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True Confession

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First dig two graves. I think Confucius said that. But nobody started off by saying I wanted to stab my girlfriend and bury her in the backyard, but I was reading Confucius. So I dug two graves. Instead, they usually began with I really don’t remember. I’m not too clear on what happened. It was a mistake. It was an accident. I didn’t mean to do it. I didn’t do it. I did it, but she had it coming. She begged me to do it. I don’t remember digging. I didn’t dig. I’m on meds. I walk in my sleep. I’d had some drinks, Ambien, Klonopin. I couldn’t have done it. If I did it, I didn’t mean it. I didn’t do it but, if you say so, I don’t know. Maybe.

They started all kinds of ways, but they usually finished the same: You need to understand. If you’d been in my shoes. If you were me. If you only knew. You’d have done it, too. They wanted you to see, to make sure you understood, it could have been you. So put a No. 2 pencil through the left eye of your cousin because he took your favorite CD and then say, you’d have done the same thing. How can you say you wouldn’t?

On April 6, 2010, I sat in a motel room in Denver, watching people say this over and over. It was my last year of graduate school and because I’d picked up a paralegal certificate along the way to my PhD, I’d gotten a job transcribing around 100 digitized police interviews for a defense attorney’s office. The original transcriptions had been lost and they were desperate. I told myself it was just another job because it paid like one. But it wasn’t. It was a journey through human dread and pain. Watching those confessions brought back my nightmares, then my relentless insomnia, then my chain smoking, then a depression so thick and wide I felt like I was drowning.

I’d driven out from Kalamazoo, Michigan, two days before in a rented Ford Econoline 150 that I’d meant to use as a living space while I attended the AWP Writer’s Conference at the Colorado Convention Center. The van was completely empty except for the driver’s seat and some bungee cords. I had a sleeping bag, a cardboard box full of books, some clothes, my backpack, and a laptop. The Conference was four days long. I planned on driving over to the hotel every morning, then relocating to a distant parking lot every evening. It was a good plan in theory.

But I felt shaken when I saw the van start moving towards the interstate at a rest stop somewhere in Nebraska. I barely reached it before it rolled into traffic. And even though I’d found a cinder block to put under one of the wheels, I couldn’t relax after that. I kept imagining it going head-on into a family of six. So when I got to Denver, I found the cheapest motel room I could, charged it to my sad broken credit card, put the van in their empty asphalt lot out back with boulders and cinder blocks under all four wheels, and tried to calm down. I told myself at least I wouldn’t be sleeping inside it when the family went boom.

My memory of that time is intensely vivid. I’d never been to Denver before. And, though it was my third AWP Conference, I’d decided that this was the one that mattered. I was about to get my PhD in English; I was waiting on several university job interviews and had one lined up at the Conference; and it was possible, against all odds and popular opinion, that my career plans were actually going to work out. I just needed a little more cash. Hence, the transcriptions. I had a deadline, an envelope of flash drives, and a supervising attorney who never returned my emails. I was transcribing about ten interviews and confessions every day. And I was starting to feel not right the way one feels after watching Triumph of the Will or the 2016 presidential debates: this can’t be real.

I suppose I’ve been thinking about Denver because my old friend, Theo, emailed me the other day while I was watching the final Trump-Clinton debate. The last time I saw him was six years ago at AWP. So the fact that he emailed me suddenly, after so long, was surprising all on its own. But I opened Theo’s email right when Trump started talking about Clinton being okay with ripping babies from their mothers’ wombs, right as I was starting to feel the old out-of-control nightmare anxiety rising in my chest, the sense that things were not right, that I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

Theo wanted to know how I was liking Kentucky, if I was still writing, why he hadn’t seen me at any conferences. I thought, Kentucky? And then I remembered. That was the interview I’d had at the 2010 AWP, a small regional college located close to the Tennessee state line. While Trump was saying, “In the ninth month. On the final day,” I looked at Theo’s paragraph and thought, this is what he remembers about me. This is what motivated him to write to me after six years. Trump says, “That’s not acceptable,” and I think, Jesus Christ.

How do you make a true confession? You sit in an interview room at the police station, sometimes in a hotel room or a conference room. White walls. Simple table or none at all. It’s not often an interrogation room. It’s for interviews. It’s small and everything is plastic, metal, Formica. Maybe people walk around in the background. Maybe it’s completely quiet. Lean forward in the steel chair that’s bolted down and doesn’t swivel. Fold your hands on the table that comes directly out of the wall. Start off with: “I’m not sure. I don’t remember.” And even though he’s recording what you’re saying, he’s also nodding and jotting it down on a steno under your name, which tonight is something normal, like Jim. He notes that you have a wandering right eye, a cleft lip, and a green tattoo of a cat on the side of your neck. He notes this in spite of the fact that it has already been noted in your file because he’s bored. But you’re thinking, trying to remember. You’re a bit stunned. You think you can talk your way out of this.

