Monday, July 20, 2015

How I Broke Up with for Good and Then Fell Back in Love with the Short Story

Yes, the short story and I were through. I’d written two books of stories but decided after one previous failure at writing a novel that I’d try again at forty-two years old. And this one worked. It worked so well in fact that I came to agree with what other writers have sometimes said: stories were only an apprenticeship to writing novels. And the short story form did feel, well, limited. Any good idea or great line or irresistible incident could fit somewhere in a novel. I began to believe as Cormac McCarthy opined in his dismissal of short stories in favor of novels, “Anything that doesn’t take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth the doing.”
I remembered my fellow MFA students who painstakingly spent their entire three years of graduate school working on a novel, with something akin to the faith in an afterlife. Instead of acceding to the common exhortation that they experiment with stories, try out different voices, explore a diversity of material, fool around, they thrashed onward, failure be damned. Maybe they had it right.
I lost interest in stories, stopped reading them except for when I had to teach them, and frankly couldn’t imagine ever writing one again. Some part of me as a writer felt I’d grown up, put on big-boy pants, and now could get on with my true calling as a novelist. Oh, sure, I still admired, nay, adored Chekhov and Munro and Carver and host of other short story writers for their mastery of and exclusive commitment to the form. And I believed the homage so many novelists paid to the short story was genuine, Faulkner among them, intoning that for a short story “every word has got to be almost exactly right. In the novel you can be careless but in the short story you can’t. There’s less room in it for trash.”
I valued the story’s purity, yes, but alas I had “larger” stories to tell and found the short story form “confining” and felt novels could be “expansive” and “richer” and “weightier” dealing with issues of “time” and “history.” Not only were novels the right form for life’s multifarious issues, but they would be a true test of my own depth as a person and a writer.
Before I pass this off as a delusion, let me explain that I still believe, as Lorrie Moore has said, that “a short story is a love affair, a novel a marriage.” Nothing in my experience has equaled the sheer stamina required to write a novel, including the surfeit of false starts, dead ends, and bridges-to-nowhere tangents; the lack of sleep when the last thing on your mind before going to bed and the first thing when you wake up is the scene you can’t get right; my incredibly low threshold for being disturbed by loved ones asking me to do the simplest thing for them; and the horror of finding out that you have written a book entirely from the wrong character’s point of view, a character who may not even belong in the novel.
I would have gone on with it. I would have happily continued had not the powers that be decided my subsequent two novels, after the first two published ones, weren’t wanted. This is no different from many of my fellow mid-list writers, and all writers have to deal with rejection if they want to continue writing. Some go on to write new novels. Some persist in reworking the same book in the hopes that they’ll either make it irresistible or the publishing climate will change or they will take advantage of digital opportunities or the once unthinkable route of self publishing. Some decide to write only for themselves. I turned back to writing stories.
I found myself radiantly compelled. The open-ended possibilities of the novel became the disciplined limits of a ship-in-a-bottle crafted work of exactitude. Each word could be labored over and still allow one to come up for air at the end of the day. Mark Twain’s maxim that the difference between the right word and the next to the right word as the difference between lightning and the lightning bug resurfaced as guidance for how to methodically attend to a short story, rather than the worrisome fear that I was wasting too much time on any given sentence when I still had 70,000 words of the novel to write. Not that momentum isn’t important in the short story—either writing it or reading it—but I could hold the whole damn thing in my head without wondering what happened to that character on page 40 who had disappeared like a runaway.
I thought: I’m back, I’m home. I remembered that I loved the shape of a short story’s body, how it moved: a sinewy grace that paced steadily ahead to an inevitable end, often the edge of a precipice rather than the vast open meadow of a new chapter or a fin de si├Ęcle expository summary. And a form that insisted in asking with each line, have you matched the story you tell with the reason for telling it? A form whose subtext thrums beneath its surface and can’t abide a stalled moment as filler.
Indeed, the surest way to find out the strength of a short story is to try to turn it into a novel. What once was essential and urgent becomes repetitive and distended. And what once captured to heightened effect a fleeting moment of time, turns into dilatory postponement without the keen-edged pacing and pressurized voice of the short story. My former notion of saving everything for a novel missed a central point: the short story insists on its own standing; it borrows from and imitates no other form; in its demand for originality it takes on material suitable only for its purposes. Try to fool it with content too thin, and you wind up with a stringy, half-naked narrative; force feed it extraneous, nutrient-less stuffing, and it will erupt with undigested bloat. But care for it just right and it springs alive under your fingers.
I wrote one story then another, and let’s be honest, they came neither easily conceived nor quickly published. Yet over a ten-year period, they did come and now a book of them. Humbled by how much I’d once disowned or condescended to the form, I owed my rejuvenated writing life to the practice. For which I am not only grateful but convinced of the short story’s unassuming power and survival.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

20/20 Hindsight--What We Wish We'd Known as Younger Writers

(The following is from a talk I delivered for a literary salon at the Denver Lighthouse Lit Fest.)

