Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Talking About He Is Talking to the Fat Lady

When I heard xTx was releasing a chapbook, I jumped. Glad I did because I’m now the proud owner of one of the few printed versions (#36 in fact) of He Is Talking to the Fat Lady; and I love owning printed things. I don’t even have to feel guilty for hording words. The chapbook is digitally available here at Safety Third.

This isn’t a review. This is a suggestion that you get a hold of the stories contained within He Is Talking to the Fat Lady. While a lot of writers are flitting around the edges of ennui and introspection, xTx is driving straight into the gut. The result is a collection of stories that combine physical violence and various kinds numbness to create a beautifully desperate look at emotional frailty and our attempts at resilience.

I often think we live in an overwhelming time, where none of us truly has the capacity to bear or even process the stories of horror and loss and struggle that flood into our lives through all these connections. xTx is capturing that overwhelming experience in a way few writers can.

That sounds like a review. Maybe it’s a review. But I intend it as a recommendation.

"The Nameless" at PANK

If this was Novemeber, I could say Happy PANKsgiving and feel mildly clever. But it's December. So maybe: Merry PANKsmas. I'm not sure that's appropriately non-demoninational. It also sounds weird.

In any case, this is all to say that the December PANK is live right here and it contains my story-like thing "The Nameless."

So ends today's self-promotion.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

How We Talk About This Thing We Do

For reasons not worth explaining, I was quote-hunting today, centering my efforts on the various arts and their various inspirations. I looked for quotes on dancing and music and painting and poetry and general writing (aka that thing we term fiction).

Here’s what prompted this post: for all the arts save general writing (aka that thing we term fiction), the quote sites overflowed with pleasant little missives about how said art was the yada yada whatever journey to/revelation of truth/beauty/life. Good quotes. Perfect for my needs today.

Now, as for those general writing quotes, I’d say 90% or more pretty much discussed what a god-awful slog this business of ours is and how it requires nothing short of pulling your soul out of your nose/anus/ear/pores.

Poetry? Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat (Frost). Poetry is an echo, asking shadow to dance (Sandburg). General writing? Yeah, that’s pain, pain, suffering, pain.


Bollocks. Bollocks.

Writing – general writing, fiction writing, whatever – is the most freeing thing I do. As silly as it sounds, I get to be a lover, a killer, a mechanic, a prince (actually, I don’t think I’ve ever written about a prince, but I sure as hell could). I get to recreate the world daily. I get to squeeze this big mess of nonsense into something that contains meaning – at least to me, at least for me. And that’s not nothing. That’s not something everyone gets to do.

Sure, some days it’s a pain to write – because I’m tired or sad or busy or because I’m feeling suffocated by the omnipresent fear that my creation will fall painfully short of my vision. But despite this, I do write. And I do love it.

So, in the event I’m ever fortunate enough to be Bartlett’s worthy, I pledge to say something like this: Writing is the way we slice through the chains that hold us inside ourselves. Writing is how we, for even a moment, stop being so damn lonely.

Enough now. Back to this story of mine that’s falling painfully short of my vision for it.

Monday, December 6, 2010

"Leap" at Hayden's Ferry Review

Thanks so much to Beth Staples and the editors at Hayden's Ferry Review for including my story "Leap" in Issue #47. The story is available in the print issue; or you can read it online here.

The opening:

They found my roommate’s body stuffed into a drainage pipe two miles from campus. I saw it on the news before anyone came to my dorm-room door. “Body of Missing Student Believed Found.” He’d been dead for five days. I’d like to claim I was the one who’d reported him missing. But I hadn’t even known he was gone until his girlfriend called the police.

The knocks at my door began a few minutes after the news of his death hit. Light tapping at first. Then people banging, shouting for me to open. I imagined them swarming in the hall. If I’d opened the door, they would’ve eaten me. Skin first and then the red parts. I sat in my desk chair next to the window, the February air coming in cold as I watched my roommate’s fish swim circles in his tank. A key rattled in the lock. Then the door opened, and there was the resident assistant with two cops, clones of each other, formal posture, pug faces. A crowd gathered behind them but didn’t come in. “You the roommate of Baron Butler?” one of the cops asked. The RA told him I was. “That’s David Nikkola,” he said. My name is Davis. But I offered no correction. Or maybe I mumbled one. I don’t know. This was five years ago now.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Cut Through the Bone Now Available!

You should order this book. Because Ethel Rohan is amazing. And amazing writers should be read.

Buy it here.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Finding Meaning in How They Were Found

The first time I read a collection of David Foster Wallace’s short stories, the depth of his fiction reminded me of the depth in great essays. The man had a point to everything he wrote; his fiction doesn’t just tell a story (in the same way his nonfiction doesn’t just, say, report on a lobster festival). He was always needling at something more important, something worth examining, something worth trying to understand even if understanding is/was impossible.

While reading How They Were Found, Matt Bell’s excellent new collection of stories from Keyhole Press, I saw Bell engaging in a similar process of digging. Bell – while a very different writer than Wallace – doesn’t keep to the surface. The stories in How They Were Found dig into essential questions. How do we organize our life after tragedy? How do we comprehend that which has no explanation? How do we uncover what matters amidst so much that seems so meaningless?

