First Saturday of June: Catch-up

Damn, May was a long month.

This past month I took a bit of a detour.

I’ve been reading John Ashbury’s collection of poetry Quick Question. You would think that it wouldn’t take me so long to finish a book of poetry but there’s something strange and fascinating about these poems. I end up reading a few and then dwelling on them. I put the book aside, try to digest the poems I’ve just read, the strange images that Ashbury has created and what they’ve triggered in my own imagination.

So, yeah, I like it. I like being forced to take time with the things I’m reading. This is why I don’t put much stock in the number of books read in a given time, but rather in their quality and their impact.

Have been reading Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It had been on my radar for years… decades, in fact, but I think I’d been intimidated by it. That was a mistake. I should have read this book earlier in my life.

I’ve started rereading Gerard Genette’s classic Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, and its follow-up Narrative Discourse Revisited. Genette’s book was the theoretical cornerstone of my master’s thesis. I enjoy discussing meaning in literary works, but, as a writer, I’d much rather understand the mechanics of building meaning. Learning and thinking about the way manipulating time, perception, repetition, and so on can create depth, tension, and empathy is useful. Back in grad school, we used to say “Plot happens” with much the same tone that gets applied to the phrase “Shit happens.” We also used to say that dramatic tension can exist between two people sitting quietly in a room. Outward momentum, action, is – I almost hate to say it – easy (or easier). Every character has a desire, and plot is the tension created as they try to get what they want and run into obstacles, get distracted, fail. During the Spanish Civil War, Robert Jordan wants to blow up a bridge, but there is the in-fighting in the guerrilla band, the Fascists, his budding romance with Maria. Jack Duluoz wants sneak away to Big Sur to write in a cabin in the woods, but is sidetracked by his fame, reputation and alcoholism. Back in the early days of thinking I was going to be a writer, I got a lot of advice out of Writer’s Digest. It was foundational kind of advice, broad, almost pedantic in a way. As I remember it, most of their advice was based around the old adages of “show don’t tell” and “write what you know.” Great advice for beginners, but limiting to the more advanced writer.

Re-watched a few episodes of the X-Files because, well, apparently there’s a six episode mini-series coming out soon and I was a pretty devout X-phile once. Not quite as obsessed as my ex-girlfriend, Rebekah, but I never missed an episode, even when I didn’t have cable back in the days before streaming video.

Also knocked out the British produced Netflix original series Scrotal Recall. Shockingly off-color title, but the shows are damn funny and sensitive. I hope I can find someone with whom I can do a one night party to-do list that include jumping out of a moving car.

Caught Star Wars fever after the release of the new trailer. To satisfy the itch, I have been watching the animated Clone Wars series. There are a lot of throw-away episodes put there to fill space and entertain the kids. Then there are the ones that feed into the canonical storyline. I’m a geek. What can I say?

My listening always fluctuates. Thankfully, there is finally an alternative radio station in Wichita. Sadly, it’s a Clear Channel owned station, but still . . . it’s better than the smattering of classic rock, pop-country, “urban,” latino, and religious radio stations that clog the airwaves around here. So, I’m finally hearing songs by band that have been around for a while but weren’t being played around here. Bastille, Big Data, and, unfortunately, Hozier (fuck that band – yes, there’s a story).

Every once in a while, I go on a kind of nostalgia trip: in this case it’s with HUM… if you missed out on this band in the mid 90s I’d recommend searching them out. You can get their stuff still on iTunes. The song “Stars” off their album You’d Prefer an Astronaut was their biggest hit; however, their follow up album Downward is Heavenward is, perhaps the most perfect album I’ve ever heard.

Podcast News
Working on lining up a few guests. I know I’ve said this before, but part of the problem with being your own producer, scheduler, and “talent” is that sometimes things take longer than expected. My once stable release schedule has fallen off, but I’m still doing the podcast. Going to keep doing it as long as I can produce something that feels good. The Laboratory episodes with Stephen are going well, and you can look at the results here. The episodes appear in the regular podcast feed, if you’ve subscribed. Or you can check out an episode here.

I’m thinking of doing some other things to fill space, and also differentiate my content from podcasts like Brad Listi’s Other People, or John King’s The Drunken Odyssey, both great literary podcasts.

