Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Making Time

The newest new rewrite of my novel involves a map. As a child, I spent hours drawing maps of imagined places. I’ve learned I haven’t lost this particular passion.

On my desk (which is really just the dining room table) there sits the phone blinking with the notification of a voicemail. I have no desire to listen to said voicemail. I never have desire to listen to the home phone’s voicemail. The news I care about comes by text or email or cell phone. My home phone is a relic resigned to those people and things about which I care little.

In the town of my youth, they sold no alcohol because they believed this would lead to violence and sin and would ruin the neighborhood. Now, I live in a very nice neighborhood where liquor stores are common. You know what this has led to? Excellent selections of fine liquors. Seriously, the single malts are amazing.

We had a rotary phone growing up. It was in my parent’s bedroom. Even then it was out-of-date and I used to think the time it took to dial was insufferably long. New technologies make so many things insufferably long. We live in an era governed by the millisecond.

And yet, find a good single malt, and time will wait.

What I mean: if I were to draw a map of my desired life, the cardinal points would be a measurement of time and up at the top, where hours linger, there’d be friends and family and books and single malt scotches, and down there at the bottom, where everything moves fast, there’d be voicemails on my home phone and rote copywriting and dental appointments. I’d get what feels like a hundred years to write a novel. Paying bills would seem to go by in a blink.

Ruin, I believe, is only sometimes a product of external influences. Most of the time it’s a product of an error in our internal compasses. So I try to keep directed to what’s important. Like family, and novels, and single malts enjoyed on a November porch.

Of Droughts and Mayors

Got a story up at Hobart called "A Good and Hopeful Man Leading His People Forward. It's here.

I love Hobart. I own a Hobart shot glass and almost every print issue. I don't need to tell you how happy I am to be part of this great publication. But I will.

I'm overjoyed.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Pre-Order. 'Cause Post-Ordering is for Losers.

I refuse to be negligent. These things must be noted. Proclaimed.

Jason Jordan’s novella The Dying Horse is available for pre-order from Main Street Rag.

Tiny Hardcore Press is offering you Lauren Becker, Erin Fitzgerald, Kirsty Logan, Michelle Reale AND Amber Sparks all in one place. Pre-order the chapbook collection Shut Up / Look Pretty here.

These are writers y’all want to be reading.

Monday, October 3, 2011


There are people on Wall Street who aren’t normally on Wall Street. Doubtless you’ve heard because the media coverage has been non-stop. If by “media” I mean “a bunch of my friends on Facebook.” Of course, some days, that is my media.

I don’t have time to have time. This isn’t an excuse or a complaint. It’s a statement of my state. I’m a parent and a freelance writer and someone who, when given a few moments, very much enjoys having a good meal or going to a movie. I’m not going to occupy anything but this chair where I work and where I hope to write something worth something. And by worth I don’t mean worth money. I mean worth my presence here. I mean: writing something that makes me worth having around as a writer.

I spent a few hours yesterday pining for a more innocent me. That innocent me believed that Tony Romo was a top NFL QB. These are the things that sometimes occupy me. I’m not ashamed of this. Without our diversions, we tend to be pricks.

But about Wall Street. I am not a rich man, but I am not hurting. I have a well-stocked bar and two working cars and I pay someone else to cut my yard. But there’s a stagnation here, a sense that my hard work—or, really, my wife’s hard work, because, God knows, she brings home the proverbial bacon—isn’t worth what it might once have been worth. And this time, by worth, I do mean money.

Let me just say this: when a small number of individuals or entities control large portions of the market, it’s not a free market. And you’re either for a free market or for a controlled one. And if it’s controlled, who breaks it up and spreads the power back around?

Seriously, Tony Romo hurt me yesterday. Cracked me.

But this Wall Street thing. Shit. I don’t even know if they want what I want. I suspect that they don’t. But for the love of God, do we not want something different? I mean, isn’t this the kind of moment where the best of us make us better? There ain’t nothing wrong about finding our diversions. But at some point, we’re going to have to find our purpose, too.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

And Now?

I write this not because I’m unique, but because I’m not. Because I’m just another American who remembers that day and can’t quite shake free of its grip.

There’s a rawness here. Still. So I’m not going to claim that I am blessed—as are some—with that enviable ability to lean back and observe this all from a morally pure point of view. I can’t do that. This thing. It did a number on me.

That day? I was just at work. A lot of people were just at work. That was the thing, I think. It was so easy to imagine ourselves there.

A few days after, my wife and I decided to lay flowers somewhere, but we didn’t know the right spot. We were living in DC, so we walked down to the National Mall and wandered the vacant spaces between those memorials. We finally chose the statue of Roosevelt sitting in his secluded site. What we wanted was wisdom and strength.

You know what we’ve ended up with instead.

How about this: The bodies from the Pentagon traveled in yellow helicopters. They passed low as I grilled burgers on the roof deck.

That’s what I tell people when they ask for a story about being in that city, at that time. I also mention seeing a machine gun mounted on a jeep that drove down my little street. And the smell of a building and bodies burning for days.

But those aren’t stories. They’re fragments. Ash. And we still live in that debris, I think. A man falling. A fireball. A bullhorned voice and grainy images of dark-skinned men running an obstacle course. It all drifts down around us. Coats us, still, and makes it hard for us to see.