Confession: a lot of modern fiction bores me. Truly. Many of the short stories I encounter are well-written and nicely controlled, but ultimately unimportant because of their smallness in consequence or because they travel such well-trodden terrain. Bell doesn’t write that kind of fiction. Bell writes fiction that roils with a desperate want to comprehend this world, a burning desire to seek out and grasp some truth, even if it's small, even if it vanishes in a breath.

From the very first story that follows a man using a system of cartography to seek out a lost love to “The Receiving Tower” where the main character is losing his memory (in a possibly post-apocalyptic world, nonetheless) to the structural experimentation of “Wolf Parts,” “The Collectors” and particularly “An Index Of How Our Family Was Killed,” Bell has assembled a collection filled with characters yearning for understanding and propelled by a belief that such understanding is actually possible. It’s that yearning – that hope – that pushes us to care and makes us want to read more, even when the stories turn disturbing (helpful tip: read “Dredge” on an empty stomach).

Writers enamored with inventive structures and rich language sometimes produce impenetrable work that is more literary artifact than meaningful story. Fortunately, despite the complexities in many of Bell’s stories in this collection, they are still stories. Which is to say: they are good reads. Nothing feels overly forced; nothing feels done just for the sake of showing off writerly abilities or messing around with language for the sake of messing around with language. The structural choices within How They Were Found are the product of specific characters and their specific need for understanding. Bell allows his characters to present information in whatever ways are most meaningful to them. Sometimes, that’s linear with traditional flashbacks, but sometimes that’s in the form of an alphabetized list. The result is a collection of stories that feels born from the characters and not from the mind of some overly playful writer.

The collection, of course, is not perfect. The best stories (“Collectors” and “An Index Of How Our Family Was Killed” being my personal favorites), so outshine some of the smaller stories in this collection that, when going back to write this review, I came across a couple of stories I’d completely forgotten. This is not an uncommon problem in story collections. But, with Bell, I get the sense that it’s a consequence of him being a writer just beginning to come into his own. The collection is certainly well-assembled and well-paced, but there are softer spots, stories that lack the openness of some of the collection’s best stories, as if Bell is still working to find a balance between his desire to cross literary boundaries and his desire to make his stories meaningful. The stories that make this collection brilliant are the ones that Bell allows the reader to move through and explore. The stories that shine less so are the ones where I felt Bell leading me by the hand (i.e.: “Hold Onto Your Vacuum” loses some of its whacked-out strangeness once the sadistic Teacher explains the purpose of his violence. I would have liked if the meaning of the story had been much less tidy.).

Nevertheless, How They Were Found is an excellent collection and is worth reading by anyone who enjoys good stories. Even more so, it’s a collection worth reading for those who want their fiction to contain deeper meanings. Fiction, at its best, is a submersion into the questions of its age. And in a world of random violence, cultural wars and proliferating “truths,” I’m not sure there are too many questions more important than: how do we find meaning in all of this? Matt Bell explores that very issue. And it’s what makes his collection a true standout.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

This Thing of Ours

Sometimes I get frustrated. Out of whack. Writing will do that to you. Just trying to write will do that to you. The other night I was emailing a fellow writer and it all just kind of fell apart for me. Or came together in that weird way collapses combine what wasn’t before combined.

I crib from that email here because I feel the impetus to do so. You see, I’m in a weird place: I’ve got this novel that I would really, really love to get out into the world, but those things take time and as those things are taking time, I’m trying to make a living and trying to keep writing and trying to raise a family and trying be something that simulates normal. It’s all just a dog pile after awhile.

This thing we do ... this writing thing ... it’s a fight. It’s a fight against the cultural impetus to hang it up. And it has been a fight since the moment we realized we want to write, hasn't it? I mean, everything I've encountered in life has tried to push me into something less-than art. My job as a copywriter is the perfect example. What a ruinous compromise! Or, rather, it would be ruinous if I was to convince myself that it’s enough to call those websites and brochures and ad campaigns real writing. I have to fight to keep them in their place. To call them a paycheck. To give them no more emotional weight than money deserves. I often fail at this. I often let my day be destroyed by the petty happenings of my job.

Even now, I think: oh, shit, I shouldn’t be writing this. Someone who pays me will read it and assume I don’t care, that I’m not giving my copywriting my all. But that’s not the point. The point is really the opposite: to make a successful living – to feed a family and all of that – you better as hell give it your all. But giving your all to one thing makes it that much harder to give your all to another thing, particularly when that other thing is this pursuit – this mostly uncompensated pursuit – of something that might be art.

It’s brutal out there, out here. Doesn't matter what your choices have been. Single. Married. Kids. No kids. Rich. Poor. This is not a culture that values what we do in any grand sense. This is a culture of enterprise, of capitalism. Dreamers are rewarded only by the economic viability of their dreams. We are not rewarded merely for the capacity to express those dreams in ways no one else can. And yet we choose to keep at it -- to try to pierce through the culture, to expose some small bit of truth or beauty or horror or failure. We jab and jab and jab and only those who keep at it can hope to succeed.

So I keep at it. Because the alternative is shit. The alternative is giving into all those little nits that try to fill me with self hate, that try to tell me I’m nothing but mediocre. That say: make a damn living, man. Go to Vegas. Drink good wine. Forget this thing with words.

Can’t. Won’t.

I’m in a mood. So I write.

Monday, October 18, 2010

What Wal-Mart Doesn't Have

I needed things last night. An assortment of items affiliated only by their eventual ownership by me. A wireless router. Some light bulbs. Bananas. I went to Wal-Mart because it was close and it was late and sometimes convenience wins.