YOUR first public performance.  Second grade.  A talent show, or a show and tell, you’re not sure which.  All you remember is that you do not just like Elvis Presley, you are Elvis.  You go around the house singing “Don’t be Cruel” and “Hound Dog.”  It’s 1958 and your parents are busy doing 1958 things like seriously discussing the possibility of building a bomb shelter and forbidding you to hula hoop in the house. 
            You’re convinced your version of “Hound Dog” will do Elvis proud.  Forget Elvis’s gold lame suit or pompadour with the killer stray lock down the forehead.  For your performance, you have only a starched white shirt that you wear to Hebrew school and hair so insistently curly it would survive a nuclear bomb, speaking of mutual assured destruction. 
            You unbutton the shirt to your breast bone, do the best you can with the curls so they look windswept and not like the orator Cicero with a laurel wreath on his head, and you belt it out.  The crowd, you have to admit, is rockin’  Or smiling encouragingly.  Or relieved not to be taking a spelling test.  No matter.  You’re in the zone, and yes, your eyes become heavy lidded like Elvis when you come to the second verse: “Yeah, you ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine.”  And then.  Then.  It happens.  You look right at Irene Milligan.  She is a rather big-boned girl for second grade, formidable and blunt; her favorite expression is Stuff it, moron!  None of the boys dare tease or challenge her because she has a track record of compromising their masculinity by twisting their arms behind their backs until they cry “Master!” which she prefers to “Uncle.”
            Irene is staring right at you; she is not entertained; she is not amused; she is not rockin’ or clapping her hands and swaying her head back and forth like your best friend, Warren, as if he is Ray Charles and blind.  In fact, her eyes are slitted, her arms crossed over her chest, her lips pursed with what you would have to say is unmistakable dissatisfaction.  You freeze; you stop right in the middle of your unaccompanied performance.  You return to your seat.  People are confused.  So are you.  You don’t know exactly what has happened to you but years later you will understand.  You have met her.  Or him.  Or they.  You have met The Critic.
            What you don’t know yet (but wish you did) is that you are not this performance, this thing you are doing.  You don’t appreciate how many hours you will waste confusing you—whoever that is—with what you produce.  You will continue to identify with what you do, which will soon enough be writing.  Hound Dog and Elvis will be put aside when you slowly realize you actually might be tone deaf.  And behind all that pursuit will be Irene, The Critic, like original sin, always there with her arms folded, that slightly perplexed, slightly cranky, slightly hostile expression, what is basically—though you don’t conceive of it as such in second grade—a WTF bubble above her head.  And you so wish someone had told you that you will never please Irene—or not enough. And that it would be so much easier if you had just stood up there and continued singing, your eyes skyward, belting out “Hound Dog” with evangelical rapture not for Irene but for Elvis.

YOU'RE twenty-one and very fond of telling people you’re going to be a writer.  Such innocence is cute.  Cuter still is the fact that people believe you when you haven’t actually written a word.  You’ve been afraid to write because that would spoil the perfection of what you might actually write.  But your last semester of your senior year at the University of Colorado you get up the guts to take a creative writing class.  It’s 1973, and everybody wants to be an artist or at least anti something or other materialistic, so classmates and friends, especially if they’re stoned, even your parents, despite monetarily supporting you so you can eat your one meal a day at Furrs Cafeteria, have no trouble accepting this claim of yours.
            The problem is that you have no idea what to write about.  You think you do.  You think you should write about “what you know,” because everyone has said that is what you should do.  And sure enough you do so, in this so-called creative writing class where the professor, a man named Art Kistner, meets with the four of you signed up for his course the first day (you have been closed out of the “good” professor’s class) and informs you all that there will be no class meetings, no instruction, no discussion.  You are simply to go home and write three stories.  Hand them in one at a time to him; you will meet for a conference over each for an hour.  Don’t be late because you will receive a F if you do.  Goodbye. 
            Okay, you think, I guess this is the way it’s done.  You write your three stories.  You hand them in.  You’re terrifically excited, especially after your professor tells you you’re one of the three best writers he’s seen over his years of teaching (although, honestly, how many students can you have at four a semester?).  But never mind, you’ve gotten that boost of confidence.  You’re set.  But wait, he also remarks that he happened to show one of your stories to two other readers: his wife and some associate or other.  And they only made it to pages 6 and 8 respectively.
            Was it that bad? you ask.  No, Arthur Kistner, tells you, the piece just wasn’t important enough for them to keep going.  Oh, you say.  Important as in boring?  No, important as in meaningful, he says.  Oh, you say again and leave. 
            It takes you a long time to understand that despite all the sensitivity of your writing, the sensitive characters, the sensitive feelings, the sensitive typing you’ve done on onion skin paper, you are missing something big.  It won’t be until years later when you’re living in Portland and your girlfriend at the time sleeps with another man and you have to face your abysmal despair and anger and eventually write a story about it that you understand something you wished you’d known earlier: you have been afraid to really write about anything that hurts. You’ve been afraid of your own material. 
            Your story just sits there, which is to say no one wants to publish it.  Until one night, you look at it again and realize what’s wrong: the ending.  You’re afraid of the ending, that is, you’re afraid to have occur what you’ve been afraid of in real life, abandonment—a bulls eye of a core issue for you—and that what you fear in your life you’ve not allowed to happen in your fiction.  And then it comes to you, the final two paragraphs.  You send it out and it gets taken immediately, as if it’s an entirely different story, as if it’s just been waiting for closure, and you finally understand what writers, people whom you think of as real writers, have been saying: they don’t write, they rewrite.

