Category Archives: Writing

Have I abandoned this place altogether?

Oh, go on with your fabulous self. Ben Hassett for Harper's Bazaar UK Magazine, IMAXtree

Oh, go on with your fabulous self.
Ben Hassett for Harper’s Bazaar UK Magazine, IMAXtree

I don’t want to de-blog, but it is one of the few things I have going at this stage in my life that seems fine to let slide. And so slide it must.

Once in a while, I think of something that seems relevant to capture here, but putting together a post means forgoing work on the novel, and that’s just not something I’m keen to do right now. I am so ready to be finished with the novel and ready to be working on other projects. The next novel is lurking in the background, poised for me to give it shape. But I am determined to get this one wrapped up first.

Earlier this week I came upon this quote from Cate Blanchett, from Harper’s Bazaar UK:

“I was trying to explain to someone yesterday that the decisions you make as an actor have to be instinctual, it has to come alive between you and the other actors. Maybe because I am a goldfish, when a shoot ends I leave behind the reasons I’ve done what I have done. To come back six months later and dredge all that stuff up for publicity is difficult.”

So there’s no obvious or direct parallel between her response to publicity and my private writings, but this did feel like a familiar sensation to me – being fully immersed in a project as it unfolds and releasing it completely when it concludes. Then later – submitting it in a workshop, for example – feeling detached from the work. Once enough time elapses, my stories begin to feel slightly alien to me, like, that came from me? The incredulity is sometimes positive, as in a story seeming better than I thought.

Of course there are also stories so very bad that I am not sure anything could induce me to revisit them. And yet, I can’t bring myself to delete them. Why? Their continued presence on my hard drive seems optimistic, or perhaps delusional – one day, when I am gone, someone will find them and…

…what? They will say, my god, this person sure wrote a lot of crap. And if they hold me in any esteem, they’ll do me the favor of deleting it all, unread.

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Literary power couple

Bobs-Burgers-The-Belchies-550x649I read this profile of James Wood and Claire Messud some time ago, and, especially after all the interesting coverage of The Woman Upstairs, finally broke down and decided I had better not damn the dame for all my ambivalence towards the man. So I’m finally reading The Emperor’s Children.

Perhaps inevitably, it contains some sidewise commentary on David Foster Wallace via a character’s overly earnest attempts to educate himself. It’s played for humor, I think, but it’s one of those referents that comes so loaded with Messud’s husband’s very public views that the whole thing lends itself to a post-modern meta-interpretation akin to that which Wallace himself described in E Unibus Pluram (though that was of course concerned with television).

 

(Aside: I have just now realized that my copies of How Fiction Works and Consider the Lobster sit only three books apart on my shelf. Perhaps I should remedy that.)

Re-reading part of E Unibus Pluram has made me appreciate anew how the discussion of these dynamics in television continues to dominate pop culture. See also Bob’s Burgers, a show that Seth and I have been really enjoying. A consistent thread of the show’s humor is metacommentary, see for example an episode called The Belchies (Goonies), the pleasurable genius of which is better experienced than explained, which brings me to Wood, who never met a pleasure that couldn’t be picked apart for a thorough analysis. Or maybe he could, I don’t know. I’m being hyperbolic here because I so thoroughly lack that sort of critical impulse.

I found my copy of the Irresponsible Self, which I intended to read in tandem with The Emperor’s Children, but I didn’t get past the introduction, in which Wood acknowledges the pitfalls of dissecting comedy, then proceeds to do just that with his maiden example. The dissection proceeds for several paragraphs, becoming more and more precise, until I just had to slam the book closed in a full-body paroxysm of critical theory aversion.

Where does this aversion come from? I’m not completely sure, but back in January, New York Magazine published a great article called Why You Never Truly Leave High School, which got me thinking. My sophomore English class was taught by this chipper creature who single-handedly destroyed my love for To Kill a Mockingbird with her over-explication of it. This is, again, a bit hyperbolic, and there are I think at least as many if not more inspiring and lovely teachers than those whose Cliff Notes-level insights into a book cheapen your affection for it…but maybe that experience was the point at which I closed myself off to critical theory.