“Perhaps the most heinous act of terrorism in history.” A columnist wrote those words for my local paper today. He’s wrong, of course. People, throughout history, have terrorized one another in far worse ways. Unbelievably worse ways.

And yet...

What happened was horrific and frightening and angering and, despite what I just wrote, I get a little ill when I hear fellow Americans trying to minimize what happened, trying to act as if our national obsession over those events is somehow a sign of moral weakness or intellectual dimness. What it is, I think, is a sign of our humanity. As much as the horrors elsewhere in the world might make us ache, we Americans felt the scorch of those fires ten years ago. The worst atrocity is always the one that happened closest to you. It’s the way our minds operate. It’s understandable.

And yet, again...

We’re here. You, me. Ten years on and we’re still here. And I sit in a house I didn’t own back then, with two children who hadn’t been born back then, with a decade beneath me that couldn’t have been imagined back then—I sit with all this newness and know you sit with a newness of your own. And I wonder: where to now? If we can still feel so connected to people who were just at work—whom most of us didn’t know—can’t we feel connected to others as well? Can’t we sense those strands tying us together? In this newness—in this continuance of life—so many seem so focused on dividing themselves from others, on withholding compassion for reasons often as narrow as a difference in political affiliation. But to what ends? Truly. If we refuse to admit we're all journeying forward together, where do we think we're going to end up?

Because, you see, there are names in bronze lining two pools where towers once stood. But there are so many other names in this world that no one will ever inscribe. And there will be more. A lot more. And what are we going to do about that?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Remembered Sounds

My neighbor is doing some work on his house and, this morning, someone was using what I assume was a nail gun. The sound was rich and rhythmic, something between a tap and a thud. It was a sound that sent me thirty-or-more years back, leaving me a young boy sitting in a wood-paneled den and listening to my mother type her first novels. Her work came in these tap-thud bursts that I'm sure I didn't quite understand. But the sound of that typewriter--the sound of my mother writing--must have pushed deep into my mind. Lodged there. So that this morning, as I worked on my own writing, a nail gun reminded me of my mother in her literary youth.

And I wonder, in thirty-years to come, if my son or daughter will hear a soft clicking like a keyboard and think of me, still young and believing, sitting with a dark head of hair at the dining room table of their youth and writing books that now sit on their shelves.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Charlie Baxter Dance Party

I was gone for awhile, on the mountain, they say, although those of us on this side of the continent (even those of us in the flat parts) tend to call such soft and rolling land hilly. Not mountainous. So, I was in the hills. Of Vermont.

Everything was very old, except the people. Many of the people were young and filled with what I believe is called verve. Even the old people had young people verve. I’m pretty sure no one was themselves and everyone was exactly who they are.

I’m talking about the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, by the way.

We ate at determined times and we ate what we were fed. I liked a duck dish. The tacos made me laugh. Those deemed to have incredible talent and potential waited on us and I could not help but note how much they all sweated. They were nice people. All of them. But I was jealous. They’d been chosen. I was just allowed to watch them work.

Somewhere between the inn and the Frost cabin, I realized why so few of my stories ever end in any satisfactory way. I was carrying this little green fruit that I’d been told was a crab apple and I was talking and talking, as I do, even when sober, which I was since you couldn’t get a drink until 5:30 or so. It’s about tension, I said. The story ends at the point that particular story cannot contain any more tension, at the point right after it breaks, or right when you know it inevitably will. There is no end until the tension reaches that point. This sounds rudimentary as I write it. There was more to it. There was revelation.

I credit Charles Baxter. He gave a lecture on plot that made people cry. No shit. That happened.

I wore sweaters some days. It was 100+ degrees back home and I was in sweaters and listening to the rain. You want to talk feeling displaced? You want to talk falling out of time? I could feel the thousands who had come before me. Hope. Laughter. In a corner of the barn a piano sat mostly unplayed. They used to jam on it, I was told. They used to fill that barn with their singing.

No one knew where we were. Even those who could find us on a map.

Everyone carried satchels of books. I just spent two-hundred dollars at the bookstore, people would say. And we thought this is how the world should be.

On the last night, there was a dance. There’d been a dance previously but the last dance is always the best dance. And so we drank and flung ourselves around. I smacked into Charles Baxter who laughed. I banged my fists on the floor with the guy who’d began as my roommate but is now a wonderful friend. I consumed a healthy amount of wine and, when the music ended, I was still spinning.

Coming down that hill (that mountain) on the final morning, I thought I might be ill. I blamed it on the wine. But it was probably something else.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Because It Can't Not Be Today

Sometimes I make the mistake of reading the comments sections of news stories. The anger is a sickness. I can feel it working its way into my blood.

I’ve heard we shouldn’t use clich├ęs because they are lazy. I’m pretty sure they can also be dangerous. At least when enough people believe they’re true.

Amazing how language can become drumbeats, subtlety stripped and meaning stretched into a thinness that sounds hollow and repetitive yet nevertheless makes feet fall into line.

But, seriously, I mean, come on: at what point did so many people of modest means stop caring about the condition of those most like themselves and start fighting for the interests of the wealthy? How does something like that occur?

