Thursday, March 31, 2011

What is narrative?

I don't know if this was intentional,* but Google's coffee-pot-and-test-tube graphic today reminded me of The Way Things Go. This is a 1987 short film by Peter Fischli and David Weiss, and Wikipedia describes it better than I can: "It documents a long causal chain assembled of everyday objects, resembling a Rube Goldberg machine."

It begins with a heavy bag hanging by a rope from the ceiling. The rope slowly unwinds, eventually lowering the bag sufficiently to start a tire rolling, which then upends a plank resting on a fulcrum, which flips to propel the tire further forward, causing a weighted ladder to inch down a ramp... You get the idea. The film contains no words. Yet it is amazingly suspenseful. Will the tire stay upright long enough to reach its destination? It has rhythm: some of the events are slow, to the point where you nearly give up on them, and others lightning fast. And although no human beings (or anything sentient) appears in the film, it has characters: the objects that are set in motion one by one, play their brief part in the "story," and then fall to the wayside (or burn).

It's remarkable to think that narrative can exist without human, or at least anthropomorphic, figures to drive it--not to mention without words themselves. There seems to be a deep, underlying flow to storytelling, into which characters and words are woven, and/or to which they contribute. You may have great characters and lovely words, but without this flow, you may not have a story--at least not the traditional page-turning, leaning-forward-to-hear-what-comes-next variety. Is this flow the same as plot? Maybe, but I think it's deeper. It's the conviction that all things in the story are connected, even if you can't exactly articulate how; that the things are there because they have to be. This might actually be a better, or at least a less intimidating way, to think of plot.

You can watch all three parts of the film on YouTube, apparently; too bad it's in separate sections. There are also edits in the film itself, as a commenter on YouTube points out, which suggests the machine's motion may not have been continuous for the full half hour, or that some of the events took too much time for viewers to sit through (like watching something dissolve in acid, for example). If your main concern is whether the machine really worked as shown, this is a problem.

*Oh. The graphic is to commemorate Robert Bunsen's 200th birthday. Guess if you click on the graphic it tells you that, too.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Another thing I've learned about writing (which people tried to tell me for years)

The thing is this: read your drafts aloud. I'm not talking about learning to perform your work, which I also wholeheartedly recommend. I'm saying that in the privacy of your little workspace, to your own little self, you should read your work aloud. Fiction, nonfiction, whatever. It is astonishingly helpful.

For years I resisted this advice, because it would, you know, make me feel like a dork. It is odd to worry about feeling like a dork even though--or in this case because--no one can see or hear me being a dork. Apparently if a dork falls in the forest, etc., he or she is even more of a dork.

Anyway. My other objection to reading aloud was that it wasn't really necessary. I can *pretend* to read aloud using the little voice that's always yammering on in my head, which is very similar to my actual voice. But that's not true. For one thing, you can't skim when you're reading aloud. You have to say (and therefore read) every word. And boy, do you catch mistakes that way.

But reading aloud is not only important for copyediting purposes. Whatever type of writing you're doing, hearing the sound and rhythm of your words will make a big difference. I read a draft out loud just this morning, and there was this one sentence at the beginning of the last paragraph that went "clunk." When I wrote it, I thought it was audacious and charming. But then it went "clunk." So I thought about it, and realized that in fact it didn't fit. It clunked because it made no sense, and when I took it out, harmony and rhythm and sense were restored.

This is not to say your rhythm should always be smooth. Sometimes you want a word or line to be jarring. But there's good jarring and bad jarring, and bad doesn't just mean the sound is off. Likely as not, the sense is off, too.

I just read this post aloud. I made several changes.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Do's and don't's for writers

Short on brain power again today. But that's why we have the Internet. Behold, some valuable do's and don't's. You're welcome, writers.
  • Don't respond viciously to lukewarm reviews of your poorly copyedited self-published book on Amazon. Or maybe, do.
  • Do submit your work for BonaFide Books' Tahoe Blues Anthology. Don't miss the May 1 deadline.
  • If you live in or near LA, do attend the New Short Fiction Series on April 10. This is a spoken-word performance and book launch of Stacey Levine's new collection, The Girl with Brown Fur. Don't miss it and end up kicking yourself.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The importance of writing badly (and with cats)

Via Kim W., Jennifer Egan talks about her writing process.

I haven't read A Visit from the Goon Squad yet, but The Keep was fantastic--in both senses. And a little Turn-of-the-Screw-like.

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Friday, March 25, 2011

The most important thing I've learned so far (about novel writing)

The Guide to Literary Agents blog has a recurring feature called Seven Things I've Learned So Far. Last week, novelist Alexander Yates posted a great list. His #1 is also mine:

1. Revision is important, but finishing your draft is more important. I learned this the hard way. It took me five years to finish writing my novel, but in retrospect two of those years were wasted (or at least used very ineffectively) on obsessive over-revision.

Oh, how I can relate. I would estimate five of the six years I took to finish my first novel were spent on the first 50 pages. And I tossed almost all of that work in the end.

