Monday, March 30, 2009

Alaska Quarterly Review

My story, "An Eye for Alicia," is out in the Alaska Quarterly Review.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Walden: The how-to book

(What is Borrowed Fire?)

Here's the text of Walden from Project Gutenberg.

Having escaped the clutches of Dostoevsky's Underground Man (at least for the time being), must we really now turn to Thoreau, the ultimate bane of high school English students, past and present, across this great land? Must we endure the musings of this "inestimably priggish and tiresome" writer, as Bill Bryson has called him? Especially given that Walden, strictly speaking, is not even fiction?

Well, yes. We can at least dip our toes into this sometimes turgid, sometimes glorious pond. I think we can create some interesting variations on Thoreau's techniques and themes--particularly keeping in mind the idea of the sentence as found object.

First off, I'd like to consider Walden as part of that indestructible American genre, the how-to book.* We're the DIY nation, or we like to think of ourselves that way--until, say, we get caught in a Ponzi scheme or invent rococo financial instruments that should by rights sink our company; then we say YDI! (You did it--and You do it!). Anyway, what is behind this urge to document one's experiences so that others may learn from them? Is it selfless or selfish, or some odd combination of both? Why is it so important, when giving advice, to "walk the walk," as Thoreau did (although not to the satisfaction of many critics, like Bryson, who point out that he often availed himself of the conveniences of downtown Concord as well as Emerson's house)? In short, what sort of person takes it upon himself to tell others how to live--and then how does he actually do that?

You begin, it seems, by explicitly stating your credentials and motives, as Thoreau sets out to do in the first couple of paragraphs. Of course he doesn't give us a standard CV (I'm a certified construction engineer with degrees in bean genetics and Classics), but a sort of spiritual resume, based on what he's observed about the human condition. Many of his famous aphorisms ("the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation") come from this section.

So, for an exercise, we can try creating a narrator who's examined the human condition--perhaps in a rather small petri dish, such as Concord, MA or his or her own immediate family--and diagnosed a problem. Have this narrator come up with some carefully styled (perhaps overly styled) aphorisms for the problem, and then begin to lay out a solution. The narrator may or may not have actually lived this solution.

There's no reason why this exercise should turn into a conventional short story with an "arc," although it could. You could, for instance, just fixate on the problem of establishing the narrator's authority. Or you could come up with increasingly absurd diagnoses of the problem that the narrator seeks to address.

Personally, I don't think I could write a completely straightforward, un-ironic version of Walden, so I'm suggesting parodic modes here. But others can and have written their own contemporary Waldens, often to much acclaim--so have at it, if that's your thing. I definitely feel the quiet desperation on occasion, and the lure of the bean-field.

*In the American context, memoir is part of this genre, as a spiritual how-to book.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Notes from Underground: Breaking the triangle

(What is Borrowed Fire?)

Here's Notes from Underground from Project Gutenberg.

For the past year or so I've been obsessed with structure, and in particular with undermining "Freitag's triangle"--i.e., introduction --> conflict --> climax --> falling action --> resolution.* The Underground Man, naturally, hates having any structures forced upon him, including 2+2=4, and rails against such things at length in the first part of the book. And by railing, he does win out in the end--maybe he can't defeat 2+2, but he does wreck the triangle.

The first third of NfU, "Underground," is basically ranting. It has no clear narrative structure, no rising and falling action, only churning emotions, intellectual conundrums, and the constant love / hate, push / pull with the reader. The rest of the novel falls under the heading "A Propos of the Wet Snow," and is a much more conventional, triangle-shaped story. It's a memory from the UM's distant past, and may or may not explain how he came to be how he is now. He of course comes off badly, but possibly more sympathetically, in "Wet Snow." Or not. The more I think about the "Wet Snow" section, the more I wonder about its purpose. And that's what's great about this two-part structure.