ONE'S power as a writer comes from being willing to create and destroy: you have to be both Shiva and Vishnu, that wacky fun duo, and live with the exquisite contradiction that both are equally necessary to the process.  There are few things in life besides writing that require so much of it to be sacrificed for the greater good.  The pushing ahead in writing and the letting go require the same act of will.  As I sit here writing this I’m aware of that process and aware too that I still struggle with it after all these years.  My ego wants to get it done right on the first draft and tells me I may—or must—get lucky, and who wants to waste time writing something that will only be discarded?  My experience tells me to instruct my ego to back the fuck away from desk, put its hands behind its head and assume the perp position on the ground. 
            Writing is and always will be a mixture of excitement and dread.  No matter how much you try to eliminate the latter in favor of the former, these two will always be inextricably linked, and necessarily so.  To do dangerous work, to take chances and risk failure, both emotions have to be present.  Fear and excitement are precisely what grab hold of an image, a family story, a word spoken in anger or shyness at a party, a forgotten memory and snag these to germinate the process of creation.  You can waste a lot of time—and believe me I have—trying to rid yourself of the fear part, but let me save you the trouble and tell you not to bother.  Welcome it instead.
            And while you’re at it, welcome all the misfires, that is, the abandoned drafts that work for one or two or five pages then go dark on you.  They may seem like false starts at the time; they may make you feel stupid for thinking you could create a story out of so small an idea or event; and they may sting in their abandonment because you were so excited when you first began.  But rest assured that after time has passed—and I’m talking about hard time, sometimes as much as five years or more—you may open up that file if you still have it, and you should, that’s the point here, and find what was a dead end suddenly becomes a glorious avenue forward.  Never throw away drafts of unfinished work out of a mood of discouragement; those moods are temporary; the promise of the writing is not.
            And let me offer the opposite advice that comes after years of not following it myself: don’t wait too long.  Any source material for prospective writing has a best-to-use-by stamp, after which content can go stale: you can be too removed from the material or forget details or god forbid become infirm or just lose the spirit, drive, and passion that once connected you to the subject.  It can all feel like another lifetime ago and not in the way that it’s good to have distance on.  The bell does indeed toll for thee, or at least your once great idea for a story or poem.

DELIGHT and surprise.  Oh, how overlooked these are in writing!  At some level I truly didn’t understand that it’s this moment of surprise that I was looking for in my work. It’s a quality hard to describe—this surprise and delight—and it can be realistic or strange, whimsical or poignant, oblique or shocking—think of when we discover in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” what all those folksy neighbors are up to on that June day, or Alice Munro’s magician’s touch for convoluting time and memory to arrive at a moment in her story “The Progress of Love” when a mother burns up 3000 dollars of desperately needed money supposedly, or so we think at first, in front of her husband.  These moments are worth working for and toward because they make all the hard and sometimes punishing effort of writing worthwhile.  It was Robert Frost after all who summed it up by saying, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”
            And here may be the subtlest lesson of all I wish I’d known earlier: how to look.  I had some idea as a younger writer that I was supposed to write about the big subjects, whatever they were: love, injustice, war—never mind that I was never in one—death, success, failure, money, betrayal, loyalty.  And, well, in one way or another I did write about these things, if not at all how I thought.  But I didn’t understand how to attend to that, yes, still voice inside that recognizes the unknown, that takes a sounding on the unformed.  So reading an article in the paper one day about a Quasar farther and more powerful than any scientists had discovered before or hearing an obscure fact that Hitler once had a plan to deport all Jews to Madagascar or finding a V-gram that my father sent to my mother during World War 2 about two hungry French girls to whom he had given all his chocolate allotment I soon became aware that these are the powerful signs that gobsmack writers and evoke the unsayable.  They are the very overhead remarks or images glimpsed or items read or photographs recovered or family anecdotes retold that allow you to sneak up on the big idea—Emily Dickinson’s counsel to tell it slant—and that have the sustainability to grow from their seed entire poems, stories, novels, and trilogies.  It’s good not to ask why this and not that zaps you.  It’s good not to question these notices, for that’s what they are, notices from your creative subconscious.  It was perhaps the most significant realization of my writing life to learn to covet these “notices,” tend to them like orchids in an underground hothouse until they’re ready to bloom.     