Here's the thing. People did tell me this. I read and heard countless admonishments to first novelists not to fall into this trap. But my excuse was, I had to "understand what I was doing before I could proceed."

Now, there is a point to that. You do need *some* idea of what you're doing before you get too far along; otherwise you could drive your clattering jalopy of a novel right off a cliff. Early on, you will need to do a certain amount of rewriting and redirecting and just plain noodling around. At the same time, it's important to accept that your first several chapters will always be far from perfect. In fact, they will be the farthest from perfect of all your chapters. As Yates says, "first chapters are supposed to stink."

But what do you do, as you're cruising into page 100, and you suddenly realize several events back in the beginning no longer make any sense? Well, in the past, I would have gone back and revised *everything up to page 100*--to the level of line editing. Oh, God, the years! Lament! Howl!

Anyway, the solution in this situation is to *make a note.* Write your notes in a separate file, or by hand in a notebook (I prefer this method). You might say something like: "Necklace cannot be discovered until *after* body is found." If the matter feels particularly urgent, add exclamation points or highlighting or draw a box around the note. Then go back to page 100 and *keep going.*

Because--get this--when you've finished the entire draft, you may realize you were right the first time: the necklace shows up *before* the corpse does, just as you originally suspected. Or you might have come up with a different scenario all together. There was no necklace in the first place! You can delete that entire paragraph! Imagine how painful that would be if you had spent six months rewriting that damn paragraph. As I did.

Anyway, read Yates's whole post. It's good. And I hope we've saved at least one of you out there some time.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

PS on Henry James

Here's a great piece from The Millions on learning to love James. It's kind of an immersion thing. It's also true that reading Colm Tóibín's The Master really helps.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Collusion in the literary ghost story

The Turn of the Screw? Done! Completed! All behind us! Ah, how much we've learned about writing scary stories! Except...

Did we understand the ending?

To recap: One child, Flora, has become so traumatized by the governess's suspicions about her and the visitants that she has become physically ill. She has been whisked off to London by Mrs. Grose. That leaves the governess alone with Miles (not counting the anonymous, apparently non-interactive household staff)--and she takes the opportunity to try to pry some answers out of him at last. Specifically, she wants to know what he got him expelled from school. In the last portion of the novella, she's gone from thinking the children wholly innocent, to believing they are decidedly not. However she still loves Miles, clearly her favorite now, and her last remaining hope for understanding what has been happening. As she questions him, the specter of Peter Quint appears behind Miles in the window, and then drifts away again. And then...

My sternness was all for his judge, his executioner; yet it made him avert himself again, and that movement made ME, with a single bound and an irrepressible cry, spring straight upon him. For there again, against the glass, as if to blight his confession and stay his answer, was the hideous author of our woe—the white face of damnation. I felt a sick swim at the drop of my victory and all the return of my battle, so that the wildness of my veritable leap only served as a great betrayal. I saw him, from the midst of my act, meet it with a divination, and on the perception that even now he only guessed, and that the window was still to his own eyes free, I let the impulse flame up to convert the climax of his dismay into the very proof of his liberation. "No more, no more, no more!" I shrieked, as I tried to press him against me, to my visitant.

"Is she HERE?" Miles panted as he caught with his sealed eyes the direction of my words. Then as his strange "she" staggered me and, with a gasp, I echoed it, "Miss Jessel, Miss Jessel!" he with a sudden fury gave me back.

I seized, stupefied, his supposition—some sequel to what we had done to Flora, but this made me only want to show him that it was better still than that. "It's not Miss Jessel! But it's at the window—straight before us. It's THERE—the coward horror, there for the last time!"

At this, after a second in which his head made the movement of a baffled dog's on a scent and then gave a frantic little shake for air and light, he was at me in a white rage, bewildered, glaring vainly over the place and missing wholly, though it now, to my sense, filled the room like the taste of poison, the wide, overwhelming presence. "It's HE?"

I was so determined to have all my proof that I flashed into ice to challenge him. "Whom do you mean by 'he'?"

"Peter Quint—you devil!" His face gave again, round the room, its convulsed supplication. "WHERE?"

They are in my ears still, his supreme surrender of the name and his tribute to my devotion. "What does he matter now, my own?—what will he EVER matter? I have you," I launched at the beast, "but he has lost you forever!" Then, for the demonstration of my work, "There, THERE!" I said to Miles.

But he had already jerked straight round, stared, glared again, and seen but the quiet day. With the stroke of the loss I was so proud of he uttered the cry of a creature hurled over an abyss, and the grasp with which I recovered him might have been that of catching him in his fall. I caught him, yes, I held him—it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.

Wow. I didn't remember that ending at all from my previous reading, whenever it was. I really had no idea what was going to happen, but Miles's death was a surprise even so. This time through, I think I'd come to believe (with the governess) that the children were nearly as sinister as the visitants themselves. I've possibly seen too many devil-child movies, and the sudden "ugliness" of Flora's language, when she tells Mrs. Grose how much she hates the governess, gives her a certain Linda Blair aspect. Plus, there's the word "dispossessed," in the very last line, significantly set off by commas. Google tells me "dispossessed" can mean both "exorcised" (as of a demon) and "homeless." Very interesting. As if Quint is a kind of parasite (cf Alien, Aliens, Alien3, etc.) that kills its host when removed. And it seems as if the actual parasite is love, in a perhaps unspeakable form.