File after file, story after story, it only got worse. Around 9:00 AM on the first day of the Conference, I found myself in the back row, watching a panel discussion entitled “Decolonizing Poetics: Womanism and the Art of Decolonization.” As I sat there, I listened with my right headphone to a man explain how he pulled his brother out of their burning vehicle. He’d been driving, had a BAC off the chart. He said he didn’t know his brother was dead. And in my left ear: poetry’s essential role in the decolonization of bodies from centuries of white supremacist, capitalist, heteronormative intrusion. It was hard for me to concentrate on the evils of patriarchal hegemony while listening to someone crying, saying I didn’t know. How could I know? And the detective saying, I understand. Take your time. I was typing furiously on my laptop in order to keep up. People thought I was taking lots of notes on the decolonization of la mujer.

The room was packed, which was good. My undergraduate creative writing students from Kalamazoo wouldn’t be able see me from the hall. I was in no shape to interact with them. Of course, I hadn’t slept. Around 3:00 AM, I’d watched The Mothman Prophecies in the motel room, probably not the best thing to do, given my state of mind. But it’s one of those movies you can sink into, like Blade Runner, Vertigo, or Chinatown—movies I always keep with me, maybe just to have them playing in the background while I’m doing something else. I’d shut the laptop in the middle of a deposition involving a juvenile accused of multiple homicide. Even though I’d only transcribed about one-fourth of the files and I was half a week behind, I just had to stop for a while. I smoked a pack of Camel Lights and watched John Klein have creepy phone conversations with Indrid Cold until the sun came up.

The supreme irrelevance of the panel discussions at AWP is a thing of legend. After 90 minutes of decolonization, I remember meeting Theo on the mezzanine, where we drank vending machine coffee and read the Conference program. “Play Ball: the Language of Sports,” “The Writer as Literary Outsider,” “Bollywood, Bullets, and Beyond,” “What’s Not Funny About Serious Disease?” “The Person Within Myself.” I thought they were hilarious and stupid, but Theo was upset. He took everything seriously and was trying to figure out why he’d flown to Colorado just to listen to low-rung literary celebrities talk about whether they wrote on a word processor or with a pen. I told him I’d heard there was going to be a meet-and-greet with some Big Six agents from New York. But Theo just looked at me. No one was going to be interested in his book-length memoir about teaching English in Guam.

Theo was skinny, had bushy brown hair, and wore ripped thrift store clothing, whether from choice or necessity I never knew. He also smoked but wasn’t concerned with quitting. I think he needed to smoke because, in his own very quiet, withdrawn way, he was just as stressed out as me, maybe more. He was about to hit the job market with no publications, no interviews, one composition class of which he’d been the teacher of record, and a six-year PhD in English that he’d financed mostly through private loans. I never asked why he’d done it like that or what he planned to do after we earned our degrees, but his protracted silences and occasional outbursts didn’t militate in favor of wine and roses. Instead, he sat across from me, slurping chemical coffee and shaking his head: “’Aroused, Parched, and Fevered: the Translation of Sexual Poetry?’ Goddammit. Why am I here?”

I didn’t have an answer. I was there for the interview. That was my reason and I felt it was a good one, maybe the only legitimate motivation one could have for going to AWP.

He stood up, said he was going to go wander around the area, maybe find a bar where he wouldn’t have to see perspiring writers handing each other business cards. I watched him walk down the convention center mezzanine as long as a football field. I didn’t know it at the time, but his brother had been involved with a conservative group demonstrating against the “Ground Zero Mosque” that was supposed to have been built near the site of the former World Trade Center. Theo was constantly talking about how crazy the Tea Party was, about how Obama couldn’t get anything accomplished because of GOP obstruction. At the time, I think we all felt that American politics couldn’t get any more embattled. And Theo seemed to suffer from the political upheavals that year the way we all do now, worrying that no one is capable of guiding us away from self-destruction, that our world is careening out of control.

I put my time in. My interview wasn’t until lunch the next day. So I drifted through random poetry readings and panel discussions, across the book fair area where small presses and magazines had tables covered with all the books they’d published that year. Lost Nose Quarterly. The Dingus. Barbaric Yawp. Boilerplate Cadenza Press. And then the big trade houses, tables manned by the best dressed interns in the world who’d drawn the short straw and had to sit there glowering at peons all day.