IT'S hard to say if I’m any better or worse off for not knowing what I know now.  Would I have been happier knowing how hard it was going to be to write a novel and the trial and trail of aborted attempts, not to mention those turned down by publishers that have been left behind?  Would I be happier to know that I discard, roughly speaking, ten or more pages for every one I keep?  Or that it doesn’t get any easier to face the blank page, just different, after you’ve been writing for thirty years and had some decent success?  That at one time I was afraid I didn’t have anything to write about and now I’m afraid I’ve written about it all?  Or how hard it is to get back in the habit of writing once you get out of the habit?  No, these are things you shouldn’t know at any age.   Because they all come down to the same question.  One you’ve asked before.  When you knock on that door, that portal to seek the dubious arbiter of your purpose on Earth, and ask am I really supposed to do this with my life? and no answer comes at first, and you wait and you wait and just as you’re walking away you hear the faintest reply, Stop bothering me about a question you already know the answer to.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Letter From a Young Editor to a Famous Writer

A remembrance of Raymond Carver:

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Friend me?

Hi, Jennillee!

First of all, I luv the ddoouubbllee spellings in your name!  So I’m applying to be your Facebook friend!  Perchance any openings?
Jennillee! Thank YOU so MUCH for actually writing back to me.  I can’t tell you how rare that is.  Not that I do this often!  I’m not like a stalker or anything (and anyway, I’m a girl, so go figure). I do understand you have no availability.  I think when you say “At the present time, Jennillee has no available openings for friends” that’s pretty clear.  I’m just sort of wondering if I could send you some more cool data about myself, like my SAT scores or my haircut (a picture, I mean!).  Do you have a waiting list?
Okay, sure, I get it, you STILL have no availability which is totally, totally cool :-) 
But look, maybe you’ll reconsider and hit the refresh button on your automatic reply if I tell you that I’m like really important on KLOUT.  Like I even got Bill Murray to tweet me before he passed away.  TINAL! (That is not a lie!).  So obviously I’m a person of influence and will RAISE your KLOUT score!  How 'bout hitting that 'confirm'?  Got to luv my chutzpop!
I am attaching a list of my friends.  Maybe it’s that you don’t appreciate just how popular I am, but 3042 people can’t be wrong!  If you look at my profile, and I hope you will, consider two things: one, I’m not a crazy person.  Two . . . I forgot two.  But about being crazy, I knew Bill Murray hadn’t died but you have to admit that he looks like he wants to be dead in most of his movies.  
I’m back!  I hope you won’t think I have trouble with boundary issues.  I’m just a super friendly person and know it would be really fun for both of us if you accepted my friend request.  Now I don’t want you to freak, but I noticed your friend count went down by one since last time I wrote.  I didn’t want to mention anything at first because it could just be a glitch and sometimes my number bobs up and down a little too.  Usually, I track down all 3042 friends to see who dropped me and I find the culprit (ha!), but I’m not like saying everybody does that.  Just as a favor, though, I did go through your list and compared it with the 424 pages of your friend list two days ago that I printed out and found the problem!  It was Royce McIntyre!  He sounds sort of Irish so maybe he has enough American friends!  I can’t imagine you’d drop him or any of your friends, but just in case you did (poor Royce!) that means you have one more opening because now you’re at 4999.  Color me Xcited!
I looked up “cease and desist” orders and they’re for like crazy bill collectors and pesky time-share people who hound you until you bleed.  I don’t think you really meant to send me that message.  I just want to be friends.  Is that so bad?  If you really think it’s not a good idea, and you honestly don’t like my little challenge of asking you to guess what emoticon I’m going to send you on the half hour, I guess I can take a hint.  I’ll just wait for your reply because I know sometimes that in the heat of the moment I rush to conclusions too and make rash judgments that I really regret.  :-E (this means vampire! but don’t worry because I’m not really a vampire and going to suck your blood or anything!!!)