I can imagine the responses Dostoevky would have gotten in a typical writing workshop: "The second part's great. It really moves. I can really see these characters and relate to them. Definitely cut the first part, though. You're just spinning your wheels. There's no action." But it's the weird relationship between Part I and Part II, and the narrator's refusal to tell a story until he's good and ready, that makes NfU what it is.

So here's an experiment to try, keeping in mind that your writing workshop may lambaste you. Spend the first third of your story (or novella, for that matter) not telling the story. Let the narrator who's on the verge of telling the story lay out all his or her motives, maybe preview the tale and give it some nice, inaccurate Cliff's Notes. Obviously your narrator has to be crazy enough to engage the reader for the duration of this section. You might think of that high school English teacher you loved to hate, and give that teacher some sort of unresolvable moral obsession--like proving the existence of God in a world that clearly suggests otherwise, or resisting some basic law of nature. Then go ahead and tell the story (or rather, a story) in the second part. Don't worry too much about tying the first part to the second, or, worse, with making the second part explain the first. This isn't a flashback to a traumatic childhood, for instance, that tells us why the narrator is such a monster today. It's more like another view of the narrator, and it shouldn't let him or her off the hook.

*BTW I give Eric Puchner a lot of credit for helping me think about these issues, through his Stanford Continuing Studies course, "Fiction that Breaks the Mold."

Friday, March 20, 2009

Craftzine blog

This is cool.

This site makes me feel guilty, of course, but almost everything does that. But really, I should be making gift bags for wine bottles out of old shirt sleeves. Well, maybe I should. I assume the instructions tell you how to deal with coffee and worse kinds of stains that one finds on old shirt sleeves--because if your shirt doesn't have those stains, why aren't you still wearing it? The larger problem, however, is that I hate to sew. It's impossible to describe how much I hate to sew. I can still see that needle sliding deeply into my finger as I tried to finish off my Marimekko pillowcase in seventh grade home-ec. My mother still has the pillow, and my blood is still on it, though it kind of blends in with the yellow-orange cow-spot pattern. But I should sew. I should. Or make lamps out of cereal boxes with pin-hole images.

Anyway, "craft" apparently no longer means strangely hard cloth dolls with gingham dresses and yellow yarn for hair...

The Bay Area Maker Faire, by the way, is May 30-31.

Borrowed Fire: Notes from Underground: a new Overcoat

(What is Borrowed Fire?)

Here's Notes from Underground from Project Gutenberg.

Oh, how can you not love this book? (I'm not saying you don't love it, gentlemen; I think you do. But perhaps you are not ready to admit it.)

How can you not love this guy:

One night as I was passing a tavern I saw through a lighted window some gentlemen fighting with billiard cues, and saw one of them thrown out of the window. At other times I should have felt very much disgusted, but I was in such a mood at the time, that I actually envied the gentleman thrown out of the window--and I envied him so much that I even went into the tavern and into the billiard-room. "Perhaps," I thought, "I'll have a fight, too, and they'll throw me out of the window."

The scheme occurs to the Underground Man, by the way, as he's returning from one of his nights of "filthy vice" (i.e. visiting prostitutes). He wishes to punish himself, or rather, have someone else punish him--so he can then play the victim, and then mock himself for playing the victim, and so on into infinity. He also wants the attention that being thrown through a window will bring him. But what happens instead?

An officer put me in my place from the first moment.

I was standing by the billiard-table and in my ignorance blocking up the way, and he wanted to pass; he took me by the shoulders and without a word--without a warning or explanation--moved me from where I was standing to another spot and passed by as though he had not noticed me. I could have forgiven blows, but I could not forgive his having moved me without noticing me.

It's the UM's manner of plotting and--sort of--exacting revenge that I'm interested in today. His first attempt is to write a satirical story about the officer, but it is rejected by a prominent journal, to his great consternation (perhaps some of us can relate to this particular failed plot). So he decides he is going to bump the officer in some public place. That is, he's going to get in the man's way and not step aside; the idea of doing this makes him absolutely giddy. (This whole section is worth several reads; I think it's hysterically funny, and I'm sure as hell not doing it justice here.) But first he has to prepare to bump him, and this involves obtaining proper attire. Specifically, he needs a new overcoat.

