Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tuesday Night Dance Party: Gratitude, not Raditude

I am drunk enough to tell you that this is one you should listen to, if you think it would be fun, which it might be. Tracy and I talk about reasons we are brimming with gratitude: a good workshop, a sweet e-mail, and donuts.

But we forgot to mention we were grateful for the traffic the blog has gotten this week. Thanks for spreading the word, guys! Keep it up.

The Orange Eats Creeps

My Youtube search of Orange Eats Creeps returns 28 results (many seem to share a rather odd description having nothing to do with their content, fortunately for my purpose); I have chosen five-- one rather obvious, and four representative perhaps only in tenor.

Safeway at sunrise: we storm through the doors; totally wasted we run for the back, behind the scenes. We barricade the door so Josh can menace the bag boy. What would happen if you harnessed the sexual energy of hobo junkie teens? The world would explode and settle on the surface of another planet in a brown paste, is what. Cockroaches would lick it up and a new wave of narcissistic gypsy-slut shitheads would hatch out of tiny pores on their backs.


I could smell an animal presence rendered as plain as an image in front of my face, a black sheet hanging in a smell like wet bear fur. I trudged on even though I froze inside and it was just as suddenly gone. I guess I had moved through it. Walking; walking all night on the roadkill tour of Oregon. Flattened hawks every few miles on the freeway. How do you run over a bird of prey? The more I walked the more it seemed that some of the carcasses could not be identified as any particular animal. Just pulpy bundles of feathers.

At our camp on the edge of a Portland rail yard a pile of shredded sleeping bags sizzled on top of an extinguished campfire. I could hear a bunch of hippies screaming in the distance under a winter sky that was almost brown. Out here it was turning into late morning. Tight ropes of frozen drool hemmed us inside the camp. Icy fields surrounded us, hanging silently at our feet. I looked down and saw marks made in the mud where a naked old stoner covered in blood was dragged sleeping along a trail. There they were cavorting like so many octopi in the midst of this pungent morass, the men here obscure its waters with their tentacles. Only one of them, a big redhead, dared to plant himself naked in front of me, laughing in my face. His huge balls bounced up and down as he laughed. The sight of the red he-devil disgusted me.

I had the uncomfortable realization that he could hear everything I was thinking-- then I realized that my hands were just giving it away. He never spoke. Rather, he seemed to spit words out in a reverse chewing process I soon came to know well. I felt confined in close quarters with a massive, quietly stewing animal who had been chained within yearning distance from the door its whole life. The soles of his shoes ground into the floor of his hovel; it was paved with salvaged pine pallets. He looked like he wanted to build a fire with my bones, to stack them like lattice in a pit especially dug for the occasion. My bones would be made out of wood, you see. He'd thought of everything, including what he was going to do with the rest of my body-- probably stuff it, reconstituting the form. Adding a little more here and a little less there.

The official book trailer:

Grace Krilanovich is blogging about the book (first up, interview with Murph, one of the Slutty Teenage Hobo Vampire Junkies) at the Two Dollar Radio blog. Once you're done pre-ordering the book ($10--six dollars off), you should follow. Did I mention this book is great and you will thank me in the end?

Monday, August 30, 2010


I am on a novella frenzy and have decided to take a break for some blogging. Here we go:

In the Twinkling of an Eye (A Memory)

For a long time I delivered pizza. I recently wrote a novella about the experience, which I will desperately ship out to some contests, and I have written other things about the experience, and will probably in the future write some other things. I write all these things because the time I spent placing pepperonis and chopping peppers and driving a failing manual transmission vehicle at high rates of speed through residential zones was consistently wonderful.

Our store had a regular lunch customer. He was notoriously cheap, and would order a soda for himself and a water for his wife and then swallow her water and pour half his soda into her foggy cup and ask for refills. Once, when he dined alone and I was filling in as a waiter, he pinched his fingers together and asked about the fee for "just this much" soda. I poured all his sodas for free, of course, and worked in his senior discount on top of the savings.

Later in life a friend and I ran into him in Target, in another city. Oh, he said. He was happy to see us. We went through a few aisles of consumer electronics. He'd point to something on a shelf and then to something on his body and ask which we thought was more valuable. An example: he pointed to something like an alarm clock or an ornate lamp (the memory is too distant for clarity) and then pointed to a ring on his finger. We of course told him the ring was more valuable. He was our hometown's only jeweler.

And he laughed. In the twinkling of an eye, he said, I'd choose the ring too. But I might be surprised.

Tequila and Tacos (Some Advice for Dining Out or Getting Some Drinks)

Not long after my fiancee and I moved into our current apartment a taco bar opened not even one block away. The news was incredible but frightening, as we live in a lone hovel crouching among condos, but then the menu appeared online and the prices were good, great. The owner has stated in print that he or she (I can't remember which) hopes to have some success in our neighborhood, which has eaten all other restaurants and bars, by selling at prices accommodating to people who work in movie theaters and in other restaurants and bars.

There is a patio, and it is popular, and we have more than once been seated next to raucous clumps of people intent on chasing each drink with a story of someone else's sexual mortification or at least with another drink, and although Sarah and I have soured a little at these times, they have occasionally led to some amazing service. I like to think, when this happens, that our server has been more attentive to our empty glasses because he or she appreciates our civility. Maybe I just like to think it explains other times when we've grimaced alone in the dark, waiting and waiting for refills as the neighborhood's noises creep in on us.

Bring Me the Review of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (some reviews)

These reviews will be quick.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

I don't remember how this movie came to my attention, but it did. It's directed by Sam Peckinpah, and you can read about it here. It is from 1974 and, like a lot of older movies, features actors whose ages and appearances are shocking by today's standards. There is a million-dollar bounty and an alcoholic piano player who tries to collect the thinnest portion of that bounty and there is a prostitute. Somebody pours tequila on his crotch in an attempt to kill (I think) crabs. There are a few awkwardly prolonged stretches of nudity, but maybe the awkwardness is the point. The film is dark and sour at times and if nothing else it will convey to you elements that probably inspired a lot of more recent films. And Ebert loved it.


I wrote about this book just the other day and now I have finished it. It is pretty great but its greatest parts are its first half and its last quarter. The third quarter is also good but it does some things that feel a little desperate, like the writer wasn't sure exactly what was up next for the character. (This is a problem I regularly have.) But remember what I said about the last quarter. The narrative comes around.

The writing is good and the character is good if a little depressing and if this isn't the best overall novel I've read in the past several months it is the one that drew me back to it most regularly and the most plaintively. It's absolutely recommended, and I can't figure out why Amazon is selling it in hardback for $2.44.

Extra Lives

A lot has been written about this book, Tom Bissell's analysis of several of the best of the present's video games and of video game culture in general, but I'll say this: I'm enjoying it. I was almost turned off by a reviewer who wrote that Bissell is basically writing for a sympathetic audience, oozing fanboyish over quality games and dumping criticism on weaker titles, but I decided that's okay, that writing for a specific audience, probably already on your side, is okay. My feeling through the reading hasn't been so much ah ha as ah, yes, which is to say that I haven't learned a lot about modern video game culture but that I have learned a lot about how I feel about it. Bissell is good at drawing out and articulating feelings that, for most of us, swirl dormant and unnoticed in our chests.

