Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Seeded Soil

Some days the world seems small and unlovely. Other days it seems vast and unspeakably gorgeous.

Some days, reading Proust is a treasure. Other days it is a slog.

But I think I might just finish Cities of the Plain sooner rather than later, which will put me back on track for my Three Years of Proust project. Yay!

--

Kind of on that subject, I posted this on Facebook the other day.



I got lots of helpful suggestions (thank you) and I still haven't decided which book it's going to be, although I bought a number of the suggested books at my favorite used bookstore the following day. But yesterday morning, while running, I thought over this post, and wondered if it wasn't emblematic of something about reading that's been bugging me for ages.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Your Friday Yes, Sort Of: Make Your Own Holiday

I still haven't gotten my shit together well enough to make an actual video, but I really wanted to talk about this idea before Christmas. So here's a text version of Your Friday Yes. Um, on Wednesday.

This week, say yes to........MAKING YOUR OWN HOLIDAY! 

My life experiences have not lent themselves well to enjoying Thanksgiving and Christmas. Sometimes I can muster up the spirit of the occasion(s), but usually not. Usually I'm Grinching and Humbugging like crazy.

I hate flying, because it gives me migraines; I can't stand forced fun; I don't especially love turkey. I don't have a very large family, and I remember spending very few holidays with a crowd of loved ones around a big, warm table. Nothing about the holidays is particularly special to me.

I married into a crowd of loved ones around a big, warm table, a crowd that cooks well and travels better, a crowd that talks enthusiastically about their high-achieving lives and loves holidays and adores spending time together.

I was totally confused for my first few years with this family.

Later, I got more accustomed to them and their way of doing the holidays, but the truth is, my enjoyment of The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year has remained limited. For me the holidays are always wrapped in mummy layers of misery-making travel, uncomfortable clothes, feeling transcendentally stuck, money issues, problematic expectations...you get the idea. And the thing that I always tell people (who kind of raise their eyebrows at me in reply) is that when I'm out in the world during November and December I can feel the tension in the air, the thick soup of everyone else's holiday stress pressing against my corneas and eardrums and tongue, and it makes me ill.

The desire is always just to opt out. Not to buy presents for people, but to give them calls and emails and cards instead. Not to sit through large, interminable family dinners in pantyhose, but to invite over a pair or a quartet of beloveds and chill out in our pajamas and eat waffles and read books instead. Not to wax politic about Jesus and/or Santa and/or [fill in the blank], not to listen to "The Little Drummer Boy" every damn year, not to drink too much and sit in the corner with an overlarge slice of pie. No. To, instead, make my own holiday.

And this year, I did.

Or, rather, we did. Because we have flown to the east coast an average of twice a year in the three years since we moved west, and that is too much flying for my oversensitive self, Matt and I decided that in 2015 we were taking a break from coast-to-coast flying. That meant that we were probably going to spend the holidays alone. Which was sad, because we love our families very much.

But I was secretly hoping it was going to be sort of great. I didn't really want to miss a week of work, arrange for someone to check in on the apartment, or (perhaps most crucially) put on pantyhose.

I wanted to sit at home in my underwear and read books and not go out into the shrieking maw of Christmas shoppers.

And that is exactly what we did for Thanksgiving, and exactly what we plan to do for Christmas. No presents. No turkey. Our heater broke, but we bought a Vornado so we didn't have to put on sweaters and could maintain the underwear status quo.

If you are a holidays-lover, I commend you, and clasp you in my heart. Truly. I am so happy that there are people like you out there, and I'm happy for your joy. But if you, like me, kind of can't stand the holidays and wish that you could spend the 60 days from Halloween to New Year's in a medically induced coma, rather than being conscious and therefore forced to participate in HOLIDAY CHEER, GODDAMMIT, try opting out.

It might sound like it's impossible, because other people want you to do stuff, and society expects you to do stuff, and you may encounter some raised eyebrows. But so what? Society's expectations just don't matter. Your family's (or your chosen family's) love is what matters, and if that love is dependent on you stuffing yourself into pantyhose and drinking too much in a corner, it is not love that deserves reciprocation.

I feel bad that I didn't buy presents for anyone this year, but I don't think anyone feels less loved or remembered by me. (If you do, see above. It's not you, it's me.) I think people who love you want you to be happy. If you think they don't feel that way, ask them and see. Just...see what happens! Make your own holiday and see what happens. Seasonal and American pressures to conform are rarely stronger than in December, but I am here to tell you, it's possible to walk away from that. It is. If you want to make your own holiday, do it, and if you do it, tell me about it so I can cheer for you.

Take THAT, Claus

Happy Friday (sort of)! Thanks for watching (sort of)! Byyyyyyye!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Excavation

I'm writing this (on Sunday) after three or four hours of working on this story I've been trying to write all fall.

It's excruciating.

The thing I'm doing is excavating, layer by layer, some things that shaped me from middle and elementary school. I'm smashing them all together for the sake of the story, rather than setting them years apart as they happened, but even fictionalizing them is emotionally exhausting.

As I was writing I remembered the construction of the tables at which I sat in the cafeteria of my middle school - how some of the tables didn't unfold right, and that meant the stool-seats wouldn't touch the ground, so we bounced up and down on them and the whole table shook on its casters. I remembered that the caf shared space with the school's stage - the place where I, as a member of the band, performed on concert nights. It was weird to eat with the stage right there, I think now. It was up, like a normal stage, elevated four or five feet from the cafeteria floor. And most of the time the curtains were open and the stage was empty, a black curtain hung over its cinderblock back wall. I don't remember a theater program of any kind existing at that school, so I don't think the stage was used that often.

It was the same room where we had dances. The same room where I got up the courage to gently poke fun at [name changed] before I asked him out. (That, my friends, was a good love, the one I had with [name changed].) The same room where I grew to goddamn hate early-90s soft R&B hits like "I Will Always Love You" and "End of the Road". Because they were so long and it was always so awkward to "dance" to them, such as dancing was in seventh grade.

cringe

Remembering the caf this well is a big deal, because I have forgotten almost all of the day-to-day texture of my childhood. I remember the general shape of things, I remember critical incidents, and I remember people, but, for instance, I don't know at all what the inside of the apartment I lived in from 1992 to 1995 looked like. I'm pretty sure that [name changed 2]'s backyard butted against the hiking trails with trees spray-painted bright fluorescent colors for the old folks' home nearby, but it's possible those hiking trails were next to a neighborhood I lived in during high school.

