Monday, February 3, 2014

Still Here. Somewhere.

My apologies for the lack of posts. I am in the process of taking the whole online presence thing to something less utilitarian than this blogger blog.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Thinking About Advice

Sometimes when I’m writing a story I start imagining a writing professor teaching the story. The writing professor is very nice to my story. She makes all my failings seem like genius. “See what he’s doing here,” she says. “This whole story is really about destabilizing our sense of narrative. The aunt’s seemingly cliché character traits are deft commentary on the modernist tradition. See?”

I mock the excuse-making writing professor. But at least she’s nice. At least she’s not the mean, flat-topped bully who tells me what I need to do is throw the damn story away and go take a shower. Because, you see, I stink.

There is a debate as to whether writing can be taught. I’ve always found the discussion a bit odd. Sure, a tiny proportion of people in the world can write masterpieces without ever studying narrative structure or learning the principle of show-don’t-tell (and all its caveats). But most of us awaken to this world in, at best, a state of mediocrity. We need to be taught. To be shown. What talent we have needs to be found and shaped. There may be no rules to writing, but there is definitely good advice.

And yet…

The greatest lesson for any writer has little to do with the words on the page. The greatest lesson is to ignore those interior voices. The writing professor. The bully. The tanked-up partygirl who thinks it’d be fun to just go drinking. The bowtied loudmouth who reminds you that there is an argument happening on the Internet and your opinion is needed.

All of these fine folk are fools. Their opinions are worthless. The only way to ever create a decent story/novel/article/etc. is to stay in the chair until it is done and then remain in the chair until it is revised and revised and revised.

Of all the lessons I’ve learned from my mentors, the most consistently valuable is to stay in the chair. And to stay true to myself and not the voices. Failure will still happen. But it won’t be guaranteed. And in this business, that’s actually a pretty big step.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Uncomfortable Weather

It is too cold for late April in South Texas. Gray. The birds are huddled in confusion and my ancient dog is curled into the kind of funk peculiar to dogs who could once sprint after the furthest tennis ball but now struggle to ascend a few stairs. The cold puts an ache in his joints.

I am more like the birds.

Today I will write. Yesterday I wrote. Tomorrow I will write. This is more than mere conjugation. This is philosophy. Or at least credo. I write, therefor—

But there are seasons, of course. Days, indeed. Something unsettled occasionally moving into the air. To which I tilt my head and wonder what machinations of high pressures and winds and deep currents and so forth led to this. There are always forces behind it. Those in the know see it gathering. Although, I never know. And so I am surprised. And I am late to grab a sweater.

I used to run more, too. Not that I am ancient or anything near. But years ago I could run the entirety of Prospect Park. I am winded easily now. I walk instead. And that I can do well. Unless the weather is bad. Then I do this instead.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

#AWP13


What I love about AWP:
 
That I get to see so many friends. Particularly those I’ve come to know through days of workshops and nights of revelry.
 
That I hear amazing writers, particularly those who know how to read their work with passion.
 
That books surround. So many, beautiful books. That this can exist in the world is uplifting.
 
That I stay up past my bedtime because the conversations are worth the exhaustion.
 
That running into brilliant writers is an hourly occurrence.
 
That not knowing my plans in the morning no way precludes me from having a wonderful day.
 
That it’s just assumed we’ll all come home with more books than we can read in a year.
 
That my friends are my tribe. We beat drums and we dance. And there’s always plenty of beer.
 
 
What I dislike about AWP:
 
That it’s in cold cities, in cold parts of the year.
 
That the hotel bar is forever understaffed.
 
That the information guide is unwieldy and unindexed.
 
That by Saturday, too many people just glance at your nametag and then treat you according to your perceived status.
 
That status is even perceived. We’re writers, y’all. The best of us toil anonymously for years. How could we know if we’re in the presence of greatness if that greatness is still unpublished?
 
That the airline always charges me extra for the weight of the books I buy.
 
That I can’t see more of you, more often.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

In Defense of Adverbs (etc.)

I see the admonition frequently. No adverbs. They weaken the bones. This is sometimes expanded into the advice that all extra words should be summarily exorcised. Except, of course, they wouldn’t use the word ‘summarily.’ Or, probably, ‘of course.’ Or ‘probably.’ Probably.
 