But it isn't exactly clear. So when I finished the story I did something I'm not proud of. I consulted the introduction to the Signet collection of James's stories I happen to have. Even in my high school days, that felt like cheating. And may I say, just in passing: Why give away the ending of the story in the introduction? Does this not announce flat-out that anyone reading this stories cannot possibly be doing so for pleasure? Why not just title the Introduction "Helpful Hints to Get You Through Another School Assignment"? Perhaps an Afterword, or notes section, would provide assistance if needed, while maintaining that old books can still be read for the same reasons we read new ones?

Anyway. R. W. B. Lewis, writing in 1983, tells us that *nobody* really understands the ending (although that was nearly 30 years ago; perhaps experiments at CERN have since settled the matter). Are the ghosts real, and responsible for Miles's death, or are they just figments of the governess's deranged imagination? Lewis writes:

Henry James's histrionic genius would never settle for an either-or account of experience, especially of the kind established by many critics of "The Turn of the Screw": it is all the ghosts' wicked responsibility, or all the governess's doing. Peter Quint and the governess collaborate, by a dreadful collision of psychic energy, in the death of young Miles.

That sounds fine to me. James is a great writer, and a great ghost story would not give us pure victimization as a spectacle. Nor would it be a mere "trick" in which the narrator wakes up at the end--possibly inside a mental ward.

So here's the lesson for fiction writers today: in the literary ghost story, the events should come about through collaboration between human and ghost. That's not to say our human hero should "really" be "bad" in some way, or even directly responsible for the bad stuff. But something about their psychology, their reactions to events and/or certain secret desires should combine with the occult to drive the outcomes. This is the way to make your story truly surprising and disturbing. The hero must invite the vampire in, and get more than he or she bargained for. One thing is clear from this ending: the governess's pride in her own strength in the face of terror have backfired. When she stands up to Quint directly, shielding Miles from him, that's when Miles dies.

But was this pride the cause? Not really, or not only. We think we know what we're doing, and we don't. That is scary.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

No Day Without a Line (and at least one day without a screen)

While I was casting around for something to write about today, my eyes landed on a book that I've been using, completely fortuitously, to prop up my monitor: No Day Without a Line by Yuri Olesha.

As some of my former students know, Olesha is really my favorite author of all time. I may have raved on this blog about others who are far better known, like Dostoevsky and Melville, but Olesha really is the guy.* This Soviet-era author, born in 1899, was "young with the century," as he put it. He is best known for his 1927 novella Envy, a magical-realist encomium to, and take-down of, early Soviet-style materialist culture. You see the influence of H. G. Wells and Dostoevsky in the story, but at the same time, there's really nothing else quite like it. It's a Freudian/political fairy tale that employs some of the most vivid and memorable images I have ever come across.

Here's just one passage (from the NYRB edition, translated by Marian Schwartz):

I entertain myself with observations. Have you ever noticed that salt falls off the end of a knife without leaving a trace--the knife shines as if untouched; that pince-nez traverse the bridge of a nose like a bicycle; that man is surrounded by tiny inscriptions, a sprawling anthill of inscriptions: on forks, spoons, saucers, his pince-nez frames, his buttons, and his pencils?

No Day Without a Line is a fragmentary memoir written, according to translator Judson Rosengrant, primarily during the six years before Olesha's death in 1960. In it, we see Olesha entertaining himself with observations--a pleasure which is also a serious discipline. Many of these observations are not direct, but in the form of childhood memories which Olesha observes meticulously. In fact it's childhood in the form of memory that makes these images so striking. They are not dry recollections of "what things were like back then," but brief, poetic addresses to sights Olesha saw and loved and knows he will never see again in this same way:

In Odessa we sailed on the sea in punts. These were large, heavy boats with a flat bottom and no keel--something on the order of a cart thrown into the sea without its wheels. They were crudely painted in red and blue and moved by means of huge, heavy oars secured to the oarlocks with a strength sufficient at least for tethering oxen. In the bottom of these boats there was always water--puddles in which rags, pieces of shrimp, or a bottle swam. The punt skimmed over the waves. There was something of the Greek myths about the appearance of these boats. Even now I remember, as if I'd only seen it yesterday, the brown pear-like calves of the fishermen as they ran behind a boat they were launching, in order to leap into it once it was afloat.

Those "pear-like calves" are pure Olesha: that unexpected comparison, often between food and a body part, which makes the comparison both memorable and slightly forbidden. There's a visceral, yet innocent attraction to the fishermen's calves that an "adult" mind would probably chase away--especially one in Olesha's place and time. (Envy is often read as a story of unrequited gay love.) But if we can learn not to banish such images, we can light up our own fiction with startling beauty. It sounds like a cliche, but this passage really makes me feel like I'm right there in Odessa in the early 20th century. That's an amazing feat of teleportation, and it works because we're traveling through a particular consciousness, rather than generic reportage.