But I really dislike Wal-Mart. I’m not talking about its business practices, I’m talking about their stores. They are unwelcoming. Soulless. They grab you by the back of the neck and shove your face into the fact that you are a consumer and every damn thing is a commodity. You like to eat? Tough. Wal-Mart doesn’t sell the joy of eating. They sell packaged foodstuffs. You like to look attractive? Wal-Mart doesn’t sell fashion, they sell body coverage items.

It’s all about the sell. Where what cog fits into what hole.

Sure, there are those who will say that’s what all stores do. And there are those who will blame the soul-sucking nature of capitalism in that weird, simplistic way people like to blame complex, inexact systems for the majority of our problems. But I believe that most of life is just people interacting with people. And while the fulfillment of basic needs is obviously essential, people don’t just connect through basic needs. We have passions and fears and desires and insecurities and we pursue those or try to mitigate those through human interaction.

Wal-Mart removes all of that upper-level stuff.

I mean, sure, they try to make their stores bright and clean, but they go to no effort to relate to their customers on anything more than a transactional level. Just because I am a person who needs to buy an item doesn’t mean I have to be reduced to a personality-less consumer. I go to a place like Target (which provides essentially the same items as Wal-Mart) and I feel that there’s someone human behind the store – someone who has taken a few minutes to consider what I might want, not just what I might need.

I could go on, more examples and all of that. But I’m going to end up talking in circles. My point isn’t to throw Wal-Mart onto the pyre, it’s to note how alienating their business-model is and how that alienation is becoming such a defining feature of our society. I don’t much go in for the overheated cries that our civilization is failing, but I take notice of all these ways we’re removing ourselves not just from each other but from our own personalities, our own identities.

I mean, we talk about what the great literary/artistic themes of this period are and will be and I keep coming back to this notion of alienation. Not the lost generation stuff of nearly a century ago, but a far stranger alienation, one that can only be broken through with increasingly bold leaps of faith (in love or God or just in the very notion of truth).

I read a lot of these writers publishing on-line (Roxane Gay and Ethel Rohan and Matt Bell and Amber Sparks and all the others I've referenced on this blog) and I read others like Edward P. Jones and someone like the late David Markson (whose Wittgenstein’s Mistress was about 20 years ahead of its time) and I see all these characters hoping and dreaming for these connections that might not even exist or are only found at great costs, and I think, my God, this is what’s happening. This rebellion against alienation. Taking to the barricades. Maybe in failure but always in passion. The return of sentimentalism not as some saccharine or moralistic device but as a real attempt to forge connection, one person to the next, through this bizarre period where a trip to buy a router and bananas can make you feel as if your very identity has been bludgeoned.

I overstate. Or oversimplify. But maybe the point is in there.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Zombi Love

This story has been praised by others, but some stories deserve all the huzzahs they can get.

The story is ”There is No ‘E’ in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You Or We” by Roxane Gay at Guernica. I should say the inimitable Roxane Gay. Her stories always get me. And this one is just phenomenal.

Check it out if you haven’t already.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Goings On

Several things.

Journey to The Ancient City in its permanent home. Amber Sparks did such a great job with this. It’s so cool because it’s not so much an editor’s aesthetic as it is the project’s aesthetic. Great writing abounds.

My story “Bad Hands” is out in Coal City Review #26. Thanks to Mary Wharff for giving this story such an excellent home.

And a huge thank you goes out to the anonymous and extraordinary folks at > kill author for nominating my story ”My Father Believes” for Best of the Net. This is my first nomination for anything writing related and for it to come from one of my absolute favorite journals is just incredible and so frickin’ exciting. And, adding to the good news, the wonderfully talented and cool Jason Jordan was also nominated by > kill author for his piece ”Do Not Let Them Take You”, a creepy, marvelous story that you should read right now if you haven’t yet.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Remembering Ralph Vicinanza

I learned today that literary agent Ralph Vicinanza died this past Sunday. Ralph represented some of the biggest names in sci-fi, fantasy and horror. He was also a truly great guy.

I worked for Ralph for a stint in 1999 and, although life carried me elsewhere pretty quickly, I was at the agency long enough to gain great respect for the man. He was incredibly busy – as you might expect – but when you sat down with him, his entire attention was on you. This was both intimidating and wonderful; and it was a kind of intensity I’ve rarely encountered again.

There were times I heard Ralph yell, sometimes at very powerful people, sometimes in language masterfully profane. And he ran a tight ship: there was no permissible tardiness for us assistants, no extended lunch breaks, no minor error that went without reprimand. Just reading him his messages over the phone could make me tremble in fear of doing something outside the bounds of his structures. He kept order. And that order kept that agency running smoother than anyplace else I’ve ever worked.

But here’s the thing: despite the demands Ralph placed on me and the three other assistants in the office at that time, I really liked him. I was twenty-four and clueless and one of hundreds (thousands?) of kids who’d come to New York to work in publishing. He could have very easily been one of those types who use assistants up and then move on to the next bushy-tailed kid. But he didn’t do that. He cared about me and my life; I felt that compassion every time we sat in his office and chatted. When I gave notice because I’d decided to move back to Texas, he worried that he’d somehow failed me, that my position with him hadn’t lived up to whatever expectations he thought I had.

I left New York for a lot of reasons. None of them had anything to do with Ralph.

