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.
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.
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.