The Lifted Brow 7

I just got my copy of The Lifted Brow 7, all the way from Australia. I've got a longer story in there, and there is also work by stand-up people like Brian Evenson, Uncanny Valley contributor Blake Butler, and lots of other cool stuff (complete list of contributors below the cut). The last issue sold out and this one is well on its way, as I understand it, so you might want to check it out. The US price may seem a little steep until you see A) how great it is and B) how much it costs to ship out here (about thirteen bucks). The Brow is easily one of the best mags out there right now and one Tracy and I are thinking about a lot in our own editing.

Birkensnake 3

Just noticed there's a new Birkensnake available for purchase and free online, which is good news for people who like things that are great.

Why I won't be buying the new Metroid game

I don't remember when I first learned Samus Aran was a woman, or, as I would have said then, a girl. It might have been when I first played Metroid. We bought it new, so I would have read the instruction manual, but the Internet tells me the US manual called her a man. Later I would somehow lay hands on a comic book, read and reread to the point of ruin, collecting stories of Zelda, Mario, Captain N, and yes, Samus, which somewhat emphasized her femininity (she was often without her helmet, giving us a lot of time to think about her long, blonde hair, and how her lips would feel on ours). I certainly have memories of running through the rooms, arm-cannon blazing, thinking of the player character as a "he," but I had stronger connections to the characters then. I also probably imagined the one beneath the suit was, like Mega Man, actually more or less a child.

I also had a thick book of codes, tricks, and secrets, which I kept a long time. I wish I still had it. In the NES days before the Internet, and in my family's case the days after the Internet had spread but before it found us, information about games was arcane, valuable, even powerful. Doing just about anything correctly in The Goonies II was like magic, in part because the game was (like many NES games) so obscure and illogical. Surviving in Robocop seemed, at the time, every bit as difficult and complicated as adult life, as holding down a job, as earning a wage. This book was obsessively read and reread, including (especially including) the pages on games I would never own, memorized to the point where I might believe I had played and beaten games I never owned.

I think it was from this book that I learned about the "Justin Bailey" code. The game rewarded players for speed by showing Samus in various states of undress. If you were slow in beating it (as most undoubtedly were, given the game's difficulty and complexity) Samus would retain her entire suit in the ending. She might also remove her helmet, however, or strip down to a leotard, or a sort of bikini thing. You could then replay the game with Samus in her new state of undress. "Justin Bailey" got you the bikini. There are a number of theories to explain the code's existence, with the most persuasive one being that it's just a fluke -- the letters in the code happen to correspond to certain conditions, including the bikini. (I imagine some kid entering his name just to see what would happen, freaking out, telling everyone at school.)

The fact that you reveal Samus' femininity by undressing her, by literally removing the armor that makes her mission possible, and that this is a reward for skillful play, creates a tension that continues throughout the series: will Nintendo make her a sex object, or will they allow her to continue as the super-professional bounty hunter super astronaut I came to admire and identify with so much as a kid? They have continued to reward players by removing her armor (though never again by letting you play as her without it) and I've continued, thankfully, to play too slowly to ever see it happen. The narrative of the average Metroid game is, as the player experiences it, a narrative of one lonely woman methodically exploring a terrifying place. The sense of isolation and alienation captured by the original NES game was, for the time, pretty incredible. Super Metroid is generally seen as perfecting that experience, though honestly the austerity and blankness of the original game's graphics have always been a little more compelling to me.

Samus Aran is heroic for her unflappable professionalism. As a kid you might literally spend years with her exploring Zebes -- if you had a friend or a parent to play with (I played the game with my dad, leaching his passwords) you might even eventually figure it out, possibly with the help of maps drawn on graph paper. Otherwise you might never win. The individual instances of play are, in memory, continuous, running parallel to your real life, another life you lived. You and Samus were alone for all that time, shooting strange creatures, boiling in lava or acid, fleeing insects, grinding for health and missile packets, searching for upgrades. You felt the loneliness, and the cold. And yet Samus was strong. She was calm. She never cried out for help. She could handle anything. And so, in Metroid, could you -- if not this time, then the next.

In fact the ability to run around Zebes in a bikini after you conquered it felt, in a way, a satisfying development of the character, not as a sex toy but as a woman: imagine the Justin Bailey bikini as a way of making a victory lap, exposing one's skin to Zebes, one's flesh to the aliens, as if to say, "You are mine now. You are mapped, explored, defeated." Imagine the liberation of taking off that spacesuit and breathing the strange air.

The Metroid Prime games, which re-imagined the series as a first-person shooter, understood why it felt so good to be Samus Aran. They took pains to make you feel as if you were inside the armor. In the third Prime in particular, the visor through which you see the game world is a physical object, which steams up, drips with condensation, fogs, etc. Sometimes the light hits the visor in such a way that you can see your own face reflected in it -- that is, Samus' eyes. It's a reminder that you are Samus. Which begs the question of who Samus is. And, as in all video games, the answer is that Samus is the sort of person who would do the things you do.

Which is to say that she's you -- but also, you are her. You are the kind of girl who goes down to a planet you've never seen before and starts exploring without pausing for a moment. You are the kind of girl who seems to live in a spaceship shaped like her own helmet. You are the kind of girl who, when presented with an extremely horrifying alien, shoots it in the face, and doesn't stop until it falls down. You are the kind of girl who will walk through molten lava, underwater, or through an evil parallel dimension. You are the kind of girl who, when she sees an evil replica of herself, starts shooting. You are the kind of girl that alien tentacle beasts want to eat -- and the kind who, when presented with the gaping maw of said tentacle beast, doesn't seem to mind at all. You are the kind of girl who does everything alone. Very alone. You are not generally the kind of girl who talks much.

Unless, of course, you're playing Metroid: Other M, the newest release, in which case you are apparently the kind of girl who spends a lot of time worrying about what some stupid space marine guys think of you. You also talk a lot about "the baby," the little metroid dude who saved your life from Mother Brain a few games back. You don't undress too often, and when you do it's only down to your relatively tasteful skin-tight space suit, but you do have a lot of emotional fragility and need for approval. You are not, in other words, awesome.

It's not that lady video game heroes can't have internal lives or vulnerabilities or etc., it's the complete tastelessness of making a game that promises to fill you in on who Samus is (not that I really wanted to know; I already knew who she was, she was the girl who conquered Zebes) and then reveals that, basically, she's a chick you want to nail. She's mommy material (apparently she talks about "the baby" a lot) and she really, really needs you to like her. Screw that! I was willing to ignore years of "if you play fast enough you'll get to look at her boobs, sort of," but I refuse to let them do this to the character I grew up loving precisely because she didn't need my love -- because she was capable of singlehandedly exploring a hostile alien environment that not only wanted her dead, but looked really scary.