All of this makes me worry more than ever that I--and possibly many of my fellow writers--are spending way, way too much time in front of screens. We are no longer entertaining ourselves with unmediated observations. We are not going down to the sea and watching fishermen get into boats; or if we do, we are too distracted, or cynical, or something, to just take it in. Maybe we are not taking the time to really remember--and color with memory--what we saw in childhood. There are too many layers between writing and experience. I certainly sense this in my own work; the screen is always there somehow, humming, inserting itself ever so subtly. Writing today may be more "knowing," but a lot of it doesn't seem nearly as fresh as Olesha's much older work.

Fortunately that problem is fixable, entirely free of charge. If I can just tear myself away from this computer.

*I did have the opportunity, some years ago, to rave about Olesha in Tin House. That obviously didn't get the raving out of my system.

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Monday, March 21, 2011

Me and my Shadow

I read Dana Goodyear's article in the New Yorker about Barry Michels, therapist to Hollywood screenwriters, expecting a good dose of woo-woo and hoo-ha. I mean, would any self-respecting, largely successful movie-industry "creative" would pay $360 per hour for anything less? There ought to be trances, silly names for common conditions, bullying in the name of tough love, and invocations of obscure gods--at the very least.

OK, Michels does deliver some of that. It's his job. Still, I was surprised at how...helpful his approach seemed. I especially took note of his use of the Jungian concept of the Shadow,

the occult aspect of the personality that Jung defined as “the sum of all those unpleasant qualities we like to hide, together with the insufficiently developed functions and the contents of the personal unconscious.” In “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” Jung describes a dream in which he was out on a windy night, cupping a tiny candle in his hand. “I looked back, and saw a gigantic black figure following me,” he writes. “When I awoke I realized at once that the figure was a ‘specter of the Brocken,’ my own shadow on the swirling mists, brought into being by the little light I was carrying.”

That image of the Shadow coming into being because of that little light is really lovely. It illustrates the dilemma of creative work, which is at the heart of Michel's practice. That is: your creativity arises directly from those parts of yourself you would most like to hide. The more successful your work, the more of this creature will become visible--to you, and (you imagine) to your audience. It feels a lot better to suppress the shadow, but then your work suffers, or doesn't happen at all. So Michels gives clients various methods (some woo-woo, some just funny) to welcome the Shadow into your life and work.

I don't suppose the Shadow's existence will come as news to most people. By other names it's the subconscious, the wounded inner child, or high school. But a lot of therapy seems bent on exorcising the Shadow in order to allow it to dissipate. You may learn to treat it with compassion, rather than ignoring or raging at it, but ultimately you want it to go away. In this view you keep the Shadow close by, recognizing you can't do your work without it.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Random tidbits about books and writing

It's Friday and I have no hope of sustaining a coherent stream of thought for more than a few sentences. Here, then, are some short and random tidbits, a. k. a. stuff I found on the Internet, about books and writing. You may hear my friend synapses sizzling in the background.

  • Via Dee S., Kirkus Reviews has a book blog. In retrospect that is not surprising, but it was news to me.

  • Via Nathan Bransford, Bill Morris at The Millions tells us that for new authors, bad reviews increase sales by as much as 45%. For us unknowns, that is GREAT NEWS. Instead of fretting about Michiko Kakutani shredding our babies, we can now *hope* she does.

  • Also via Nathan B., Brad Phillips at Pimp My Novel offers us Nine Ways to Give a Better Reading. This backs up my encomium to a certain spoken-word performance earlier this week. If you can't take an acting class just now, Phillips suggests listening to good actors read books on CD.

  • My So-Called Freelance Life by Michelle Goodman is a really, really, really good book on becoming a freelancer. I got it at a really, really, really good bookstore in the Los Feliz neighborhood in LA called Skylight Books.

  • Apparently Los Feliz is pronounced "Los Feelies." Color me surprised!

That's all I got. See you Monday.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Are we happy yet?

Like many Americans with a little too much time on their hands, I am a sucker for any article with "happiness" in the title. Perhaps, I say to myself as I click eagerly on the link, this one will be the answer. Finally, I will know the truth: am I happy or not? This WSJ article got me thinking...well, dang, maybe I am.

I hesitate even to say this, given that in addition to being (possibly) happy, I am also deeply superstitious about admitting any form of good fortune. So let me protect myself by saying I remain on constant high alert for bad stuff to get upset about. Bad stuff is always happening, and will happen, to me and to others, whom I know and don't know. I mean, jeez, all you need to do is look out the window, or, god help you, at the Internet, and you will see that there is an infinite amount of stuff to be unhappy about, even if you personally are not at this very moment unhappy. In fact, there must be some reason why the Internet is so full of awful, aggravating, horrible information--if we didn't seek out awfulness, content providers would rush to deluge us with some other kind of content. Like...what? What would we rather have?

