Category Archives: Uncategorized

Problems and Solutions

This morning I sat down at my desk, read for a while, and then asked myself the same questions I’ve been asking for the past 15 years: what can this writer teach me?  What does s/he do especially well that I can study?  How would I write this differently?  What I haven’t often thought of is how I came to ask these questions as a kind of fiction writer’s daily office.

When I was a MFA student at the University of Montana, the famous editor, Rust Hills, came to talk in our program.  Though retired, he was still connected to the fiction being published in Esquire and he seemed to radiate all the confidence and clarity of the romantic minimalist tradition—the pared-down prose style that writers like Hemingway, Carver, and Ford helped make the dominant paradigm in North American fiction for the latter half of the 20th century.

Here was Rust Hills, sitting in our workshop, live and in person.  Everyone was excited and I was no exception.  I was very much a fan of his book, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular.  At the time, it seemed definitive, the young fiction writer’s answer book.  Forget Rilke.  Here was someone who told you exactly how not to embarrass yourself on the page, how not to write like a fool, in a way that sounded far more elegant and far less proscriptive than John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction—the other book on writing that everyone trusted at the time.

When I met Hills at the usual dreadful faculty-grad student party for visiting dignitaries, I was also happy to discover that one of my heroes was a decent human being—something that quickly becomes an exception rather than a rule when encountering visiting celebrities in MFA programs.  He was a soft-spoken thoughtful person, witty, and perfectly at ease in every situation.  He was essentially a gentleman.  Moreover, he spoke about writing with the sense of quiet surety that comes from being wholly immersed in a particular aesthetic.  When this happens, the boundaries and characteristics of the style in question can provide an answer for everything.  And though I have since rejected this as a kind of creative sickness, an over-stylization that traps imagination and limits possibilities, I was young enough back then to believe.  Someone with Hills’ degree of conviction had to be right.  At least, he had to be righter than someone like me who wasn’t sure about anything as far as how to write was concerned.

For the rest of that year, I rededicated myself to writing the Lished-down Carverian prose line.  I read Ford’s Women with Men, Munro’s Open Secrets, Mona Simpson’s Anywhere But Here, and Janet Fitch’s White Oleander.  I took “Gazebo” and “Cathedral” apart, writing imitations that tried to evoke the same invisible weight of implication between simple lines.  I learned how to admire Exley’s A Fan’s Notes and I fell in love with the stories in Busch’s Absent Friends.  But then I read Waltzing the Cat and everything fell apart.

Up late one night, smoking, too much coffee, I looked at the handwritten draft of my latest story and started to feel sick—that heartsick dread we get when we don’t want to admit that a particular piece of writing has already failed, failed conceptually and therefore completely.  I tore it up.  I looked at the last 10 or 12 story manuscripts in my cardboard “finished pieces” box: crap.  In fact, they were a special kind of crap: slavish craven imitation.  I had produced most of a story collection over the last year and it was garbage.  And I didn’t know if I could write another word.  I didn’t know if I should or if I even wanted to.  It seemed that my personal heroes were guilty of some glaring lies of omission.  A long night of whiskey ensued in which a fellow grad student and I jumped a train and wound up in a snow bank, which did not help.

Hung over and covered in angst the next day, I wanted to blame Pam Houston for everything awful in my life, especially for my artistic faith crisis.  But how do you blame someone who wakes you up?  Is it really possible to blame Lucifer if the apple makes you less gullible?  In Waltzing the Cat, Houston was doing just what the minimalists did—practicing economy, implicitly characterizing through dialogue and action, showing change only within the frame of implications and assumptions established in the beginning of the story.  But she was also enjoying words.  A playful absurdity undercut many of her scenes where straight Hemingway-esque minimalism would grind its teeth in existential despair.  Essentially, Pam Houston’s collection gave me a way to imagine other ways of writing—ways that diverged radically from what Hills easily set forth as the way it should be.

I read Cowboys Are My Weakness  that week and had a similar experience.  Then I started to look at how she was doing these things, how she could blend the hard-cut storytelling abilities of the minimalists with maximalist sensibilities.  That line of inquiry helped me produce “Living in It”—a short story that would become the first in my book, Gravity.  While working on Gravity, I discovered that there were a lot of established fiction writers diverging from the minimalist party line.

Pam Houston made it possible for me to learn from a different tradition that was largely overlooked by my writing teachers, most of whom had built careers around prose that was minimalist and therefore easily publishable and who typically defended their way as The Way to Write.  But that was untrue.  If I’ve learned anything by asking myself how other writers do things, it’s that there is no one way.  It’s a hard realization, especially for beginning writers looking for some kind of objective clarity.

Since having that realization, I’ve taught students of my own and have suggested that by all means they should imitate the writers who interest them.  It’s one of the best ways to learn.  At the same time, it’s important not to become a true believer—not to get sucked into an existing aesthetic simply because it’s there and it gives you boundaries.  Those boundaries will ultimately kill your work.