I knew a few people, grad students from my university, professors, employees of magazines that had published my stories over the years. I was happy to see a few of them. But I didn’t talk much. I simply exchanged nods or a quick word, keeping my distance. This is because AWP is a place of reckoning for most English studies people. You will inevitably notice your friends and colleagues there in the process of making horrible life-wrecking decisions. For example, if you’re going to walk around with your girlfriend where people will notice and tell your wife all about it, why not let it be at the world’s biggest book fair and writer’s conference?

I remember colliding with a professor I’d known for years, who normally dressed like Agatha Christie, but that day was done up in black leather and heels. A wispy undergrad who’d been unsuccessfully attempting a mustache was holding onto her arm with both hands.

“It’s you.”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s me.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I have an interview.”

She did a double take. Her companion looked from her to me the way one watches a flying squirrel jump from tree to tree. It’s alien and incomprehensible and a bit unnatural. But we’re all mammals, so one has to look.

“You do?”

“Yes.”

It seemed crazy to her that someone could be considering me for an actual job. I recall telling her where and seeing the look of relief on her face when she realized it was somewhere far away from anywhere she would be. Why? This happened a lot in my world and not just with me. It was as if people were living in pampered, self-congratulatory reality bubbles. And, when those bubbles collided, there was immense cognitive dissonance, distaste, even dread. I must have been a destructive force to her—someone presenting a very unflattering reflection. All that black leather. She’d bought it for a reason and I was ruining her cosplay experience with young Werther.

She mumbled out something like good luck and moved into the crowd, pulling Werther along with her. I watched her go, feeling grateful that Theo hadn’t been there to analyze, for an hour, why she and the kid and the conversation we just had was so fucked up. But that year everything was fucked up, painful, riddled with lies and disappointments.

At the same time, I was learning that the way to make a true confession is to believe there is a truth and you know it. There’s what happened. There’s what you think might have happened. And there’s what you confess. It doesn’t matter if you’re the only person left alive, the only one who saw, the only one who’s supposed to know. You’re being asked to tell a story. So you do.

Jim’s interview is long, full of silences, false starts, retractions. The detective has gone from uninterested to barely awake, murmuring his questions from behind the camera.

“I’m coming out of the Elbow Room,” Jim says. “It’s late. They kicked us all out at bar time. And that’s when I see Sean. He’s got a board.”

“A board?”

“Yeah, like a board with some nails pounded in it. And I say, ‘When you gonna give me back my Steel Wheels?’ And he goes, ‘Fuck you, Jim,’ and tries to swing on me. And I had a pencil in my pocket.”

I write it all down, word for word, but I don’t contextualize: maybe you’re not stupid, but you’re drunk. Or you’re not drunk, but you’re scared. Or you’re scared, but you’ve been in this steel chair before, which makes you really scared. Or you haven’t, which makes you terrified. And the detective says, I understand. Take your time.

Back at the motel, I made progress with the work, but it took a toll on my body as well as my mind. I subsisted on beef jerky, fruit cups, and tap water while I typed until my fingers ached. Like any good student, I had a due date. I had to get it done. I moved between the particleboard desk and the moldy bed, changing positions whenever my back started to hurt too much.

“You sure about that, Jim?”

“About what?”

“Him swinging the board at you.”

“I think he did. It looked like he was.”

And there you have it: the moment of truth, wherein Jim enters what could reasonably be called his own personal Air-Conditioned Stupid Place or The Shitcloud of Unknowing or, my personal favorite, The Solid Gold Stinking End of All Life—that empty space between the known, the unknown, and what gets said about it, where admissions of guilt are born and go to die. And you go with them. Maybe the only thing the court will know for sure by the end of its time with Jim is that there’s a right way and a wrong way to make a true confession.

Three people I didn’t know in a very warm room at the Hyatt Regency. I was sitting in the stiff-backed desk chair. They were sitting on the bed.

Left, Betsy: Victorian lit., floral-print dress under beige grandpa sweater, belly bulge, black leggings, bags under eyes, gray-streaked brown hair still damp from midday shower, unmistakable hangover wretchedness on her like some kind of odorless colorless gas. She scowled at me over her tumbler of coffee.

Middle, Jack: British Modernism, cadaverously thin, didn’t know what to do with his hands baby-blue polyester suit like a sagging dirigible, black tie with salmon swimming up toward the knot, rimless glasses—the expensive kind that darken when you go outside—now half-dark.

Right: Abeline: creative writing: Levis and a man’s white button down, hair combed behind her ears, tight practiced smile, multiple silver rings on each finger.