And here's where I get to my point. Yes, words weaken our work when those words are unnecessary. But what was unnecessary to, say, Raymond Carver may be vital to Jennifer Egan. Which is to say: all words can serve a purpose. Adverbs are not, I believe, inherently bad. They are easily abused, that’s for sure. They are the gateway drug to purple prose. To prose whose ornamentations blunt its power. But there are times when what might at first glance appear to be ornamentation—those flourishes and the those uses of the linguistically baroque—are, on further review, a powerful part of the prose. Indeed, they can often be an important aspect of what we call voice.
 
When voice was first mentioned to me, I wasn’t sure what the hell it was. I sensed it had something to do with syntactical choices, as if voice was a formula for producing sentences. I was wrong, obviously. But I wasn’t wrong wrong. Because there is an element of voice that enters the syntactical. And that often has something to do with the preponderance of flourishes. Of adverbs. Of asides. Of conversationality (but, of course, you see…). These ‘unnecessary’ words can give a story a certain pop, a unique rhythm that enhances rather than detracts from the artistic/emotional/enjoyment impact.
 
They also give us a sense of the writer’s consciousness. Meaning, it is through the way a writer uses language that we enter their interior world. We see things the way they see things. Even when we’re being led through a story by a character or characters, we are still within the writer’s consciousness. The greatest writers expand our view of the world by forcing us to tilt our heads and see things from a different vantage. And that vantage is, by the nature of the craft, their vantage.
 
I believe the admonition to delete so-called unnecessary words can flatten prose to the point that we no longer have access to a writer’s consciousness. That helps create what is often (erroneously) called MFA-style writing. Those sentences that haven’t been carefully constructed so much as they have been industriously pruned. Those voices that don’t invite us into a consciousness but rather try to impress (or at least avoid offense) with their technical precision. That is the kind of writing I often see and almost never enjoy.
 
I am making a broad claim, I realize. Just as I realize that a wonton use of language can be equally alienating. There is room for a thousand opinions when it comes to craft. But the more I write and (more importantly) the more I read, the more I fall in love with those so-called extra words. Those embellishments. Those much-maligned adverbs.
 
Our language is a vast and roiling pool. I like the idea of diving deep and barely making it up for air.

Monday, November 12, 2012

My Daughter Uses Jenga Blocks as Dominos

I’m revising a novel. A first revision, although I revised plenty during the drafting phase. I spent hours on single sentences. Still, this is the first big-picture revision. Macro level. Redrawing the boundaries of nations.

This is my second go with a novel. The first made it through to completion and submission. But I’m realizing I never revised it. Not properly. Or at least not like I’m revising now. For that other novel, I wanted to hold onto a lot because the alternative was daunting. Revising a novel can feel like a game of Jenga. You don’t want to upset anything for fear of the structural ramifications.

But here’s what I’m learning: I’m not refining an existing tower, I’m building a new tower. Same components, new appearance. Nothing can be upset because nothing is set. The first draft was a blueprint on a napkin. This is the CAD model.

I try not to think of it in quantities of time. I try not to think to myself: holy hell, rewriting this chapter will take a month but revising it and forcing it to work will take just a few days. Because, really, there’s a vast gap between ‘the best answer’ and ‘a decent enough answer.’ And creating the best novel I can create is more important to me than creating a decent enough novel.

This is my way of explaining why I have nothing new coming out anytime soon. And also why I don’t mind. I'm enjoying the building.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

I Apologize in Advance


I don’t think many people hear themselves from outside themselves.

 

I speak of politics. Of course. Sadly, of course. I am a former junkie trying not to relapse. You see, this is the first big election with social media in full bloom. I read a lot of posts. Your posts? Some are fine. Engaging and educating, even. Others …

 

Our voices are so beautiful reverberating inside the chamber of our skulls.

 

I want to comment on a lot of political posts/tweets/whatevers. I don’t do so because what I want more is to avoid avoidable arguments. But, were I a man more comfortable with confrontation, I’d say: Do you realize how snotty you sound? Yes. Snotty is the word here. Dismissive. Obstinately certain of one’s own bearings. Snotty.

 

My voice, in particular, is very rich as it vibrates around the meat of my brain. You should hear it. A gorgeous thing.