There is a myth of martinis and cigarettes and there’s a true story of fire hoses. If only it could be reduced like that. History as some pretty old Christmas card, or history as some righteous progression. We think we’ve lost something or we think we’ve valiantly moved forward, but you know what I think? Sometimes I think we’re just spinning.

Today will be a fragment of my children’s past. You and me, though? This is the middle. This is what we’ve been given. Work with it or just turn on Jersey Shore. You know?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

"An Incomplete Registry of Deaths: Part One" Up at Corium

Got a new story in the new Corium. Read it here. It’s a series of somewhat interrelated micro fictions. I’m hoping to do more of these but who knows. My projects don’t always hold.

Thanks to the wonderful Lauren Becker for including the story. I haven’t been getting a lot of stuff out there this year, but this one I really liked and am so glad it found such a great home.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Collection of Bookstores

On Saturday nights in Brooklyn, when I was alone and my friends weren’t calling, I’d take the F train up a stop to Prospect Park and spend the evening in the Barnes & Noble. I wasn’t the only one who did this. The place was packed.

A man once came up to me in a San Antonio Borders and tried to recruit me for the army. It was midday on like Tuesday. I was out of work at the time and must have looked it. He said military service was a good way to make money for a few years. He didn’t mention war. Or patriotism. This was fall of 1999.

There was a Borders in the World Trade Center. You could still see the sign in the rubble.

I went to The Strand the second day of my first trip to New York. I decided then that I needed to move to the city.

Shortly before my son was born, the stress overwhelmed me. I left the condo and walked a long way to a Barnes & Noble (maybe a Borders) in downtown DC. I browsed for several hours until I felt better. Then I bought a Guide to Literary Journals and told myself I’d publish something before I was thirty. I had six months. Four months later, I received an acceptance from Flashquake as my son rolled side-to-side on his mat.

If I’m in Austin for even a couple of hours, I’ll stop by Book People. It’s across the street from the flagship Whole Foods. These are good hours.

There’s a bookstore in Dupont Circle with a bar. I don’t much like coffee. But a martini while I browse the new fiction? Genius.

I own a Kindle. I’ve bought a lot of books from Amazon and spent a lot of time on their site. This is all very convenient. But it never has the right smell.

Every time I take my kids to the nearby movie theater, we do two things after the film is over. We get ice cream. We go to the second floor of the Borders and we pick out a new book from the children’s section.

We should probably do that this weekend.

That store is going to leave a big space to fill.

Friday, July 8, 2011

So, I'm Going to Ramble About Movies for Awhile

The makers of Hangover 2 should watch Cars 2. That’s how you rethink things, fellas. Cars 2 ain’t brilliant, but it’s nothing like the original.

In case I wasn’t clear, Hangover 2 was bad. Has there been a lazier sequel to a good movie in recent memory?

I said sequel to a GOOD movie. Transformers 3, you may put down your hand.

I haven’t seen Transformers 3. But Roxane Gay has. And I trust Roxane.

Still, could it be worse than Green Lantern? I’m a comic book nerd and I thought the GL movie bit more than either of the Hulk movies (both of which bit terribly hard—like gnawing on over-smoked jerky). Amorphous bad guy. Hero who just needs to learn a little selflessness. Final fight scene that mistakes special effects for drama. And the Green Lantern Corps? Oh, lord. They managed to retain all the lameness of the GLC from the comics and STILL butcher the main facts. That takes work.

I officially hate 3D now. Terrible thing. Pointless. Most of Pirates of the Caribbean 4 was unwatchable through those dark, bulky glasses. Biggest rip-off in entertainment.

My kids saw King Fu Panda 2 twice. I didn’t see it at all. I consider this one of my biggest victories of the year. Hot parenting tip: convince other people to take your kids to kid movies.

Bridesmaids is the best movie I’ve seen this year. Not that the competition is strong. But, still. I definitely cared more for Kristen Wiig’s character than I’ve cared about anything in any of the other movies I’ve attended this summer.

Although, actually, Super 8 was okay. Nostalgic for anyone of my generation. A bit “hermetically sealed,” though. Other than the computerized effects and the continuous utterances of the word “shit” from young mouths, it was like a found volume of early ‘80s Spielbergness. A Movie with that capital M. You could feel the gears turning.

I never walk out on a movie. But I’ll stop reading a book pretty quickly. This says something about me, I suppose.

I have fallen asleep in movies.

Movies I wish I slept through recently: Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, Hop, Despicable Me, Owls of Gahoole

I see a lot of kids movies. I need to take my “hot parenting tip” more seriously.

And, yes, Despicable Me is bad. I could write an essay on why. The short version: it’s cynically constructed.

I have high hopes for the newest Harry Potter, though.

I read the first four books to my son. Decent reads. But we never made it past the first 100 pages of the fifth book. It was horrifically slow; J.K. Rowling is just lounging in her fictional universe by this point, enjoying the process of world creation far too much and leaving the reader with scant plot. Also, as the series draws on, the POV choice becomes an increasingly frustrating mess. Everything is 3rd person from Harry’s POV. We don’t learn anything that he doesn’t learn. But, because Rowling expands the wizarding universe to such extremes, this POV means the books increasingly become a series of people telling Harry what has happened and will happen next. Yes, Rowling invents various magical devices that allow Harry to see and even experience events outside of his own life, but it’s never quite enough. Switching to a multi-POV style after the second or third book would have greatly improved the novels, I think. Although, admittedly, I haven’t read the last few.