Instead, become a student of literature and read with a writer’s eye.  Read Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular and The Art of Fiction and Story and Narrative Design.  But also use your own brain.  Keep a journal or a computer file in which you write about what you’re learning.  Above all else, keep an open mind.  Genre writers can teach you structure and dramatic tension like no one else.  Poets can teach you voice and depth.  Playwrights live on implicit characterization.  And other hybrid forms like comic books, online interactive narratives (hypertext, etc.), songs, legends, and folk tales each have something that is particularly useful to learn.  Read everything.

This is what I’ve done and what I continue to do.  And I think this is what has led me to question everything I read as if its author were sitting across from me, eager to explain.

Advertisements

Horror at 2½ Feet

Working in cafés can be wonderful.  A clean, well-lighted place with good coffee and relative quiet can be inexpressibly fantastic.  I’ve made the rent and written books in cafés.  On the other hand, close proximity to others under the influence of caffeine can reveal a certain darkness in the human condition that would otherwise be difficult to notice.

People get bilious.  A baby fires his diapers and the café hazmat expert springs into action.  “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.  Don’t worry,” says the teenager in the green apron.  He’s down on his knees wiping up baby’s spillage with a rag.  Mom takes a second before she moves.  She says: “Yes.  Well.  I appreciate your help.”  Mom’s friend—an almost identical copy, right down to the French twist and the yoga pants—crosses her arms and looks down at the boy.  How do babies contain so much waste?  Half of the café pretends it didn’t happen.  The other half is smiling.  Baby is so charming.

Mom and her friend finally decide to help.  They sigh and wipe the drippings off the stroller, the floor.  This is a normal thing in their world and mom executes her duties without getting a smudge on her yoga pants.  From a certain point of view, this, I know, is admirable.  But still, baby contains a gallon of fecal matter and mom contains a gallon of meaningless cooing.  How does this happen to a person?  These women are in their 30s.  They seem oblivious to the fact that they have been speaking very loudly in close proximity to others about absolutely nothing for the last 45 minutes.  Who raised them?

I am irritated, yes.  I am a misanthrope, maybe.  Timon of Yosemite.  But I feel bad for the parents of the kid with the crew-cut who’s still down on his knees, apologizing for someone else’s shit.  His choice, but still.  My inner Nostradamus tells me that if he doesn’t quit this job soon, he’ll be doing that for the rest of his life.

Of course, I don’t have kids.  It’s easy to pass judgment when you aren’t constrained to be a guardian of public health because baby has a bowel problem.  But what about a pediatric  gastroenterologist?  I don’t know.  Could an expert address this?  Maybe mom already covered that angle; though, it seems to me baby would feel a lot better if he wasn’t bathed in his own waste.  (Later, when mom goes out to a Lexus RX 350 with chunks of gold glued to the side, I will think this again in less charitable terms, wondering whether dad couldn’t take a day out to see about the health of his boy.  But such are my prejudices.  We should all foul our diapers and own Lexuses.)

I’m at the big table –the one for the losers who come to the café to work and read quietly.  The era of socially egalitarian coffee shops ended with the rise of the Starbucks beast.  There is definite class polarization here.  Corporate culture and proletarian workforce self-segregate at the little tables by the windows; liberal democrats, professorial types, senior citizens, and other undesirables lurk at the long table in the back.  In-between lingers the great murmuring maternity, the guardians of our future, a triple-parked fleet of strollers, an ocean of yoga pants, and the inevitable cloud of post-Yogalates hormonal dismay.

Being a mom is hard, yeah?  My mom thought so and I’m sure I didn’t make it easy for her.  She was a good mom—in my opinion, the best.  And even though my parents stayed married (until my mom’s death from cancer in 2009, after which my father descended into a second perpetual adolescence), she was the one who took care of me on a daily basis.  So maybe this is more of a personal moment for me than it seems on the surface.

Is it crazy to think parenting should be a group effort?  Sorry guys, bringing home a paycheck doesn’t absolve you of having to mop up the Schmutzigkeit.  We don’t want junior to have a lilliputian colostomy before he’s old enough to enjoy solid food.  It makes me sad.  It’s wrong.  And I think just because you can reproduce and have money doesn’t mean you should.

Next to me, a 40-something guy with white shoulder-length hair sniffs and clears his throat.  His long-sleeve is buttoned all the way to the top and he has a pair of square rimless glasses (spectacles?) at the end of his nose.  He  looks over at the baby in disgust and shifts his Kindle two inches away from that side of the room.  That’s okay, I saw a different young mother do that with her baby when she looked over at our table.  Germs.  Competing bacteria.  Everyone’s a vector.  Everyone wants to eat your child and poo in your laptop case.

Why can’t we just get along?  The answer is that we can—as long as everyone stays in the small box they were given at birth.  Born in a box: live there, paint the walls all you want, inch a tiny mirror over the top edge to see what it’s like in the other boxes, sure.  But try to climb out and everyone will destroy their diapers.

Said incontinent baby is now squealing in hideous misery while mom is sipping a latte and laughing with her friend.  I really hope baby grows up to run with wild horses over the hills.   You can always hope.

The kid in the apron has brought out a mop and bucket.  Mom and friend ignore him.

“I’m sorry,” he says for the fiftieth time.