We’ve lost a good one this week. Rest in peace, Ralph.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Boy of Threes

Thanks to Amber Sparks for letting me be a part of her Ancient City project over at Necessary Fiction.

My story, "The Boy of Threes," went live today. It's a post-apocalyptic piece. I seem to have an affinity for those.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Lily Ponds

Ever feel like you're writing the same story over and over?

Even if it's not really the same story.

It still kinda is.

But that's o.k., right? I mean, if you've got a good subject, not even hundreds of renderings will ever capture all the possible subtleties.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Learning to Read

During my MFA coursework, we were often told that we need to learn how to read. Of course, they meant we need to learn how to take apart a plot, a scene, a sentence, a metaphor. But, for my son, learning to read literally means learning to read.

And, man, you don’t realize how messed-up the English language is until you start helping your kid learn to read.

They teach the concept of a “bossy e” which is a silent e at the end of the word that turns a vowel long. You know. Five. Drive. And, um, give. Explain that to a literal-minded six year-old.

But wait, there’s more. GH is an f in words like tough and rough but silent in though and bough (with the ou pronounced differently in each of those, of course). And, really, what the hell is that gh doing in light and fought and drought (and again, the ou isn’t pronounced the same for any reason other than it’s not pronounced the same).

There’s a bizarre b at the end of bomb and tomb and comb but it modifies that o in three different ways. And if tomb is “toom” why isn’t loom “lomb?” (And, for that matter, shouldn’t comb be come ... except, of course, come is already its own irregular).

And let’s not even get started on when c sounds like an s and a ph is an f and an x is a z. Anything more complicated than “See Spot Run” requires the explanation of rules that sometimes true and sometimes not. (oo makes the long u sound ... except when you look for a book in a nook).

My son will get it ... I suppose we all do. And what we don’t get is corrected by spell check. But I wonder what the sometimes lawless construction of our words does to our minds. Semiotics and all that. Does it promote neuroses? Creativity? Does it make our written word more inaccessible? Does it make our written word more beautiful in the way nature is beautiful in all its organic jumble?

In this world of binary code (and binary politics for that matter), there’s something wonderful about the fact that words like bough and cough exist. They’re messy; they speak to the archaic and the anarchic. They make learning to read a challenge. But I love the way those odd words taste.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Good Rant is a Wonderful Thing

Amber Sparks unleashes.

She's writing about the frustrations of the submission process. Namely the long response times that too often end in form rejections.

One thing Amber doesn't really get into: if you allow simultaneous submissions, how in the world are you finding the best stuff if it takes nine or more months to reply? Every story I've published has been accepted within four months of submission (with the exception of one unique circumstance). By taking so long to reply, aren't you asking for the best stories to be withdrawn before you get to them? I mean, if I've never withdrawn the story and you reject me after a year, you can be pretty sure the story has either been shoved into a drawer out of disgust with its quality or it's been seriously revised.

I totally understand the difficulty of reading huge numbers of submissions for no or nearly no pay. But Amber's post expresses the frustrations most of us feel at some point or another. Good stuff.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

No More Fantasy

Football season is starting soon. Until last year, this meant I was preparing for multiple fantasy football drafts. I was actually pretty good at the game – probably because I can be, um, obsessive. A year ago, I tried to calculate the amount of time I was spending studying stats and ready FF articles and trying to make trades and all that mess. The answer was: an f’n lot.

You only get so many hobbies. I think us writers get even fewer. Fewer because most of us are already spending a fair about of time on other pursuits that earn us a living, but fewer also because writing is a consuming craft. I haven’t met a good writer yet who honestly claims to be able to knock off a brilliant short story between trips to the gym.

Good writing takes time – time in the room and time conceiving, learning, observing. I’m not going to say fantasy football never taught me anything about life, but I will say that what it taught me was minor compared to what it cost me. I was unable to play the game casually. I was wasting too much intensity on which tight end to start on a given week or which running back was about to have a breakout game. Time drained. So I gave the game up.

I’m entering my second fantasy football-free NFL season and I actually feel wonderfully unburdened. There’s something to be said for winnowing away distractions.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Is it Wrong That I Liked Inception?

I finally saw Inception. It was the first adult movie I felt compelled to see in the theater since Christopher Nolan’s last outing with that little Batman/Joker flick. It’s not that I don’t love movies. It’s that I have kids.

Anyway, I enjoyed the film. There were plot holes and a general lack of emotional complexity, but the premise was cool and the action engaging. It’s not Chinatown, but it’s certainly worth the time. I’d see it again. If possible, I’d trade in the minutes I spent watching Cats & Dogs just to see part of Inception.

But, really, what interests me is not so much the intricacies of the plot (dream or not dream and all of that), but the reaction it’s created in some quarters. And by reaction I mean negative reaction. Some people hate this movie – and not just this movie but Nolan in general (and specific). In fact, some people hate it so much that they are willing to spend untold minutes of their lives explaining in detail why the rest of us should hate it, too.

This strikes me as odd. I understand not liking the movie. I don’t understand the need to beat your chest and proclaim yourself a superior film viewer whose tastes are more refined (I don’t mean to pick on Mr. Jameson, here – he clearly knows his shit and his piece convinced me of Nolan’s failings -- but he’ll be the only link here because I’m lazy and this one was easy enough to steal from HTMLGiant).

