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.


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!!


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.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Rabbit Was Yummy and Other Great Plots

I get blogger’s block. I do. Weeks go by and I have not a thing I want to say here. This is odd. I don’t get writer’s block. Or rather, I’m never short on ideas for stories. I’ve got stories aplenty. So many stories.

Here’s something: I just finished A Dance With Dragons, the most recent installment in George R.R. Martin’s sword-and-sorcery epic. I take those books in with a mindsweep. I unlock my literary jaws and consume them python style. My limbic system gets so juiced that my critical-reading faculties give up and go hang out at the bar until I’m done. Seriously. I cannot comment one way or the other on the series’ literary merit. Ask me to write a review of Martin’s series and you’d get: “ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod.”

One of the first books I remember loving was called Experiment in Terror. It was a YA title, I think. It was about aliens who grow up as humans and don’t know they’re aliens until their bodies start changing. Come to think of it, it must have been a puberty analogy. Experiment in terror, indeed.

Point being: I’ve always had an affinity for what’s usually called genre.

The novel I’m working on now has aspects of sci-fi. But it has far fewer aspects of sci-fi than did my first attempt at this story. I found that all the sci-fi I was including was absorbing too much of the story’s energy, pulling the gravity away from the characters. I have more tolerance for “big plots” in the stuff I read. I have very little tolerance for “big plots” in my own stuff. Everything always ends up feeling forced. A forgery.

Speaking of plots, about time for The Walking Dead to find one. Come on, guys. Can’t spend the entire show sitting around a farm waiting for Shane to kill or be killed. A little momentum is not a bad thing.

A Dance With Dragons has pounds of plot. You could use the plot to calculate the density of the sun.

The plot of the novel I’m writing revolves around the finding or not finding of a mythical city. Kinda. It’s also about love tearing the world in half. Perhaps I should add in something about aliens experiencing puberty. And throw in a few zombies and dragons, too. I bet a teenage alien zombie dragon novel would sell. Thing writes itself.

I guess the plot of this post is plots. Although, when I started, I intended on mentioning my successful preparation of rabbit. On Wednesday of last week, I decided I wanted rabbit for dinner that coming Saturday. I made this happen. The plot was: Alan wants to eat a bunny. It was a very linear story progressing to a happy ending. No genre elements in sight.

Friday, February 3, 2012

A Political Rant of Sorts

We are the language of propaganda. We use words like “abomination” and “unconscionable” and “unforgivable” to describe what is really just “unpleasant” and “concerning” and “imprudent.” We choose anger because anger is simple. Or we choose to be oblivious because oblivion requires nothing in return. When we gather, we do so in tribes, and we do so with chants, and we mistake our camaraderie for morality and our obsessions for principles. The other tribes we see only from afar and only in the shadows cast by their fires. We paint those shadows in all their deformities and we call what we see an abomination. “They will destroy us,” we say. And we believe the words. For the words are we.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Finite Thoughts

Next to my bed is a bookshelf full of all the books I intend to read or have begun reading or enjoyed so much that I feel the need to keep close to me as I slumber. For a good while, Infinite Jest occupied the “plan to read” shelf, sitting there in its immensity, spine taunting, the book clearly aware that I am a slow reader and an easily distracted reader, the kind of reader who has five or six books going concurrently and is reading none of them with any expediency. At a little under 500,000 words and notoriously dense, Infinite Jest seemed very much like the kind of book I wouldn’t finish. So I didn’t start. Until, of course, I did (no book gets away with taunting me forever). And an unexpected thing happened: I didn’t once put the book down to pick up something else. I finished it. Every word. Sure, it took a good, long while and lots of hauling around, the book occupying entire compartments in my luggage whenever I traveled, the thing sitting prominently on nightstands in ways that felt a tad ridiculous. But I finished the novel, damn it. I persevered.

If it sounds like the book was a bit of a struggle for me, that’s because it was. Don’t get me wrong; I quite enjoyed Infinite Jest. The language is astounding and the ideas are huge and the effect is penetrating. This is not a novel about which I will soon stop thinking. I would very much like to write a novel as grand. But, good God, the thing can get tedious. David Foster Wallace has no patience for my impatience. It’s his world and he’s going to reveal it in as much intricate detail as he can. Even when that detail lacks any sort of internal propulsion, narrative or otherwise (save Wallace’s enthralling voice).

Plot? This novel has no traditional plot. It has moments that may or may not be part of a greater plot but are, just as often, nothing more than temporal segments extracted from the lives of fascinating characters. These moment/segments interrelate, but the interrelations occur most often in the gaps between sections (i.e.: in the spaces within the reader’s mind) as much as they occur on the page. The last tenth of the novel is mostly flashback and summary of flashbacks of things that occurred well before the events of the novel. The first chapter occurs after the events contained in the rest of the novel. We have here not a story told from beginning to end, but a rain of fragments, a splintered meteor ablating into luminescent parts that incandesce in loose formation, streaking towards us and begging to be assembled back into their whole. Of course, such an assembly is not fully possible, not for this novel and certainly not for life itself where our own moments come and go and end up contained in remembered fragments, some possessing great significance, some merely absurd, and some waiting unattended within us until recalled at a later time and imbued with a new meaning.

Infinite Jest occasionally teases with the possibility of a grand plot, but it ends right before everything seems ready to coalesce. The first chapter gives us clues as to what happened after the “end,” but all we really get to see is the effect those events had, not the grand events themselves. Those events are transformative, but Wallace chose not to write them. I think I like that. Much of our lives are about those things that come “before” and those things that come “after.” The events that change us are just that: events. They are not the change itself. Change is something else. Change is the thing that transpires inside all the other moments. Even the ones that feel mundane.

I have a feeling that reading Infinite Jest has changed me. Many books do. But this one may eventually get a place back on my bedside shelf. Alongside those other favorite with which I like to sleep.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

This is the First Time I've Ever Mentioned Tao Lin

Apparently there has been a controversy (litroversy?) over a story published at MuuMuu House. “Adrien Brody” by Marie Calloway. I like Rae Bryant’s take. Super intelligent and just the right tone.

MuuMuu House is a Tao Lin production. Tao Lin gets mentioned an awful lot in the indie lit world. This is the first time he’s been mentioned here.

It seems people like to take positions concerning Tao Lin. My official position on Tao Lin is: meh.

My official position on “Adrien Brody” is: I’d have liked to have seen it as a 450 word prose poem.

Full disclosure: I didn’t read the whole 15,000 words. I found it not to my tastes.

This Caitlin Horrocks story in Paris Review is to my tastes.

As is this Robb Todd piece at The Fiddleback.

Both those stories take place in a normal kind of day and are written in clear prose. And yet, the voices are beautiful and the impacts lasting.

I got into a period last year where I moved too far away from direct storytelling. I blame Matt Bell. How They Were Found has some brilliant stories written in structurally innovative ways; I read it early in 2011 and was so impressed I wanted to try some formal experimentation, too. Turns out, I can’t do what Matt does. Or, perhaps, rather, my most true voice cannot accommodate too much fiddling with form.

Last year was mostly a lost year publishing wise. But I think it was a very significant writing year. Even if 98% of what I wrote in 2011 will never leave my file folders.

By all accounts, Marie Calloway is very young. I wonder what she’ll be writing when she’s 40.

I wonder what I’ll be writing when I’m 40.

I’ll be 40 in 2.75 years.

People tell me this makes me young, too.