Somehow a post about summer movies became a lazy book review.

But, seriously, Cars 2 is a spy thriller. Cars was a coming of age movie. More sequels should be so bold.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

I Was Going to be Crass

I dreamed I called an old friend. I was in my kitchen. The conversation was filled with pauses and words used to end those pauses. “Well.” “Anyway.” I had the sense that I needed something resolved but I – the dreamer – didn’t know what this thing needing resolution was. More-or-less, I was observing myself in a private moment. Two degrees to my own left. This is how I feel every time I write a story. I never quite have a grasp as to what the hell is going on.

I want to complain about something but I don’t want to seem like a whiner, or ungracious to a world that has, overall, been very kind to me. Maybe it’s my Texas stoicism. Or Celtic pride.

I was invited to a party and they let me have a beer then asked me to leave. I stood on the street and watched everyone else through the window. It was bright in there. People moved like cattails and swallows. No one looked down to see where I’d gone.

If you type in swallow on Yahoo’s search bar, it will suggest that you’re searching for “swallow birds,” “swallow tattoo,” “swallow my load” ... in that order. I was wondering if swallow like the bird was really spelled the same as swallow like the action of the throat. Apparently, yes, it is.

Part of me wants to title this post: Swallow my load. As you can see, I did not. I’m uncomfortable being crass. Your crassness, however, bothers me not at all.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


There’s a drought on and everything’s going towards dead.

There’s a drought on and the sun has gone mean with heat.

I could bake cookies in my car.

I sweat and think of Brooklyn, where there was no drought but no air conditioning either. I was about as young as you can be and still be an adult. My white shirts went to yellow. I thought I’d soon publish in the New Yorker.

There’s a drought on and my inbox fills with work requests and newsletters and promises of Vegas.

I could stay in the desert for $35 a night. More fun than waiting for the desert to come to me. Which I think it’s trying to do.

I assume we’ll irrigate and overuse and predict the best of outcomes.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt rain. Not once.

Not even in Brooklyn. Which may have been a fever, come to think of it.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Cocktail Hour

I want you to accept me or reject me. I don’t like being stared at. I don’t like being the thing you will stoop to if it’s last call and you’re feeling drunk and needy.

I sit with a six-o’clock whiskey. Irish. It’s too hot for the Scotch. Or, rather, I don’t drink scotch on rocks, so the hot is not for Scotch.

Gin was once believed to cure gout. I sometimes believe it cures the insufferability of being trapped inside one’s own body forever. A good friend once stuck that bit of silliness into gin’s Wikipedia page. It lasted a week before someone erased it. I think the erasure was terribly shortsighted.

Hemmingway said he could tell the exact point on the page where Faulkner took his first drink of the day. I paraphrase. But I wonder if Faulkner wrote drunk. That seems preferable to revising drunk.

Jameson, Hendrick’s, Tito’s, Tanqueray, Caol Ila, Bacardi, Milagro, Jack Daniels. Crown Royal. That’s one each of the four whiskey groups, two gins, a vodka, a tequila and a rum. For those keeping score at home. Or considering your cocktail options should you decide to visit.

Accept me and I’ll buy you a drink. Reject me and I’ll pour myself one.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Short Getting Shorter

I haven't been writing much flash. I've been enjoying taking a little more time with things, leaving room to extend language. Not that I'm writing epics, mind you.

But I wonder what the popularity of flash is doing to our perceptions of things. And by "our," I mean the world of journals and journal readers. Today, I had a story rejected. The reason given: the story is too long to be so reliant on the poetic over the narrative.

The story is 1,500 words.

I'm pretty sure that's quite short.

I assume the journal had issues beyond the poetic-to-narrative balance (not claiming it's the most brilliant thing I've ever done), but I do find the specific concern over the length strange. It's as if flash has trained us to expect a full story in the tiniest possible spaces. Maybe this story needs to be cut in half. But, eight years ago, I would've never imagined a 1,500 word story referred to as "a story of this length." As if it were something bloated and unwieldy.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Something Something

Something cool: Hazel Foster talks about my story “Leap” at Matt Bell’s blog, here.

Something new: I finished three stories this week and sent them into the world. They are all at just one or two places. I find that I prefer this method to the scattershot. Of course, this method may also be why I have so little coming out right now.

Something old: Novel. In rewrites. Thought I was done last summer. Turns out: not so much. This could be a post all its own. I have a second novel just banging itself against my skull, but the first one is still something I want to pursue. Oh the complications...

Something worth buying now: Like poetry? Buy Lauren Schmidt’s new chapbook from Main Street Rag. It’s Voodoo Doll Parade and you’ll love it. Find it on this page. Lauren was in my MFA class and I can more than vouch for the amazingness of her work.

Something worth getting ready for: The one-and-only Roxane Gay has a book of stories forthcoming. Ayiti. Preorders from Artistically Declined Press begin this July!