And there's so much I can't resolve. My friend Delilah lived in a trailer, but she lived on the street I walked across to get to the bus stop, which makes no sense, because it was houses on that road. What kind of bike did I have in those years? I know I had one, but I don't remember it. Was it the gray ten-speed? Could I have been tall enough for that bike when I was 12? I know I was best friends with Jaison, but how was I also best friends with [name changed 3] before she dumped my ass for the popular girls? Jaison and [3] didn't have a thing to do with each other, socially.

It's baffling, memory work, for someone with a terrible memory.

Friday, December 11, 2015

It Was in the Bleak December

The word I learned (evidently not well) in Dr. Haake's class that I tried and failed to remember in order to use it for this blog post was "crots". I knew it would be a good pun to title the post "Blood Crots" but I could not remember the word in order to form the pun. Neither could a classmate. Now I will never forget it.

It means teeny little fragments of prose, like the ones in that post. Or this post, the one that follows this crot.

--

From the story I was working on this week: "She sobs as if sobbing is screaming."

--

I stopped spending approximately half of my free time on Facebook shortly after Thanksgiving. This time was equal parts socializing, reading interesting articles friends had linked, and pointless noodling. Now I look at Facebook ~once a day, not scrolling much, not clicking on much. I miss the socializing, badly, but here are the reasons I quit:
  • Politicians' faces, when even the people posting don't like the politician promoted
  • Vitriol 
  • Sarcasm 
  • Constant observation of war 
  • Constant observation of violent death 
  • Advertisement-laden new-agey bullshit standing in for sincere assistance
  • Opinionatedness when, honestly, it does not matter, because you will not change anyone's mind, and you're going to change your own mind anyway when a new research study comes out next year 
And every time I check in, on those once-a-day-or-so occasions, I see all these things before I've even spent five minutes. I feel more uneasy about Facebook and what I hope to get out of it than I ever have. Surely I can't just take off from it until the election is over? Or until ISIS is wiped out? Or until school shootings stop? Because those are all hamster wheels that do not stop turning when their inducements end. There is always more to chase.

I want to promote my writing and my thoughts on social media, but my observation of the pattern of the Internet is that all of its spaces eventually become weird and feculent flea markets rather than orderly, janitored malls. Facebook is full of what I perceive to be junk, and cutting through it is so taxing.

This is a more judgmental statement than I generally like to make on this blog. But Facebook is making me tired, when once it used to make me happy. I don't know what has changed, and I wonder if it's me, if I'm just...like...getting too old for this shit.

Oh, and the result? I feel calmer, more open, less stuffed. (Stuffed like a taxidermied animal, like an overfull diner, like the British slang.) I don't want to stop quitting Facebook. I miss it, but I miss this calm, satisfied, reflective self more. And I think I need her more than I need Facebook.

--

It's been three weeks now since I made a Yes video. For that I am sorry. What's holding me up has been: noticeable background noise outside my apartment (hammering, leafblowers), lighting problems, a lack of interest in putting on makeup on my days off, and too little mental space to think positively enough to speak positively into my webcam. All but one of these are insignificant problems, but they've held me up anyway, probably because of the last one on the list.

I know exactly what I'm going to say in my next video, but I didn't make it this week, either. Soon.

--

Latest art project: redecorating my right hand.


I mentioned the wing ring previously, but the other one is this odd hunk of iolite which appears to be a different color and clarity of purple every time I look at it. It's a fascinating gem. The story of me acquiring it might actually be a good one, but it's not crot-length.

--

I looked over my New Year's resolutions from last year. Virtually none of them were successes. This is not a mark of me sucking, but a mark of how different this year has been from the norm. After the summer I lowered my expectations significantly and turned my attention inward, which has been valuable but not as outwardly productive as meeting my resolutions would have been. I suspect 2016's resolutions will reflect the lowered bar, but I haven't really thought much about them yet.

--

As a follow-up to the last post, I BEEN READIN. READING IS SUPER AWESOME. SO IS THE LIBRARY. GO CHECK OUT A BOOK AND READ IT RIGHT NOW.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Things I Plan to Do Starting Today

My semester is effectively over as of last night. So, a list.

1. Clean. Up. The. Apartment.
2. Subsequently, invite at least two pairs of friends over.
3. Make the greatest white chili ever.
4. Empty the bathroom closet of expired medicines and tubes of hardened unguents and bath salts never to be used.
5. Doze off on the couch while Matt plays video games.
6. Make Yes videos.
7. Start working on my New Year's resolutions.
8. Write letters by hand.
9. Revise some work I did this semester. Write out a theory of contemporary American fiction I thought of.
10. Read the following books:
           a. Big Magic - Elizabeth Gilbert
           b. Hopscotch - Julio Cortazar
           c. The Argonauts - Maggie Nelson
           d. The latest Tana French
           e. The Marlon James book that won the Booker
           f. At least one David Shields, maybe two
           g. An Elena Ferrante
           h. A book of poetry. Grace Paley?
           i. Pale Fire - Vladimir Nabokov (but I might put it off for yet another season)
           j. Cities of the Plain - Marcel Proust

Oh, it's going to be a terrific couple of months. Until I find out whether there will be school in February. I don't promise that I will do all ten things and read all ten books. But I honestly feel like now that this class is over, I'll have time to do anything, up to and including climbing Kilimanjaro.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Blood Clots

A couple of weeks ago I bought a $5 hematite bracelet from a hippie shop in Pasadena. I was drawn to it because its color, gray-black, was more appealing than any of the other colors on the t-shaped rack of beaded bracelets. The little crystals guide next to the rack said that one of hematite's main qualities was engendering balance, and immediately I was not surprised that it called to me. I am a Libra through and through.

I've worn it a bunch since then and it has never felt right on my wrist. It's felt kind of bad, in fact, as if it's actively unhelpful. Maybe I got a dud. Maybe it's not really hematite. Maybe I shouldn't trust a $5 bracelet to solve my problems.