Saturday, May 12, 2012

What Republicans Mean When They Say . . .

Taxes:  see ‘stealing’

Immigration: see ‘invasion’

Gay marriage: see ‘Book of Revelations’

Inequality: see 'Where?'

Moderate: see 'wuss' (urban dictionary).

Torture: see 'Where?'

The Dream Act: see 'Dreaming'

Women’s Reproductive Rights: see N/A

Climate Change: see Partly Cloudy With Chance of Rain.

UN: see Takeover

Takeover: see UN

Corporate Takeover: see Prosperity

The Right to Bear Arms: see 'immigration' above.

Budget: see 'tax shelter'

Fiscal Conservative: see 'Swiss Bank Account'

Deficit: see 'Public Employees'

Social Conscience: see 'The Dream Act'

Thursday, June 9, 2011

To listen or to read?

I’ll admit it. I listen to books. But I also buy the hard copy and at some point, if I really love what I’m hearing I switch to the volume itself. I can’t help defaulting to the familiar and gratifying combination of holding what my eyes are seeing. How many times have I rested an open book against my chest and just sat there ruminating over a particularly rich or powerful passage. You can’t exactly do that with a Kindle—the hugging-the-book thing just doesn’t feel the same. As for listening, it’s not that great to keep hitting the rewind button and drifting off in a reverie while driving. Yet . . . what I’ve found by listening is the same thing that people claim who have bought Kindles or any other downloading device for books: I read (hear) far more than I would otherwise.

Not long ago an article appeared in The Atlantic (with a subsequent expansion into a book) called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The essential premise was that Google, and more generally the internet (aren’t they one in the same?), were ruining our attention spans. Fragmenting our ability to concentrate on longer tasks. For instance, those novels by George Eliot, once called “winter novels,” because they took a whole season to finish.

I don’t doubt the truth of this, because as the author pointed out from his own experience, he had just lost patience to devote to a massive classic. Breadth had replaced depth. Coverage not concentration had become the operable principal. In any internet reading, with all its embedded linkage, one naturally becomes a jumpy rabbit—by necessity. By checking out all those links you believe you’re actually gaining a more comprehensive view and not missing anything. Well, certainly sitting down and investing the time to read Moby Dick would make you think you’re missing something. Such dedication to a single book would drive a multi-tasker crazy. And the point is that we’ve all become more multi-taskers than concentrators. Surfing the internet—scanning—has become the means of not losing your place in the world. Quickness means you’re informed. Duration becomes a liability. Data replaces what used to be called knowledge.

So, given this, what hope is there for someone to spend his time reading Moby Dick or The Brothers Karamazov, two books that I now admit, alas, I did not read. I listened to all 25 and 35 hours respectively. Let’s put aside what this says about how much time I spend in my car. My main concern here is not whether I actually found a way to enforce my paying attention to these books that I otherwise would never have “read” (or reread), because I was too impatient or Googlized or tired and hyper to sit still without a windshield in front of me for that long. I’m interested in what is lost or gained in the transaction, just as what’s lost or gained in the transformation of any material from one medium to another: books to film or to plays, or these days from one “carrier” to another: iPod, iPad, Kindle, cellphone, PC, radio, and no doubt soon to be, hologram.

This all comes down to voice. I cannot, for instance, get over that despite my best efforts to be open, the reader of the audio book of Joyce’s Dubliners when doing Gretta’s voice in “The Dead” sounds like Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire. Perhaps if I hadn’t read the story (and taught it) at least thirty times, I could be more generous. Part of the problem is that once you hear a voice in your head, that is, the voice as translated from the page to your ear by your own perception of the syntax, rhythm, and spatial layout, it’s hard not to resist the vocalizing as a false impersonation, especially if you’ve heard that voice so distinctly (think Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird or Holden in Catcher, to site two well-known narrators). There’s probably a good reason why Salinger never wanted Holden to appear on stage or screen and refused to sell the rights to the novel. But even then, when a book is made into a film or play it’s adapted, changed, and the actors have to flesh out a director’s vision of the characters and story. In hearing someone read a work verbatim, you have no modification, just that reader’s voice, and you either take to it or not. It can and often does grow on you. But it can also grate.