I had got ready long beforehand a good shirt, with white bone studs; my overcoat was the only thing that held me back. The coat in itself was a very good one, it kept me warm; but it was wadded and it had a raccoon collar which was the height of vulgarity. I had to change the collar at any sacrifice, and to have a beaver one like an officer's. For this purpose I began visiting the Gostiny Dvor and after several attempts I pitched upon a piece of cheap German beaver. Though these German beavers soon grow shabby and look wretched, yet at first they look exceedingly well, and I only needed it for the occasion. I asked the price; even so, it was too expensive. After thinking it over thoroughly I decided to sell my raccoon collar. The rest of the money--a considerable sum for me, I decided to borrow from Anton Antonitch Syetotchkin, my immediate superior, an unassuming person, though grave and judicious. He never lent money to anyone, but I had, on entering the service, been specially recommended to him by an important personage who had got me my berth. I was horribly worried. To borrow from Anton Antonitch seemed to me monstrous and shameful. I did not sleep for two or three nights. Indeed, I did not sleep well at that time, I was in a fever; I had a vague sinking at my heart or else a sudden throbbing, throbbing, throbbing! Anton Antonitch was surprised at first, then he frowned, then he reflected, and did after all lend me the money, receiving from me a written authorisation to take from my salary a fortnight later the sum that he had lent me.


All of this, as you may already know, is a parody of Gogol's "The Overcoat," which of course is a satire itself. (Ooh! I see they have "The Overcoat" on Gutenburg also, only in their collection it's called "The Cloak.") And of course the parody is completely knowing, a very self-conscious bit of meta-fiction. In fact, the UM says of the officer, "Devil knows what I would have given for a real regular quarrel--a more decent, a more LITERARY one, so to speak."

OK: metafiction can be cheesy, smarmy, snotty, snooty, and tiresome. Let's not do it like that. But we can try weaving a story we really love into one of our stories. We often do this sort of thing unconsciously--let's try it consciously. We can try a complex, ultimately admiring parody that doesn't just exist as a parody, but serves to advance the story. The game here is that the UM wants to be more literary, so he rewrites himself as a fictional character that he thinks his readers will recognize (he's aware that he's already fictional, but people don't recognize him--that's the problem). Maybe the story we choose to parody could even be NfU, or some episode therein, like the bump-plotting episode.

BTW, does the UM ever bump the officer? Yes he does.




Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Notes from Underground: I am (not) a spiteful man

Here is our text on Project Gutenberg.

A brief bit of pendantry to start out with, but I think it will be worth it. About those famous opening lines--"I am a sick man... I am a spiteful man." The 1993 translation of NfU by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky renders the second line as "I am a wicked man." As Pevear explains in the foreword:

...the translation of zloy as "spiteful" instead of "wicked" is not inevitable, nor is it a matter of nuance. It speaks for that habit of substituting the psychological for the moral, of interpreting a spiritual condition as a type of behavior, which has so bedeviled our century, not least in its efforts to understand Dostoevsky (xxiii).


My Russian is rusty, but it's evident from checking any dictionary that "zloy" means "wicked" or "evil." Pevear's explanation for how it got to be "spiteful" instead is intriguing, though I'm reluctant to simply attribute it to our namby-pamby (previous) century. It's true, as Pevear's foreword implies and as other critics have pointed out, translators have often felt compelled to clean up Dostoevsky's prose. They sometimes assume he was rushing to finish so he could pay off his gambling debts, and if he'd had more time, he would have said it their way (i.e. more eloquently).* So perhaps they don't believe he really meant "wicked," especially since people almost never refer to themselves as "evil." Truly evil people never do--they think they are the saviors of humankind. So what could it mean that this man, whom we are supposed to think of as an anti-hero of an anti-novel, calls himself "evil" on the first page? "Spiteful," while not a flattering way to characterize yourself, is more understandable--it's a bad habit, which is fixable. But being evil is perhaps not.