--

Last night as I was driving home, a plane high overhead seemed to shine its bright center light directly through my windshield. This happened twice: two planes, one from the west and one from the north. I believe they were both landing at Van Nuys.

I worried, for a moment, about those bright lights. They looked like helicopter lights, they were so bright, and I actually checked to see if I was speeding, as if an LAPD helicopter could ever, in any rational universe, come and hover over my going-no-more-than-five-miles-over-the-limit car and bray at me through a loudspeaker to pull over, ma'am.

The light was so direct, though. You, it said. You, right there. I'm looking for you.

Twice.

--

Joanna Newsom released a new album recently. I've only just gotten to it; I wanted to wait till I had the space to listen. And so I am. Listening. And I wish I hadn't waited.

She is a profoundly healing force for me, when I listen. Some brew of her mastery, her weirdness, her unsubstitutable femaleness, and...like...all the other stuff that gives her the nickname Crazy Harp Lady in our household just makes me feel like whatever I do, whatever I create, it's fine, totally fine, the world will want it. Because the world wants her.

--

I think I'm going to write a story backwards in the next two weeks. I don't know what's going to happen. I am frustrated by this subject matter - have tried it three ways, now - and I realized the other day that it's problematic because I don't really know where the tale begins. I know the consequences of the tale very, very well, but I do not know the source, because I have poor memories of childhood. Since I know the end but not the beginning, it occurred to me that writing backwards might suit the story better. We talked about this method in class not long ago; I think I need to write "ERASURE" at the top of every page to remind me.

While Joanna washed my cells I thought about a handful of the stories from my youth that I do remember well. Images that are iconic in helping me remember who my parents were (then) and how they shaped their identities for me. I wonder if I can put them all in a story that I'm also writing backwards and half-making up. Probably not. But they'll keep.

A silk skirt. Christmas lights. A small bear figurine.

I do not write enough about objects.

--

Did I mention this before? I might not be in school next semester. I haven't been able to sign up for the right number or type of classes. People keep pulling sad faces when I tell them this, but I'm not sad. I'm a little frustrated, because I just freakin' started the real thing after doing the preparatory thing for two freakin' years. But there are pages I want to write. There is silence I want to sit in my apartment and listen to. There are books I desperately want to read. I would not be sorry for a break, even if it mucks with my plans a little.

Ironically, though, this potentiality would give me more time to finish my MA, because I won't be so gung ho about fitting all 30 units into two years. I would get an extra semester's leeway. (This might not make sense to you, but it does to me.)

There is still hope that I'll get to do the classes I need/want. I'm balanced pleasantly between the two possibilities, waiting to see what happens with little stress or favor toward one fate or the other.

--

Balanced. That's what I said. The bracelet is cold and stiff.

I also bought a ring from Etsy that looks like a wing. A valkyrie wing on my fuck-you finger on my writing hand. Take that, hematite.

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.)

Ay. 

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.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

It's Kinda "Choose Your Own Doom Among Several Bad Choices"

I think I've been a little too noisy about my birthday this year, for no particular reason that I'm aware of, so I'll just say "it's my birthday" once more and then I'm done. Yay! Birthday!

by Roy Marvelous

I had a grueling weekend. I spent about 18 hours of it on schoolwork: a take-home midterm for my theory class (about which the less said, the better) and a short story for my workshop class. I'd spent enough time over the past two weeks thinking about the short story that writing it was less mental effort than usual, but it still kind of sucked to grind out 4,000 words in a single day. I honestly don't know if it's any good, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't suck. And it's finished. Which is what I needed to happen for the sake of the class. So, mission accomplished.

The story apes the format of a choose-your-own-adventure novel. I wrote three separate stories about three supernatural creatures: aliens, werewolves, and zombies. In the first two cases they are a little more metaphorical than they are in the final case. I created a few forks in the road for the characters to cope with and then put "turn to page X" instructions at the bottom of each page. I was so pooped from writing by the time I was formatting it that I wasn't enjoying it anymore, but when Matt read it he said the story was, in fact, fun to read. Which I hoped it would be.

Naturally, bad things happen to women in this story. I had swung away from that theme in 2014 by writing more about men and boys, but I guess I've swung back. Anyway, I'll keep you posted on how the workshoppers deal with it.

I hoped that this story would be a sort of rehearsal for the wikibook. A formal experiment that's not dissimilar to what I mean to do in the bigger project. The story was formally less hard than I thought it would be, which is good news. Of course, all the same writerly endeavors remain, pushing like ground stakes through the unusual format: characterization, tension, use of time, etc. I know not much better what to expect from writing the wikibook now than I did before I wrote this story, except perhaps that I can relax about it formally because that aspect won't be as hard as I thought.

The only other news is that we are finally out of Mercury being in retrograde, which I would have dismissed as hooey a month ago as something that affects me at all, but I do not think that anymore.




The best way I can think to explain the recent shape of my life is "my shit is all fucked up," and/or to direct people to this page. It is about Mercury being in retrograde in 2014 but I nodded along at every single thing. This is how my late September and early October has gone. Goddamn chaos all around me and I. am. not. chill.

On Sunday, though, I started feeling better. Like I feel after the Santa Anas have left town again. Their hot restlessness gets under my skin and I toss and turn, mentally and physically, until they go away. This retrograde business was closer to frenzy, and I am beyond grateful that it's ending.

We are heading into my least favorite time of the year, though - the Holiday Months. Give me strength, O Saint Willy the Shake.

You can get your own Sainted Writers candles here

Friday, October 9, 2015

Your Friday Yes: Turning 34

Another Your Friday Yes that's over five minutes long. :( I talk too much. One day I'll figure out how to make them shorter.



I record these on Wednesdays, and this past Wednesday I had a bunch of weird stuff going on. So I leaned confessional, because that's something I know how to do.

In case you were curious, the t-shirt I'm wearing endorses RiffTrax, which I love. I'm making it a business to wear a different interesting t-shirt every week, and I'm starting to think I ought to show them to the camera and talk about them. But then the videos would be yet longer. Decisions, decisions.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Doing Prose, Audience-Free

I want to talk about audience today, but I'm not sure my ideas on it are completely settled. So come along with me on this jaunt; no guarantees I know what I'm talking about or won't change my mind.