Working on getting interviews set up with Steve Heller, Sarah Bagby (owner of Watermark Books in Wichita), Elise Blackwell, Virginia Pye, and a few others.

Writing & Submitting
Plodding along with the usual material. That’s the thing with writing novels: not much changes over the course of a month, even a long one like May. I’m still hoping to have a draft of Far Nineteen finished by the end of this month.

Random Thoughts
On June 4th, I attended the Rebecca Makkai reading at Watermark Books. She’s gotten a lot of praise from the establishment, been published by Penguin, etc. You can read about her and her books here. She’s solid in that Writer’s Digest, Iowa Writers Workshop mode that seems to dominate the American literary landscape. It means she’ll have a long career full of accolades, but I’ll remain unmoved by her prose, which, to me, when I heard her read, sounded rather . . . banal. That might be too harsh of a word though. Safe might be better. However, I don’t want to spend this space trying to skate some thin line between trying to avoid slamming a writer who is someone’s favorite writer while explain why I bought her books, then immediately gave them to my mother who will like them.

What struck me most, however, and may actually have an echo with my kind of “meh” feelings is this: during the Q&A section she was asked about the writing community in Chicago, where she lives. On one level she made it sound very much like the kind of writing community that I want to be a part of: events, cocktail parties, get-togethers, meet-ups, whatever you want to call them where writers get to know each other. And then she said something that saddened me: when she and these writers get together they don’t talk about the craft of writing – ever. They gossip. They talk about their kids. He explanation of this was that “all of them teach” and since they talk to their students about “craft” they don’t want to talk about it with each other.

That was disappointing to hear, especially for someone like me who truly enjoys talking about craft – the mechanical how-to of a story. What technical moves did someone make to get a certain effect, how can I learn it and apply it to the story I want to tell next? I still talk craft with my friend Laura, even though she’s not writing much anymore. I’ve tried talking craft with non-writers, but that usually goes badly because it is often the more complex questions of craft that can help a writer discover the simple answer to the question “what is the story about?”

I’ve been a student writer. I’ve been a creative writing teacher (formally and briefly while still in grad school, and informally whenever I’ve critiqued other writer’s work), and I’m a published novelist who, during the revision process of all of my novels (the published one and the unpublished ones), has leaned on “craft” to structure and shape my early drafts into drafts that achieve (I hope) certain desired effects. At each stage of my writing life, the questions of craft have been paramount, but have also changed.

Early student writers are learning how to solve basic questions of craft, questions that are addressed in class with about as much detail as they are addressed in magazines like Writer’s Digest. Student writers are often still struggling with control of Point of View, with basic scene structure, questions of plot, and characterization, with “finding their voice” (a dubious exercise to begin with) and since they’re generally dealing only with short stories, they’re not addressing the bigger, novelistic questions of craft that deal with longer structural issues, sequencing, shifts in time and place, with distance or multiple focalizations. As a writer practices, gains experience, the fundamental craft questions fade. We know how to solve them and do it almost out of habit. That habit is the first step to boring. To me at least, that means it’s important to discuss the more complex and advanced questions of craft with other experienced writers in order to help keep us on our toes, keep us learning and developing. If our discussions of craft constantly revolve only around the basics, it seems out thinking about them can become rote, stagnant. Maybe some writers find that kind of monotonous cycle of discussion exactly the kind of thing to spring them out of old habits, but I don’t see that happening a lot.

It seems to me that writing in American is suffering because our so-called “major” practitioners are stuck talking the basics all the time and not really challenging themselves or each other. We’re taking “safe” risks by trying to write about seemingly sensational things (rape, race, politics, etc.) but not taking risks in the ways that we present those stories and so our moral risks are lost under a blanket of banal language and habitually familiar methods of storytelling.

The Laboratory #3

This month’s Laboratory started off with a sad trombone, as Stephen went off in the sticks with his version of the exercise, and I completely dropped the ball, finishing a paragraph and two sentences. But that, of course, didn’t stop us from having a great conversation and saddling ourselves with another exercise. We ended up talking about Gerard Genette, Scientology, Ray Bradbury, John Updike, Milan Kundera, The Lord of the Flies, a TED talk by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on the concept of Flow – something I really needed to watch.