Something else: Saw a bunch of shiny, youthful Mitt Romney supporters in a Las Vegas casino. They were standing around in a cheery sort of way, apparently anticipating Romney’s arrival. Politicians and slot machines. Plenty can seem bright and alluring. Then you put some money into one and ... well ... yeah.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


The thing that mattered came packed in a box filled with tight little bags of air. I don’t know where that air came from, how the exhalations were chosen. But they nevertheless took up most of the space with their cushioning. Large percentages of space. All of them just sitting there with their purpose already over. Lasting until I deflated them and disposed, carelessly, of their skins.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Sweet Smell of Failure

That was the title to an original oratory I used in theater/debate competition when I was a senior in high school. It didn't ever win. No one wanted to hear about failure. The people who won talked about patriotism or gun rights (this was Texas) or how important it was that we beat the Japanese (economically, of course ... this was the early 90s). I think my oratory took people too far out of their comfort zone. I also think I could've used a better title.

Anyway, that's the long intro to this video by friend and fellow writer Yuvi Zalkow. It's more-or-less about how to get past writing failures while revising. It's great. I think you'll like it. I've even embedded it below for your convenience.

I Am A Failed Writer. Episode 1: Revisions from Yuvi Zalkow on Vimeo.

Thursday, April 28, 2011


A forty, maybe fifty-foot pecan looms over my house. I say looms (not towers, rises, soars or stands) because I want the tree to sound menacing, like it has some want for authority over me. Of course, it’s just a pecan tree. It only looms in my mind. And, really, only when I’m thinking about storms and wind and the unfortunate proximinty of the tree to my house. If not for the wall, I could touch it from my bed.

So, I remind you of storms.

And I say the tree looms.

Then I tell you: I think I'm going to kill it.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

This Other Thing

I should be revising a novel; instead I burned a week on one of the worst short stories I’ve ever written. That’s probably not true. I’ve probably written worse, but this one is closer so it feels uglier.

I do this a lot. Write bad stories. Sometimes I even submit them. Sometimes I submit them repeatedly. Then, one day, I read them and I see that they are bad and I feel ashamed about that, although, truly, there shouldn’t be anything shameful about producing bad art. Not giving up your seat on the bus to an old lady – that’s shameful. Failing at art? Hell, least you’re focused on something outside of your own personal comfort, right?

And yet...

I don’t know. I wish I could better identify a bad story early on – like before I even start writing it. Time trickles into this jar beneath me and I can’t get it back and more time just keeps falling and I know this shouldn’t make me all antsy, but it does. I believe I have some great writing within me, but it takes so damn long to extract that I could die before I ever hit the main vein. That’s what this is about, of course. Death being what everything is about. Even love, I think. Although that’s probably one of those simple statements that sounds profound but is really just simple.

I’m a bad reviser. I try to correct every little thing and I obsess on those things too much and just end up making things fake and inaccessible. I can’t seem to shake the belief that all things CAN be corrected with the right effort. I’m not talking writing, although it applies in full to that. I’m talking about my state of being. My mistakes ... well ... I don’t ever believe things are ruined. I believe, if I just work at it, I can fix what I broke. This, I think, seems admirable. Or, at least, that’s what I’d tell someone who told me they don’t give up on fixing what they broke. But sometimes shit is just broke. It’s trashed. And all the tape and glue will never make it anything more than this wad of tape and glue that somewhat resembles an unbroken thing.

I wish I had more time, or started earlier, which is the same thing in a way.

I wrote a story about a rainbow because I dared myself to. It’s pretty good, I think. Then I wrote a story about two women who are married and have no genitalia – because someone suggested I should write such a story. That’s the horrible one referenced above. I would’ve thought the results would’ve been the other way around. Then, again, I thought Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was going to better than 30 Rock. Sometimes premise and potential are nothing. Sometimes it’s just about knowing who you are and not trying to be this other thing.

This other thing. Whatever that is today.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

So Close and So Far

I love a story I could never write, that I couldn’t even conceive of writing, the diction and the plot and all of it existing somewhere outside of myself and yet – YET – somewhere so close to me that the damn thing makes me feel, makes me read the story again, then again.

That’s “Men Glass” by Sarah Rose Etter in The Collagist this month. Good stuff. Good read.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Tournaments and Tragedy and Everything

So I’m sitting with a fellow writer at a chain restaurant bar in a part of town that only has chains and people who want chains and we’re watching the spread of TVs and the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is being covered on most of the TVs except one that is covering the devastation in Japan and I look to my writer friend and I say: isn’t this the kind of thing modern writing should be trying to capture? This shattering of attention, this bizarre alignment of the banal and the horrific, what we consider important being shifted and moved by the programming needs of media as well as our own selfish needs to be insulted from things such as catastrophe and comforted by things such as sports where winners are clear and the pattern is so set that it’s known even before the participants are known, the only unknown being the final way those participants will be organized within the pattern. And here we’ll be, filling out our brackets while Japan bags up its dead and searches for enough capacity in their crematoriums. Although, I imagine, there are plenty of banal distractions in Japan, too. Then again, the thing is, I’m not so sure the NCAA tournament IS a distraction for a lot of people ... I think, for some, Japan is the distraction and that the NCAA tournament is the more important happening, will use up more emotional energy. I don’t place a moral judgment on that; it’s just an observation. There’s too much happening at any given moment and too little energy within any one of us to FEEL something about everything. Libyan rebels are getting murdered, btw. They’ve picked a bad news cycle.