Wheeeee!

A friend is in the process of figuring out how to write what she wants to write. She says that she needs her pieces to land, or to be received, for them to be whole, and her feelings have been echoed by other writers I know. I get it. There's a way in which a lot of my day-to-day seems imprecise and fuzzy until I talk it over with Matt. Writing is often the same way; until I loop Matt in on what I'm doing, and then ultimately give him the finished product, it feels like a secret that I don't want to keep.

I'm not sure I was very helpful when I gave my friend my $0.02 about this.
After eight years of taking my writing seriously, and thinking about audience and who would like it and the importance of putting my stuff into the world and etc., this year I just stopped caring about that and started doing it for me. And everything has changed.

That's not to say that I don't ever have audience in mind (especially when revising), but just that I'm finally more interested in what I think of the work as opposed to what someone else will think of it. Not being married to whether the work is suitable for others has made it SO much better. I was waaaaaay wrapped around Being A Writer and what that meant and whether I deserved it, and now I'm invested in the process of writing instead. The process of making something with which I am satisfied. And the process is what keeps making me better, instead of some magic key or combination that means I can write a perfect MFA story suitable for The New Yorker.

For me it took the bottom of despair about writing to hit this point (and, again, years of effort and carrying on when a lot of the world told me not to), and I really hope it doesn't take that for every writer. 
The thing is, it's not actually true that I don't care about audience at all. I do. I care about writing such that others can understand me, and about publishing, and about other people one day walking up and saying "Your book mattered to me." I just no longer care about those things so much that all my joints freeze up before (and while) I put words on the page. I no longer care such that I'm thinking my way around every street corner before I even put my characters in the stroller to go for a walk. And I no longer care enough about the potential end result of a piece that I'm willing to rethink my method or style or interpretation of storytelling in order to make my work more saleable, or palatable, or any other adjective that depends upon external reception.

I'm still open to feedback (for heaven's sake). If the story doesn't have internal logic, it needs revision. If I give it to Matt and Matt says "Huh?" then it probably needs revision. But I suspect - forgive me - that it's kind of like parenting. If you think every other second about how your kid's going to end up after you've sent them off into adulthood, you're going to lose your mind, right? Way too much pressure, too much fretting about a future that's so unwritten as to be irrelevant until the kid's a certain age. If instead you just parent them to the best of your ability, day-to-day, I imagine you'll do a better job. The act of parenting, today, matters a lot more to the kid, now and on the future therapist's couch, than a consistent push toward Yale or a good marriage or whatever.

Whether I'm wrong or not about actual parenting, the conclusion works for writing. In my opinion, for my type of writing, the act of sitting and doing prose matters more to the long-term avocation and concerns of a writer than the act of considering what will happen to that prose once it's done. I respect the need for an audience when writing in other genres, and the need for a reader for the sake of closure, but I have learned that to be satisfied with one's own work and, importantly, to reach higher when considering the next challenge, is a far more profitable enterprise than starting with "Who will want to read this?" and working backward.

Writing this blog has been a practice like that. I used to care so much about who was reading this blog, how many hits I got. I used to try to make the posts tidier in subject so they'd be more easily shared. At some point I just stopped caring about all that, and I started thinking of the blog as a resource for myself: a library of my thoughts and experiences related to writing. I would like it if other people found the blog helpful, or if the blog found a wide audience, but that's not my goal anymore. A goal like that depends on too many variables, too many unpredictables (or too much selling out). I'd prefer to build something for myself, which is a goal for which I know how to aim. When gathering friends and followers along the way becomes anything more critical than a side benefit, I find that I lose interest in blogging.

So. I'm not sure where that leaves my friend, or, again, whether I'm going to change my mind six months from now. (After my next horrible depression, ha ha. Ha.) But like I said, everything has changed since I figured this out. I reread some of the secret project yesterday (while I was trying not to hate the new story I'm writing for my workshop in a week and a half), and I was amazed that I had written it. It's so good. It needs work, but it's so free and fine, so much better than I remembered. And I know it's because I care almost nothing about whether that work is going into the world. It matters more to me to write it for myself, and as a tribute to what I've enjoyed about Ceremonials, than it matters that the book is long enough to be a novel or the stories can be submitted for publication on their own or the content is too queer or whatever the fuck. To me, it's so good. That's all I give a damn about.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Your Friday Yes: It's Just a Ride

I got pretty frustrated recording Your Friday Yes this week. I did a take I really liked, but it was 7.5 minutes long, was unkind about Jem and too revealing about work, and had weird color problems. I did another take that was ruined because a plant-killing squirrel kept dancing around on my balcony, taunting me, and I was so angry at the thing that I couldn't be appropriately lighthearted in the video. I did more takes that I screwed up for other reasons. I ended up with this one, which I like less than the 7.5-minute one, but which will do, and anyway by the time I was finished with it I was out of time to do any more.



Say yes to imperfect yes videos.

Another story to be workshopped is due in six days. I have about 200 words of it. My mental image of myself is of a Hanna Barbera cartoon character in deep trouble.



This is not to say that I've done no writing in the recent past. I wrote an essay last week that was serious business, something I'm quite proud of, but it's too short and probably way too personal to be workshopped. The story I have in mind shouldn't be a serious trial to write, but, natch, finding the time is going to be a challenge.

But hey, it's just a ride.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Blessed Unrest

Nothing has slowed down since last week. People I love are in trouble. I'm about to go out of my skin from not writing (tomorrow I will sacrifice all things to get some words on the page. ALL THINGS).

Yet, there is love. There is light.



Here's what I actually want to tell you today, something I mentioned in passing back in late July. This is a quote from an interview that Brad Listi did of Lidia Yuknavitch on his podcast, Otherppl, on July 15.
Brad: Has it gotten any easier?

