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.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Lost Week & Sickie Soup

Last weekend I caught a cold, and I spent all this week alternately on the couch and curled up in my red chair, trying like hell to keep both sides of my head reasonably clear of gunk. (Don't you hate that, when one nostril is completely stopped up and the other one is fine? Uggggh.) I got to do some reading and some movie-viewing, and I watched enough MST and Rifftrax to actually get kind of tired of Bill Corbett's voice.

No real writing got done, although I finished a small secret project and got a (pretty much expected) rejection.

I also basically lived on the soup outlined below. Several other people I know (in various places in the country) are sick right now, so I thought this might be of help. It's from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, which is an indispensable book in my kitchen, but I've modified the recipe a good bit. (Hopefully enough to avoid copyright issues. I've bought three copies of this book as gifts, so...are we cool, Deb?)

It makes a big batch, way too much for two, really. I don't think it'd freeze that well, but you could try it. It's great for sick folk because it's so nutritious (quinoa is a complete protein) without being thick and heavy, and the zip from the jalapenos helps clear out clogged sinuses.

Quinoa Chowder

3/4 cup quinoa, rinsed well in a fine sieve
2 tbsp olive oil
2 cups broth or stock of your choice
     (I use vegetable broth, the kind in cartons)
2 tsp chopped garlic or 2 cloves garlic
2 jalapeno chiles, seeded and finely diced
2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 pound potatoes, peeled and cut into cubes*
1 bunch scallions/green onions, including
     an inch of the greens, thinly sliced into rounds
3 cups roughly chopped spinach (eyeball this - a few handfuls)
4 oz cubed feta cheese
1-2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
chopped cilantro (optional)
salt and pepper

Put the quinoa and 2 quarts water in a soup pot, bring to a boil, and then lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Drain, reserving the liquid. Set aside 4 cups of the cooking water.

Wipe out the pot carefully and heat the oil in it over medium. Add the garlic and jalapenos and cook for about 30 seconds. Add the cumin, 1 tsp salt, and the potatoes and cook for a few minutes, stirring. Brown the stuff if you like, but don't let it over-brown or burn. Add the 4 cups of quinoa water, 2 cups of broth, and half the scallions. Simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.

Add the quinoa, spinach, and the rest of the scallions and simmer until the quinoa is completely cooked and the spinach is cooked but has not lost its bright green, 3-5 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat, season with pepper, and stir in the feta. Add 1/3 cup cilantro if desired; if you have someone in your household who does not like cilantro, buy the stuff in a tube and add a little squirt of it to your bowl after serving. You won't be sorry. Add chopped egg to each bowl as desired.

*The recipe calls for boiling potatoes, but they don't sell those individually at my grocery store, so I used russet, or the standard baking potato. It was fine. The average russet potato is a pound, so, half a potato.

Note: if you're not familiar with quinoa, do NOT skip the rinsing step! Quinoa has a bitter coating and if you cook it without rinsing it, blecch.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Project Statuses

I held off on blogging this week because I expected to have something to say after my story was workshopped in class on Wednesday, but I really don't. It was a good workshop, with lots of interesting comments and quite a few helpful ones as well. I'm hopeful about the story but not ready to revise it yet.

I have some essays to write that I've been putting off. For no especial reason, just because I'm kind of pooped mentally. Classes are great and fun, but they tend to demand a similar kind of analysis as essays; plus, my midterm paper for my literature class was due this week, and that took some big (if somewhat indifferent) effort. I wrote about The Sun Also Rises, which I did not like, but about which I was able to develop a coherent theory, which is more than I can say for the other books we read.

There's also this certain story I need to write. It's the last one on the mental tally from January, and when I'm done with it I can set out to write more of the wikibook and/or revise Highbinder, because my story-well will be temporarily empty. The wikibook is an ever-so-slightly higher priority. But none of these three projects is appealing. The certain story promises to be interesting, but not much fun, and I'm a little overwhelmed by the plethora of possibilities for characterization and climax that I could build into it, so I haven't gotten started. The wikibook is just scary, full stop. The Highbinder revisions...I've complained about those adequately elsewhere on this blog.