Monday, March 7, 2011

This Thing, Right Now

I finally saw The Social Network. Seeing a highly praised movie well after its “moment” is a good recipe for disappointment. That expected disappointment didn’t disappoint.

The movie was fine. It was well-acted and the dialogue was that fun, nobody-really-talks-like-that-but-wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if-we-did thing with which Aaron Sorkin has been delighting me for many years. But I completely missed how this movie captured anything about the times we live in – or rather how it captured anything more about the times we live in than say, Inception, which, if nothing else, cut right to the way our modern world relies on controlling the opinions of others (leave your “Inception sucks” complaints elsewhere – I’m celebrating its premise more than its execution).

In my mind, The Social Network wasn’t about “this world” but rather “that world,” meaning the world of programmers and hackers that occasionally creates fantastical explosions of humanity-altering change that rockets several odd, probably-on-the-spectrum, geniuses to fame and fortune. This movie, I think, could be about Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Which isn’t to say the movie had nothing to say about the current times, just that what it had to say was submerged beneath a character study of Mark Zuckerberg and those his rise to success affected most. Just because it’s about Facebook doesn’t mean it’s about Facebook.

And, really, I’m not sure any film can adequately capture what things like Facebook are doing to our culture. And that’s because what Facebook is doing is so internal to each person. Our external lives look pretty much as they have for awhile – we take kids to school, we make dinner, we sleep and root for sports franchises. But inside of this, we’re building these new communities that have the power to affect our wellbeing as much or more than our physical world.

This is significant. This is an alteration of the psyche that I’d argue is on par with the kind of shift caused by the great wars of the 20th century. How we perceive and relate to the world is radically changing.

A movie about the founder of a social networking site doesn’t really capture this (in America, young white men have long been able to get filthy rich and screw over their friends by taking control of a valuable product). What I believe can capture this in all its complexities is literature. Because, out of all the arts, literature is most capable of piercing the interior of human thinking and reflecting the way we order thoughts and emotions.

I’m sure a gifted filmmaker can and will prove me horribly wrong in my assessment of film’s ability to capture the social networking revolution; but I’m also sure I will, in the coming years, read far more fiction that captures this than I will see movies that capture this. In fact, I already have. What is Matt Bell’s How They Were Found but a representation of the reordering of thought and the imprecision of truth that comes from a world where our access to information is as likely to complicate as it is to solve anything? And what is Kevin Brockmeier’s new novel The Illumination (which I am reading now) but an examination of what becomes of us when all our inner pain is broadcast for the world to see? (as so many seem intent on broadcasting ever ache and misfortune on Facebook)

We live in a heady time, y’all. This is happening now. And those of us who write, have the opportunity to help make sense of this all ... or at least provide evidence of what it’s like to be alive in this time of incalculable change.

Just the other night I said to my wife that I’m glad I was in college before the proliferation of digital cameras and social media. There weren’t a lot of photos taken in those days and those that were taken are sitting on film, likely forgotten in someone’s closet. That fact right there separates me in profound ways from those who were in college just as few years after me. In fact, my college experience –or, at least, the repercussions thereof, are closer to my parents’ experience than they are to my friends’ who were born half a decade later. If that’s not evidence of something radical happening, I don’t know what is.

How do we capture this? That redefining of privacy? That change interpersonal relationships? That effect on the ways we conduct our daily lives? That alteration in the ways we perceive and present ourselves?

Those, I think, are excellent questions for us writers writing now. Excellent questions.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What Shall Not Be Disliked

Jason Jordan wrote this post about some writers he doesn’t much care for. Indie lit world (is that the proper terminology?) went all flamey. Maybe it still is all flamey. I was away and missed the beginning of this and so I’m not sure where we are on the outrage arc. At least far enough to have passed through immediate attack against Jason and the following stages of various defenses.

(I would link to all this talk but I am lazy and if you read this place you probably read other places and I’m recapping what doesn’t need recap. Which I hear is excellent writing.)

Anyway, this is all interesting. I used to political blog. A lot. And if you are ever inclined to find reasons to dislike me, feel free to Google my political pieces. I wrote from the contrarian center and almost certainly wrote an opinion or fifty you’ll find obnoxious, even ignorant and callous. I’ve been called a supporter of evil – from people on both “sides” of the spectrum (I consider this a feat worth mentioning). I’ve been emailed hate mail so vitriolic, so dismissive of my humanity that I’ve questioned the very stability of our national psyche.

But that’s how it works in the political blog world. Bloggers going after each other with high-tech rhetorical weaponry (and low-tech vulgarity). It’s free speech at its most audacious. Not for the thin skinned.

I mention all this for what is probably an obvious observation: the indie lit world (still don’t know if this is the right word combination) operates under very different “rules”. We praise effusively that which we like and stay mum on that which we don’t. I imagine this is out of some shared sense of fragility, that our community needs protection and encouragement because we’re cultural outliers and already suffer under the weight of constant rejection, not just from journals but from all those who look at us not-famous writers and say “have I heard of anything you’ve written?” as if such a thing is the only conceivable measure of our worth.

That said, I tend to think too much carefulness is stifling. Too much tending of the walls means not enough tending of the sheep. (I don’t know who the sheep are in that metaphor, but go with me here.) If the indie lit world can’t suffer a guy listing some indie-ish writers whom he doesn’t like, how can we expect to survive the metastatic dismissiveness of the greater culture? Who even cares if Jason Jordan gave fleeting rationale for his personal tastes or not? Are we not allowed to dislike something publically? Do we really feel such a thing will topple our walls?