 

Just because you (and by you, I don’t mean you) find it immensely easy to choose a candidate—and just because you find it even easier to label the other candidate as grossly unacceptable—doesn’t mean I do (although, I do this particular time, but this isn’t about me … much … yet). What I mean is: you make it sound like anyone who disagrees with you is clearly ignorant and quite possibly malicious in their intent. And this achieves what? A sense of self-righteousness? A flurry of Likes?

 

I always have perfect pitch when the noise remains contained within me.

 

Let me avoid equivocation: neither candidate is an ogre and neither candidate’s election will bring about doom. Real change—and, yes, real hope—exists far outside the office of the presidency. If you are prone to follow politics like people follow sports—if you root for the failure of the “other” side and celebrate the success of “your” side regardless of how those successes came to be—you’re doing exactly what the parties want you to do. They want you to be tribalized. They want your face painted and your shirt stripped off. They want you rejoicing whenever a guy from the other team breaks his leg and booing loudly whenever the guy from the other team does well. This is the way they make sure they can always count not only your vote, but on your willingness to repeat their talking points and cheer them on publically, year after year. This is the way they ensure they never have to do much other than make sure you still dislike the other guys.

 

Yes, my voice is a powerful thing when I hear it, alone. Damn, it sounds righteous.

 

I’m blue with this argument. I’ve made it for so long I wonder if I’m just a contrarian at this point. A friend recently called me hyper-sensitive to partisanship. I am. It’s true. I don’t like what it does to otherwise brilliant, loving people. I don’t like that when I sit at a bar and talk to you, you’re completely reasonable about every issue. But then you go post things online that are full of partisan talking points. And are snotty. So snotty that I know anyone of a different opinion is going to dismiss you outright. This isn’t a small thing. We are this nation. We form parties. We elect our government. If we allow a few powerbrokers to direct our emotions and opinions, we, all of us, lose. Dialogue is silenced. Entrenched powers remain entrenched.

 

Oh, I’m singing now. I am Pavarotti inside this skull.

 

I guarantee none of us agrees completely with the other. I support gay marriage and I support the rights of the Second Amendment. I support unions and I’m not a big fan of the healthcare bill. I support the privatization of Social Security (insert a thousand caveats here) and I support the trust-busting of our nation’s largest banks. I think the far left has a disturbing habit of moral equivocation that paints America as far, far worse than it is, and I think the far-right is willfully and dangerously ignorant about economics and science. Anyone agree with me 100%? I’d be very surprised.

 

Boom. Boom. High note. Boom.

 

We should all have principles. But we don’t need parties. What we need is intellectual curiosity. What we need is a willingness to seek out those things that bind us rather than carelessly making statements that do nothing but divide us. Leave the tribalism for sports. This is our government. This is serious shit. Don’t let the parties direct how we, the people, interact with one another. We don’t need them. They need us. And we can tell them both to go to hell if we have the will to do so.

 

And now it’s quiet in hear. Just a ringing. Faint and fading.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Lawn is Dead Again

Once, I overheard a woman complaining about all the packing she had to do for her upcoming cruise1.

What I complain about is time. Or, rather, the constriction thereof. No time to water the lawn. No time to organize my closet. No time to, well, blog.

This is self-inflicted, of course. There is always some quantifiable amount of time after work is done and the kids' needs/wants/whims are taken care of and my own belly is full. But with what to fill that time? Read a novel and miss my favorite television show? Write a blog post and leave my shirts hanging in an incongruent mess of colors and sleeve lengths?

I jest. I guess. Television is patient for us these days and worrying about the arrangement of shirts is neurotic at best. Particularly for a guy who works at home and wears t-shirts 90% of his life.

But…

Well, there’s more, isn’t there? There are those things that are less important than keeping one’s children alive but more important than keeping one’s lawn alive. And those things need time, too.

Exercise. Sleep. The pursuit of dreams.

How do you finish a novel while working constantly and raising children? How do you do that without pissing off your spouse and your friends? From where do you embezzle the time? Do you let your gym membership fester? Do you sleep so little that your hair falls out? Because we’re not talking about needing 30 minutes here and there. We’re talking about needing hours that will equal days that will equal weeks that will count upwards to full months of minutes.

When I heard that woman talking about her cruise, I thought how much I would love it if my chief complaint was having to pack for a vacation. Privilege has its privileges. Nannies! Gardeners! Maids! Personal frickin’ chefs!!

