Friday, February 28, 2014

Get Yourself a Sherpa with Tenure

On Friday last I wrote about 3,500 words, and on Monday I wrote another 3,000 and typed the whole thing. The result, the journalist story, has been nagging me at varying levels of urgency to get written for a few months now, and I'm glad it's on paper. But in looking over it after I was done typing, I saw (already) that it would need significant work. Certain scaffolds are tenuous; certain characters kind of fall out of the story in the middle; something near the end is so obviously lacking that I feel like there should be a title card that says SCENE MISSING; there's a few paragraphs of preaching and a big paragraph of blatant telling. I hoped to work on it this week to try and fix these problems, but life interfered. Maybe over the weekend. I think I'm going to alter my usual pattern of draft --> wait two weeks --> revise --> fiddle for another week --> give to readers, because it needs a lot more work at the pre-two-weeks stage than normal, and that means I'll need to give it more time to ferment.

I have high hopes for this story. Themewise, it wound up being a sort of rehearsal for the wikibook (which was helpful), and I threw in numerous life observations ("glimmers" for those of you in the know) that I've been saving in my notebook for the right moment. It also melded 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. Hopefully this cocktail will be more pleasing.

Monday was really a full day of work, because in the morning I revised the story I wrote for my experimental fiction class a few weeks ago. I think it turned out pretty great. I'm worried about its style, and about whether its various conceits work, but overall I'm much more pleased with it than I have been with a new story in ages. My small group in class on Wednesday liked it, and Matt really liked it. It's being workshopped with the whole class in just under two weeks, and I don't really know what to expect.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Being Genuironic

Just a few words about The Book of Mormon, which I saw over the weekend at the Pantages (and good heavens, what an incredible theater). I am a great advocate for Parker/Stone's work, and I'm still sorting through what I learned about them (and about entertainment, and about culture, and about life, and about politics, & etc.) when I marathoned South Park in late 2012-early 2013. Because this musical has gotten reviews waaaaaay beyond the norm, I figured it would be the best thing evar, so I was really excited about going.


It's not that the show isn't good. It's great! It's funny and smart and subversive and big-hearted and it has this piquant quality that I noticed in large supply in latter seasons of South Park: its writers seem to know a lot about life. I guess you call that wisdom? For many it's a surprise to find such a quality in a "silly cartoon show" or a silly Broadway musical, and maybe that's why I felt there was a disconnect between the insanely good reviews I read and the show I saw, which was great!, but which was not really much greater than South Park.

My operating assumption is that the reviewers of Mormon are just not that familiar with South Park, or at least that they didn't watch all 221 (at the time) episodes in relatively quick succession the way I did. Because as outstanding as Parker/Stone's brand of entertainment is, Mormon felt like more of the same of it, not something way beyond their grasp. I'm not going to call it a disappointment, because it wasn't. But it wasn't the best thing evar.

The finest thing about it was the same thing that was surprising about the "Up There" number from Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. Here that is:

So, not to be tedious, but the dynamic in "Up There" goes a little something like this:
  1. It's absurd that Satan would sing a Little Mermaid-style number, with a backup choir and everything, about getting out of Hell. 
  2. This kind of song has evolved into being a cliche, and so this song is a parody of itself. 
  3. In context, the character genuinely feels the desire to get out of Hell. That desire is real
  4. Hence, the song feels genuine, even though a) the situation is absurd and b) the song is parodic. 
  5. The song evokes real feeling in the audience, in part because it's a well-written parody, and in part because there is genuine feeling behind the parody. 
This is a very tidy and difficult trick, being ironic and genuine at the same time, and it's one that Parker/Stone pull over and over and over again throughout their work. It's the precise trick on which The Book of Mormon operates. The songs are drawing from Broadway tradition: cheery, South Pacific and Music Man-type songs that are no longer acceptable to the jaded audiences of today, but which are still catchy and fun and real to the characters, which makes them real to us, despite us laughing at them.