So here are a couple of writing experiments we can try.
  1. Create a character who refers to himself or herself as "wicked." The character should also have a surprising, ambivalent relationship to that statement--no gleeful cackling, for instance, unless it's adulterated by at least one other emotion. What is the character trying to achieve by telling us he's evil?

  2. Consider a story you have drafted, or one you are thinking about writing. Do as Pevear suggests, and translate psychological conditions into moral or spiritual ones. I'm thinking this could have the effect of raising the stakes in a story significantly. After all, Dostoevsky's characters literally go insane worrying about why God allows innocents to suffer. And I think a lot of contemporary fiction could use higher stakes.

* Update: I've edited this section to point out that "cleaning up Dostoevsky's prose" is a longstanding issue with translations.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Notes from Underground: Gentlemen?

Borrowed Fire: a new regular feature on S and V, in which we steal writing from the gods.

Here's the text of Notes from Underground from Project Gutenberg.

Let's skip the infamous first few lines ("I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man") and perhaps return to them later. And let's approach the infamous narrator who utters them, the Underground Man, from a different angle--his addressees, whom he calls "gentlemen." For instance, here's a short passage from Part I:

You imagine no doubt, gentlemen, that I want to amuse you. You are mistaken in that, too. I am by no means such a mirthful person as you imagine, or as you may imagine; however, irritated by all this babble (and I feel that you are irritated) you think fit to ask me who I am--then my answer is, I am a collegiate assessor.

When I've taught this book in Comp Lit courses, I've seen students get quite irritated indeed by lines like these. Their reaction is something akin to what many of us feel reading stories in the dreaded second-person, to wit: "You are riding on the subway..." No, I'm not, you idiot.* The students say things like: How dare the Underground Man (or is it Dostoevsky?) assume I'm irritated? OK, I am irritated, but not for the reasons he thinks. He's putting words in my mouth; that's why I'm irritated. (Also, some will point out, we're not gentlemen.) And they read the rest of the book with a nice big chip on their shoulders.

But what if Dostoevsky, and the Underground Man, want us to read with that chip? Let's assume the UM knows we think he's misread us, and that we'll therefore resist what he has to say. What might be Dostoevsky's purposes in doing that? And how does that affect the narration?

So here's a writing experiment: creating a reader--to whom you explicitly refer in your story--whom your narrator deliberately, strategically misunderstands. This should go beyond the exercise of, say, writing a letter to a hostile or skeptical recipient. Your narrator is toying with the real reader by creating a sham version of that reader--a kind of voodoo doll that the narrator pokes to get a reaction out of the unseen person it represents. What strategies would you use for poking? Why and how do you want the reader to resist?

*By the way I have written a story in the second person. But I expect a fair number of people to loathe it.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Borrowed Fire: a new feature on Swerve and Vanish

I'm starting a new regular feature on Swerve and Vanish, called Borrowed Fire, or Stealing Writing from the Gods. My first thought was to start a whole new blog devoted to this subject, and briefly did so late last night. But even later last night, I thought--am I crazy? Two blogs? So to avoid confusion and possible redundancy, Borrowed Fire will be a feature here on S and V. All posts under this rubric will have the Borrowed Fire tag and heading.

What, then, is Borrowed Fire?

Borrowed Fire is a place for aspiring writers like me to learn more about our craft. Our goal is to study the techniques of great writers in order to add fire to our own work; each of us will transform what we borrow into something that is uniquely our own. Our motto will be Do not envy--steal. Actually, it's OK to envy great writers, and, believe me, we will. But we'll also channel that envy into learning what they do and how they do it.