Lidia: Oh! [laughs] Here's why it doesn't get easier. So, you know, you hone your skill set. And you sort of become a stronger writer, let's say. But then what happens is the creative questions you're interested in, you reach for more challenging ones. So then you're really back at a starting place of jumping off a cliff, because innovation puts you in that novice place - back again. So there's really never a "it gets easier" point. If, if, your goal is to change and grow as you write forward. I don't think that's every writer's goal, but it's some of our goal. And so do you see what I mean? As you reach for weirder questions in your writing and you press on different artistic explorations, you're continually remaking yourself as the novice, or the space monkey, as Chuck [Palahniuk] would say. 
At some point around "really back at a starting place," I moaned aloud, noisily, and said "No no no nooooooo," and then backed it up and listened to it again and moaned some more and, later, once out of my car, I shook my tiny fist at the sky and cried why, little baby Jesus, whyyyyyy.

Because FUCK. I don't know, like from experience, but I'm pretty sure, that she's right. That there's never a point where you feel like you know what you're doing, because instead you keep twisting and turning into new and different creative places and it's always, ever, until the end of your life in letters, hard.

Which is kind of another way of saying this

The writer here is Agnes De Mille; the Martha is Martha Graham.

, but in a much less arty-farty airy-fairy way - a way that makes me actually understand what I'm in for rather than thinking Yes, let me please be good enough to feel like Martha Graham at some point.

Unrest. Evolution. Starting over as a space monkey. Challenging creative questions. Wailing out at the unfair Whatever who built me to do this job.

Why couldn't I just be a tax attorney?

Friday, September 25, 2015

Your Friday Yes: Let Go or Be Dragged

Hey, I managed a second Your Friday Yes!

derp

I still feel a little funny about putting my face on the internet like this after such a long time in resistance to it. But I'm also glad I waited until I had something to say before I started making videos.

In other news - possibly more relevant to you, the reader of this writing blog - an essay I wrote about my Labor Day experience was published on Jennifer Pastiloff's Manifest-Station. It's personal, to be sure, but I hope it's not embarrassing. You can read it here.

I'm gradually working my way through the to-do list in my last post. Naturally, new things are coming up. But that's why I said yes to life just being busy. Email me anyway. <3

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Ceci N'est Pas une Blog Post

click to embiggen, but the clearly readable top text is the point
(Calvin & Hobbes is obvs drawn by Bill Watterson, not me)

The number of strategies I have in my pocket for when I can't sit down and pour out prose in a beautiful river continues to grow. One I learned about two years ago still fits extremely well with my personality: make a list. To-do lists are a daily part of my life (otherwise I forget everything), and incorporating them into creative work is useful, too. If you can't write a paragraph, you can write a list. I'm certain of it.

Like, for instance, today I can't write a blog post. And the reasons why fit conveniently into list form. This week's tasks:
  • Get going on second story for workshop class 
  • Write response to yesterday's workshop of first story 
  • Put together facilitation for another student's story for next Monday 
  • Read Foucault 
  • Reread Lacan 
  • Write detailed, specific summary (like 2,000+ words) of Caleb Williams, which I hated 
  • Finish The Age of Wire and String, one of the most baffling books I've ever read (I see what he's up to, I'm pretty sure, but it's not a breezy read) 
  • Write comprehensible response to The Age of Wire and String 
  • Finish setting up new computer, a process which is alarmingly slow this time around 
  • Set up new webcam 
  • Do Friday's Yes video 
And within the next month or so:
  • Complete and workshop second story 
  • Get back to the last two stories of the secret project before the spirit of them leaves me 
  • Write nine-page braided story (started, very curious to see where it goes) for Labor Day workshop homework (I don't think I can use it as the workshop story, for various reasons) 
  • Prepare detailed presentation on "the theories of Rubin, Irigaray, Cixous, and Kristeva" as applied to The Piano, which I've seen, but not in years (note: I have never read three of those theorists) 
  • Either throw large and fun St. Crispin's Day party, or ditch the idea 
  • Read three or four more experimental books 
  • Workshop other people's stories 
  • Do more Yes videos 
  • Live life, in there somewhere, like meals and vacuuming and sleep 
If you're not going AAAAAUUUUUGGGGHHHH just from reading that, either I'm not doing the writerly work of engaging you especially well, or you're not actually imagining the work involved. My brain just keeps saying "I am so fucked."

I'm happy! I really am! Life is awesome and full of friends and good prose and bountiful ideas and joy! But still. Augh. I need to stop sleeping, maybe?

Friday, September 18, 2015

Your Friday Yes: Less Curation

I set out on a new endeavor this morning, one that is only related to writing in that everything in my life is wrapped around writing. Otherwise it's pretty unrelated. I made this:



I know that the sound and video quality kind of suck, and that the lighting is problematic (if you want to find a solution in my tiny apartment with walls colored such that my skin looks bizarre in reflected light, I'm taking bids), and that I got an audible text near the end, and that I say "um" too much. I wish I were more photogenic. But it was a scary thing to do, to record this video, and I'm proud that I did it at all. This is the face I have, and I finally thought of something to say on YouTube, and I didn't want to let fear stop me.

I hope to have more Your Friday Yes every week. I'll post them here, and do writing-oriented posts on Tuesdays. If my luck holds out.

Oh, and I'll probably buy a webcam in the next couple of weeks. :p

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Secret Project Revealed!

I know you've been scouring TMZ, stalking CNN, trying to catch hints of what this mysterious secret project could be that I've been writing on and off for a year. Wait no more.

From a post on April 11, 2013:
Lately, with no concrete story ideas, I've been thirsting to write about ghosts... Also, like going around and around the same jogging track, I keep mentally returning to Florence + the Machine's Ceremonials, an album that is just packed with ghosts and ghost stories, whispered and half-understood. Since first listening to it, I've wished I could write a novel that somehow accompanies the album, the way House of Leaves and Poe's Haunted go together. I'm not Flo's sister, though, and I really haven't the foggiest idea what she had in mind when writing the songs on that album, so it's a pretty impossible notion. The songs are just so evocative, of dark hallways and fluttering dresses and the wind through chimes and things half-seen in mirrors. I want to evoke in words and story what's evoked in music there.
That is the secret project. It's a story cycle pegged to the twelve songs on Ceremonials. It's not just wild song-tales, though; it has an overarching story about two girls at a boarding school who fall in love with each other but are not meant to be together. Not in life, anyway. Beyond the stories and characters, and even a little bit beyond honoring and echoing the music, the point for me was to experiment in manners both technical and mystical. To learn how to evoke, the same way Florence did, rather than speaking directly.