So I expected nothing less from these guys (who have won a Peabody, after all), but apparently reviewers were not so credulous, which created a gap between my expectations and the show. Which is great! So you should go see it when it comes to your town. But if you're really familiar with South Park, don't break your heart if you can't make it to Mormon. The Mormon episode of the show, while very different, makes some of the same points and is equally funny.

Is this more interesting than news about writing? Because I did a lot of that in the last several days, and wrote a few paragraphs about it, and then decided to post this instead. Ah well. You'll get the writing stuff later in the week.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Back and Back and Back to the Notebook

A lot of my energy lately has been going into movies, so I don't have much writing news. Except this: for the last ten months, my book has been in the to-read pile of an agent, and last week she rejected it. It was a good kind of rejection, a kind that was pretty easy to get over, but it was still kind of deflating after waiting all that time.

And now I have absolutely no excuse not to revise the book. Which is actually more of a spirit-collapser than the rejection itself. Finding another agent to submit to is relatively easy; rewriting the whole climax and all the stuff that threads into it seems much harder.

At this exact moment I'm doing the dance of the damned: I wrote a couple of pages this morning on a story that's been kicking to get out of my head for months now. You'd think that starting would make it easier to keep going, but instead I'm casting around madly for something else to do. I'm caught up reasonably well on schoolwork and the apartment is clean enough and there's no money-work to be done and no e-mails to answer, so, the writing, it's what there is to do. And somehow I barfed up the first few pages before getting terrified and choosing to pace around and stare at Facebook and glance at my notebook from a few feet away rather than riding the wave.

No, it isn't. Coal mining is harder. I'm going back to the notebook.

...after I eat some lunch. And pick the right music. And maybe just vacuum a little bit.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Why I Hate Valentine's Day

My friend Ryan suggested that I write a post rampaging against Valentine's Day. I told him that I didn't think I could add much to the conversation that everybody doesn't already know (it makes single people miserable, it makes coupled people all pressured and weird in case they're not doing it right, it's an invented/retail-oriented holiday, blah blah blah), and that my reasons for hating V-Day were really my own unlucky experiences with the holiday rather than some larger and more interesting point. But I thought about it some more, and writing about my unlucky experiences seems like it might be a fun exercise. If you're not interested, no need to read on.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

How to Appeal to Millennials: Confuse Them

Of interest to me in school last week and this week was how the students in my American Novels class reacted to Faulkner vs. Hemingway. The class was super quiet during the Hemingway week (The Sun Also Rises) and I thought it was because the class was just quiet and shy, but when we started Faulkner (As I Lay Dying), KABOOM, engagement. Talk talk talk. Most of the 25 of us had something to say. I was extremely surprised, because I was certain if anything they would be quieter and less engaged re: Faulkner than re: Hemingway. Papa is nothing if not direct, and Faulkner is...indirect.

Something I read in the DF Wallace biography a couple of weeks ago might hold the key to this. The author, D.T. Max, noted that younger generations had a much easier time with Infinite Jest than did older ones, and that it was an undergraduate who actually hit upon the reasoning behind that book's odd climaxless structure. Max posited that younger folks who pick up Infinite Jest have actually grown up in the world from which it is assembled - the world of, well, eternal entertainment; the fragmented and difficult and unnarrative world of 100 cable channels and slackerism and, eventually, the internet. So they are more poised to understand (by nature of living rather than by reading Barth and Pynchon) postmodernism or postpostmodernism than people who grew up on the Harold Bloom diet.

By the same token, I think that the cultural and artistic context of early Hemingway may be fading away, irrevocably. While Faulkner did write about a specific time and place, and did make use of cultural referents that are no longer in use, poverty and family issues will likely endure as relatable human problems for centuries to come. I think that means his work will be relevant to more generations than The Sun Also Rises will be. Critically, Faulkner's way of shattering a narrative into tiny pieces and gluing it together is something that the generation under me - actually literally raised on the internet rather than having it enter their lives in their ~ tweens/teens like me - understands possibly better than any generation prior. I love Faulkner even though I don't claim to understand him, and I think that a lot more people my age and younger are willing to read books from that place, rather than getting annoyed and insisting that everything must go from point A to point B in order to be a good experience.