The worst part? The cutscenes are unskippable. A Metroid game with unskippable cutscenes is like a fish glued to a bicycle seat.

Or really, the truly worst part? Nintendo should have seen this coming. With Team Ninja's history, it's a miracle they didn't build tits into the space suit. It's a miracle there wasn't a whole new jiggle physics system. We're lucky Samus is still the main character, rather than a half-naked lady being saved by her new best friend/object of desire, Seamus. What I'm saying is that Team Ninja's reputation for skillful dramatic depiction of women is two hundred percent worse than their reputation for skillful dramatic depictions of anything else, which is to say, infinitely terrible.

So, yeah, I'm not going to play this game. I'm going to wait until they make a proper Metroid with a proper focus on exploration in a bleak, weird environment and absolutely no implications that Samus is, at heart, a lovesick tween. The thing that drives me crazy about this is, I guess, the feeling that Team Ninja and Nintendo probably think they're doing us a great service by confirming that yes, actually, Samus is a woman, she is feminine, etc. But I already knew that. And apparently I knew a lot of other stuff about her they haven't quite figured out yet.

Friday, August 27, 2010


I haven’t finished reading it yet so don’t want to say too much, but I’m excited excited (two exciteds!) about Patrick DeWitt’s Ablutions. Yes, I know: I’m sort of late to this one. I am usually late to the good ones.

This is a quick book made of vivid characters and careful, tight, lively writing (Dennis Cooper is right to blurb it as “charismatic”). Last night I kept wanting to stop making dinner and then stop trying to sleep to read some more. The book is written as a barback's notes to himself for a novel he'll write about the bar, but this stylistic conceit only flavors the narrative and doesn't overpower it.

Anyway, consider this a recommendation. The book is for sale on Amazon for a WTF-eliciting $2.44.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


The print TriQuarterly is dead. Long live TriQuarterly!

Update: Link should be working now.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

"The Things They Carried" and "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong"

Yesterday my intro to CW class met for the second time. We talked about Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" And "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong."

I think class went well! In some ways O'Brien was my attempt to give them a sense of traditional literary values, structures and priorities, but reading the stories closely in preparation for teaching revealed pretty quickly how non-traditional both stories really are. "The Things They Carried" is one of the most-read short stories in today's English classrooms, and it's a great example of a lot of the best advice commonly given in early workshops -- the importance of specificity, the pleasures of learning about an unfamiliar profession and its terminology, the power of objects, the importance of showing rather than telling (in this instance mostly through said objects), and so on -- but there are massive differences between it and what some call "the workshop story."

First and foremost, the structure is weird. I drew the classic diagram of narrative for them (exposition, rising action, climax, denouement) and asked them how this story looked in comparison. One student suggested a straight line, which was also my first thought. It just kind of goes until it stops, pursuing one line of logic all the way through, with the inherent drama of the situation flattened by the form, the subdued affect of the story, the cyclical relation of plot events, and the oppressive nature of the list. There are, however, some fluctuations of mood and intensity, which led one student to (very smartly) suggest the shape of an oscillating wave -- suggesting a story that ends much as it begins, but with movements up and down as it progresses. Another student suggested a circle, in that the events of the story feel cyclical. I suggested also a spiral, because while I agree that the story is cyclical I feel as if we are gradually closing in on something essential and central -- though at the end of the story it's hard to say just what that's been. Of course a list is also a kind of shape, and there is the rapid slope of the feeling of weight (we might envision this slope as falling or rising, as diminishing or addition).

Shapes also came up in the way the arcs of story often seems to cross each other. Lt. Cross decides the girl back home never loved him just as the reader may come to conclude the opposite.

We of course talked about the work the objects do in the story. I promised them that putting objects in their stories would improve them tremendously -- some of them wrote this down. Objects are great because they can be acted upon and through in revealing ways, but also because they tell you a lot about their owners by their presence in the story. Rat Kiley's M&Ms tell us more about him than anything the narrator could ever say, and more persuasively. We also talked about the detail of the pebble -- how perfect it is, how embarrassing, how it makes us feel so much so quickly, up to and including the feeling of the rock between our teeth, against the insides of our lips, against our tongues.

"Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" got a little less time but we got a lot done quickly. We quickly identified many genres at play in the story: it's a war story, a romance, an anti-romance, a comedy, a tragedy, a ghost story, horror, a dream or a nightmare, a shaggy dog story, a meta-story, and probably some other stuff as well. And yet it all comes together so nicely -- somewhat surprisingly, the students almost unanimously liked this one way better than the other. We talked about all the traditional explanations for why the story works in spite of all these seemingly-contradictory elements, including the meta-elements of the nested narrators and the use of these narrators to anticipate objections, manage expectations, etc., but in the end it came down to something a student said: the story reminded him of a Tarantino movie.

This comparison would probably strike most people as ludicrous or even offensive but it made perfect sense to me. The joy of Tarantino's best movies is his reckless mixing of genres and even discrete scenes, moments, and images that don't go together properly at all. We talked about how Inglorious Basterds doesn't at any point make any sense, and yet you can feel that there is a thoughtful, hard-working person behind the scenes, managing all these crazy parts so that they fit into a satisfying whole. And, ultimately, Tarantino gets away with his genre-mixing because he's a great writer and director: the endless conversations riffing on songs, foot rubs, Superman, and etc. don't need to be "managed" or somehow apologized for by a set of nested narrators. We love them because they're awesome. This led me to perhaps the best piece of advice I can give students, and the worst: "The way to be a great writer is to be a great writer." Which is, yes, tautological, but the point is that while instructors will do their best to give you strategies that lead more or less consistently to more or less successful stories, ultimately you have to take responsibility for writing awesome words, and this usually means some amount of forgetting what you've been told. If you write a really great ghost-horror-comedy-romance-war story, nobody will worry too much that it doesn't strictly "make sense." They'll be too busy enjoying themselves to care. Call it the Tarantino theory of writing.

Of course we talked about a lot of other things that were really interesting and exciting and useful, but this is the stuff I feel I can easiest explain here and now, on the blog. I welcome your thoughts, arguments, suggestions, and etc. on the stories and how best to teach them, and whatever. Tomorrow, we meet again, and I do my best to explain Sharon Olds.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

No Rankings for You

At first blush, this article from AWP in regards to program rankings seems smart to me, and it does do a good job of trying to address the problems in determining such rankings. I'm honestly skeptical that there are any valid methods available to do very good rankings of MFA programs, so I appreciate that they highlight the bad methods used by others and that they try to provide a framework for making that decision in place of rankings. But I am upset by what seems to be the underlying message of the page--not only the "Haha, you clicked here for rankings? Well we don't do rankings here" misdirect, but the notion that everyone's MFA decision should be based solely on a private determination of "literary affinities," which is, to me, a ludicrous one.