Jennifer’s Egan’s admirable novel, A Visit from the Good Squad, has a female reader for its entirety and its wide cast of characters. One can’t help but be taken by the character Sasha channeled in the opening chapter. Sasha, a kleptomaniac, finds the right combination of sultriness and vulnerability in the audio reader’s rendering of her. The male characters are another story; they sound too much alike and they sound too much like slackers or dudes with issues. What gives, say, Sasha mystery, subtlety, and allure becomes a deficit when the reader speaks on behalf of another character Benny, who in his dialogue cannot escape a whiny flatness that isn’t in the well-developed character himself. And therein lies the problem: reading to yourself you hear the repository of female or male voices long accumulated in your consciousness. Hearing that same character read to you, the voice is no longer being created by you in conjunction with the author: it’s the audio reader’s interpretation alone.

You might get the impression from these examples above that the problem is gender: female doing male parts, or males doing female ones. But I never got used to the celebrated Flo Gibson’s reading of James’ The Portrait of a Lady. I know I was supposed to find it masterful—Flo, who died recently, was known as the grande dame of audio recordings—but frankly I found it overweening, or maybe that was James himself.

In any case, the audio reader’s voice must be wrestled with a bit at first, especially to integrate it with the author's. Try reading your own work aloud if you want to get a sense of this (and catch mistakes and lumpy prose while you’re at it). You supplant as much as echo the sound already there with a different version of the intimate words you first heard in your own mind.

On the other hand, when it works, it’s simply lovely. I couldn’t get enough of the perfectly matched narrator and the audio reader in Margaret Atwood’s Blind Assassin. Here you have power and bitterness, yearning and resignation in the reader’s presentation, the reader in tune with the darker narrative but allowing just enough light in her voice to keep breath in the tale. Likewise, the reader of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go has a bit of English propriety in her voice, mixed with a dreaminess appropriate to a story of a clone created for her consumptive value in a futuristic society. And the reader of Marilyn Robinson’s novel Housekeeping tells the story with such a pitch-perfect combination of composure, retrospection and keen immediacy that you can easily juxtapose the simplicity of a sentence like “Lucille turned out the lights and we sat at the kitchen table, trying to name the states of the union” with a poetic nugget such as, “Bones, bones, I thought, in a fine sheath of Sunday gloves.”

It’s this very elasticity of voice, as in the last example, that the author must make work on the page but the audio reader must capture without either over dramatizing or missing nuance and subtlety. Resonance itself is a different animal when read than spoken, and the delicateness of that task, which authors tirelessly work at to convey without ruining its effect by being too obscure or direct, can so easily be pummeled by poor spoken expression. Rhythm on the page, for instance, is not just choosing a speed of speaking: commas and semicolons don’t translate so easily. They are the writer’s silent markings of pacing and thought. Sound unifies a work just as much as sense, perhaps even more so in a literary work where content is an equal partner with style, and the latter not just in the service of the former. Voice for a writer is more directly—and intimately—associated with interiority than exteriority. After all, a writer hears the sound of the words in her head when she puts them down and may never speak them aloud. And even when one gives a public reading of a work, the overlay is of this original and more subterranean expression that was first heard in the composing. As one writer has said, to know the voice is to follow a whisper

In a novel such as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close the audio can’t reproduce the explosion of graphics, illustrations, and photographs: Oskar Black’s business card (inventor, jewelery designer, jewelry fabricator and fourteen other professions); the pages of colors in opposing colored ink; the single line of “I’m sorry” followed by “I’m still sorry” on the next page surrounded by a sea of white space; the interview format or the block paragraphing or the kinetic cluster of dialogue between Oskar and his therapist Dr. Fein; all the sheer inventive funness, and often sad presentation, of a crazy quilt of visuals, the most striking being the much-noted novel's end pages that can be flipped forward to move a falling body up the World Trade Center or backward to poignantly see it dropping down. In one sense, what Foer does with Extremely Loud is exploit the novel’s bookness, stretching the use of the printed page. The audio version meanwhile has three different readers for different character parts and does a fairly good job of doing the book justice. But you can’t both read this book and listen to it and not expect to have two different encounters. The textual innovations, the graphic elements create an even greater division between reading and listening, and one must almost make the choice of which experience you desire more, unless you’re willing (and have the time) to do both.

I for one have resigned myself to stop fighting the changing technology of the book and just embrace all its forms, drawing the line at any abridgment of the text—that is messing with the words themselves. In their nakedness, they remain supreme.

Friday, April 8, 2011

How to Give a Reading

Don’t look the first row in the eye; they have been forced to sit there because they got here late.

Don’t be disappointed by your host’s introduction, which has consisted entirely of reading from your book jacket.

Try not to drool on the microphone like last time.

Try not to think about that dream you had last night when you turned page after blank page of your manuscript until coming to the very last page that had the single word “minimalism.”

Pay no attention to the man in the ski mask who is walking toward you. Surely there is a simple explanation, given that the room temperature of sixty degrees could be considered cold if you are a reptile.