That question gets us back to the article, whose main point is that what many of us think of as "happiness" is not really worth pursuing after all.

The pleasure that comes with, say, a good meal, an entertaining movie or an important win for one's sports team—a feeling called "hedonic well-being"—tends to be short-term and fleeting. Raising children, volunteering or going to medical school may be less pleasurable day to day. But these pursuits give a sense of fulfillment, of being the best one can be, particularly in the long run.

Until recently, I guess I thought of "happiness" as either this "hedonic" business, or else the absence of any kind of bad feelings...which, on reflection, translates to a sort of blankness that seems scary. No wonder the pursuit of this is so unsatisfying.

The article suggests that engagement, a sense of purpose, and above all *not ruminating on your happiness or lack thereof* are the keys to a different type of happiness. This is "eudaimonia," which is more akin to fulfilling one's potential. People who feel eudaimonic happiness "are good at reappraising situations and using the brain more actively to see the positives... They may think, 'This event is difficult but I can do it[.]'"

Since completing my novel, I've experienced a lot more of this type of happiness. MIND YOU there are still plenty of things I strongly believe that I can't do (self-marketing, cutting the cats' toenails). But being able to focus on my writing and finish a large project have given me a certain confidence that I didn't have before. On any given day I feel despair, frustration, even self-loathing, but the difference is that I expect these feelings to go away at some point. Back when I was seriously depressed, I figured the despair was permanent, which contributed to the depression all the more. I've somehow--for now--concluded I can handle these experiences.

Based on this article, I might suggest swapping the word "confidence" for "happiness" when thinking about what we want to pursue. I'm not talking about bravado, the false confidence that requires an audience to exist--and usually attracts one. I mean a confidence you feel whether or not anyone is looking.

That's what I'm going to try for, anyway, because I no longer think the other is possible. (I say this with hope, not despair.)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Calling West Coast short fiction writers

So last weekend the New Short Fiction Series performed a selection of my short stories at the Barnsdall Art Park in LA. They chose four stories (two of which were excerpted) and a different actor performed each one. The actors were Buckley Sampson, Jesse Holcomb, Kate Heller, and Sally Shore (the series director), and all were terrific.

If the words I wrote are a score, then those performances were music. As the writer, I've never been more aware of what good actors can do with the printed word. Even with minimal costuming and gesture--in this series the actors stay seated and read the story from pages, rather than memorizing--they bring the story into a different dimension altogether. Their tools are voice, with all its varied tones and dynamics; rhythm--speeding up, slowing down, pausing; facial expression; gesture; and the ability to engage an audience. This last is a process I don't fully understand. But rather than simply accepting the audience's presence, as a sort of worrisome fuzz in one's field of vision, they bring the audience into the space of the story. You are not being talked at. You are with the characters in a shared fictional world.

The actors found and expressed nuances of emotion in my stories that I wasn't fully aware of. The stories were mostly comic, and they knew how to bring out the laughs, but they also guided the audience into sudden, but fully earned, moments of sadness. It was a great honor to have my stories given such careful attention.

It was also brought home to me, in no uncertain terms, that performance is crucial in literary readings. I am seriously considering hiring actors for those (still rare) occasions when I am invited to read in public. (I could hide under the table, and...oh, that's been done?) If that isn't feasible, I am really going to have to work on my acting skills. I know, I became a writer so I could *hide* behind words. Full-on acting isn't in me. But I have now seen the difference between a droning "reading" of a story and a performance. The former is something the audience politely sits through. The second is entertainment in the best sense.

All of this is by way of mentioning that the New Short Fiction Series is looking for more material by West Coast short fiction writers. If you fit that definition, write to for submission guidelines. That's how I got the gig. You won't regret it, I promise.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Another California

Eric Puchner, my former teacher and author of the great novel Model Home, tells a personal story of California dreams gone wrong.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Ohio spring

I do miss some things about living in the Midwest. One is the approach of spring. Here in Northern California spring begins in, oh, December--as soon as it starts raining and the hills turn green. While we've had our bouts of cold rain, and the great Almost But Not Actual Snow of 2011, the flowers have been out for weeks. As a transplanted Midwesterner, I never feel I've earned these flowers.

Whereas in the Midwest, you do earn them. You savor spring's arrival. It comes on slowly at first. The air becomes gentler, less brittle. You see a crocus or two along the myrtle bed. Later some blue-eyed grass will appear between the bricks on the patio. You start skipping the down jacket in favor of a sweater and windbreaker; you find don't have to shovel the driveway or scrape off the car this morning. The days get just a little easier, and you know that the really lovely weather is still to come.

That said, I understand it has been snowing in Ohio.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Two poems for Thursday


I cut in front of you
in the parking garage
and took the spot
you thought would be yours

Forgive me
I am usually not quite such an asshole
but I was hungry and late for my haircut
and your giant black Expedition filled me with self-righteousness



I saw the best chairs of my condominium destroyed by cats.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

$125 well spent

Last year, we bought a California State Parks Frequent Visitor pass from the State Parks Foundation. From a direct-mail solicitation, no less. For $125, we got a hang-tag for the car, a subscription to Sunset Magazine, a detailed map, and a remarkably well-written guidebook to all the parks.