I think the proper reaction to Jason Jordan’s post is to debate his opinions not attack him for having one or hide behind attacks on his chosen style of critique. This is the first and almost certainly the last time I say this, but: we could learn from the world of political bloggers. There’s something to be said for sucking it up and moving on.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Questions, Questions

If I gave you a page of fiction and said “this is the first page of a three-page story,” you’d have certain expectations, right? And if I said “this is the first page of a novel,” you’d have other expectations. But in each case, what would it take for you to want to read more? Is the bar set higher or lower for a novel or a three-page story? I mean, if you know there’s only two more pages to the conclusion, does that make it more likely for you to read more? Or, conversely, if that first page is promising but not, say, “gripping,” is it the novel that would make you read more (because there’s so much space for things to develop)?

Does knowing the length of something impact your judgment of its beginning? Is it even fair to judge a novel on a page or a few pages? Do you expect literature to begin like an episode of Hawaii Five-0 with a lot of action and a clear establishment of stakes? Or do you just want something that displays a compelling voice or sets up something big and potentially grand?

I often make judgments on a piece of short fiction in a journal within the first paragraph. I’ve done that with books in a bookstore, too. There are plenty of times I’ve stopped reading right there. But, clearly, whoever published the piece or the novel had a far different reaction. Chalk that up to variations in taste.

But it makes me think. Is it possible to write something that can’t be dismissed? Or can everything be dismissed by someone? And if everything can be dismissed by someone, what percentage of dismissing is acceptable for you, as a writer? 10%? 45%? 85%? I mean, even if only 5% of people who read what you write think its existence is necessary, that’s a lot of people. And aren’t those people worth writing for?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

These Things Will Make You Moody

Last night I checked my email late, just because. There, waiting, was rejection number 3,435 from a certain online journal. Hyperbole, of course. But it feels that way and every time they tell me no, I spend a few moments sulking. This time, since it was late, I headed to bed gripped by this ugly mood, only to find my daughter awake in her room and looking terribly sad. She’d had a bad dream or wasn’t feeling well – her articulation of the problem was poor – but I picked her up and carried her to my bed and let her sleep on my shoulder.

Then I thought of this. An essay at Big Other where Amber Sparks admits to feeling undo anxiety because she’s constantly reading on Facebook (and elsewhere) about other writer’s publications/readings/general success. She feels behind; she feels pressured to keep up and write more and be noticed more and achieve more. And I’m lying there with my daughter on my shoulder and I’m feeling sorry for myself for this latest rejection, except now I’m wondering why. The story is good. Many of the pieces I’ve sent to this particular journal have been good. And, frankly, despite their prestige, I really only enjoy half of what they publish and tend to find the other half perfect presentations of the emperor’s new clothes. Why do I keep submitting to a journal with an aesthetic that I think tends towards the incomprehensible for incomprehensibility’s sake, that holds up a certain kind of obfuscation as something grand when it is, in my opinion, mostly something meaningless.

This isn’t an attack on certain styles of writing; aesthetics vary and I know I don't have the most experimental of tastes. But, seriously, why the hell am I submitting to (and getting disappointed by) a journal that is clearly operating at an angle different from my own?

The answer is: it’d be really cool to appear there. I mean, it seems like everyone else gets published there. Shouldn’t I want to be published there? Isn’t it imperative for me to keep up with the writing joneses? See me, see me, I’m a talented and prolific writer!

This is silly. This is unhealthy. We’re not a factory; we’re not measured on output. And the quality of our work doesn’t change based on where it appears. A good story is a good story is a good story. The goal, I think, should be to write those good stories and let the rest work itself out. If it takes a long time to craft that story, then it takes a long time. If it takes fifty rejections to find a home for that story, then it takes fifty rejections.

At least these are the thoughts that came to me last night. With my daughter on my shoulder. The purpose of things and such. The point of it all.

"The Abomination" at decomP

The February issue of decomP is live and my story "The Abomination" appears within. It's a monster story. It's part of a little project I'm working on about various beasties and such and I couldn't be more pleased to have it in decomP.

Thanks to Jason Jordan for including me!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Do You Read Booth?

Should. It tends to publish stories and poems that refuse to let you stop reading.

Check out: "Run Time" by Jesse Goolsby. It's one of those stories where the plot is minimal but that doesn't matter. It holds you.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

And Sometimes It's Just About Getting Ecstatic

The purpose of writing? The big story behind what we do? Yeah, I’ve been known to talk about that.

That’s why I was so entranced by M Kitchell’s HTMLGiant post that uses Dan Hoy’s THE PIN-UP STAKES to focus in on what we as writers (or at least what he, as an artist) should want to achieve/do/create. It’s one of those high-speed, wind-whipping-in-your-mouth kind of posts that concludes with the idea – to paraphrase – that we’re either blowing up the order of things or we’re falling into the trap of the already-is. And that already-is – the world as it stands – is a shitty place that we already understand all too well.

Kitchell doesn’t want to be told how the world IS. He wants to “end the world and change life.”