Yeah, me too.


The Fundamental Strangeness of Life

Recently, someone wrote to me wanting to know how I could support myself doing what I do.  It was a legitimate and sincere question that nevertheless had undertones of skepticism.  The writing life?  Really?  Just admit you’re flipping burgers in the back of some cantina, why don’t you.  And my answer was that I really am doing this the way I say I am.  It’s not impossible—hard sometimes, but never impossible.  The bottom line is that I’m doing exactly what I want to do in life.

So wRembrandt's Philosopher in Meditation (detail).hy the incredulity?  Why the outrage?  I think it stems from the ingrained assumption that leading a responsible, hard-working life is at odds with fun and satisfaction.  When I worked in law, my supervising attorney used to say, “Sleep is for the weak” and “If you’re smiling, you’re not working hard enough.”  I hated that and I suspect that such traditional attitudes about work and life begin with western religious assumptions  about what we’re here to do and where we’re headed—assumptions many of us would rather do without.  It’s also hard not to see a telling interface between this aspect of conformist culture and consumerism.

Then again, I firmly believe that once we start making small decisions about what we want, once we start saying no to the bullying mechanisms of conformist culture (see Office Space for a great hilarious treatment of this), the way we see the world begins to change.  Things we thought were dull and boring begin to reveal hidden dimensions.  Fears evaporate.  It’s like learning to swim: at first, we sank like stones but then we learned to see the water differently and we were able to do something amazing: float weightlessly.  Sure, I love college teaching, but I love it primarily as something fascinating in itself, not as a support system or security blanket.  I don’t have any fear of the non-academic life.  I’m still a writer no matter where I am.

Moreover, I find it interesting that we are encouraged to assume that there is a fundamental disconnection between the mundane and the extraordinary in our everyday lives.  Why is this?  And why do we support belief systems dedicated to showing us how monotonous and empty our lives can be?

As someone who has spent a good amount of time in academia as well as making a living doing somewhat unconventional self-directed things—freelance writing, teaching fiction writing online, editing, even surviving for a while in college as a professional tarot card reader—I’ve come to recognize the inherent strangeness and fluidity of so-called normal life.

As the linguist, Patrick Dunn, has written, we might legitimately see the world “not as a constant interaction of immutable laws—although often and in may ways it is—but as an ever-changing interaction of arbitrary and constantly shifting symbols.”  Realizing that we have a considerable degree of semantic control over our lived experience should make us pause and ask why we are living the life we’re living.  Shouldn’t it?

Thinking about this has opened a lot of doors for me, doors of perception, doors of experience.  When I ask what is the meaning of life? I only hear the echo of my own voice.  And I used to think that this meant life was essentially meaningless.  But I don’t think that anymore.  Now I suspect that looking outside myself for an answer is tantamount to expecting a fixed meaning from some immutable hierarchy of values.  All cosmological assumptions serve power in some way and very few of them are in place to empower or enlighten the individual.

Now I tend to agree with Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked.”  The echo that comes back is the answer: the meaning of life is in the act of interpreting it.  And so I think again about everyday life, about the experience of being alive in a dance of symbols and interlocking value systems.  It’s incredibly strange to see life this way—to drop the ancient fictions associated with fixed categorical thinking and instead see experience as a matter of Will to Meaning, of interpretation.

After I sent a response along these lines to the person who asked me whether I was really, truly, honestly living the writing life, she followed up with: “But doesn’t it bother you that you’re not famous yet?”

I’m not?

All the dogs in my neighborhood know me as that guy with the cookies in his pocket.  When the balance of my life is behind me, what will I care about: that my name wasn’t a household word or that I was able to say, life means THIS!

Cookie, anyone?

Cookie, anyone?


It should only happen . . .

My friend, Dr. Minnick, has a new, very interesting blog.  Recommended: http://alevei.wordpress.com/


The Genius of Imitation

mission24: perseverance

mission24: perseverance (Photo credit: greenkozi)

Creating reproductions of other works requires an extremely high level of technical proficiency.  One’s subject matter will always be personal, but I want to encourage my students to deliberately acquire new technical skills by taking on the aesthetic of the writers they read.

In this sense, every text is a potential writing instructor.
 
I have taught myself a lot by doing this assignment.  For example, by imitating Melanie Rae Thon‘s imagistic descriptions, I learned how to make an idiosyncratic first person voice graphic.  By imitating Hemingway, I learned greater control of the line, of syntax, as a mode of characterization.  By imitating Thom Jones, I learned to appreciate tragicomic realism, which led me to the work of Denis Johnson, which ultimately led me to Maupassant and Isaac Babel.

I want my students to learn to see how one writer connects to another stylistically and thematically.  I tell them to imitate everyone.  Fill notebook after notebook.  This is how one practices, how one acquires a technique that can render and evoke anything the story needs at any point.

And it never ends.  We should use the library as the ultimate resource for self-education, the ultimate art studio.
 
None of this will cause a writer to forget herself or her own voice.  On the contrary, it will enrich her style, inform her subject matter, and teach her more about who she is as a working artist.

http://doctormike.posterous.com/the-genius-of-imitation