No god is beyond our reach. I'm going to start with Dostoevsky, and move (perhaps not in this order) to Melville, Thoreau, and other traumatizing figures from high school English. I intend to draw only from authors whose work is posted on Project Gutenberg, so that everyone who comes here can access the work immediately and for free. The other advantage of Gutenberg is that it will confine us, for the most part, to the early 20th century or before. That means we'll be looking closely at stories, novels, essays, and even poems that aren't frequently used as models in creative writing classes. But of course there's plenty in these works to learn from--and their relative distance from our time will give them a productive strangeness.

I don't intend to go page-by-page; I may do anywhere from one to twenty posts on each work. I'll be discovering some for the first time, and rereading others--even some I wrote about in my dissertation years ago, back when I called them "texts." I'm looking forward to seeing them in this different light, the light of borrowed fire.

I hope we all find this experiment helpful.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The sentence as found object

It 's been weeks since I first read Louis Menand's commentary on Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty's new biography of Donald Barthelme. But I still get a shot of adrenaline every time I read this part:

In the production of found-material art, the painter has an obvious advantage, and Barthelme was aware of the problem. [....] The visual artist can deal with almost every kind of material, even sound, but the writer deals with only one kind of material: sentences. The solution, therefore, was to treat sentences as though they were found objects.

We rarely experience sentences this way, because we're trying to look through them to the things they represent, just as, in traditional easel painting, we look through the canvas, as though it were a window, onto the world it represents. That's the kind of looking and reading that modernism was committed to disrupting.

Back when I thought I was a visual artist, I was most interested in found-object art. I was drawn to the opaque, disruptive scrap, and to artists like Rauschenberg, with whom Barthelme worked as a museum director and magazine writer. But when I started writing fiction--probably because of my academic background, along with the still-current fashion for minimalist realism--I kept aiming for the window model. And failing. For whatever reason, I'm just too fond of strewing around clunky, inappropriate sentences that mar the view.

I hasten to point out that I'm talking about deliberately clunky writing in this case. But one solution for clunky writing is to go with it, build a voice out of it, rather than trying to beat it back. There might be a reason it's happening, other than pure authorial ineptitude. If you're going to go this route, however, you have to do a good job of being clear, or at least deft, with your sentences when you need to be. Show you're aware of the clunks and are controlling them, for a purpose.

I've found it incredibly liberating to contemplate fiction as collage--not on the paragraph or section level, but on the sentence level. This creates a really fascinating set of challenges. In addition to managing deliberate badness, one has to create some kind of satisfying arc, something that serves the function of plot without necessarily being plot. Barthelme does this brilliantly, in a story like "The Zombies," for instance. Somewhere underneath all this bland chatter and fake / real folklore there's a conflict, resolution, and denouement. I can't quite point to where they are, but I sense them. It's like a plot inside-out.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Tree report

So the plum tree outside our living room window has already bloomed and most of the petals are gone already. Last year's tree report, from March 10, indicates the blooms had just passed peak on that date. I'm going to guess it bloomed two weeks earlier this year.

Also, last summer an extremely large plum crop bent most of the branches at a right angle, and they've remained that way. Beware--from the west it comes! the tree seems to be saying.

Ah, the ominous flowers of springtime.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Is shopping online greener?

I've often wondered about this. The answer appears to be yes, with caveats. Obviously taking mass transit and shopping local stores is better. And what of the drive-to-independent-bookstore vs. shop-at-Amazon dilemma?*

Then there's the greenest solution of all: just quit buying crap. My problem is that I find it far more pleasant to buy things online than to go out shopping. I prefer to wear clothes that don't even fit to the prospect of being in an actual store, being attended to (god help me) by a salesperson, and trying things on. So for me, going out to shop may be greener. I'm more likely to leave empty-handed, and probably to decide not to go in the first place.

*UPDATE: Looking at the article again (i.e. actually reading instead of skimming), I see that buying books at Amazon is not so green. You only want to buy from aggregators that don't ship out of central warehouses, which is not the case with Amazon's "media" products.