Diversion here (although this all matters to the end I envision for this post): Kitchell spends a chunk of his post chastising those who think the young can’t write about Important Things (he’s in his mid-twenties he says). He’s right, of course. Age and experience/wisdom/artistry do not have to correlate. But what’s cool is: he makes that argument while freely sounding his age. Which is to say: he has the enthusiasm and the fuck-you attitude of a guy in his mid-twenties.

I bring that up because, in his post, he quotes my post over at Hayden’s Ferry Review. And he quotes me as an example of what he DOESN’T want writing to do. Which is to say, he doesn’t want to read/write anything that: “ takes you into the unique life of an “other,” a life that in some way broadens your own understanding of the world, that brings illumination to places previously darkened.”

But the thing is, we’re making similar points. Or so I think we are. I mean, what I want out of fiction –as a reader – is to be shown something new. I want to have my brain reshaped. I’m not particularly interested in reading the kinds of quiet, realist fiction that makes up such a big chunk of American literature. That’s not to say I have anything against “realism” – I just have something against realism that I’ve already experienced, already seen, already spent God knows how much of my reading life rolling around inside the carcass of.

My HFR post was kind of about that – an argument in favor of making fiction new and necessary. And yet, when Kitchell read it, he found something staid in my words. What’s going on? Well, maybe I just think I agree with him but I really don’t (because I’m not getting his point). Or, maybe it is what I think it is: a difference in age and disposition.

Age how? Age as in: I don’t know too many people in their mid-thirties (as I am) who haven’t changed in their opinions and temperaments in the decade since their mid-twenties. Something happens in that decade that causes most people to disconnect from the ecstatic. We lose our excitability and find ourselves sunk into the pragmatic. So we write essays that are “admirable” (Kitchell’s words to describe my piece) rather than “wind-whipping-in-your-mouth.” This isn’t true for everyone, of course, and the degrees of change varies depending on the person. But for me, ten years ago, I’d have wanted to write a piece like Kitchell wrote. Now? Not happening. Or at least it’s not happening without me looking like the guy with the toupee in the dance club.

But I’m glad there’s someone out there writing shit like Kitchell wrote. We need the ecstatic. We need to be reminded that Big Things are possible and that, despite whatever has changed in our lives, we can still be turned on by ideas. Or at least I need that. I trend towards the square. But I still want a world in which people read something like Kitchell’s post and then everyone agrees they need to go out, get drunk, and discuss the damn thing until that place on the corner starts serving breakfast.

Because, really, it probably doesn’t matter HOW we want to approach this writing/art thing (realism, meta, nonsense, whatever). It just matters that we’re still enraptured by its possibilities.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Symbols and Death and All of This

Horrible things happened in Tucson this past weekend. You know this, of course. And you know what followed – the mourning, yes, but also the finger pointing, the political gamesmanship of fixing blame. This wasn’t just the usual human need to find something to repair whenever something so tragically breaks, but a markedly political need to “win” something or to “not lose” something, both “sides” turning tragedy into an opportunity to play politics, to “prove” the veracity of their particular world view, or prove the invalidity of their opponent’s.

I use quotations there. Because there are no sides except those we artificially impose and there is no proof for ideology. We create these concepts because, without them, there appears to be no order . We generate symbols (these right here that I’m using to write with and other symbols like flags and peace signs and entire people and movements) and we manipulate these symbols to force meaning into our world. And this is okay, of course. Necessary. What is writing but the creation of meaning out of abstraction?

But here’s the thing, here’s what I believe: nothing is as simple as our structures often lead us to believe. A human being doesn’t walk into a grocery store and shoot another human being in the head because yet another human being used gun sights in an advertisement. Sure, those gun sights and other symbols may have filtered in to the killer’s paranoid psyche and maybe in some unknowable, unverifiable way those symbols contributed to the act.

It’d be easy to believe this. Because symbols are power, right? Because symbols are the way we organize our reality? But let’s not fool ourselves about what words and symbols really are. It’s all nothing more than artifice. Than construct. What truly exists can never be captured in symbols. Yes – hell yes – we need more civility, more consideration, more compassion in our modern discourse. And, hell yes, hate breeds hate and there's never a wrong moment to condemn those who demonize, who divide, who callously ruin. But in all this conversation about the power of words – of symbols – I think it’s important to remember that all words and all symbols will always fall short of truth.

Some things defy our attempts at order. Some things exist outside categorization. Some things are, by their nature, incomprehensible. And I think it’s okay to admit that.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Guest Post Up at Hayden's Ferry

I've written a contributor's spotlight over at Hayden's Ferry; it's about race and class and gender in the world of literary publishing. It's something I've been thinking about for awhile and something the amazing Roxane Gay brought to the forefront of the conversation last month at HTMLGiant.

Hope you get a chance to check it out here.

Thanks to Beth Staples for working with me on this and giving me the opportunity to post it on Hayden Ferry's blog.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

New Things

Couple new pieces out there in the world.

My poem-like thing "How to Pronounce Water" is part of Mud Luscious 14; many thanks to Andrew Borgstrom who put this awesome issue together.

And "Stars Like Glass" is up at Necessary Fiction as part of this month's first footing project. Thanks to Steve Himmer for allowing me to be a part of this -- the idea is to take the last line of a story and make it the first line of a new story. Cool stuff.