I know what you're thinking. Trev and Ann in matching visors and fanny packs, squeezing their Winnebago past bicyclists on Highway One. Or maybe tearing up once-pristine deserts with their OHVs. Not so! Now, I might like to get a smallish RV one day, truth be told. I believe our days of curling up on the hard, lumpy ground while re-breathing our own carbon dioxide inside a tiny tent are behind us. But visors, fanny packs, and OHVs are right out!

My larger point here is that I have become a huge fan of the state parks. Until last year, they were invisible to us. We did not want to pay $10 to check out what was perhaps just a port-a-potty and a dusty trail--so we always drove by. Now we go in. And we have discovered wonders.

For example, the unassuming-looking Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in Sonoma offers some lovely hikes, and contains the Robert Ferguson Observatory, which is open to the public for day- and night-time observing programs. There are three pretty day-use areas tucked inside Point Reyes National Seashore. Your hang-tag gets you into Point Lobos and any number of beaches all along the California coast. There are literally hundreds more options. And not to put too fine a point on it, a whole new world of accessible bathrooms on Highway One has been opened to us.

For us, the hang-tag paid for itself in a couple of months. So, Californians--please consider supporting your embattled but wonderful state parks. We are definitely renewing.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Pop culture in fiction: a ticket to obscurity?

Matt Zoller Seitz has an interesting post up on Salon today about pop-cultural references in TV shows. Recently he noticed that a classic episode of The Simpsons from the early 90s relied on cultural references (to Arnold Schwarzenegger's action-film persona and the Hollywood Squares) that his kids completely missed. He wonders if popular TV shows today, which rely heavily on current references, are sentencing themselves to obscurity in the near future.

I've often wondered the same thing when writing fiction. Should I refer to, say, Justin Bieber or Twitter, if, by the time this piece is published, those phenomena will have gone the way of flip phones? I use the phone example because, in editing some stories for upcoming publications, I noticed a definite lag in their depictions of cell-phone technologies. The stories were originally written a couple of years ago, when human beings other than I still used flip phones and thought they were pretty neat. Of course, this update will only hold for another six months or so. After that, those phone references will likely slide into the worst possible crack of datedness: recent enough to be recognizable, but with that whiff of mustiness that tells us the story (and writer) are just a tad behind the curve.

But back to Bieber and Twitter. If you're writing a story set in present day America (or any number of other countries, really), and it involves kids and/or parents of a certain socio-economic set, you're going to have a heck of a time steering around these things. By consciously trying to avoid topical references, you might tie your story into such knots--or make it so implausible--that it's better just to go through the Bieber, not around it. Still, when Justin embarks on his inevitable decline--not that I wish this upon him or his fans by any means; I'm sure the prospect is still many months off--will he take your story or novel down with him?

One consoling thought is that if your story or novel is around in twenty years (and I'm sure it will be!), those references to Justin Bieber may no longer seem musty. They may actually help root your piece in place and time. That's assuming a) Bieber has reached a sufficient critical mass of fame now that his name will evoke an "oh, yeah, I've heard that name" response in your as-yet-unborn-college-student reader, and b) without making your current readers scream out "Duh!," you've provided enough description and context for Bieber that future readers will at least gather he was a young, cute singer whose haircut sent shockwaves around the world.

In other words, if you're using Bieber in a winking, we-all-know-who-this-is kind of shorthand--as The Simpsons used Schwarzenegger--it will likely be a problem in the future. But if he's not just shorthand, if his presence makes a substantive contribution to the story, you'll be forced to spell that out at least somewhat. That should cut down on the "huh?" factor. Presuming shared knowledge, or shared "knowingness," between writer and reader (or viewer) may be the real ticket to obscurity--as Matt Zoller Seitz suggests.

Here are a few other ways I've thought of to use pop culture references in fiction while ensuring your story doesn't seem dated:

  • Set the story in the past. This can be the very, very recent past. I remember talking to a guy in a writing class who said he was writing a "historical novel" set in 2007. It was 2008 at the time. Folks, 2010 is now a setting for historical fiction. Heck, so is March 7, 2011. So is the last minute. My point is, I think this mindset will just slightly shift the way you talk about "current" cultural phenomena--enough that you'll feel compelled to put it in a context.

  • Create a realistic but alternative world, in which Justin Bieber is, say, Jason Beebler. You then can--and must--explain who he is and why he is loved by zillions. Most future readers will probably get the echo, but if they don't, it's no big deal. You've created your own character, who may prove more useful to you anyway, and more interesting.

Monday, March 07, 2011

The anatomy of fear

Sorry, couldn't resist that title. In fact this is another overdue post about The Turn of the Screw. But it's exciting! Both anatomical and fearsome, in a good way!

All right, for those of you who haven't clicked away...