Do not under any circumstances engage with the girl in the first row who is an eye roller. Tell yourself things could be worse; she could be sticking a finger down her throat.

Ignore the large man in the front row who is eating a monstrous, dripping sandwich that reeks of eye-stinging onions and that he masticates into submission until there is only a tiny bite left and that—seeing you glare at him—he gestures toward you to share.

Tell yourself that you are a professional and that the furious texting by the entire second row is not a comment upon your performance and simply indicates that such individuals are accomplished multitaskers who no doubt are also exceptional at thumb wars.

When you glance up do not be disappointed and lose your place because the lovely, smiling young woman in the third row, whom you were absolutely sure was your ideal listener, has gone over and stood next to the man in the ski mask and they are both writing in identical black notebooks and whispering in Russian.

Remember not to speed up because you fear you’re losing your audience’s attention during the long section that for verisimilitude sake lists every Greek god from the first seven chapters of The Iliad. You knew this would test your listeners’ patience and you are glad that though several of them have clapped their hands over their ears, the majority have demonstrated their stunned appreciation by the slackness of their jaws and their lolling tongues.

Spit out that word hibernaculum that gave you such trouble when you were rehearsing it. Let it roooolll off the palate with the sonorous joy that you first heard it in your head. It goes well with the fire alarm that has just sounded.

Take a moment to relax and center yourself while your host explains that it is only a false alarm and that there is no need to leave the building despite the shouts of Hallelujah! and the wild stampede by half the audience out the door while the other half have had their exit blocked by your host who is threatening them with a fire hose if they try to leave. All in good fun you are sure.

Remember to read the dialogue with great declamation even though it is a long scene that has no quotation marks and you cannot remember who is speaking. Do not be concerned during this operatic showmanship that your host is literally dragging one member of the audience back to his seat by his ankles.

Pace yourself as you come to the dramatic close of your ninety-three minute reading, raising your voice with grandiloquent, rhetorical flourish to signal you are approaching the end, and then, after your final words, fix your audience with a meaningful stare before saying, “Shall I continue?”

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Updating Your Fiction

Really, I don’t remember this being such a problem before. That is, how swiftly things become anachronistic now. I was working on putting together a collection of stories, most of which were written over the past five years. Wait. Did I say “written”? I mean, published. They actually took their sweet time getting published, so that means I wrote some of them much before that five-year period. And that’s the problem: when you’re writing a story, let alone a novel, by the time you finish and, if you’re so lucky, get it published, characters no longer use pay phones, much less call collect when long-distance is included on their cell phones. They no longer do IMing (“Instant messaging is so old,” writes one former user); they might not even be writing blogs, according to a recent news article that stated it’s all about tweets, Skype, and speedier and broader social networking tools now.

So what’s a writer to do? Do you go back and replace all those clunky landlines with cell phones? Somehow put that smartphone in the hands of the character who’s searching in the torrential rain for a pay phone to save his life (marriage, etc.), a frantic quest that you thought gave the scene so much expediency? Why doesn’t he just whip out the ubiquitous cell phone (or borrow one) and text his recipient?

I wish I could say the answer is as simple as ignoring the whole problem. But when I was reading over my stories, any obsolete or dated technology pulled me up short. It’s one thing if the work has already been published and the copyright dates it, but it’s another if enough time has passed to make readers wonder why the story is supposed to be set in the “present,” but markers keep popping up that identify it as the past.

This is not a new question obviously. The writer has always had to take into account such changes. If you started writing a novel before September 11, 2001 and have the World Trade Center in your story, and intend the narrative to be current, then you’re going to bump most of your readers out of the narrative. If you mention a TV show or movie, and that show or movie is long gone, do you worry about it dating the work? Not necessarily, especially if the mention has thematic significance. Or maybe they’re watching cable. Readers often will provide their own explanation for the outdated. If the usage is arbitrary, however, then why not find a more current replacement, just to keep ahead of the game. Does your character, originally conceived pre-hurricane, really need to be named Katrina?

Though fiction has to reflect that it’s “of its time,” the challenge is how long that time lasts exactly. Writers, unless they’re composing a work set in a definite period (or you’ve decided to date or arrange your work in order of publication, say, for a volume of collected stories), usually want an unspecified time period to suggest the “timeless present.” The writer, oblivious to the future, conceives of it not as a retrospective work but as a contemporaneous one with the urgency of the now. It’s when one goes back and rereads the manuscript from the beginning a couple years later that you realize some of that urgency of the intended time period—the unresolved issues of the day; the pressing cultural, social, scientific questions—has gone slack and no longer imbues the fiction with the same immediacy. The question then becomes how much you can—or should—do about it.