Unfortunately, I had to halt my work on it when school started. (Schoolwork has become completely overwhelming, and it's actually freaking me out a bit, but that's not what this post is about.) I've drafted ten stories out of twelve, but I know, I know, I'm going to go back and rewrite some of them partially and others totally from scratch. So my work on it isn't just beginning, exactly, but it's hard to know how far along I actually am. Nevertheless, I'm doing it, and I can't hold down my excitement about it.



I used to think this idea was stupid or weird, or that even if I did finish it no one would want to read it. I believe I was wrong on both counts. I've told a small handful of people about it and they have all been enthusiastic, even those who don't know Florence. Ekphrastic art is not an uncommon thing, so it's really not that weird. Although I've never heard of a book tied to an album like this, that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Or that I can't write it. And I finally decided that if no one wanted to read it except me, that was fine, because then I could write a book that I wanted to read, something I made that I could love, instead of making allowances and sacrifices for readability.

Writing this book/story cycle (it's not shaped up to be book-length yet, but I'm pretty sure it will be eventually) has allowed for a series of breakthroughs. Lots of things have been changing in terms of how I think about writing over the past year, but without the secret project, those changes wouldn't have been grounded in anything. The project has helped me believe, genuinely, that there is no writing for others without writing for me. It's helped me trust that I understand syntax well enough to mess around with it intensively and see what happens. It's helped me just not care about writing in ways that are too murky to explain well; of course I still care about writing, very very very deeply, but I'm not wrapped up in what's going to happen to it later to the exclusion of what occurs when it goes on the page.


Toni Morrison says that if you look around for a book you want to read, and it doesn't exist yet, you must write it. I said this to a sculptress friend and she hit me back with the words of one of her teachers: "Just make whatever you want to make." These may seem like laughably idealistic proverbs in terms of paying bills and publishing gatekeepers and how long it takes to do creative work and whatnot, but...my sculptress friend makes these fantastic outdoor installations that you can visit in public city spaces and parks. I'm writing the book I needed and badly wanted to write, and everyone who's heard about it has said I want to read that. Everything this idea has done for me has been good. It helped me seize Fictator power. It forced me to let the hell go. It saved me, this summer, from never writing again. Whatever happens to this project in the world, putting it into the world has been invaluable.

So make whatever you want to make. That's how inspiration ripples from Flo to me, from me to you. Sing out. Write on. Go.


never knew I was a dancer till Delilah showed me how 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

IN THAT IS THE KNOWING

Things I learned over the Labor Day weekend I spent in Ojai with Lidia Fuckin' Yuknavitch and Jennifer Fuckin' Pastiloff:
1. Lidia will give you writing prompts and writing guidance that don't resemble anything I've seen anywhere. I can't share them with you because it wouldn't be fair to her. But if you're bored by the same old advice with slight variations you get in workshops and craft classes and so on, seek her out. She's sly and brilliant and possibly the most complete person I've ever met.

2. Jen is one of the more unusual yoga teachers I've ever obeyed with my body's movements, and easily the most inspiring. Get into her. She has more love than the sun.

3. I need retreats like these on a regular basis.

4. I am a fiction writer. I'm not a memoirist. I can't resist being a storyteller of my own life in conversation, but every time we got a writing prompt I kept wanting to make things up. This was not a retreat away from some fearful truth, but a desire to seek truth through something I could shape more freely than my memory.

5. [extremely personal admission].
I want to share two pieces of writing I did this weekend. The first is what I wrote in response to a prompt about the most recent thing I did that scared me. I didn't have to think long: the scary thing was the short story I wrote on Wednesday, one week ago. I had no clue what I was up to - I was feeling my way, with those handrails - and I was frightened to bits about whether it was good or not. But I had to write it to meet my workshop deadline, and out it came. Like so:
Aching hand. Empty stomach. Jaw-clench headache. This phrase, that phrase, bird by bird. No memory of this morning, yesterday, anything real before this: feeling, fingers fluttering, into the blackest parlor under my hair.

All I know is these two people: a man (a boy) and a girl - they exist in different eras; they want the same thing; one takes lives and the other gives hers. The verse of it is the other all-I-know, the sense of comma and colon, where to start and where to stop and what to place in between. Sounds, rhythm; content coming back to its feet on the second round.

The light has changed. The last time I noticed the air conditioner kicking on and off was hours ago.

Sentences have geography, they have geometry, they have abstraction and recursive hearts. Their secrets have hearts and their hearts have secrets.

Sentences like piano sonatas, like well-composed sauces, like expensive perfume, like LSD light shows, like quiet fur. Yet there is no word, no sixth or seventh or fifteenth sense, for what's behind my eyes when I shape clay into birds.

Enter clause, exit clause. David. Lidia. The weight of it, the length, the beating drum. My blood and bones and gray matter, the composition of my aliveness.

The composition. Composition. Compose. Compose.

"Write fearless sentences." -Katharine Coldiron

So that might be kind of a journal entry rather than a real thing, but I'm sharing it more or less to tell you that I wrote this story, which I think is called "The First Snow," on Wednesday and I can't wait to read and revise it. I experienced many synonyms of fear while writing it, but I set them aside and kept going. Bird by bird.



The other piece is something I read aloud on the last day. Jen asked me to put it into the world. I wasn't satisfied with posting it on Facebook (too ephemeral), so I'm placing it here instead. The prompt was the two-part question "What gets in my way the most? And what the fuck am I going to do about it?"

I knew, instantly, that the answer to a) was the idea that I don't know enough. That I don't have enough education or knowledge. This notion leads me to all kinds of unnecessary decisions and actions. I wrote what follows in answer to b), but because no one was recording, you'll have to imagine me stamping my foot and roaring it at a room of 39 other women:
Write anyway. Write the shit. Write the Shinola. Write the funny and the tragic. Write the signifiers and the signifieds, the transcendental signified, the middles and the edges, the me and the everyone else. Write the heart that you don't have. Write the music made by others. Write it all, all you can, and in that is the knowing. In that is the knowing. Go to school if you want. Keep learning always. But mostly write on, and in that is the knowing. And so it is. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Mastery Is Boring

Yesterday morning I had an interesting dream about family, romance, a disturbed peace in the wee hours in a house full of people, a bell tower, a skinned rabbit, a snowy walk, and some other things. I'm hopeful that I can turn this madness into a story that's at least semi-coherent, because my first workshop is three weeks from yesterday and the only idea I had before this dream was too weird for workshop. (Maybe. We'll see after a few stories have come through the class.) Despite anxiety about not having written a standalone short story in over a year (!?!?), and the sense that I may be stuck not striking out into the experimentation I want to try because this idea doesn't suit it, I'm kind of looking forward to this story. It might be something good. I have lots of options for how to approach it, so I'm in the process of narrowing them down.