Continuing my thought from Friday, about trying to learn the craft of fiction on the sentence level. I've written before about the advantages (which may not be readily apparent) of writing what appears to be a ghost story in a highly complex, nuanced style. Obviously this style isn't for everybody, but the more I think about it, the more it seems to suit James's purpose. I believe that purpose is not only to tell a damn scary story, but to understand fear as profoundly as possible.

Contrary to what we might assume, James shows us that fear is not a simple emotion. Unless the werewolf is literally leaping at your throat at this very moment (and even then, I might suggest), fear is a layered and contradictory experience. Especially when the nature of the menace is not yet clear, the experience of growing fear is a nuanced one. It is not just a series of bigger and bigger jolts. Fear waxes and wanes; at times you might try to go through your ordinary routines, aware as you are that they have been knocked off kilter. You clutch with overwrought relief at false hopes. You get irritated. You might even laugh at yourself as you step back and watch yourself scurrying through those musty corridors with your guttering flashlight. How did I let it come to this?, you say to yourself.

Anyway, let's take a look at one of those finely-wrought Jamesian sentences. This one refers to the governess's attempts at conversations with the children in her charge, now that all are aware of the spectral "visitants" who have come to the children on several occasions. The governess has just described the "small ironic consciousness" of the children--their awareness that she knows something is going on, but is unable to ask them about it directly. The children, she tells us, are not so "vulgar" as to taunt her with this knowledge. Rather,

It was as if, at moments, we were perpetually coming into sight of subjects before which we must stop short, turning suddenly out of alleys that we perceived to be blind, closing with a little bang that made us look at each other—for, like all bangs, it was something louder than we had intended—the doors we had indiscreetly opened.

First off, the sentence mirrors the physical events in the story. The governess has been "perpetually coming into sight of subjects" that stop her short--the apparitions. She turns out of alleys and peers through doors, and gets caught looking. The sentence is a kind of mini suspense tale, giving us the "little bang" that disrupts the sentence's flow, somewhat violently, with dashes, before finally revealing what caused the bang--the doors. The events and the fear they cause seep into the very language--the words and the syntax--the governess uses to try to understand the events. Even in retrospect, she can't think outside of the fear.

But what's also touching here is the repetition of "we," and "us," the implication that she and the children are on the same side in this predicament. Together, they encounter subjects and stop short; together they "indiscreetly" open doors and startle when they slam. They have the same motives, and share the same surprise and disappointment when their adventures go awry. Glossed over is the fact that the children are hiding something from the governess. She loves them and fiercely wants to protect them. She can't quite bring herself to think that they may have an agenda quite different from hers.

The "we" also conveys something else. The children are--at least--the governess's equals in this game. She cannot out-think them, any more than she can get them to obey her in any but the most trivial matters.

The sentence contains a kernel of simple, unthinking fear: the jolt when the door bangs louder than expected. But rippling out from that are all the shadings that make fear so difficult to understand and overcome: There's love and the desire to be loved back (the fear of not being loved back, perhaps). There's propriety in social relations, especially with children for whom one is responsible. There's denial--this isn't really happening, not really--pitted against the equally strong will to understand. All these emotions are happening at once, and all are part of the supposedly simple experience of "being afraid."

So as we write our own scary stories, we might spend some time unraveling all the emotional threads that make up fear...the kind of fear worthy of literature. Give fear its due by placing the shaded, qualified sentence alongside the gut-wrenching shriek.

Possibly such complications are also worth considering as we face fear in our daily lives--or accuse others of being fearful.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Can creative writing be taught on the sentence level?

After reading about (not actually reading) Stanley Fish's new book on sentences, as well as Ta-Nehisi Coates's lovely discussions of Jane Austen's sentences, I am wondering: Can creative writing be taught on the sentence level? Could there be a class (or, say, a series on an obscure blog) that dissects literature sentence by sentence, in order to improve students' (or fellow writers') own writing?

I've never taken a creative writing class that dove that deep, except on occasion. It seems one ends up talking mostly about "flow," believability, characterization, plot, and structure on a higher level. But can writers be taught, through example, to craft better sentences, word by painstaking word?

I'm rushed today, but intend to think about this more...

Thursday, March 03, 2011

On not wanting to write

It's crazy. Writing is supposed to be what I love to do most in this world. I have time. I have solitude. I have emotional and financial support. I am very, very lucky in these regards. Yet when it comes to pouring out my required 1,000 words for the day on my novel, more often than not, I just don't want to.*

I know I share this problem with millions of writers; there's a whole industry dedicated to producing prompts, encouragement, and inspiring threats for writers, all for a low, low subscription fee. But what I still don't get is why I don't want to write whenever my self-appointed time rolls around each day. You'd think I'd be champing at the bit to write. You'd think I'd do it all day long, that I'd have to be pulled kicking and screaming from the computer. So again, I ask, why?

Here are a couple of answers I've thought of, none of which are fully satisfying:
  • It's tiring. The intense concentration that kicks in, once I finally do get going, really does take something out of me. I don't like being tired. But what exactly am I saving myself for?