Such is my distaste for that teacher that I kind of modeled a character after her in a short story I just revised. It’s really more of a parody than a model, actually, but in this latest revision, I was all, what the hell. And I gave her the actual teacher’s name. It wasn’t a very kind impulse on my part, and I’ll probably change it back, but it gave me a tiny thrill to do it.

Submission

yoinkned from someone's flickr.

yoinkned from someone’s flickr.

There’s this house on the corner of 6th and Euclid in Tucson, and emblazoned on its east side is a message: Happiness is submission to God. Periodically, someone appends a zilla to the end of it, which actually makes me happy to see the message. But they of course paint over the zilla, and then it’s back to piety as usual.

I’ve always interpreted “submission” in this message to mean obedience, which is why it rankles so much, but I think it is lots more interesting to interpret the word as “offering.” That transforms the directive from a passive state to an active one, with all kinds of resonance for people who do creative work. But I’m pretty sure that’s not what they mean by it, so what can you do.

I’m on my summer round of submissions, and it’s unholy work.

One of the most hideous aspects of the process is determining when or whether to initiate a revision. I have a story that’s been rejected ten times (three with nice notes and/or invites to resubmit), and while I KNOW that it’s kind of arcless and sloppy around the edges, I’ve been reluctant to overhaul it. I mean, isn’t that part of its charm? There’s one particular passage that is frankly expository, no matter what kind of clothes I dress it in, and a couple nights ago I had a come-to-Jesus moment and realized that it just needs to go. Also, my options for placing this story get broader if I lop off a thousand words. So.

The best thing going for me in revising this story is my emotional distance from it. I apparently wrote it sometime in 2010, which is time enough for objectivity. Even then I knew it had its flaws. I have another story with worse stats (11 rejections, two notes, still out to three places) that I absolutely refuse to revise because I have conviction that I’ve achieved my goals with it and have taken it as far as it can go. This 2010 story, though…sigh.

I meant to work on it tonight but just couldn’t face it. And also! I figured that I had better come here to share happier news, which is that I have a story up on Paper Darts. Yes! It is true. And the illustrations are lovely.

Home

Timothy McVeigh stayed here.

Timothy McVeigh stayed here.

I am 36 years old, and damned if I’ve made peace yet with the weird, ugly place where I was raised. I’ve spent over half my life defining myself against it – I wasn’t born there, I hasten to point out, I was transplanted as a small child from my native Southern California (a laughably short nativity). I’ve cautioned people to not stop when they drive through my hometown en route to Vegas, used its name as a descriptor for certain types of gun-toting nutjobbers/yokels, and still think of it as a bastion of the worst kind of small-minded conservatism.

But even at my most virulent, I wouldn’t have wanted to trade out all those years I spent roaming the desert as a child with dirty, scratched-up legs, eating the bitty black seeds of barrel cactus fruits and sucking the bitter stems of the plant that, once steeped, yields Mormon tea. I think of all that now and wonder what my son will lose coming up in the suburbia of Tucson. (Though kids create their own satisfying cultural microcosms, geography notwithstanding.)

I’ve staged two major attempts to write about home, but both failed. One was through the wrong lens, the other was psychologically sloppy, too quickly resolving my ambivalence about home into what my adviser referred to as sullen acceptance. There’s an essay in there, but I’m still a ways from finding it. I kind of envy people who have uncomplicated love relationships with their hometowns, but maybe they just have better hometowns than me (ie, Roger Ebert, John Hughes).

Ambiguity is probably closer to the norm, and the ladies get it right re: their respective homes.

 

 

Random encouragement from the front

GaimanNeil

Click for source.

 

Fighting/abiding

What was that about abiding?

What was that about abiding?