Yet I don't feel good at all about starting on something new before I've finished the last two stories of the secret project. It saved me, this project, and it was going so intriguingly and well, and I don't want to leave it behind unfinished. Even after the drafts of the last two stories are done, it won't be anywhere near finished, but right now, were the secret project a sculpture of Athena, I'd be leaving a humanish figure shaped out of rough clay with only one leg. It won't do. But I don't think I can write two stories and draft a third this week, in part because it's a short week, because I'm doing something amazing over Labor Day.

I drafted part of a post about the broad and odd concept of "favorite" in the hope of explaining my Labor Day plans, but it kept coming out dull and I'm too excited about the plans to stick them in something dull, so I'll just tell you: it's a writing and yoga retreat with my favorite living writer, Lidia Yuknavitch, and a yoga instructor named Jennifer Pastiloff. It's in Ojai, which is only about an hour north of where I live. I feel as if someone designed this workshop specifically for me, former yoga teacher and lifelong writer, and I'm still awed that I get to do it. I'll be staying in a yurt for the second time in my life, and this time, crickets of California, I will be bringing earplugs.

So. Although I wish I could spend all weekend with my head in my notebook, finishing this project to which I owe so much and getting going on the next adventure, I will either have to manage those thousands of words on the weeknights (while doing oodles of other homework), or I'll have to set the secret project aside and just work on the story that's attached to a deadline.

From Toothpaste for Dinner by Drew. This doesn't resemble my creative process much, because
I am insufferably well-prepared most of the time, but I love it all the same.

I've been listening to Elizabeth Gilbert's new podcast, Magic Lessons. I suspect the whole endeavor is rigged as an advertisement for the book she's got coming out later in September, but it's also a nice short podcast that fills in the gaps on my commute. She's a thoughtful and big-hearted person, and though I don't love the podcast, each installment has given me at least one little gem, a creative tip or standby that I need to remember or use when I'm writing.

The most recent episode's gem was "Mastery is boring." Yes. True. Once you have attained mastery of a subject, you're not striving anymore, not hungry anymore, and a lot of interest and motivation to keep at the subject goes kaput. I hear this and get it and believe it is true, but there's a but. Non-mastery is a good thing, since there's always more to learn and life's about the journey and yadda yadda, but it's also kind of disheartening for a person who never feels like she moves beyond intermediacy at anything. In creativity, in general, is there ever a moment of arrival? A safe, high plateau where I can look at the view, get a drink of water, breathe, feel content?

I've thought about this with regard to The New Yorker Short Story, and/or The MFA Short Story, which, as I read more and more of them, I realize I have little interest in writing. I have tried to imitate them, and I can do so with okayish results, but I don't enjoy reading them very much and I really don't enjoy writing them. The Joycean epiphanic short story, the Carver minimalist short story - these forms are just not what I like about writing. I know I'm drawn more to the novel, or to the story cycle, than to individual stories (and I know it's part of the reason I don't write stories especially well: that my bent is to novelist rather than storyist), but even when I do want to write stories instead of novels, this overwhelmingly dominant form of story is something that I could feel fine with mastering and then leaving behind for warmer climes.

But do I even want to try to master it? Wouldn't that be boring?
Game designers have already made significant strides to solve this problem by controlling players' mastery in stages. Which is why when I started to talk to Matt about this podcast gem he went "well, yeah" and told me how he and his co-workers build levels.
Oh.  

I guess that brings me back around to where I started this post: the story I need to write for workshop on the 21st. At this point I think I'm going to write it straight, like The MFA Short Story, but (again) that would not be very interesting for me so it might not turn out that way. I admit I don't know what the stories look like that I want to write, but I do know they look nothing like Carver and not a lot like what generally appears in the New Yorker. I don't think I can find an undiscovered country in fiction - few can - but I hope to find a milieu where apprenticing doesn't seem quite so tedious.

Friday, August 28, 2015

All You Have to Do Is Click Your Beak Together Three Times

This week I read Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It was a true phenomenon when it came out in 1970, but I've talked to some friends about it and I'm quite surprised how few of them know the book. To me it's almost a culmination of the national attitudes in the air between 1965 and 1975, a Free to Be...You and Me nominally for grownups, but it seems to have vanished from cultural memory.

In my opinion, this is A-OK, because Jonathan Livingston Seagull is an extremely silly book. I'm being dismissive, and (without walking that opinion back) I apologize, because I'm genuinely glad that so many people found solace in it during the early 70s. But if they needed self-actualization lessons in the form of seagulls who want to fly for the pleasure of it, maybe they should have tried yoga instead. Just a thought.

The book preaches that freedom (and evidently the ability to teleport?) is within us all the time, and we don't need to go looking for it. It's also quite short. I read it in probably half an hour, and you could too, if you want to understand a bit about the pre-Watergate years in this country. I am endlessly fascinated by the way America moved and thought and danced and wept and consumed during the twentieth century, so I'm not a bit sorry I read it, but I wouldn't necessarily say it was a book to change your life if you're a resident of the twenty-first.

Apparently we got a halfway decent Neil Diamond album out of it, so...um...

I also read Cosmicomics, by Italo Calvino, which was far better. I'm two for three on Calvino now, but the ones I've liked I wish I'd written. I do not wish I'd written JLS, but I sort of wish I could capture a cultural mood like that book did, if only to enjoy building a house in Bermuda with the proceeds.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Missing Scenes

Over the weekend, I wrote a scene between two characters, a revelation scene, that I intended to be the centerpiece of the second-to-last chapter of the secret project. As I'm nearing the end, I feel the need to tell all the secrets I've been keeping for ten chapters, hence these revelations.