You can see our finished, and our unfinished, exercises here:

Stephen McClurg teaches and lives in Birmingham, Alabama. After winning the National Cherry Blossom Festival Haiku Contest, he spent a week writing haiku for the Washington Post‘s blog. In the past he has published articles, essays, reviews, short stories, poems, and comics in newspapers, journals online and otherwise, and appeared in the anthologies You Ain’t No Dancer and Voices from a Safe Harbor. He has written and composed music for award-winning short films, art installations, and dance.

Exercise 3:
One page. According to Henry James, a writer wrote a novel from a glimpse of a seminary students’ dinner party. Write a scene of a story from a glimpse you have had of a group of people–in a cafe, zoo, train, or elsewhere. Sketch the characters in their setting and let them interact. Do you find that you know too little? Can you make up enough–or import from other experiences–to fill the canvas?

Objective: To find out if you can make much out of little. If you can, great. If you can’t now, don’t worry, you might later, or you’ll have to get your stories from other materials.

Check: Can you visualize these people further? Can you begin to hear at least one person speak? If not, go back and find a way of talking that might fit one of the people in the group, and carry on from there.

The Outrider Podcast is available on iTunes and Stitcher. You can also listen at my website (

The Laboratory #2 with Stephen McClurg

In this episode, Stephen McClurg and I discuss the different ways we approached last month’s exercise rules, and then share our results. This month’s exercise is derived from a method used by Ben Nyberg in his book One Great Way to Write Short Stories. It’s been out of print for quite a while, but you might be able to find on via

You can see our finished exercises here:

Stephen McClurg teaches and lives in Birmingham, Alabama. After winning the National Cherry Blossom Festival Haiku Contest, he spent a week writing haiku for the Washington Post‘s blog. In the past he has published articles, essays, reviews, short stories, poems, and comics in newspapers, journals online and otherwise, and appeared in the anthologies You Ain’t No Dancer and Voices from a Safe Harbor. He has written and composed music for award-winning short films, art installations, and dance.

Exercise #2 Rules
1) Use a violent event from your life
2) Write about the event in first person
3) Rewrite it in third person.
4) Rewrite it again from the other person’s POV

Note on the rules: although this is take from a book on writing short stories, if you want to use the rules to write a poem, that’s cool too.

The Outrider Podcast is available on iTunes and Stitcher. You can also listen at my website (

May’s First Saturday Post

Finished reading Witchita Stories by Troy James Weaver. It’s an excellent collection of vignettes. I recommend getting your hands on it. It’s distributed by Small Press Distribution, so it should be easy for your local indie bookstore to get a copy in for you. Or you can get it straight from the publisher.

I’m starting Weaver’s novella next, Visions, but more about Troy later.

Also finished Citizen by Claudia Rankine. That is a brilliant and painfully necessary piece of work. If someone hasn’t done it yet, I’m thinking I should build a list called “African Americans that Every White American Should Read.” Claudia Rankine, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Charles Johnson, Alexs D. Pate, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes . . . My list will grow and, since it’s my list these will be my rules: African American novelists and poets only – no non-fiction. Why? Because fiction has a more powerful pedagogical leaning than non-fiction. It more firmly engages the empathetic imagination.

Picked up John Ashbery’s Quick Question last month and I’m looking forward to that.

I’ve got a giant stack of to-be-read books . . . hell, it’s almost an entire five shelf bookcase. So maybe I’ll also start Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar, or maybe I’ll finally get around to finishing The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, or Rut.

Although I’ve paid for the whole season, I’ve kind of lost interest in The Last Man on Earth.

If you’ve not seen the movie Dear White People, you should. It’s funny and pointed and very relevant to the larger, more real expressions of racial disharmony in America right now. Look, some people have a knee-jerk defensive reaction to real life displays of anger and frustration. They have a hard time staring into the abyss, so to speak. That’s why we have writers, and why the writers who can look

It’s been a slow month for new music too. I’ve been stuck on my playlist for the story Far Nineteen that I’m trying to finish.

Podcast News
Upcoming conversation with Troy James Weaver. That’ll be out in May. Troy is the author of Witchita Stories, and Visions. Both are out now.