I kinda think the vituperative approach comes from a tendency among some intellectuals to be reactionary to popular taste. In this way of thinking, it’s given that the common man/woman is an idiot. Therefore, anything commonly liked must primarily appeal to idiots. I’m not so much defending Inception as I am defending those who enjoyed Inception.

A movie doesn’t have to be a work of pure art to be worth the effort. In fact, I’ll argue that the fact there is so much discussion of this movie (and not of, say, Cats & Dogs) is proof of the film’s cultural worth. A movie that strives for classic and falls short is as fascinating a movie as one that succeeds in its artful attempts.

Unfortunately, instead of praising what the movie did well and criticizing what the movie did wrong, plenty of people feel compelled to label Inception an abject failure, a travesty of moviemaking, a sign of all that’s wrong with art. Okay, I’m the one being hyperbolic now. But the point is: Inception wasn’t awful.

I guess I just don’t get the need to so vigorously hate on those things in culture that are popular but not exactly art. God knows (and my wife knows) I’ve been less than generous towards Stephanie Meyer. I’m not above some, or even a lot, of intellectual/artistic superiority. But what’s really the point? To tell people they’re idiots for liking something you don’t like? Debate is one thing. Ripping something apart in service to a greater agenda just seems a few steps too far.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The People of Paper

I was in Austin today and stopped by Book People and saw on their recommended table The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia and I thought to myself: I don’t push that book hard enough on my friends and acquaintances.

The novel is brilliant. It’s experimental and deeply moving and lyrical and brain twisting and it does about fifty things I normally dislike in fiction and yet I can’t forget the book. It arrives in my head quite often and makes a mess of things.

You should read it.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Creative is the Power

I was watching Mad Men the other night and having a nice bit of joy at the power Don Draper wields as a creative director. In my life as a creative (adjective become noun) in advertising, the account team has always held the power. My contributions are respected but, when it comes to a break point, I lose.

I'm freelance, so my power is limited. But it's really not the freelance vs. staff member dichotomy. It's the profit vs. idea/creativity/art dichotomy. The point of any ad agency is to make money. And, like it or not, satisfying a client is how an agency makes money. Sometimes it's just not worth it to the account team to force a creative idea at a client who would rather have a standard idea.

In the world of Mad Men, Don Draper shits on clients who want a standard idea. Maybe that's a 1960s thing; most likely it's a fiction thing. In today's world, safe ideas often sell better than creative ideas.

And the thing is ... I'm okay with that.

I'm okay with the idea that what I do for money is not always art or even creative. I'm okay that I sometimes am asked to push work that is less than my best work. It's not that I'm just in it for the check (I'm not; I always love a truly original campaign), it's that commerce is commerce and profit is profit and you either accept that or you make yourself miserable

In my fiction, I can do whatever I want. I can be as wildly creative as my brain is capable of being. But in copy writing, I'm a tool of a greater system. Creativity is only valuable in its ability to appeal to clients and, ultimately, sell product.

What I don't know is whether making my money this way is a bad thing or a neutral thing. I lean to neutral but some days I wonder. Some days I just want to be creative and not, for a moment, worry about the earning possibilities behind my work.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

"A People's History of Martin Zansamere" in MAR

So, if you haven't heard, the new Mid-American Review is out. This would excite me no matter what. But it's extra-double exciting because my story "A People's History of Martin Zansamere" appears in the issue.

I love all my stories. But this one holds a special place in my writing life. I wrote it a little over a year ago at a time when I was really struggling with what kind of stories I wanted to write. I had been trying very hard to replicate voices like Alice Munro and Raymond Carver and Amy Hempel and Edward P. Jones -- all wonderful writers, for sure, but my immitations were falling flat. Instead of writing what came up from within me, I was writing what came down from outside of me. If that makes sense.

I was only sort-of aware of this problem. And when I wrote "Zansamere," I didn't have any kind of ah-ha moment about my writing. In fact, I worried that the story was too far removed from what I should be writing. Then a mentor at Antioch was kind enough to read 15-20 of my stories all at once. "Zansamere" was his favorite. It was very different from everything else I showed him and his appreciation of the story got me to thinking: other than "Zansamere" being non-realist, what the hell had I done differently?

The answer, I realized, was stupidly simple: I'd written "Zansamere" because it was fun to write. The idea for the story had struck me while folding socks (yeah, socks play a part in this story). I wrote the story in a week or so without care for anything other than making it the kind of story I'd like to read.

That realization changed my writing life. Almost everything I've published was written after I wrote "Zansamere." Sure, I've written reams of crap since then, too, but I haven't written any more blatantly imitative stories. In fact, I don't write anything that I don't enjoy writing. And that, as they say, has made all the difference.

I have no idea why it took me so long to figure out such a simple truth, but there it is. And I wanted to share. Because, you know, this is a weblog and all.

Friday, July 2, 2010


Last Sunday I officially finished my MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles. Since Antioch is low-res, the week leading up to graduation was a beautiful mess of lectures, readings, drinking, talking, tears and toasts as my fellow cohort members and I (the Cobalts) rushed through our final residency.

I could make this post snarky. Be all ironic and detached and throw out nothing but shrugs and grunts. But that wouldn’t be what I really want to say. Here’s the inside of it:

Thank you, Antioch, for changing my life, for giving me the direction and confidence and wherewithal to turn a passion into something tangible, something I can see carrying me through the rest of my life. Thank you to all the mentors and workshop leaders and fellow students who made these last two years two of the most transformative years of my life. And thank you to my family who not just tolerated but supported me ceaselessly through this degree.