I can’t remember where I heard it, or if I heard it anywhere at all, but there’s this thing that happens sometimes, where writers mistake a fight for conflict.1 By fight, I mean argument. And most of the time? Fights are not that interesting. I think this is because anger is a one-note emotion, and while it’s bound to reveal what’s ugly about a character, it’s not going to reveal what’s true about that character’s nature, in the way that finely crafted conflict is supposed to.

I think about conflict and tension a lot within the context of my novel, but nothing comes of these thoughts.

Everything I “know” about conflict has the stale, airless aspect of something I internalized after reading, I don’t know, that shitty Donald Maas book on writing the breakout novel. Somewhere I got the notion that a really great conflict pits two irreconcilable things against each other, for instance, two competing desires within a main character (by which I do not mean the competing desires for two equally hot manimals, the province of subpar YA material such as the Twilight books).

That line of thinking is tantalizing because it positions conflict as a formula of sorts, as if you could sit down in your little writing hut one day and brainstorm a situation that demands a collision of two diametrically opposed worldviews (conveniently contained within a single character). Obviously, that in no way resembles my experience as a writer. Brainstorming within the context of my fiction has produced so little useful material as to render it completely irrelevant.

Drafting is the only answer for me. Draft, draft, draft, and then try to intuit my way to a shape that suits the material. And there’s this, via an interview with George Saunders:

A writer knows the problems with a piece as she’s working on it, I think. That’s what she’s doing in that writing room for all of those hours: trying to figure out how to minimize the inborn defects of the fictional construct.

Sigh. And here, still more Saunders:

…I guess the main catharsis is just the satisfaction of inventing a situation, abiding with it, and then feeling like you’ve shepherded it into the best version of itself – that feeling of having unearthed some non-random surprises in the process.

Abiding2 with it. This is such an apt description for the process. It’s hard to believe that it was 2007 in which I wrote the short story that has grown into my novel. And I’m still abiding with it, hoping for more non-random surprises during this year of its life.

1This observation comes courtesy Girls, which I do enjoy, but come on. Sunday’s episode was a series of fight scenes. I forgive a certain amount of fight scenes when they are well-written or quippy or necessary, but I think in this case that it was the least interesting choice to make for a handful of key shifts in the story arc.

2This is one of those words (like “inconceivable”) that has been permanently altered by the culture. And I guess because of the Saunders context, it is impossible to not point out the Jeff Bridges book?

And it’s chill to hear them talk*

girls

I can’t find a credit for this photo. Presumably:HBO.

So Girls. It’s back as of Sunday. I watched the first season intermittently, not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because I was doing other non-television-type things (aka writing, she said pretentiously). And so now I’m making a concerted effort to catch up, a side effect of which is having to bear witness to a high concentration of excruciating and awkward sex. Girls carries on the fine tradition of the British Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and (further back) The Garry Shandling Show in its power to induce the cringe.

But worse than the bad sex for me was the visceral horror I felt when Hannah screwed herself by reading something she’d written on the subway ride over to her former prof’s reading series, instead of reading a personal essay about dating a hoarder. I found this so distressing that I actually covered my eyes, something I don’t even do watching the horror flicks Seth can talk me into.

Obviously, this was supposed to be funny, but underpinning it was Hannah’s very real anxiety about her writing being trivial. (I wish clips were available – there’s this hilarious scene with her roommate’s ex-boyfriend’s friend rattling off a long, long list of non-trivial things she could be writing about—the soul-crushing blow that led her to screw herself at the reading).

I don’t want to extrapolate too much, but it’s very probable that Lena Dunham writes from experience about that concern. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have the very same concern about my own work. The box of “women’s fiction,” how when women write about family, it’s a “domestic story” whereas a male author’s exploration of the same topic is more likely to be lauded for its art (see: Franzen). But better to carry on with the work than lose oneself in the injustice of an imperfect society.

*I’m kind of ashamed of quoting this song, and yet I did it anyway. Perhaps I’m still sad about Adam Yauch.