I shared this with an English professor I know, and she went all quiet, which is a sign that I have a really good idea. "That's why my students now get Coriolanus better than my students ten years ago," she said. I admitted that it was Max's idea, not mine, but nevertheless it seemed like an idea that had been borne out by her experience of students over a couple of decades. So, go Max, go Faulkner, go me.

In other news, I finished the story I talked about last time that very same day, doing one of those writing marathons where I feel wrung out and hung over by the end of it and there are books scattered around that I don't remember consulting and I have sort of lost track of what the numbers of hours mean. I.e. is six o'clock dinnertime, or is it midafternoon? Ordinarily, since it's schoolwork, I'd neaten its corners as well as possible very soon after finishing the draft, and then I'd forget about it. But I think this came out pretty okay, so instead I'm doing the work-work thing where I let it ferment for two weeks and then look at it again. I might be totally wrong, it might be good for schoolwork and nothing else, but we'll see. It was fun to play.

If you're interested in grammar, language mechanics, the evolution of internet language, etc., go read this. I'm off.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Fun on a Deadline

On Saturday I got word of an acceptance for a story that I kind of hope marks the nadir of fucked-up topics about which I choose to write. I kept sending the story out because I believed in the language, but the topic is so unpleasant that I'm not sure I really thought it would find a place. Yet it did. More details to come when the issue is released.

Then on Sunday I got started on a story I need to have written by mid-March in order to workshop it in one of my classes. It's an idea I've been kicking around for a few months now, since I saw a Russian opera called Eugene Onegin, and I think that the idea and my plans for it fit into the necessary rubric for the class. This is the class with experimental literature, Hybrid and Narrative, so I found it a little harder than usual to determine my approach.

Yet I had fun writing the first thousand words of this story, and honestly it's the first time since I was drafting Highbinder that I can remember having real, rollicking, feet-kicking fun when setting something down on paper. Often I feel passionate and determined when I'm writing, but when I'm revising, it's work. It's fascinating work, but it's also demanding and tedious and full of uncertainty.

Real fun is hard to come by in either of these situations. I'm looking forward to writing the rest of it.

I'm nearly finished with revisions on the story featured in this post. Usually I don't take so many months, but 1) holidays and 2) these revisions have kind of trickled in, forming a stalactite, instead of slamming through the front door like motorists when the DMV opens. I have a specific market in mind for this story now that it's 99% done, and the market was (probably?) supposed to open for submissions at the end of January, and it hasn't opened yet, and of course I can wait as long as they need me to wait in order to submit it because it's my first-choice market, but the time investment of submitting stories and waiting for them to be rejected so I can submit again is already frustrating enough. After this first round I'll start simultaneous-subbing it, but I want to give this market the chance to give me a truly painful rejection before I dust myself off and try again.

Speaking of which, happy Monday.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Play a Miniature Lament for Me

Yesterday I got a ninth rejection for a story with which I am perfectly content as it is. I'm constitutionally opposed to trunking it, because it's a story I loved while I was writing it, loved slightly less when I revised it, and love possibly more now that I've gotten used to those revisions.

It is not a story that I'm proud of having written in terms of its topic or character focus. But the language, yes. I said it how I wanted to say it. If you're a writer, you know that's a miracle, and it's a miracle I don't look on lightly, and I just want someone else (preferably an editor) to love it as much as I do. But no one does.

Anyway. For one of my classes, I'm having to write every week, and two weeks in it's turning out to be really good for me. I don't know what it means that historically, my exercises, often completed in a couple of hours, usually end up more reader-friendly than the stuff I labor on for weeks. But maybe it means the same thing as, you know, the above. That I have no idea what bits I write are any good and what bits I write are sucky.

Does anyone else have this problem? Because I would really like to feel less alone in it.