I leave Antioch a vastly better writer. I leave with friends I know I’ll have for a lifetime. And I leave with writing habits that I know can sustain a career. There’s that pejorative use of “MFA story” that I hear bandied about. I know what people mean when they say that. I’ve written stories like that. But Antioch pushed me to write away from that, to find my own voice, to write what is true to me rather than reaching for the simple, the artificial. And they taught me how to do that as not just a hobbyist, but as a professional.

I wouldn’t be where I am now in my writing career if not for Antioch.

That’s truth.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Splinter Reading This Thursday

If you're in L.A. and want something fun to do this coming Thursday, June 24th, come on out for the Splinter Generation reading.

Friday, June 4, 2010

20 Under 40

So, apparently, I didn’t make the New Yorker’s much-talked about list of 20 Under 40 fiction writers worth watching. Such a shame. They only do these things once a decade or so and I’ll be 40 in a little more than 4 years.

There is, of course, a lot of criticism of this list. I’m not going to link to it because it’s easier to summarize (and I’m lazy): The list is predictable. It’s boring. It’s boringly predictable. It represents nothing more than New Yorker’s staid aesthetic. It’s too concerned with token diversity. It’s too full of writers with big agents and a knack for self-promotion. It doesn’t include _______ or ________ or __________ who are clearly superior to the collection of two-bit hacks actually chosen.

I think people are mostly jealous. Not just of the list itself but of what often seems like the random way certain writers break through while others do not. And, yeah, that part sucks. It sucks to think someone of lesser talent and lesser work ethic and even lesser savvy might hit it big while you pluck along unnoticed forever. But then again, a lot of things suck and we can either dwell on the general shittiness of the world or we can try to shovel some of it out of our way.

I didn’t mean for this to collapse into a “chin up, bucko,” diatribe. I just prefer to channel my own jealousies into motivation instead attacking those who make me jealous. I suppose not being jealous at all would be a better choice, but, yeah, there’s only a select few people of whom I’ll never be jealous. When it comes to the greater game, I want to play, too, and I envy those who already have a seat. That’s just how I’m wired.

Again, this post is going all tangential. Sorry.

What I meant to say is how damn lucky I feel to be working in a profession where being in your thirties is considered being early in your career. A 35 year old writer is “one to watch.” A 35 year old NFL player is on the brink of retirement.

I didn’t write much in my 20s. And what I did write was really bad. In fact, it wasn’t until just a couple of years ago that I really committed myself to writing. I often think that means I squandered more than a decade. Maybe I did. But the good news is, assuming good fortune, I have many more decades left to write. Regardless of who is and isn’t on The New Yorker list, all of us under 40 should note that, by choosing that auspicious year, The New Yorker is acknowledging that most writers don’t bloom until later in life. They picked writers they think have already shown signs of become exceptional. But imagine how many they missed.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


I wrote a story about Japanese porn and masturbation. It's here at Thirst For Fire and it's not really about Japanese porn and masturbation. Although, it is.

Good issue. Weird. I like weird. In fact, I'd say that weird is the number one thing I look for in fiction. When I'm in a workshop and I read something strange, I circle it and get all excited with my red pen in the margin. Give me alternate worlds. Zombies. Magical realism. Perversities. Desperate people with unstoppable urges. Take me by the neck.

I'm overstating it. Or stating it poorly. It doesn't all have to be tattoos on the face (and probably shouldn't ever be tattoos on the face). It can be lizards in the gut. Quiet little lizards.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Coming Out of a Fog

Been absent for awhile as I've been working towards my MFA. But I just finished my last packet today and now it's just about doing a reading and teaching a lecture at the June residency and I'll be a proud recipient of an MFA.

"An MBA? That's great!"

"No, an MFA."

"Oh. What do you do with that?"

"Um. Buy a nice frame."

But, really, the MFA program at Antioch L.A. has been a life changer for me. It's taught me the big difference between WANTING to be a writer and actually BEING a writer. I feel like I'm leaving the program as someone who has a chance to make a career at this. Not just because I'm a far better writer than when I went in (which I am) but because I'm a far more disciplined writer as well.

Plus -- or maybe "most importantly" -- I come out of this with some amazing friends who I know will support me for the rest of my writing life.

Two years have gone fast. But I can't imagine spending them in any better way.

Oh, and in my silence, two stories have gone live.

"Incubus" over at Dogzplot and
"That Kid" over at Staccato

Thanks to Barry Graham for working with and publishing the former. And thanks to David Erlewine for working with me on the latter and the guys at Staccato for publishing it.

One last thing: Storyscape has an anthology out. You can get it here. I have a story in it about the Dust Bowl.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


I hurt my finger two weeks ago. It came out of its splint yesterday and I can’t bend it very well. Apparently, two weeks of disuse is enough time to start causing the ligaments to atrophy. It’s reversible of course. But here’s the thing – does writing work the same way? Can your writing atrophy?

If you take time off from writing – to handle work or take care of life issues or go on a bender or whatever – are you stiff when you come back? If you used to be able to write for 4 hours a day, do you find you tire out at two?