This young writer receives one-on-
one attention in her professor's
breakfast nook.
I think it's impossible to do a good job of determining such affinities when you are searching for an MFA program--first because your literary affinities are almost certainly still unformed. To me it's a gigantic part of the MFA--taking the next step to define yourself next to your teachers, and your colleagues, and other authors. I don't think I'd have been better off if I'd went out and found Jhumpa Lahiri or Helen DeWitt or Edward Jones to directly teach me (all of whom I either know aren't teaching or couldn't pin to an institution through a basic search--the kind people researching MFA programs would perform) rather than just reading them under instructors who knew what they admired in those authors and could speak about it well. Not to mention if your favorite authors aren't represented or are university hopping or are dead--what then? You can't bank on authors you like sticking around. It seems short-sighted to me to encourage young writers to narrow themselves to particular writers when there's very little guarantee they'll get to work with those writers closely. Especially since they probably wouldn't be getting an MFA if they felt that their writing was absolutely formed and influenced, that all that's needed is a quick lookover by a pro.

What's more, AWP forgets that most MFA seekers do not have the benefit of a complete list of programs, an AWP membership, or a solid source of MFA program knowledge. You'd think the Internet would help, but university websites are notoriously bad about having accurate and up-to-date information, particularly about their teachers. AWP gives an example you couldn't possibly research:
If you plan to write a historical novel related to the snubbing of women's careers in science and medicine, for instance, you should probably choose a program where a strong practitioner of the historical novel is in residence along with those writers who are experts in feminist narratives and criticism.
A professional writer
makes a chart.
What program is this? Does AWP know? I can't Google "historical novel feminist narratives criticism MFA program." (Though you can try.) One, feminist narratives and criticism are a strong suit of many English departments and likely not many MFA programs. And it is a good idea to look at what the rest of the English department has to offer. You can get your support elsewhere than writers of fiction and poetry, but that doesn't seem to be what they're indicating here. This writer-centered approach is doomed to failure, especially if you need someone who's an expert on all these things. You can find a program that's especially receptive to the historical novel--though again, this is information generally unfindable on the Internet. You may not find a professor who's written six historical novels, but I guarantee there's programs that have graduated students whose MFA theses were historical novels, or who have gone on to write historical novels. These represent affinities between a writer and a program, too, but very rarely do departments update their websites enough to reflect this kind of information. You're lucky to get one that makes its application procedures clear, let alone one that has an up-to-date list of faculty (come on NMSU).

Robert Frost does not know what to say to these
young enthusiasts.
I'm even less sure that the right teacher for an MFA student is his or her favorite writer. In part this is because I believe that an MFA student needs to learn from a broad range of aesthetics and professional influences, but it's also because no one, ever, is very good at teaching people to write like themselves. Why should they be? If they can tell you how to do things just like themselves, and if they're full enough of themselves to pretend that they know exactly how they got at their best work and can teach you to replicate it, then they should just write a book on that and make a bank. At that point it's not even teaching--it's molding, meaning the purpose of an MFA is to churn out a hundred Robert Frosts. And Robert Frost is getting on in years, and Robert Frost is hard of hearing, and after talking to him, Robert Frost's priorities probably aren't what you thought they were.

The AWP advice seems to me self-serving at best. MFA programs shouldn't be zoos that you tour, looking for which one houses the writers you like the best. While it is important to seek out a program that honors your writing, not heading to a strictly traditionalist program when you want to do experimental writing (though, oddly, programs with a focus on experimental writing seem to help traditional writers just fine), AWP aims to make the decision all about established writers and not forming writers, ignoring the fact that the best teachers are not always the best writers. The best teachers can get beyond their own work and their own "affinities" enough to have something to teach anyone. AWP asks, "Whose advice do you think would be most useful to you in helping you shape your first book?" Well, sometimes I feel like I really identify with Aimee Bender's writing, says the young writer. Sometimes I wish I could write sentences like William Trevor. And then I really think that Alice Munro is the greatest living writer. Whose advice do you seek? Probably you won't get to study with any of these people, and even if you did, is it fair to ask William Trevor to William Trevor-ize your book? I'd much rather have the advice of someone who gave good advice--not someone who just wrote a good book. What's more, any established writer will emphasize that they are not simply giving themselves good advice all day--they go to other people too, to help them change or grow or get outside themselves. As if their style, their books aren't hard for them. As if established writers never struggle to make choices, as if they have all the answers they need.

Participants in the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference 
collaborate on their writing lakeside.

The big truth of MFA programs that I feel gets ignored is that you are not really there for the teachers at all. Yes, it's important to study with other writers--but the other writers you get the best opportunity to study with and learn from are your fellow students. I think you learn the most from the people who are at the same stage as you, who have goals they haven't reached like you do--goals that likely lead in any number of directions. It's amazing to find out who you're writing with and to help them do what they want to do. In being "young" and changeable and eager together, you can influence and shape each other. Everyone is still in a position of figuring themselves out, which means they are learning millions of new things all the time--things they can then share with you. I have learned far more from my fiction and poetry colleagues than from my teachers, and I hope that doesn't surprise or offend. Because teachers, particularly at the grad level, are tasked not with dispensing knowledge, but with promoting good discussions and creating a good environment for learning from one another.

In few other fields is teaching imagined to be about the teachers. It's always about the students, but the degree to which any given program espouses this attitude is something a prospective MFA student can very rarely judge. Better to make the decision based on practicalities and the best information you can find. Better to find a program that meets your needs--financial, aesthetic, location, or career-wise--and then to be open to the teachers you find and the students you have the opportunity to learn from, and learn with.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Pleasures of Reading, pt. 3

Here's a sheet Tracy and I have worked on together for our students listing some pleasures and elements of reading and writing. This version is meant for my class, which means it has to do its best to account for prose and poetry alike. Tracy's version will be altered to focus more on prose. The idea isn't to make the list exhaustive so much as to name a wide and provocative variety of things writers might want to focus on. Hopefully we'll add to the list with our students all semester long.

Click to see the full-sized version. Let me know if you'd like an MS Word or PDF version.
What'd we miss?

Novellas, Notes, and Story #13: Restless Legs

A while ago I wrote about novellas. Novellas! I said. I think I'll write one. Then I wrote one, or at least the draft of one. This is my cat standing on the notes:

They're pretty neat, right? Orderly, I mean. I took a picture of these notes because this weekend I found an old notebook with notes from another project, that looked like this:

Much sloppier! And that's not even as sloppy as things got. For a while when I had that notebook I was also writing on poster paper taped to my bedroom wall. I was big on trying to see entire structures before I even started the first real sentence. I've since chilled out a little bit. I'm enjoying random discovery again. But it makes for intensive edits.

What do you think? How do you prepare your work before you write it? And when you read do you ever think, man, this writer should have sketched some stuff out on a bar napkin before going to the keyboard?

Here's an older story from the Story Every Day Project. It's called "Restless Legs."

"Fuck you," his legs said. "We're restless and we're not going to hang around here anymore."

"But you're my legs," he said.

"Not for long," one of the legs said. The other was busy with a chainsaw.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Writing on the USA

Lot of effort for such a crap writer.