But…

That’s not really the point, is it? Even the most privileged can find reasons to be frustrated, can permit unhappiness to slither into their days. If we let it, emptiness can consume a thousand free hours. Sure, with time, we might be able to exercise until our bodies are stone-like while blogging/tweeting/status updating every rep and crunch. Our lawns will glow with heavenly green. Our clothes will hang in beautiful coordination.

But that pursuit of dreams thing? We might have the time, but do we have the...

Will. Want. Need.

No one finishes a novel simply because they have free time. Even the worst of novels took more than a few free afternoons. And the best of them? A million years wouldn’t be long enough for most of us to equal the feat.

Time may be a necessity but it is a road; it contains no fuel of its own. As I stumble deep into my 30s, I’m learning that, when I have not the time to write, it’s not the lack of time I should blame. I live a comfortable enough life. Time is there. In pockets. Gasps. Centimeters of space. It’s just a matter of having the will to use it. And the will to let the lawn die.





1. For weeks I’d been in a situation where I could eavesdrop on this woman and her friends. The upper-class overtones of this particular statement are quite representative of this woman’s wealth and, um, separation from the common concerns.a

            a. This is the only footnote.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

After We Were Nothing

I’m excited to say I have a story at The Collagist. It’s called "After We Were Nothing" and I owe plenty of thanks to Matt Bell for giving the story such a perfect home, and for providing some key editorial insights.

A good editor means so much.

I really like this story. Hope you do too.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Something Like Us

Twitter is a room where we can talk to ourselves and pretend what we’re saying is something interesting.

Facebook is a therapy session. At a bar.

Blogs are so we don’t annoy our spouses with our ramblings.

I’ve still not figured out the use of things like tumblr or Pinterest, but I image they’re like decorating the inside of your high school locker.

In fact, it’s all like decorating a locker. Pictures and little bits of poetry and aspirational sayings and cartoons.

We know it’s not us. But it’s something like us. And that feels a bit better than nothing.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

That Pulitzer Thing

So, you know the story. Pulitzer didn't pick a fiction winner this year. Literary world burns. Etc.

In responding to Ann Patchett's piece in The New York Times where she contends that Eugenides's The Marriage Plot could have won if Eugenides hadn't previously won, a friend of mine said that if The Marriage Plot is representative of the year's finest fiction, then maybe it's a good thing no one won because, to paraphrase, a no winner might be good for American fiction, given the Pulitzer committee as earned the integrity to tell the writing community that it's falling short of greatness.

So, to that, I say:

Obviously if the Pulitzer committee doesn't think anything is worthy of their esteem then it's their prerogative to withhold the award. However, I find it rather silly that they have done so, regardless of the quality of fiction released last year.

The purpose of awarding the Pulitzer is to recognize the best writing. The purpose is not to serve as some carrot meant to inspire better writing. To make an analogy: while an Oscar for an art film can surely lead to more art films (based on the funding that becomes available due to the prestige/economic gain that comes with doing a film that is/may be Oscar worthy), works of literature, during their lonely process of creation, are removed from the kinds of economics/funding needs of films.

I can't imagine any serious author deciding to write a book "like" one that just won a Pulitzer. And I certainly can't see any serious author thinking "well, damn, I should write better" simply because the Pulitzer committee withheld the award this year. I suppose this might influence authors writing for non-literary reasons, but the Pulitzer doesn't exist to recognize writers of non-artistic motivations.
 
If the Pulitzer committee found none of the books they looked at worthy, perhaps they should reconsider the types of books that make it through the selection process and reach that committee. Perhaps it is that process and not the state of American fiction that is the problem.
 
My point being: I find it extremely hard to believe that NO work of fiction released in 2011 rose to the standards of excellence set by previous winners. Sure, some years the winner will be far superior to other years; but greatness is a fluid thing and exists within a spectrum. To withhold the award is rather pompous and only hurts the writing community that Pulitzer exists to support. Their decision this year takes away not only economic gain but it takes away readers who may have engaged with a work of literature because it held Pulitzer's seal.

I suppose it helps their "integrity" by having the option to withhold the award, but actually withholding the award isn't doing much, if anything, to help American letters. It is, however, giving plenty of writers plenty of reason to get up on their high horses.

