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.



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.



Missing Ebert

siskelebertI know a lot of people were heavily influenced by Pauline Kael’s reviews, but for me, it was Roger Ebert all the way. I grew up watching his film reviews, and only became a reader when I was older, in my early twenties, when the Sun-Times began posting them online. I got into the habit of reading all of his reviews, even of movies that I had absolutely no intention of seeing, because who knows what amusing or cutting thing he might say. His reviews are little essays, journeys into his particular worldview, and in that way, I felt I knew him, long before he began blogging about his actual personal life.

One of the great things about getting to know a critic through his/her work is coming to understand or sense variance in taste. Ebert had, I think, a soft spot for a certain type of B-movie that I just don’t share (Galaxy Quest comes to mind, though I can’t find his review in the archive to confirm that he liked it). But I love that he loved stuff like that. Art takes many forms. The word “populist” comes to mind, or “genre,” but these are both ways of ghettoizing work, and I take umbrage with them (even as I hypocritically I scorn whole categories of visual art, ie Western. I am so bored by a man on a horse.).

I took a nonfiction craft class with Ander Monson a couple years ago and I remember that he had occasion to mention watching an episode of Bones, and someone scoffed. Ander was all, “Really? We’re going to be like that?” and thus quelled the beast of snobbitude, a habitual visitor to the MFA scene. Sometimes we need reminders like that. I think Ebert provided them all the time, implicitly, in his reviews. He was smart like that.

It’s so strange that he’s gone.

Random encouragement from the front


Click for source.



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?

Better late…

Thank you, Finland, for this vision of the elf.

Thank you, Finland, for this vision of the elf.

So this is ridiculously untimely (I am untimely, these days), but Seth found a weird holiday movie this year, Rare Exports, in which Santa is an ancient and imprisoned evil and his henchmen the elves are an emaciated band of naked and violent old men.

This got us thinking about what holiday movies we will share with Otto, and it’s sad to think that this one will have to wait a long, long time. It’s just not kid-friendly, in the sense that it basically undermines the American mythology of Christmas. But it is kid-friendly in the sense of treating its child characters with generosity and intelligence. I know I’ve read interviews with Maurice Sendak before in which he talks about how necessary the scary is for children, and how they shouldn’t be coddled with falsely sweet stories.

Sweet stories, ugh. We got some really lovely children’s books as gifts at my baby shower, but I was surprised later to realize how many of these lovely books are really written for the parent and not the child. As I sappily shed a couple tears during the Nicholas Sparks-worthy saccharine fest that is Love You Forever, I vowed never to subject Otto to it again. There are far too many good kid’s books out there. Here’s a list from George Saunders.

And it’s chill to hear them talk*


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.