There's a new issue of Fact-Simile out, which can be read for free in PDF form here. A pretty good interview with Brian Evenson, as well as a story by him, and of course lots more stuff from others.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Rachel B. Glaser - Pee on Water

Right now I'm broke (you have to teach at NMSU for a full month before they get around to paying you, even if you've been doing it for years) but if you can afford it I strongly recommend Rachel B. Glaser's Pee on Water, out from Publishing Genius. I've read several of the stories in the book (you can too!) and her work is just always really interesting, weird, beautiful, funny, sad, etc. Can't recommend it highly enough.

Here's an excerpt from the titular story:
Though alien to the world’s ancient past, young blood runs similar circles.  All those bones are born from four grandparents.  Baby teeth and baby teeth all down the line.  Jackets didn’t used to zip up.  There wasn’t a single door.  The ground sits around us dumb and keeping secrets. 
Earth is round and open, whole and beating in its early years.  Middle of the night, the stars in a bright smear against the blackboard.  Sit in the centuries-long lull.  A breath pulled so gradual the breath forgets.  Clouds idly shift their shapes.  Winds run back and forth.  Our planet in the slowest pink floyd intro.  Stubborn ice blocks will not be niced down by the fat sun.  Melted tears run, then freeze.  Tiny cells slide into tiny cells.  The wind learns to whistle. The sun starts setting in a colorful display.  Ice melts into oceans, lakes and ponds.  Plants have their first batch of leaves.  Guppies shiver in the lake.  Shiver, have babies, babies shiver.  Crawlers.  Diggers.  Stingers.  The plants get bit and chewed.  Leaves grow more intricate.  Beings start dragging with them, little lives.  Moments where they crawl on sand.  Moments where they look behind them.  They eat plants.  They eat stomachs.  Lick bones.  They pee on grass.  Pee on dirt.  Pee on snow.  Their skin is cut by teeth, by claws.  Water fills their lungs.  Blood falls out of place; cries itself in a blind pool.  Blood dries on leaves.  Blood browns on fur.  Creatures big as mountains stomp on top of mountains.  Then new ones.  New ones.  Feathers, spikes, hooves.  Clouds crawl smugly.  The air smells cool.  Atoms bump and lump without letters and numbers.  Monkeys play with sticks.  Monkeys eat ants.  Birds have sex.  Bears have sex.  The sun gets better at setting.  The monkeys walk upright, slouched, lips pursed, smiling, not smiling.  They get sexy about each other’s butts.  The monkeys fuck from behind.  They sleep in leaves, in mud, in trees.  They protect their babies and teach them.  The sun glares in their eyes, making spots.  Ants amble on, self-consciously changing direction.  Monkeys pee on leaves, on dirt.  Rain makes them flinch, makes them happy.  The monkeys make faces.  The monkeys get smart.  Two monkeys look at each other with knowing eyes.  The trees sway.  The birds chat.  The knowing eyes are locked in a gaze.  They look away.  They look back.  They have sophisticated children.  The monkeys grow and learn, get mad, throw stones.  New monkeys make faces and new sounds.  They need less and less protective hair.  They have babies.  Those new monkeys have babies.  They fight, throw punches, show teeth and bite.  The new monkeys think each other are sexy.  Raise their babies away from other monkeys.  New knowing eyes.  Laughing, teasing.  The new monkeys have vaginas more between their legs, less easy to snag on branches.  Males try sex with females from the front.  Boobs get bigger to remind males what butts felt like. 

Friday, August 20, 2010

"The Short Story"

This essay is alternately interesting, infuriating, hilarious, and idiotic. Fundamentally it's difficult to take a writer seriously who aims to survey the entirety of modern American fiction through the goddamn BASS anthology, but I dunno, what do you think?

The room I'm teaching in

It's something like fifteen minutes walking from the English department offices. You have to walk with a crowd of students across Espina street. The stop sign situation there can be frustrating for everyone, as half the world is trying to drive through the crosswalk and the other half -- the half with right of way -- is trying to walk across it. The walkers generally win, but the cars get fed up ("WE'RE CARS!") and drive all the way out into the middle of things to claim the space the second there's a gap, sometimes too fast.

My building is across the way from another building where, as best I can tell, they keep cows. (NMSU was an agricultural college first, after all.) You can smell them pretty clearly. Thankfully the smell doesn't follow you inside. The halls of the building look bad but the rooms themselves are fine, if a bit spacious for a CW class and entirely inappropriate in their arrangement. The students are arranged in spacious rows, facing front, and the instructor is afforded a ludicrously large empty space in which to stalk in front of the class like a puma, but not a desk. (I need to move one of the tables over to serve as a desk, or possibly make my entire class of 20ish students form a circle of chairs at the front of the room, so we can actually talk. Crowds scare me [really, they do] and if I'm standing up in front of a class I feel like I have to talk a lot and be funny, which sometimes works out well and sometimes seems a waste of everyone's time.)

The best part, though, is that this massive room -- my class fills maybe half of it with plenty of air to breathe and move -- is lined with the severed, mounted heads of various large animals, elk, eagles, fish, and so on. I'm not sure if they're real, but there are dozens, and they all stare -- many gape-mouthed -- in a sort of mute judgment on the center of the room, i.e., the students.

Actually in some ways I like the place a lot. I do wish I didn't have to get in so early to make the walk, though. I'll have to take pictures.

Brian Conn - "The Fixed Stars"

A Google search for "Brian Conn The Fixed Stars" doesn't take you far. There's an interview at 21C. There's a review by Benjamin Gottlieb. Another interview at Flatmancrooked. You would hardly know it's probably one of the best, most interesting, exciting novels published this year. FC2's endorsement means a lot to me, but I was still surprised by how strange and beautiful it was as reading. I've got a review coming in Puerto del Sol, and I don't want to cannibalize that too much, but here's the short version:

The Fixed Stars takes place after the end of the world. The causes are not clear, though you can feel them always pressing. Much of it takes place in a community at the brink, threatened by plague and scarcity. The people are alien, their culture is strange -- at times they seem admirable in their love, their selflessness, their generosity. At times they are opaque. Negotiating with them, imagining them, feels good. And there are many other stories -- romances, terrors, monsters, weird scientists, etc. The tone vacillates and slithers. It is rich, complex, at times difficult to read, at times compulsively readable. It is, like the magazine Conn co-edits, a brilliant example of the power that lies in taking science fiction seriously as a way of making art. You should buy it and read it.

I have to admit I've been puzzled by the apparent lack of buzz about this book. I've talked to people who loved it and I've read as much in scattered comment threads, etc. Brian Evenson has done his best to talk it up on his site and when I saw him at AWP, and in interviews, and presumably elsewhere. I don't know if it just hasn't found the right hands or what. Maybe it's selling like hotcakes and it just hasn't inspired a lot of coverage. I've got no idea. But one of the reasons I want Uncanny Valley to become something big is writers like Conn -- the ones that don't obviously fit a niche even in the weird little ecosystem of indie lit, but whose writing is so compelling that I believe they could be huge, if only they were given the chance. FC2 has given Conn the chance. So why hasn't the 'net wised up yet? What do I have to do to get you to read this book?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

More Pedagogy

I have been a delinquent blogger due to finishing my novel-slash-thesis this week. I will work on planning some posts! But for now, here's a brief one.

