Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What is writer's block?

I've told people that I never get writer's block. I always seem to be able to write *something,* if not something interesting or good or important. This is what blogs are for, writing *something.* And now that I am in revision mode with novel 2, getting *something* done is even easier. All that is required is staring at the printed (not blank!) page and making some sort of change. Or not! Because maybe I'll just keep what's already there, and keeping counts as revision! I am thinking! I am deciding! This is real work!

However. I am beginning to get a hint of what classic, cigarettes-bathrobe-wild-haired-baggy-eyed-cocaine-haunted-hotel-ax-murder-type writer's block is like. I have been trying to come up with "ideas" for some new short stories, which I hope to start on when this next round of revision is over. I have done about three pages on two different stories, and finished a full draft of another. But all of them just seem hollow. That's the best word I can use to describe them. They are words wrapped around a nonexistent core. I don't enjoy reading them or thinking about them. They feel like imitations of stories.

Well, Robert Olen Butler would say that having "ideas" for stories is my first problem. It means I'm coming at the problem intellectually rather than "from where I dream." And I suspect that is an issue. I'm writing about things I don't really care about. That is, I'm working from "concepts" that I think are "interesting" rather than from emotions that I don't fully understand (or accept). Even though some of my more successful stories have always seemed to me rather aloof, even arch, I'm starting to realize that there's some strangled cry of personal anguish within them. You can't fake that shit. You can't borrow someone else's personal anguish or conjure it up out of abstractions. In other words, at some point, you have to--metaphorically!--open a vein. Find an untapped agony mine, and then, maybe, make it funny.

The holiday season will probably help with this.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The new issue of Crazyhorse is out--with my novel excerpt

Just in time for the holidays! The new Crazyhorse is out, including "Origin," an excerpt from my novel Christmastown Lost. Hey, the e-book is only $5.00...

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Would you self-publish?

Busy with work today, so I'll hand this post off to these guys, who have a lot to say in favor of self-publishing. Personally I can't let go of the traditionalist dream...not yet, anyway.
(Via Nathan Bransford, as it so often is.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

On being a rereading chicken

Lisa Levy's post on The Millions about rereading reminds me of a class I taught at Stanford called "Does Literature Matter?" One of the assignments was to reread a story, book, or poem that meant something to you in the past, and write about how you and the story had both changed. This assignment always seemed to produce the best papers. As Levy suggests, I think that's because rereading generated multiple layers of reflection: yourself then, yourself now, yourself now seeing yourself then. And somewhere in the middle, the "text itself," which is always changing as its readers change. To reread is to consciously experience the fluidity of yourself, and all the things that surround and bolster your "self."

That all sounds great and important. And yet I, myself, am not that much for rereading. I suspect I'm afraid of being sucked into the past, and/or former selves, many aspects of which I would rather not dwell on or in. When I do reread, I tend to do it for some purpose other than pure pleasure: for the Borrowed Fire experiment, or to study techniques of a writer I admire (which is really the point of BF anyway). Those are partly the hazards of being a semi-professional reader.

What do I reread purely for pleasure? Popular science books mostly. Maybe that's because my own emotional history isn't bound up in them. There aren't a lot of places in them to deposit one's hopes, fears, and dreams for later--possibly blindsiding--retrieval.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

On responding to reviewers

I'm intrigued by Jonathan Lethem's essay, "My Disappointment Critic," which responds to James Wood's negative review of The Fortress of Solitude. For those not closely following Lethem's career (why not?), Fortress and the review were published eight years ago. But, Lethem admits, he couldn't stop thinking about Wood's misrepresentations of his work:

I’d have taken a much worse evaluation from Wood than I got, if it had seemed precise and upstanding. I wanted to learn something about my work. Instead I learned about Wood. The letdown startled me. I hadn’t realized until Wood was off my pedestal that I’d built one. That I’d sunk stock in the myth of a great critic. Was this how Rushdie or DeLillo felt — not savaged, in fact, but harassed, by a knight only they could tell was armorless?

Lethem's points are interesting, subtle, and also humorous, so it would be better for you to read the piece rather than for me to try to summarize his objections. The upshot is that Wood, in Lethem's view, simply wanted to read a different book than Fortress turned out to be: he did not evaluate it on its own terms. Moreover, Wood's terms are unnecessarily snobbish.

Now, I'm quite fond of the work of both Lethem and Wood, so I feel a little sad that they apparently don't see eye to eye. As far as I know, I am also yet to have the experience of a critic reviewing my own work. My general sense, though, is that one must resist the urge to respond to either good or bad reviews, to avoid looking overly needy ("Thank you for that great review! It made my day!") or bitter and pompous ("You are obviously too dumb to discern the subtleties of my prose."). But clearly writers violate this tenet all the time: witness the Letters section of the NYT Book Review. It does seem that, especially when hemmed in by tight deadlines and multiple obligations, critics can miss key points; or they can start out with fixed expectations and then, in the interests of time and simplicity, judge the book according to those. And writers can fail to get their intended points across. This is a slipperier business in fiction, though; I think readers should be free to see what they see in a story, even if the author didn't consciously put it there. Otherwise, what are book clubs and lit discussion sections for?*

Lethem makes a careful and convincing argument on his own behalf; I have no doubt Wood, if he so chooses, could do the same. What I like most about this piece, though, is how it reveals the humanity of both author and critic. Both are flawed, as writers and as people, even though their positions in this dynamic require that both pretend not to be. ("Here is my perfect book." "Here is my meticulous, objective judgment of that book." "Your judgment affects me not at all." "Your judgment of my judgment means nothing.") These formal rituals are built up to conceal very basic human questions: Do you like me? Am I good? Do I know anything for certain? It's worth remembering that both reviewer and reviewee have these questions.