I write just about every day. And I write a lot of words most days Sometimes I think it would be nice to take a month off and catch up on my Entertainment Weeklys and episodes of Anthony Bourdain and, I don’t know, yard work. But then I think, could I go right back to it after an extended break? Or would the process hurt?

The finger is stiff. I mean, really, I can’t make a fist right now. I suppose it’s a terrible fallacy to equate physical conditions with mental ones. But it makes me think. Especially with the large amount of work I’m getting these days and with the end of my MFA life coming up in June. Lots of reasons to take time off. But I don’t think I will. I don’t think I could risk the effects.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Whatcha Want to Know?

So, Tres Crow over at Dog Eats Crow recently conducted an interview with me.

It's now live.

Everyone should be so lucky as to have someone else ask them in-depth questions about their work. Tres's questions really made me think about what I write and why I write it. I can only hope my answers lived up to the questions.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"My Father Believes" at > kill author

Love > kill author and I'm excited to have a little piece in Issue 6.

It's "My Father Believes and it is surrounded by some incredible company. Really. Check out the issue. Good stuff. Thanks to the mysterious editors for letting me be a part of it.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

AWP Highlights

A good few days out in Denver. Saw a lot of interesting panels. Bought a bunch of books. Had a few drinks. Heard many, many great writers read. A few highlights:

Buying Hobart 11 straight from Aaron Burch (and getting a free shot of whiskey with my purchase).

Meeting the great PANK people in person.

Attending DOGZPANK reading where 15 amazing writers shared their words.

Hanging with my Antochian friends.

Seeing Dan Chaon on a panel.

Seeing Brian Evenson on a panel.

Shaking Richard Bausch's hand.

Buying Kyle Minor's In the Devil's Territory from Matt Bell at the Dzanc table

And that's just a bit of it.

Will I go again? Maybe. I got my pass for free through my MFA program this year and Denver is easy to get to from San Antonio. I'm glad I got to go -- and got to meet people in person that I wouldn't have gotten to meet otherwise. Of course, it's good to return home. And now it's back to the writing.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

And Away We Go ...

Heading off to Denver tomorrow for AWP. Never been. Don't know what to expect. Hope to meet in person people I've only met on line. And hope to meet all kinds of new people who've never heard my name. Mainly, I hope to talk writing. And listen to people read their writing. I probably won't do much writing, but inspiration is an invaluable thing. I hope to get me some of that while I'm there. Or, if not that, then I hope someone I've never before met buys me a drink. And lets me buy them one, too.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Conventional vs. Experimental -- SmackDown 2010

I love a good literary/writing discussion. Yesterday at HTMLGiant, Roxane Gay got one going with her defense of conventional narrative and Christopher Higgs hit back with a conventional narrative/realism sucks post. And, of course, hundreds of brilliant comments came flooding in. I never have time to get into comment threads, but I’ll get into the conversation here in my own little space.

So, in short, Roxane says some experimental writing just flat-out confuses her and that she still likes good stories, plainly told. Christopher says conventional storytelling has little worth because it’s too controlling of the experience of reading/story-creation. He also claims there is no such thing as a good story or a bad one and that all attempts to communicate through language are futile in their own ways.

(at this point let’s just note that we are working with extremely loose definitions of “conventional” and “experimental” but that should in no way slow us down – cool?)

Here’s the thing: some experimental writing is written in clear, direct sentences (that link up in strange, often non-narrative ways) and some experimentalist writing reads like a string of nonsense. I many not always “get” the former kind in terms of its meaning, but at least it gives me something to work with and build around and, more often than not, I enjoy this kind of writing.

The nonsensical writing is, in my opinion, interesting only in an intellectual way. Or a music-as-language way where almost all the meaning is stripped from the words and we’re left with a kind of musical response – the story feels like something but isn’t about anything other than that feeling. Those kinds of stories are pleasant enough in tiny bursts but it’s hard for me to enjoy more than a few sentences worth before I tire and decide that putting on Tchaikovsky would be easier. (In my less-generous moments, I think that nonsensical writing and the famously unclothed emperor might have something in common.)

As for conventional narrative, I love a good story with a traditional beginning, middle and end – if there’s something new/unexpected about the story. I have a strong dislike for the type of story that is often pejoratively referred to as an MFA-type story (although my MFA program has actively pushed me away from writing such stories). These are the ones where there is a mostly internal conflict, symbolism in every gesture, low-gradient rising action and a climax/conclusion that ends on a soft epiphany usually revealed through a beautiful, lingering image. And, most importantly, the style of these stories are interchangeable from one writer to the next. Voice is subservient to structure and rules of language. Ugh. I’ve written plenty of stories like that. And now I have a visceral repulsion to them (probably, in part, a self-hate thing for having written too many stories in that tired style).

If that’s conventional realism/narrative, leave me out of it.

But we all know Roxane isn’t defending cliché and mimicry. She is, I think, defending the idea that there’s still value in stories written in a manner that doesn’t require forehead-creasing consideration to comprehend (or that doesn’t require a belief in aforementioned magical clothing). I agree with Roxane on this. Plot has a purpose. Language that is not overly self-conscious has a place. There is room in the great world of literature for both the experimental and the traditional. Why wouldn’t there be? Why shouldn’t there be?

Final point: I reject the relativistic idea that there is no such thing as a bad story. That’s nice and pretty and progressive and all – but it’s wrong. We cannot give all things equal value just because we wish to place art on some higher plane. Judgment has its place. And arguing over what is good and isn’t good has its place, too. Saying such considerations are invalid is, in my opinion, a copout – not to the mention a strange aside in a discussion that seeks to rate the merits of experimentalism vs. conventionalism.