I've been curious for a while as to why there's so little "official" material written about creative writing pedagogy and methods. AWP's pedagogy panel seems like one attempt to remedy this, but given that this is primarily student- rather than teacher-based and that so few papers are ultimately published, it seems like only a partial solution. It also seems like a lot of talking about teaching happens face-to-face, or in blog comment sections, and that a fair number of good thoughts just drop into the void.

I have come across one publication lately, Creative Writing: Teaching Theory and Practice, that looks to be addressing the lack. It's online, it looks to operate on about a yearly basis, and it is, I think, currently accepting submissions. What's really nice is that it looks like many of the contributors have taken it on themselves to be not only ambitious in their choice of topics, but really rigorous in their efforts to locate and build on previous scholarship. So, it's not exercise or class activity-based, which is what I want, and what I'd argue is the right direction for the discipline to be moving.

I haven't read anything there in full yet, but it seems like a good project to support. And it leads me to hope that my impression is wrong--that there is scholarly work being done on the subject and that I'm just looking in the wrong places, or not looking hard enough.

Does anyone know about other publications trying to fill the void? Publications that fill the void without necessarily trying to? Is there a void at all--is this just a misconception?

Tuesday Night Dance Party: Boat/Not Boat Edition

Tonight in Tuesday Night Dance Party, Tracy and I talk about first books and first boners.

(For those of you wondering what this is, think of it as a ghetto podcast built with YouTubes. Also think of it as Tracy's idea.)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

On the pleasures of reading, pt. 2

Before we discuss the advantages of discussing writing in terms of pleasures, it might help to describe my lesson plan for the first day of intro to CW. What I'm going to do is, I'm going to bring my laptop and speakers to class. I'll have these set up when everybody comes in. Maybe, if I'm in the right mood and the timing is right, I'll have something playing. More likely I won't. We'll do the usual stuff -- read through the syllabus, distribute our first stories, solicit questions, explain my approach, get to know the students -- and then I'll use the laptop. I'll listen to music with them. I've got a playlist ready, though I've been messing with it a lot, swapping songs out, and most of it won't probably be heard.

I should note that students at NMSU do not typically like my music. In my intro comp course I've always had one day a week where the first thing students did was sit in silence and write whatever they wanted while I played music for them. They tend to complain, and also to assume that all the stuff I listen to is really old (because, I guess, one of my fetishes is stuff that sounds like it comes from the '60s/'70s [BUT NOT THE '80s]). I've learned, though, how to accommodate their tastes. For the purposes of this exercise, I won't be doing that. Instead I'll focus on the extremes of my collection, the really weird stuff, the things I'm sure that half the class at least will loathe (and one or two will love).

I'll explain to them that I truly love every song I'm playing for them. I'll tell them how I've spent about ten years now broadening my tastes such that I can genuinely enjoy such disparate sounds. And then I'll ask them, if you did like this, why would you like it? Why would anyone?

From there, of course, it's hard to say precisely what will happen. One of the really great things about teaching is that the students will surprise you, that they will not do what you wanted them to do, and that you will (if you are alive to them, if you are listening) give them better learning for it. And you learn. Then it's not a lecture, it's a class. Anyway, the idea toward which I will generally steer things is this: that if you liked Titus Andronicus, it would be in part because they were angry and loud. And if you liked Stars, it would be in part because they were quiet and sometimes sad, sometimes happy. If you liked Sunset Rubdown, it would be in part for the complexity. If you liked The Tallest Man on Earth, it would be in part for the simplicity. If you liked Stars Like Fleas, it would be the nervous energy. If you liked Bon Iver, it would be for the calm. If you liked Shit and Shine, it would be for the harsh noise. If you liked Tim Hecker, it would be the sweet fuzz. And so on.

The hope being that they will quickly catch on and take over, telling me why a person would like this song or that one I play for them, if they did like it. I will write some words down. It should become clear very quickly that one can and should like opposites -- that we love each band or musician not for their perfect implementation of The Elements of Music (rhythm, melody, harmony, voice, timbre, whatever) but for their pursuit of their own sound, feeling, vice. And that you can afford, if you're not a musician, to focus on a narrow subset of music, a certain zone of feeling and noise. But if you were a musician, or if you considered yourself a true devotee of music, you would have to broaden your tastes and learn how to love so many things.

The lesson here is not objectivity but exuberance. It is the joy of learning and knowing things not yourself.

From here I plan to segue to a discussion of the pleasures of reading. I'll ask them, what are some things that feel good when we read? Someone might say "character." Someone else might say "beauty." Someone else might say "happy endings." Someone else might say "funny jokes." And so on. I'll write down the things they say on the board. I may categorize the pleasures they name. I may broaden or refine them. I'll suggest some of my favorites too. We may discuss examples. I will name opposites. We will spend as much of the class naming pleasures as we can.

There are a few goals here. One is to give my students permission to write what they want to write. Another is to prepare them to read, from our outside writers as well as our class, a wide range of material. Another is to help them begin to see the potential for more complicated pleasures than happy or sad stories. Another is to allow the students a sort of agenda-setting power: in naming the pleasures they know and love, they will prepare us for their own work. The next day I'll bring in a list of everything we talked about (with perhaps some additions), and this way we'll have a sort of shared vocabulary, and a reminder of the many ways to read, and love.

Another goal is buy-in. When you let students name and define things themselves, they better understand and retain what they've named.

But again, it comes back to exuberance, which is in many ways the main thing I want to teach in this class. I don't think the goal of an intro CW course should be teaching the right way of doing things. I don't even think it should be "craft." I think my job at the outset is to bring them to life to the spark of art, to help them see the beauty in minimalism and the beauty in excess. To make them more like musicians, who make a sound they like first and ask why later, and less like city planners. There are probably more and less successful strategies for writing. But there is also writing itself. The emphasis of writing programs should more often be, I think, on the latter.

More on this soon.

Monday, August 16, 2010

On the pleasures of reading, pt. 1

I wrote and "presented" a paper about this at the AWP pedagogy forum in Denver this year, but I'll give you the cleaner, sweeter, less academic version:

Basically, we are failing our students.

In teaching creative writing we tend to break down our chosen genre into a few basic elements. In fiction the canonical list goes something like this, and in this order: character, conflict, structure, setting, point of view, theme, and plot. Character refers to the people in the story and nothing else. Conflict refers to what they want and what's in their way. Structure can refer to several things, but typically we mean a three-part shape of rising and then falling action roughly corresponding to a beginning, middle, and end. (How much, when, and to what extent the action can rise and fall varies considerably according to who you ask.) Setting is where and when (but not how) the story takes place -- ideally a real location several years or decades (but probably not centuries) past. Point of view refers to the following options: close third past person tense, distant third person past tense, first person past tense, close third person present tense, or first person present tense, in that order of preference. Theme refers to the system of meaning and values that underlies the text, with a preference toward stories subtly structured to restrict readings toward certain ends considered productive. Plot is what happens.