And if it appears that I cut-and-paste this from an email, you're right. Consider it time saving since I wanted to write about this anyway.


Of Rainbows and O.J.

Wanted to point to a couple of stories that entered the world in the last week.

"To the End" is over at Used Furniture Review.

"Twenty-Nine Failed Beginnings to 'The Tag Brewster Story'" is over at H_NGM_N.

Thrilled about both of these and I have to personally thank Matthew Dube at H_NGM_N for the time and energy he put into helping me get this story where it needed to be.

It is interesting how these things align. Both of these stories proved super tricky and each took a long time to bring together. "Twenty-Nine Failed Beginnings" definitely holds my personal record for time elapsed between first draft and final publication. "To the End" holds my time-elapsed record for a flash-length story.

Hope you enjoy them.

Monday, April 2, 2012

I Wish My Brain Worked

See, the problem here is: I read slowly. There is nothing that can be done. This is a lifelong problem that remains unresolved no matter how much or how often I read.

There are those of you in my social media network who seem to finish a book in the time it takes me to find my reading light. I want to be you. I want to devour.

I cannot. I must labor. And I know, in a very real way, that this means I will finish fewer books in my lifetime. I am saddened by this. So many words denied. Because my brain doesn't work.

{insert obligatory "but my life is pretty awesome otherwise" caveat which I would've written except that -- damn it -- I want to finish more books.}

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Moments in Moments

We lose ourselves. I could mistype that as “we loose ourselves” but the meaning doesn’t leave the meaning of my meaning.

See: I count people on their phones and turn it into percentages. 95% of the people on a bus from the car rental place to the airport. 75% of people on a metro. 25% of every table at a restaurant. Buried heads. Inert eyes. I observe but am not observed.

Of course, I submerge as well. I am bored, so I see if Facebook is more interesting than the present reality. A text trumpets, so I respond. But I do resist. I do. There is nothing particularly real in my mechanical palm. It has no smells or tastes or sounds beyond the preprogramed and unsurprising. And the words? They wait. That’s the thing; they wait. What’s in front of me however…

I’m preaching, of course. I’m proclaiming a certain preference over another and a conservative one at that. If by conservative I mean it’s an attempt to conserve what was. That immediacy of life. That confinement in the moment, unable to be lost—or to loosen the ties. All of us forced to exist within the full grasp of our environment or the imprisonment of our interior lives. How the hell did we suffer through such a thing? I’m not even sure if I mean that as sarcastic.

Here’s the point:

I love my iPhone. But I hate yours.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Chicago Was...

So, I AWPed again. Books, booze and beards. I don’t have a beard. But I made up for it in books and booze.

At some point between Denver (my first and most recent AWP) and Chicago, I became the kind of person who runs into people at the book fair. I ran into a lot of people. And, of course, I sought more than a few others out. It was all a hell of a lot of fun.

Cool moment: discovering that Hayden’s Ferry Review made a button out of my story “Leap.”

Another cool moment: meeting Jarrett Haley at Bull and getting to thank him in person for publishing “What Our Fathers Knew,” the first story of mine to ever really got noticed in the indie publishing world.

Beautiful moment(s): hearing Cheryl Strayed read twice.

Beautiful moment addendum: I got to hang out with Cheryl Strayed for a while in the hotel restaurant. She has been a mentor and a friend and I loved getting to tell her how happy I am for all the attention and success she’s having.

Continuously awesome moment: rolling with my MFA gang (literally rolling, as it seemed we were always in cabs). Seth Fischer, Heather Luby, Yuvi Zalkow, Eric Steineger, LeVan Hawkins, Telaina Ericksen and Robert Egan are all killer writers, cool people, and fine, fine drinkers of adult beverages.

Most awkward moment: in a weekend full of awkwardness, I managed to compliment Michael Czyzniejewski on a story he didn’t read. Or rather, I completely misheard the story he read and told him afterwards how wonderful his story on William Wallace was, when it was a story about William Wells. Which should have been obvious even to my AWP-addled brain. He was reading from his excellent collection Chicago Stories.

Regrettable moment: all those moments I didn’t get to spend with people I’d planned to see. The whole thing goes by so fast and there are a million events at any given moment and my best laid plans were, apparently, not so well laid.

Best moment: The world that flowed chilly and occasionally snowy, so full of words, on pages, from mouths, in minds.