...I suppose I am

There's also a secret project I conceived in 2011-12 that I'd like to start on this year, but it's kind of...pointless? I don't want to say that, because no creative work is pointless, even if it's just practice. But this is a labor of love and little else, a project that's book-length but with which I don't expect to do much other than write it and set it aside. That makes it feel like a much lower priority than the stuff that I'm writing with an audience other than myself in mind. (I know, down deep, that I must write it, whether its fate is public or private.)

I've been told that, paradoxically, writing worth reading isn't conceived with an external audience in mind. I've been thinking about that a lot as the secret project begins to loom nearer in my future. There are a lot of facets to the writing+audience argument/problem/philosophy, and like I said earlier, my analysis-brain is a bit shagged out at this particular moment. It also feels like a topic that's hard to discuss without offending certain types of writers (whose numbers are large and mighty). So I'll just set it out there and walk away.

Friday, March 7, 2014

*That* Story Published! and Another Story Free of Charge

Last weekend, the winter/spring issue of The Rampallian was published. My story "Little Bitch" is the final piece in the magazine. You can read it here, through a pay wall of $3 for the digital version. (Half of the proceeds for this issue go to a reading charity, so even if you don't want to read it, why not pitch in?) Honestly, I'm kind of glad that there's a pay wall, because this is that story, one with a very unpleasant topic and language with which I was very pleased.

Two weeks ago I read a book for my experimental fiction class, Anna Kavan's Ice, that I couldn't but think was sexist, despite the gender of its author. The main female character is dreadful: passive, childlike, fragile physically and emotionally, somewhat character-free aside from her unusual appearance, etc. In class Wednesday night, the professor mentioned that in a way, creating this character is a "violently feminist" act, because the author is skewering men's perceptions of women. I felt a little chagrined at my prior opinion of the book, because this exact dynamic is what I was up to in "Little Bitch." I imagine a lot of people will read it the way I read Ice, which is something I accepted when I finished the story, but I also imagine people will look at my gendered name and wonder if I'm doing something else. I am. Or so I hope.

Earlier in the week I worked some more on the journalist story and set it aside to ferment. My most recent impression is that it came out reasonably well, if not as well as I'd hoped. It's a little longer, over 6K, and I hope it doesn't creep up to 7K after the next round of revisions. I'm tired of writing stories too long to sell.

Just for fun, here's a few hundred words I wrote as an exercise for the aforementioned class. I don't plan to do anything else with this, but I thought it wasn't terrible, so here 'tis.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

So I Got a Flyer from Time Warner the Other Day

Oh good. Probably trying to sell me more services when we're already overpaying for services we don't need and don't want.

Hey wow! That's so awesome to read!

This apology could be for any number of things about your terrible service: the aforementioned overpricedness, your super-slow TV menus, the way your internet service hiccups at least once an hour, the way those hiccups turn into actual breaks several times a week, the way you raise your monthly fees without notice or logic...I can't wait to see what exactly you choose to apologize for.


I didn't even watch the Super Bowl!

This is what your long-overdue, well-warranted apology is for? The goddamn Super Bowl?!

I don't care!

At all! 

Hmph. Well, what else you got?

Good gracious. What an amazingly generous offer.

I pay you $120 a month for hundreds of channels I don't need. You screw up during the biggest TV event of the American year (that I didn't watch) and you offer me free access (in a limited time frame) to a tiny sliver of a service that I don't need or use, what with my access to Netflix and Amazon Prime, other services I pay for along with yours. (Not that you knew that...but I have never ordered a movie on demand before, ever, and since you're my cable company, you would probably know that.)

Well-done, Time Warner. Your incompetence has reached Wile E. Coyote levels.