Perhaps we also list "language," which refers to the selection of phrasing and words.

This list is reasonable and even useful in and of itself, but the attitudes that frequently attend its use are unhelpful. While we generally agree that different stories will emphasize different elements depending on their needs and the strengths of the writer, this list of elements is understood as being on some level a check list. A story either has "character," for instance, or it does not have "character," according to certain common but usually unspoken standards and definitions. Character is achieved by careful, tasteful use of heteroglossia within the narration; by careful, tasteful use of dialogue; by direct description of the character's thoughts and feelings; by indirect revelation through present and past action; and by direct revelation through narration ("Johnny was a real tough guy").

Likewise, setting would seem to imply the possibility of settings in time and space rather more diverse than "somewhere the author has lived or visited as it is commonly understood to have existed within the past hundred years" but generally this is understood as the only valid version of setting. Structure is understood largely in terms of 1) section breaks, 2) major events, and 3) perhaps most importantly, the arc of intensity (emotional, thematic, etc.) within the story. It almost never refers to the use and structure of language. Plot is often viewed derisively; the less said on "theme," the better.

Again, this list of elements is not necessarily unhelpful, but the restricting mindset that comes with it is deeply harmful. It limits student potential, alienates writers, oversimplifies the complex and interrelated decisions faced by writers, and leaves students needlessly under-informed about the possibilities of their work. The result is a more homogeneous, less interesting body of literature.

First, we should understand that while most stories will have most of these elements, some will not. The cult of character in fiction, for instance, is troubling to me. Yes, I love character. Yes, I think most people will have good results if they emphasize it. No, I do not think that emphasizing character above all else is a universal solution, nor do I always want to read stories about character. The same goes for all of these other elements, apart from language -- one can rarely write a story without language. (Plot is similar in that it's difficult to write a story in which "nothing happens" -- if nothing else, the text itself happens, and often this seems to be the plot.)

The first question we should ask, then, is not then whether these elements exist in a text, or even whether they are strong in the text. The most useful question to begin with is how they are present in the text. How are the characters characters? How does the setting operate both in terms of time and space, and style or mindset? How does the logic of the story operate in terms of structure, plot, and language? (Viewed from this perspective I find it difficult to separate these three elements, though others will experience them differently.) How does the language language?

Though both are canonical writers, Flannery O'Connor's stories happen not only in a different time and place from those of Joyce, but in different universes with their own logics, their own rules, their own styles of character, their own language. A Flannery O'Connor story couldn't happen in Dubliners for more reasons than the most obvious. Though I think we instinctively understand this, we often reduce it to a question of style or perspective, while ignoring the clear implication that if two writers operating in ostensibly realist modes can be so different, there must be logics and universes of story that would strike us as entirely alien, though they have their own powerful coherence (or powerful incoherence).

Once we've considered how a story operates, it becomes more reasonable to ask ourselves how well it achieves those operations. However, it is easy here to return to the sort of thinking that got us into trouble in the first place -- are the characters "deep"? Is the setting "convincing"? Does the plot "make sense"? These are often the right questions but not always, because they don't make reference to how the story aims to work. We have to ask ourselves that first, and then adjust our terms on that basis. A story may not want to have deep characters or a convincing setting. If it doesn't, it can still be pleasurable to read.

A more flexible way to look at the work in question would be, then, to consider what pleasures are present in the text (how is it pleasurable to read the text in its current incarnation), what pleasures are potential in the text (how might the text be altered to create more pleasure based on its current hows and whys), and what other possibilities present themselves after careful reading. This is, at its heart, another way of trying to do what we almost always say we mean to do, which is to focus on letting the story become what it wants to be rather than what we as individual readers want it to be. But ultimately I think it works better, for reasons I'll explain and illustrate in future posts.

First One Ever!

I was just typing up some notes from an academic advising session with a student and instead of typing “testing asap” I typed “testing asp.” A testing asp! I thought. What a great idea. What would it do? Slither through the legs of chairs and sink teeth into students attempting to cheat? Then I thought, maybe a testing asp is a little too Harry Potter.

I’ve never read Harry Potter but I had a friend in grad school who did. She worked a summer at a store that was like Barnes & Nobel but smaller and more regional and brighter inside and which sold some stuffed animals and a lot of used books and albums in addition to new copies. When the last Harry Potter book came out this friend was behind a register in the bookstore and selling a copy to someone and the someone behind that someone straight spoiled the ending! No matter how you feel about Harry Potter, you can probably agree that spoiling the ending of anything for a fervent fan is just a dick move.

The bookstore has since closed down, which doesn’t affect me now directly because I no longer live in my grad school town, but which does affect the parts of my brain that look happily back on my time spent in the store, visiting my friend during the long summer in which I didn’t work and really did little other than fly around town on a $70 bicycle and watch movies until dawn and shave my head after a bad amateur haircut and sometimes climb rock walls.

Have you ever climbed a rock wall? They’re colorful constructs, tall planks of wood with handholds bolted in, some fat and proboscis-like and others small and shaped like partially eaten pizza slices. Usually certain trails will be marked by colored strips of tape or paint or sometimes by certain stickers so that you have an easier time making it to the ceiling if you go up the barnyard animals trail than if you go up the UFOs trail. Usually you’ll have to have someone hold the other end of a rope that connects to your waist but sometimes you’ll have a machine in the ceiling hold that other end of the rope and if so once you reach the top you can just let go and fall a little and then fall more slowly toward the people staring up at you from the ground.

I’m writing a novella right now and there is some rock climbing in it. It’s my first one ever (I considered capping and bolding ever there), and it’s a pretty great time. I wrote a while back about considering a novella, a form I’d always shunned, and then I started researching other writers’ suggestions for novellas, and reading some of them, and reading advice about them . . . well, all this is to say that I decided the shortish-long form could be interesting for the quirks and possibilities unique to it. And I was right! The project is going pretty well as I approach the end and the story feels like one that could have been stretched to 80,000 words but only with a lot of filler, and like one that could have been sliced down to 3500 words but only with a great loss of blood. And of the novellas I’ve read or read about, almost all of them read like/sound like they carry the same measure of weight.

I went to an independent film slam this weekend. It was my first one ever. (EVER!) It was hosted by an independent theater that sells delicious if expensive food and drinks and seats you in comfortable chairs. The entries in this independent film slam were short, between three and 22 minutes, amateur productions, and they were . . . well, some of them were strong and seemed matched to their length and ambition, and some felt a little hollow of story. I went away and ate some nachos thinking about all the story that needs to be crammed into a short space to make a film or a novel or whatever work, and about all the extra effort that filmmakers have to put into a story, compared with writers: securing equipment, locations, actors, then shooting, then editing. And what do you do with a short film? It must be even harder to place than a short story, and harder to put together successfully. It’s challenge enough to put an entire story together, and it must be almost impossible when the story itself is only one of your concerns.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

MFA Time

Tomorrow we'll have the departmental welcome/welcome back lunch at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, NM. We'll probably eat sandwiches or bland Indian food or middling Mexican. They will buy too many Cokes, which will be fine by me because I Can Always Drink More Cokes. Maybe someone will make a speech (I don't remember; I don't think so). If they do we will clap, though we are not glad. If they don't we will not clap though we are glad. School will begin Thursday. Thursday morning I will teach creative writing for the first time. Thursday afternoon I will have contemporary American poetry, which will fulfill my lit requirements for my time here. (Read: I will never take another lit class.)

