for good work to appear at the end of the road.

2. Pam showed us how literary dialogue is supposed to go: at cross-purposes, two separate conversations going on at once rather than direct communication. This was a total revelation. Everyone I talked to about it said the same.

3. The whole time, I was on a knife-edge between pleasure that a place like this exists and astringent cynicism. Very hard to take seriously at the same time as it was a relief to open my mind to hippie woo-woo stuff and enjoy.

4. My writing exercises improved noticeably (to my eye) over the week.

5. I kept coming up with questions that I knew it would be stupid to ask, because they'd send us down a tangential rabbit-hole that would have been great for a lazy afternoon seminar but not good at all in this limited environment. Things like "can MacGuffins exist in lit-fic, or are they just for genre writers?" and "how do you keep from writing the boring story?" and "why is it good to show instead of tell and bad to tell instead of show? Who set up that standard?" Some of these I brought up with other writers over lunch or dinner and we had interesting talks.

6. I made amazing, wonderful new friends, and am terrified that they didn't like me as much as I liked them.

7. I didn't miss Facebook and whatnot at all while I was there, but once back, I fell into the same pattern as before I left. I hope to remember that feeling, though, and treat the commitment of FB a little more lightly.

8. "Yeah, but Alice Munro is a wizard."

9. Form will set you free! Alton Brown says this about keeping organized while cooking, and he's exactly right. Writing a sonnet sounds like it'll be a lot more complicated and difficult than writing free verse, but at times, the limitations can help you to imagine your way into far more interesting places. I saw this come true under my pen this week (not literally with a sonnet but with something similarly formal). Previously I knew this wisdom in a very different context: classical Hollywood cinema labored under a LOT of restrictions and still turned out remarkable art. Sirk wouldn't be Sirk, in all his hilarious symbolic glory, without the Hays code.

10. I smoked too many cloves and even a few regular cigarettes. Aside from looping conversations that drifted well past bedtime, this was the best thing about the evenings there. I miss smoking so goddamn much.

11. One of our exercises was to write down the question at the core of our work. I had a very hard time with this at first, although eventually I came up with an answer. But more on that in the next post.

It was a remarkable week and I'm very, very glad I went. I wish I could do a big workshop like this every season, four times a year, because it's just the sort of thing that quantum-leaps my writing into a new place and presses me back into the confidence I sorely need to get to work.

PS: Everybody to whom I described the wikibook thought it was a neat idea. Nothing is going to keep me from getting this thing done, even if it takes two years.