I was dissatisfied with what I'd written. In an intense but vague way. It was like indigestion - an unease in the gut, something not sitting right as it works its way through your plumbing.

I compared the scene with an earlier dialogue scene with which I'm far more satisfied. The differences were myriad: ages of the characters, positions of power held by each, what was at stake for each, relation between them, content of the discussion, I could go on and on. The scenes had very little in common. Mostly, though, one was good and one was not. I kept poking at them with sticks until I figured out why.

These are notes Virginia Woolf wrote and drew for her novel To the Lighthouse.

I got this from the fascinating website Woolf Online, which has a huge cache of archival materials about To the Lighthouse - original notebooks that have been both scanned and transcribed, page proofs corrected by Woolf, letters written to and from her about the novel, etc. Check it out.
If you can't read the above, it says "All character - not a view of the world. Two blocks joined by a corridor."

The novel is divided into three sections. The first and third take place over short periods of time, a day or so, but explore in enormous depth what is going on inside and between the characters. Each of these days is of no special consequence to any of the characters - not the day everything changed for them, not the day they learned what it is to be a woman, etc. Just a fairly regular day. The middle section, "Time Passes," takes place over a much longer period of time, 10 or 15 years, I think, but it's only 17 pages long in my edition, and that's because Woolf doesn't go very deep on anything during that time. She instead summarizes with remarkable brevity the major events that occur over that span: births, deaths, marriages, World War I. In between she describes the gradual decay of a summer house et al.

She's up to a lot of different things in "Time Passes," a lot, but I think I figured out one of the reasons she structured the book this way. As readers, we learn a lot more about the characters, and are ironically a great deal less bored, by the little stuff, the days of no consequence that pass in a family life, than we are by the big turning-point moments that matter so much to a character's makeup.

Reading scenes of large, important emotional events is not terribly interesting at this point in literary history. Most people react to a revelation with surprise. They react to loss with grief. They react to danger with fear, and potentially with bravery or cowardice. These reactions do not take imagination to write, nor do the scenes themselves. Twenty-first century audiences have seen and read these scenes everywhere, in old books and movies and in bad TV. Contemporary literature does not need me to write a scene where a woman tells a girl that she has to sacrifice herself to save her best friend; in itself, this situation may not be cliched, but the things that the woman and the girl say to each other during this scene absolutely are. I was bored writing it, which means people will be very bored reading it.

This scene is a key point of drama for certain of the characters in my book, so it has to exist. But the question I began to ask myself as I was thinking about To the Lighthouse, the $64,000 question that may lead to much, much, much better writing: does it have to exist in the book?

Infinite Jest had missing scenes like this, moments the characters kept thinking about or referring to but which were not included in full scene form in the novel. Some of them I kept waiting to read, because I presumed all things of import would be included in an 1,100-page novel, but they never appeared. And I think it's because those scenes were fairly easy for the reader to imagine for herself and would have been uninteresting for Wallace to write.

Woolf, too, decided to dispense with the big stuff in mere phrases and parentheses, and stuck with the little stuff for the main body of the novel. She knew what we already knew about the world, and she knew what she could show us afresh.

What is included and what is not included - but not left out. Discretion that jazz musicians must understand before they can really play. Choices that true craftsmen of short stories comprehend. Judgment that I suspect can be the codex for making a novel that's a work of art, rather than a novel that's merely good to read.

Events in fiction don't have to happen more than once to be what a professor of mine terms "repeated events", which "occur once, but are narrated multiple times throughout the story." Hamlet refers to his father's murder over and over and over and OVER again. Stephen Dedalus's mother's death haunts several chapters of Ulysses (usually with the very same sentences). It's the same little scratch on the roof of your mouth that your tongue keeps returning to, unbidden, but it has a different sensation on day one than it has on day four. The same death, but different reactions, depending on Stephen's surrounding company and the strength of Hamlet's metaphorical sword arm.

So even though this revelatory conversation has to occur, has to keep being considered by the characters, I don't necessarily have to write the conversation into the book. The characters know it exists, and readers of the characters therefore cannot miss its existence. What exact words passed between the characters in that room on that day is not of much importance, because the reader can imagine them and possibly a great deal more than I could put in her head directly.

How useful this is! What I can put in place of these scenes are scenes that have not been read and seen hundreds of times by a postmillennial audience. Matt said this sounded like an interesting challenge, alluding to a crucial moment well enough for the reader to imagine it rather than just writing it, and I agree. But, for once, such a challenge fills me with happy anticipation instead of terror. Even though it will be hard, I'm not stuck writing boring scenes I don't want to write. And it's all hard, anyway. No writer gets a pass on hard.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Tidbit

Something I learned for the 18,467th time on Wednesday: even if you're pretty sure that the beginning of the story is going to be junk, and hence you really shouldn't bother to write anything down until you have a good beginning in mind, you are wrong. About the second part. Even if it turns out to in fact be junk, junk on the paper feels superlatively better than not writing anything at all.

Hi, my name is Katharine and I'm a recovering perfectionist. See you next week, everybody.


Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Need She Be Thirsty?

Disclaimer: I am going to talk about contemporary novels I did not like in this post. I'm genuinely sorry to call out living writers this way, especially writers who are not rich and famous and bulletproof.

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If you so much as dip your toe in the vast pool of Writerly Advice, chances are that certain items will stick to your skin. Famed writers have had their advice distilled into short lists that appear over and over again on inspirational websites and in books. Not all of them are useful for all writers; Henry Miller's enables bad habits that keep me from writing, Neil Gaiman's is lovely but unhelpful for the stage I'm at now, Elmore Leonard's is as pleasurable and katana-sharp as his prose but a little too specific and definite for my taste (though #10 is one of the greatest pieces of advice ever).

The list that has settled into being a good guide for me is Kurt Vonnegut's. I'm pretty sure I've quoted this list here before, but I can't remember when, so perhaps it'll be new to you.
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things - reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them - in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964). She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.


My writing became a lot tighter when I started obeying rules #4 and 5, more satisfying with rule #6, and more focused and confident with #7. #8 and I don't agree yet, but maybe I'll grow into it.

Today I want to talk about #3. Something occurred to me while I was running yesterday morning about rule #3.