I have occasional urges to post something about the MFA experience as I've felt it, and MFA culture as I know it, but it strikes me as ultimately too inside-baseball. And I wouldn't know what to say. There are probably better ways to learn about writing, but they don't have university funding and you wouldn't get to teach. Whatever I feel about MFAing I do love teaching. Writers, as much as anyone, have trouble remembering to be excellent to one another. Writers believe they are sensitive and observant. Writers are, in my experience, often tricked out in leather skin and a thousand yards of dead nerves. Writers like to talk about community. In my experience, writers often believe (mistakenly) that being generous to each other will take too much of their time and energy. But kindness replenishes. Uncanny Valley costs me money and time. Uncanny Valley replenishes me. I am grateful to edit this will-be magazine. I am grateful to be a friend to other writers, and when they (you) are friends to me.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Killer combos

A while ago working on Fat Man and Little Boy I figured out a sweet move for writers: when you're stuck in a paragraph and you're not sure what to do, hit enter a few times until you feel like you're in a new place. Then start typing interesting words for later in the story. It can be a bit of description, some dialog, or anything really. This helps me beat "writer's block," which is pretty much a fake idea. It also helps me think about my stories from new angles. If Fat Man is going to be saying X at some point in the future, what does that reveal about him now? What will the other characters think when he says it, and how does that illuminate their state of mind in this section? One of the problems of linear character development, from a writing perspective, is that you usually start out with a guy in a place and then it takes you the rest of the book to figure out who he was in that first scene or two. This is the reader's journey too, so you don't want to excise it completely, but one of my big problems is that this road tends to need a lot of smoothing in revision. Forcing myself to think about character in this way seemed to help me figure things out more quickly, which enriched my first drafts and made revision easier.

This won't work for everybody, but it's been doing wonders for me since I started it. My last short story was written in an extremely non-linear, roving sort of way. Whenever I got stuck in one scene, I would just start working on another. During the best times I was actually buzzing with what felt like too much energy, too many ideas, bouncing all over the place. It was pretty great. The one I'm working on tonight is shaping up the same way.

Another thing I've done tonight that I've read about but haven't tried so often is I just sort of ground my head against what felt like a sort of middling story hoping I would get something out of it in a flash. (It had some fun sentences but I had trouble imagining where it could go that would be worthwhile.) Then I wrote this one sentence that felt better than all the rest. After a few more minutes of screwing around I opened a new window, retyped that sentence, then changed it, then, suddenly, had what felt like a good beginning. It was a sweet move.

A few years ago I gave a speech/presentation to a bunch of students and professors about the graphic novel I'd spent the summer writing. I took three or four hours laboring over the presentation, which was about two pages of single-spaced text. I sent it to my instructor. I read it out loud for practice. Then we did presentations. I was so bored and annoyed with the guy who went before me, who had apparently spent his entire summer preparing to copy and paste Wikipedia pages into a Powerpoint document at the last second, that I crumpled my speech up and threw it in the garbage as I walked up to the podium. (Maybe a bratty move.) Then I spoke off the top of my head. My instructor, who wasn't there, said he knew the speech had gone well because I crumpled up what I had written. That meant to him I was on top of things. There are moments when I'm writing that feel the same way. I know I'm doing something right because I change the manner in which I'm doing it.

Do you have those moments? Something like them?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Best American Fantasy Discontinued

Anthologies: maybe not otherwise terribly popular here at Uncanny Valley, but let's all bid a fond adieu to one of the good ones: Best American Fantasy, under the editorship of Jeff and Ann Vandermeer (and recently turned over to Larry Nolen, who would have been series editor starting with this year's Volume 4). Particularly sad because of the impressive list of stories Nolen had lined up to pass along to guest editor Minister Faust: fiction from Blake Butler, Matt Bell, Adam McOmber, Ben Percy, Melanie Rae Thon, Traci O Connor, Stephen Marche, Ander Monson-- in other words, a spectacular list of recommended reading. You would be doing yourself a favor if you followed along, even with just a fraction of his list. Assuming you haven't already.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

I Know Shoes

For a while I had an active Goodreads account. A lot of people in school with me had accounts there and I thought, why not?

For a while there too I was reading The Log of the S. S. The Mrs Unguentine. I had an edition from Dalkey, a little blue-and-white thing, the kind of book you could haul anywhere and read with ease even though the covers would pull themselves closed if you weren't careful. Once, just after I moved to Florida, I took this book to a sandwich shop near my office and sat outside eating soup and tuna and trying to read. The novel is very quick and unique and strange--it features a sort-of estranged couple floating around in a converted barge--and was going well until somebody told me I'd had my shoes reheeled.

"Nah," I said.

"I know shoes," this guy said. He was old enough that you would expect he was right, he did know shoes. But he didn't know these.

"These came like this," I said.

"Then you can get them reheeled." He was sitting in a little metal chair just like mine. This sandwich shop was in a strip mall just off a road spotted with crosses and flowers and wrapped teddy bears left for all the pedestrians and bicyclists and motorists killed by Orlando's terrible drivers. The sound of traffic was everywhere. This guy said, "I'm unemployed now but sometimes I work for that test company. The ACTs. We grade the essays. " He talked some more. He looked like he might be making up the details but in fact they all were accurate, at least to a degree I was able to judge.

Then he talked to me about drugs and liquor. He had a little bottle of something wrapped not in a paper bag but in a plastic bag. He pulled on it and offered me some. He didn't have any food. I didn't know if he was asking for money or if we were having a real conversation.

Anyway: both these experiences came back to me this morning. Goodreads sent me the newsletter they always send out and which I've been too ambivalent to cancel, even though I never visit the site. I opened it up and saw a little personalized part near the top and I saw that it has been 690 days since I started reading The Log of the S. S. The Mrs Unguentine.

When I swam out of my existential and nostalgic whirlpool (690 days!), I decided that I could pick up the book again and finish it (I made it only close to the end, for reasons I can't even remember anymore). I can do that for almost any book I've ever started, no matter how long ago I last closed the pages. With movies and TV series and even with video games it's different, I'd have to start again after a certain amount of time has passed, but books stay fresh or at least preserved somehow in my brain. I imagine this is true for all of us. My guess is it's because we're so actively involved in reading--we have to interpret even the rhythm of the language, and determine how many pages we read before quitting for the night, and we have to color and build the scenes set, etc. Sometimes when I'm writing something up I wonder how someone else will imagine a particular character, or a particular car, or whatever. Often I'm not even sure how I imagine these things myself.