In writing this piece, Lethem took the risk of seeming whiny, petty, needy, etc. But in bringing out the subtle, human dynamics of the writer's life, I think he did the right thing.

*This reminds me of another post I ought to do sometime, on the depiction of English/literature classes in film and TV. Unlike the vast majority of my experience, as a student and a teacher, classes in these shows invariably have a Socratic-style professor dragging the "correct" meaning of a passage out of the students: What does Romeo mean when he says...? Right you are, Billy! Or: Nnooo, that's not quite what he's saying; how about a hint? The students are occasionally inspired, if the teacher is passionate and/or colorful, but more often they are bored, and rightly so. This is bad publicity for the literary profession, and something really should be done about it!

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Too much light!

Maybe it's the time change and the whole darkness-at-five-thirty-p.m. thing. Maybe it was our recent trip to Tahoe, when I woke up in the middle of the night enveloped in darkness--I couldn't tell whether my eyelids were open or closed--and felt utterly calm. Maybe I've developed some modern-day proto-vampiric ailment, exacerbated by staring at glowing screens for the majority of my waking hours. (God, that's insane.)

At any rate, I seem to have become deeply averse to artificial light, especially the uniform lighting one finds in office buildings and to some extent on our living-room ceiling. (My husband is very fond of this light and thinks it's sun-like, whereas I find it sickening. Light must be a personal thing to some extent.) I posted this TED talk awhile ago about uniform lighting in offices. We're not wired, so to speak, to handle it. We need shadows in the sea of light, and office design should take that into account.

Also there's a street light outside our bedroom window that nothing short of blackout curtains can snuff out. I suppose I could wear one of those masks that you used to see on neurasthenic starlets in the 50s, except that is a recipe for getting my face clawed by a cat in the middle of the night. On a larger scale, light pollution is a huge problem for astronomers, nocturnal animals, crime fighting (really bright lights create darker shadows that are easier to hide in), and, I would argue, life in general. The International Dark Sky Association is doing something about that--and homeowners can, too.

Now, if I can just get through the next four months of standard time...

Friday, November 04, 2011

Peter Cook

For some reason, for the past few weeks I've been oddly obsessed with the late British comedian Peter Cook. Maybe it has something to do with the holidays, which make me think of my parents, which brings to mind their senses of humor, which derived in part from their record of Beyond the Fringe, which we listened to often when I was little. ("Then, unavoidably, came peace.")

Anyhow, watching Cook in Not Only...But Also recently, I was struck by his presence--the combination of his rather delicate features with a total, fearless comic spirit. This is not to say he was an over-the-top performer. On the contrary, there's a quietness about him that you don't see much in contemporary comedy. I think Stephen Fry put it well in his statement about Cook a few days after his death in 1995: "He had funniness in the same way that beautiful people have beauty."

Here is that commentary by Fry, who was objecting to the media's laments about Cook's "unrealized potential" and "flawed" personal life. It includes some useful thoughts on the meanings of ambition and success.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

What you need to start writing a novel: a voice

Just in time for NaNoWriMo, Nathan Bransford offers this very helpful post on how to start writing a novel. Yes, I know: just start. Today of all days, just start. That's probably the best advice of all. But Bransford points out the two elements you need in order for the novel to take shape: voice and plot.

In particular, I can't overemphasize the importance of finding the voice--which, as Bransford says, is the novel's sensibility. (Be sure to read his post on the elements of a successful voice.) Here's my two bitcoins on the matter: Voice is close to tone and is reflected in tone, but it's more the stance toward the story. The stance is personified as some form of narrator or narrative presence, and is evident in the narrator's word choice, pace, tone--the whole stylistic kit and kaboodle. Now, you may not think there's an actual narrator in your novel, at least not akin to Thackeray's or even Austen's convivial, sardonic "I." But it's worth deciding there is always a narrator, even if he or she stays far behind the scenes, pretending she doesn't actually exist. Thinking this way allows you to distance yourself at least a tiny bit from the voice that is telling your story, which then allows you to make conscious decisions about what the narrator--again, not necessarily you--thinks and feels about what's going on. In fact, it's been my experience that a certain productive tension can result when I decide that the narrator of a particular story is going to feel somewhat different about its events than I, personally, would feel. This curtails the temptation to turn the story into a self-pity wallow or a soapbox, and it allows for unexpected experiences of empathy--which are the best kind.

Plot, for me, is even tougher to tease out--but I think that, too, has a relationship to voice. What your narrator chooses to tell, how she chooses to tell it, and why she tells it all are all aspects of plot. You have a sensibility that's picking and choosing, so understanding that sensibility is key to making those choices.

Of course, like everything else in novel writing, your voice for the novel will probably not spring fully formed from your head. It will come out in the writing itself. It may gradually assert itself more and more as the draft moves forward, or it may pop out in odd little asides, where you least expect it. The point is to realize you need it, and to keep an eye and ear out for it, as you work through your early drafts.