One has to consider that in the course of writing the story, certain decisions were made that aligned with the narrative as a whole, not just for its time period. And tinkering too much too update the work can make it self-conscious in a way that sacrifices wholeness for relevance. The greater good may be served by just accepting the story in its entirety as a product of the original forces that conceived it.

On the other hand, if no harm will be done, nothing is wrong with being flexible and performing some due diligence and going through the manuscript to revise with an eye for keeping it as current as possible. If you have teenage characters (or anyone under twenty-five), it’s more than likely they won’t exclusively be having conversations on the phone; they’ll be texting. If you have a character repeatedly asking directions, you’ll really have to wonder if they’ve heard of MapQuest or have activated that GPS app on their phone or why they’re not using an iPad-plutonium, since now, in the year 2020, when you finally get the book published after working on it for ten years, laptops have gone the way of the IBM Selectric. Of course, you can go overboard, as I said, to the point it just sounds as if all the updating is contrived, like bad product placements. You can only retrofit so much into the context of a work that just isn’t meant to accommodate the newfangled. And in that case, it’s best left alone, letting the reader just accept the work as written, proudly (or defiantly) standing up for itself in its own time.

I’m sure others have their own experiences with this issue (poets?), so comments are welcomed.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Nine Signs You're a Neurotic Writer

You subscribe to eight journals but only read the contributor notes when they come.


You are on page 50 of the first draft of your novel but have rewritten the opening sentence 60 times.


You write an angry letter to the editor who has held your story, essay, or poem for six months without a response. Then delete it and decide you will call instead. You decide a phone call is too uncomfortable for you, so you rewrite the e-mail. You decide to reread the story, essay, or poem before you send the e-mail. You further decide the editor is right even though you have never heard from him. It’s shit. You get up the next day, rewrite the e-mail, threaten silently to send it, and then delete it. You reread the story, essay, or poem again. You can’t admit to anybody how much time you've wasted doing this.


Your author’s photo for the planned first novel, of which you are still stuck on page 50, is now four years old. You had it taken, well . . . in anticipation and just because you looked so really good that day. You spend the morning talking on the phone to your best friend about whether you should update the photo or not. “Do you think it still looks like me?”
“Have you finished the—“
“Never mind,” you say, cutting her off. And hang up.


You send an e-mail to yourself convinced that those same editors you are mad at have failed to contact you because your server is down. When your e-mail goes through, you delete it, and then stare at the empty space.


Your spouse, partner, child asks you, So what have you been up to today? and you answer, “What’s the point? What’s the goddamn point! Fine, you want me to quit, is that it! Okay, I quit, satisfied now? Are you goddamn satisfied? You want blood? Is that what you want? I’m fucking slicing my arm right now. Happy? Happy?”


You have an idea. You will read aloud the first fifty pages of the novel that you are stuck on and finally determine whether it’s worth ever finishing. You close your office door so no one will hear you, stand at your desk, pick up the first page, and commence reading in a strong voice. Suddenly it hits you. You know what’s wrong. You sit down and rewrite the opening sentence for the 61st time and never make it to page two.


One day, after checking your e-mail, you see a message with a subject line of your story’s title. You click hurriedly and the first word is “Congratulations.” You read on. Your story has been accepted for the next issue. They are very pleased to have it and thank you for sending it—they are thanking you! Proofs will be sent, and as stated they are paying forty dollars per published page. You’d given up on ever hearing from the editor after composing daily e-mails to him that you never sent. This is by far your best publication yet! The very motivation you need to get past page 50 on your novel. No one can deny the prestige of this publication. You go online to post your good news on Facebook. You see that someone you know from graduate school has just had a story accepted by The New Yorker. You cannot believe how disappointed you feel.


You get over your disappointment and write the editor a gushing thank you note. You tell him what it means to be published in his amazing, wonderful, venerable journal and how you never thought you’d ever have a story in such a good journal. You thank him again, promise to send your contributor note that you will spend two days writing and say once more how delighted you are. Then you add a P.S. It is only a small P.S. and will not take up much room in your otherwise grateful thrilled stunned message thanking him.
P.S. Would you mind reading the first sentence of my novel and giving me your opinion . . .

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Ten Most Obnoxious Comments a Writer Can Make

I have too much free time.

I’m exhausted from my book tour.

My agent wants me to go on The Daily Show. Should I?

I wish my publicist wouldn’t call so early.

Are stocks still the best way to go for such a large advance?

I got a headache reading over my 23-page contract.

My assistant handles that.

My hand is tired. Would you mind if I use a stamp to sign your book?

I remember what it was like to be rejected.

I can’t remember all my titles.

And (from Antonya Nelson) it's been so difficult after winning the Pulitzer.