And that’s what I have to say about it.

Monday, March 29, 2010

And now to make it good ...

Just finished the first draft of my first novel. 155,000 words. Each one requiring revision. Maybe not each. I suspect most of the characters names will stay the same.


Sunday, March 21, 2010

Damn Fine Fiction from Ethel Rohan

Some stories crackle under each sentence, the story emerging not so much in some linear ascension but in some exponential expansion until the whole of it overwhelms. That’s Ethel Rohan’s How to Kill currently over at the Hobart website.

Just take this line: “He pushed away his breakfast plate, the leftovers looking violated.”

Amazing. Read it.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Just a Thought ...

If you were an editor of a journal and got a sub-par story from a well-known writer, would you publish it?

This is not a problem over at Splinter, btw. I just sometimes see "name" writers (whatever that means for that journal) publish just okay stories from familiar names. I wonder about the decision-making process. It's not like most journals are making money or are reaching outside the literary culture. I mean, I'd rather read a brilliant story by someone I've never heard of than read a familiar story from someone I recognize. So what's the incentive for accepting a known writer's just okay story? Did they solicit that story and feel obligated? Do they approach the story with the intent to accept when they approach other stories with less bias?

I just wonder.

On a side note, why do well-published authors often win Narrative contests? Do those writers really enter online journal contests with $20 entry fees? Or are the rumors true -- Narrative is part journal, part scam to direct money towards friends of the editors? I'm not saying that's the case, but it's hard to find another journal where the contest winners are so well published.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Feral Fiction

Some stories are more than stories. They’re explorations of your mind. Or of the collective consciousness. In the new issue of The Collagist, Amber Sparks gives us a kind of all-in-one story about feral children. In fact, it’s called Feral Children: A Collective History.

It’s got a ton going on in a small space. Matt Bell and co. know how to find fantastic new fiction. What an amazing publication.

Monday, February 15, 2010

"Cast Out" Now at PANK

The newest issue of PANK is now live and includes "Cast Out" -- a post-apocalyptic short story I wrote while considering ideas for a novel.

Can't say how excited I am to be in PANK. They consistently publish some of my favorite stories. And they manage the rarest of feats -- a consistent aesthetic that isn't beholden to a specific style or genre.

Hope you get a chance to read the whole February issue.

Friday, January 29, 2010

A Story I Keep Remembering...

I didn't write about this story when I first read it. I think it's possible I hadn't yet started this blog. Or I was busy. But I want to mention:

Yearlight Savings Time by Kevin Griffith. Published in the August '09 issue of PANK.

This is fantastical fiction about Americans trying to relive a year exactly as it happened the year before in an attempt to stave off the end of the world. The story centers on one man, the narrator. His personal hopes and failures are perfectly interwoven into the story of a world struggling to relive the past in order to have a future.

It's fantastical fiction at its best because it makes you think AND feel. Given how many stories I read, I think it's a sign of this one's power that it keeps returning to me. So I wanted to mention it.

And encourage you to read it if you haven't.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Steve Almond on the Newer Generations of Writers

If you’ve never had the opportunity to listen to Steve Almond give a talk, that’s a damn shame. But here’s a taste of Almond courtesy of The Splinter Generation (where I do some fiction editing).

He’s got great things to say. What caught my eye was something he said about younger writers:

The main thing I see in the writing is this strain of what I call “hysterical lyricism.” Certain younger writers are just so saturated by visual media that they feel like the only way that plain old words will hold someone’s attention is if they’re all really dramatic and urgent and sort of panicked. It’s like they’ve lost their faith in traditional storytelling. The result is a lot of confusing stories and novels. Needlessly confusing. It’s too bad, because people are always going to need stories to feel less alone. And we should recognize that.

Interesting comment about younger writers being over-saturated with other media. I think that’s very true. Everyone wants not just my attention but my heart and soul, too. They’re not happy with me simply buying their product. They want me to love it. To make it a part of my identity. I think addressing that over-saturation is probably going to be one of the key concerns of the newer generations of writers. But I also think Almond is right to lament needlessly confusing stories. The idea is to connect because we’re so disconnected. Confusing the reader just creates a greater disconnect.

Take a moment to read the rest of what Almond has to say.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Looking at Photographs of Sean

In the new JMWW, Sean Lovelace has a wonderful story about possibly himself or possibly a character named Sean as described by a photographer who has been taking pictures of Sean for years. It’s called, ”Ten Notes on Photographing Sean” and is in the style of short story I call vignette fiction.

I’m fascinated by this form. It’s basically a deconstruction of narrative into pieces that are arranged not with a plot arch but with an emotional one instead. As a reader, we don’t follow a A to B to C narrative line but rather an A + Q + F line that equals something other than a resolution. It equals an understanding.

“Ten Notes” does this so well. There’s such a growing sense of frustration in the photographer narrator and such a sense of performance, of hiding that isn’t fully successful from the character Sean. The combination leaves me with a yearning. And I like being left with emotion. Particularly want.

Take a moment to read it and see what you think.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

"Touch Me" Live at JMWW

I love JMWW. Really great quarterly. And I'm so glad to have my story "Touch Me" in the current issue.

Very cool.