  • There is no immediate (or possibly even distant) concrete payoff. If I cook a meal, I get to eat it. If I do a job for money, I get paid. I know one is supposed to write for oneself, ultimately--that publication, acclaim, any kind of payment, etc. are just icing on the much larger, more nutritious cake that is doing what you truly love. And yet. After a writing session, I may feel pleased with what I've written, but I may also feel that I've just spent two hours shouting into a great, dark canyon that does not even echo.

  • When writing a novel especially, one tends to feel lost a good part of the time. Yes, I have a sort of overall outline, a general sense of where I'm going, but most days I feel I'm hiking through some vast wheat field, with only an iffy compass telling me I'm going in the right direction. I do not like feeling lost.

  • I feel guilty. Most people never get the chance to do something they truly love. Who am I to be given that opportunity? Do I deserve it, when so many others can't even imagine having it? This is self-indulgence of the worst kind--and to top it off, I'm still procrastinating! I don't even appreciate what I have! Self indulgence and ingratitude!

  • I don't like what I'm writing. Actually, this one does not feel so true at the moment. To be honest, I'm rather fond of what I'm writing these days. But perhaps I think that fondness is delusional. Because it really is terrible, what I'm writing. Yes, that's probably it! If I don't like my writing, I shouldn't be doing it at all. And if I do like it, it means I'm out of my mind!
I don't know. It's probably best not to think about this stuff at all. Just get over yourself and do it already, right?

Or I could clean the kitchen...

*Obviously writing about not wanting to write is no problem at all. This is because it is, at its heart, complaining. This is perhaps the easiest form of discourse, spoken or written, to generate. Maybe this is because complaining shuts off expectations of any sort--it's a substitute for doing something. And it's fun.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Should writers cut back on scenery?

Laura Miller's Salon column yesterday got me thinking, again, about the relationship of setting to character. This is a particular concern of mine, because I've often worried that my own fiction lacks a sufficient sense of place. But how do you work a detailed sense of place into the narrative without bringing it to a grinding halt while you describe every highway, byway, lake, lawn, and tree?

Miller argues that one of the biggest problems in literary fiction today is, in fact, the overuse of description. Using Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife as her primary example, she quotes a paragraph of scenic description, and then says,

Zdrevkov is godforsaken, but this fact is amply conveyed in the following four paragraphs describing the town itself -- most of that bit is quite good, although still a shade exhaustive. Obreht has said in an interview that she wants to write about "the influences of place on characters," but the passage above is too flatly reportorial to suggest that this woman feels anything but overheated.

By way of contrast, Miller approvingly quotes Alias Grace:

Margaret Atwood writes of a suffocating Victorian parlor, "all possible surfaces of it are upholstered; the colors are those of the inside of the body -- the maroon of kidneys, the reddish purple of hearts, the opaque blue of veins, the ivory of teeth and bones."

The distinction I believe Miller is getting at is that Atwood's description reveals both the parlor, and the state of mind of the character viewing the parlor. Grace (who will later be accused of murdering the parlor's owner and committed to an asylum) is clearly, shall we say, unsettled in this setting. The "influence of place" on this character is indeed stifling--though Atwood, I would point out, leaves open the possibility that someone else (the rich owner of the house, for instance), would see these same items very differently.

In other words, places definitely influence characters, but the reverse is also true: characters influence settings, at least in terms of how the reader sees and interprets them through their eyes. Atwood's description is singular enough that we come to see both the parlor and Grace as singular. And throughout the novel, Grace and her setting will continue to interact and shape each other in surprising (and specific) ways. It seems to me this notion is crucial--the setting doesn't just "contain" the characters, but is continuous, and contiguous, with character. Setting and character are all part of the same fabric, the space-time of the novel (to rip off both Bakhtin and Brian Greene at the same time).

Still, this is much easier to realize if you are writing in the close third-person point of view. I haven't read The Tiger's Wife, and so don't know what point of view Oberht uses overall. Miller says her style is "subtle" and her main character mostly "opaque," which suggests a more external, even omniscient point of view. If you believe in or at least want to explore the possibility of omniscience (even a sort of blocked omniscience, which can't see inside people very well), some descriptive passages would have to originate from this point of view. This would seem to preclude the red-in-tooth-and-claw type of description we get from Atwood. But does that mean that such description would always end up being "flat" and "reportorial"?

Or maybe this really means that in literature (if not in life) no setting can exist outside of perception. That perception might be a character's, or it might even be the author's--more specifically, that of the author's persona, which we might call the voice. The author may or may not create a specific narrator for the story, but there is always a presence that the voice embodies. And it would behoove us writers to always be aware of that presence, what it is doing, and what its agenda is at any given moment in the narrative. Perhaps it's even in a tug-of-war with a character, vying (quietly or not) over whose description of reality is more true. You would then see layers (or striations) of perception in the landscape, which could make the scene very rich indeed--even if those layers are subtle.

Anyway, I can't decide whether I think Miller's right in telling authors to cut back on description. Elmore Leonard's advice to take out the boring parts is, of course, always correct--whether they are descriptions of setting, or dialog, or anything else. I suspect that boredom often ensues when the reader's sense of a human presence flags.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011