Started the Laboratory as part of the Outrider Podcast with Stephen McClurg. It’s a lot of fun. We talk about a lot of things, and give ourselves a writing assignment each month. The first one was to do a cut-up inspired piece. Our listeners are welcome to play along and send us their completed exercises. We’ll share those in future episodes. So far, no one’s taken us up on the offer.

Gavin Pate and I have started up the Shoptalk series again while Laura Hawley is starting her married life, advancing her nursing career and trying to get some more pages written.

Writing & Submitting
This month I’m combining the two. Here’s why:

I began The Palace of Winds in – (fuck) – 2010, right about the time my father died. I thought I’d make it a trilogy. Kind of a career spanning thing. Three books rolling out whenever I finished them. The first, The Palace of Winds, the second called A Lost Thread, and the last one called Upon a Stranger Sea. These were, and still are, big idea stories (at least for me) – taking family mythology and marrying them to classic mythological stories (Jason & The Golden Fleece, The Minotaur, and the third Prometheus and Pandora) and then attempting to tie them all together in a arc that would follow Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey while disassembling it and reassembling it for a modern era. I’ve always had a hard time articulating the whole idea… but basically I want to try to make form and content match. A traditional mythic structure in the first book that begins to disintegrate and lose its meaning. A labyrinthian second book about dying, death, and inner demons that is trying to find meaning in a world gone meaningless. And, finally, a third book that reassembles meaning out of chaos.

Anyway, so, now, as I have struggled to find a foothold in the second book, I’ve done two things: 1) started a completely unrelated story (Far Nineteen), and 2) taken copious notes and made lots of ridiculous drawings and graphs to try to get a handle on the second book’s intended non-linear structure, that is, I want the story to be both maze-like and readable, but I don’t want it to read like stream of consciousness.

Maybe at this point I’ve over talked it.

Either way, I realized that the basic story I wanted to tell twisted into the form I wanted wasn’t going to be long enough for a stand alone book. That was when I realized, after five years (fuck) that I’ve got a 700 page book on my hands and I’ve only written the first 350 pages.

But I’m in the middle of another book. So, . . . fuck.

If you’ve ever read Michael Chabon’s book The Wonderboys, or seen the movie, then when I say I feel like Professor Grady Tripp, except without the previous fame. I’m trapped in an endless story. I wish I had more confidence in my short fiction, but the problem with my short fiction is that they all want to be long stories, novels or novellas.

Random Thoughts
As often as I move around external disk drives, have replaced internal drives, migrated computers, etc. I should have the whole moving the iTunes library thing figured out. Still wasted a morning with it today.

I’m going to be donating to, volunteering with, and possibly joining, the NAACP. Even white people are sick of white people’s bullshit. The main privilege of being white is the privilege to be oblivious to systemic, ingrained, racism because it doesn’t seem to effect white people. But it does. Every single distant riot in a black neighborhood that scares white people is nothing compared to the individual fear every black man has when a cop stops him for no real reason – And the so-called “reason” the cop is stopping that man is because our culture has a default setting where we (white people) believe that black equals guilty of something. And that’s wrong. It’s so fundamentally morally wrong that it makes me sad and angry and bitter. But what can I do? Sympathy itself doesn’t change anything. Expressions of sorrow don’t change the tenor of the debate. I think the best thing I can do, especially for someone like me, a white male, is to put my hands to work and to be of service.

I’ve been looking for a way to expand my editorial experience – especially in the literary, book publishing world, without taking a giant pay cut and possibly going into default on my student loans. It took me until I was nearly 40 to publish my first book, and to stumble backwards into a job that pays me just enough to live on my own. Anyone got any ideas?

Shoptalk # 7 w/ Gavin Pate

After some wrangling and fuzzy scheduling, it’s finally back on with a new guest. With episode 7 of Shoptalk I bring in Gavin Pate to chat with me about the day-to-day and year-to-year of being a writer in the world when you’re not famous or pushing a brand new book. This is the long haul version of the podcast, unlike the get-to-know-you episodes. In here, we talk shop.

Gavin is Associate Professor of English at Virginia Wesleyan College, and the author of the novel The Way to Get Here from Bootstrap Press ( His short fiction has appeared in several journals and been included in the Velvet Anthology Warmed & Bound.

The Outrider Podcast is available on iTunes and Stitcher. You can also listen at my website (


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