How long, I wondered, had this hiring committee been looking?

Abeline dropped her hands on her knees. Her silver rings clinked. “You know, it’s a funny story. We saw this guy in the elevator—where was he from?”

Silence.

Then Jack, to the carpet: “He—”

“Ole Miss.” Betsy frowned into her coffee, then snapped her gaze up as if I were about to argue.

“Yes. Ole Miss.” Abeline’s smile never moved. She leaned forward to refocus my attention. “He was wearing a wig and a fake mustache. Can you believe that?”

I opened my mouth, but she wasn’t asking me.

“Ha,” said Jack.

“Typical,” said Betsy.

They looked at me. I said: “That’s strange.”

“Not so strange. Actually, no.” Abeline tilted her head to the side in the way of a raptor about to steal an egg from a nest. I realized her smile was small so it could stay fixed without hurting the muscles in her face.

“Not so strange for AWP.” Jack shot a glance at Betsy, who glared at him.

“He was looking for a different job,” Abeline said. “Going behind someone’s back.”

I attempted a smile. “Are you enjoying the conference?”

Jack cleared his throat. “So we like your CV. It’s a good CV.”

Abeline nodded. “It’s a very good CV. You have a lot of teaching experience. I suppose that should count for something, right?”

I nodded. I was having trouble processing, following the implications. Something? Should count? Did that mean the default was that it counted for nothing? And if you stripped away my teaching experience; if you discounted my letters of rec.—which hadn’t and, I knew, wouldn’t be mentioned because they hadn’t been read; and if the entire committee was made up of two lit. professors, who probably didn’t read much outside their specialty areas, and a creative writer, who seemed more a product of natural selection than a sympathetic colleague; my hybrid fiction-theory dissertation wasn’t going to matter. I had nothing. I was screwed.

Betsy peered at me, a knowing grin spreading across her face. “What makes you want to work in our department?”

“Ha,” said Jack.

Abeline nodded, looked me over.

I’d prepared a speech. I’d practiced. Because I was scared. Because there was a woman who wrote on the internet about what not to do in an academic job interview and I’d believed her. Because I had one interview and this was it. I launched into a disquisition on their department, on who was publishing what and how I thought my work would make a good fit, on my student-centered decentralized teaching style, on my commitment to diversity. And, though all of it was true, I saw the expressions on their faces change like time-lapse of a decaying corpse. I saw each of my memorized bullet points float away into the abyss between me and the three professors sitting on the bed. But the woman on the internet had said, focus on what you can do for them, not on what you want them to do for you. So I focused. I focused like a motherfucker.

4:00 AM. Beyond exhaustion in the dead gray motel room, I was almost done with the transcriptions. Dry mouth, stinking of instant coffee, I didn’t even have the energy to feel my usual anxiety. I watched a tiny spider on the window sill laboriously rope the legs of a fly three times its size. It seemed to take a long time, the fly getting tired, then struggling in frenetic terrified bursts, the spider crawling all around its body, staying on top of it, relentless. It seemed like a big meal for such a little spider.

On my laptop, Albert Leek was explaining to John Klein that telling the world about phone messages from spirits accomplishes nothing. It was the scene where they’re standing in Leek’s “college professor’s house,” straight out of central casting, with the usual stacks of books, dust, sad photographs, and regret—Leek in a crew cut like some retired police captain who’s seen too much, a little heavy, a little tired, and Richard Gere in his Washington Post reporter’s overcoat. He’s supposed to be John Keel, aka John Klein, but he’s really just the same old Richard Gere, gently bewildered, just crazy enough around the eyes for us to believe he’d go looking for an author on psychism to explain Indrid Cold—the voice on the phone, the invisible presence in every scene, the psychopomp of Point Pleasant, West Virginia.

It’s a good scene, maybe the best scene in the movie. Leek is a tormented man, not just by ghost voices but by everything he’s lost in his attempts to tell the world about his discoveries—

“John, I had tapes of their voices! But so what? Nobody cared. I knew a building was going to blow up. I tried to prevent it, but no one listened . . .”

“What happened?”

“People died.”

—tormented the way we feel John Klein will be if he continues trying to reveal the truth.

Five hours later, after a shower, a fast food breakfast, and taking the wrong freeway exit on my way to the convention center, I found myself in “Tips, Trips, and Techniques for Publishing Insiders,” where I watched Charlie Sheen’s estranged twin go over each step in the publishing process as if he’d personally invented it. But I was still thinking about Albert Leek and Indrid Cold and that spider, as merciless as any force of nature, crawling around its prey.

The high point in the talk was when the blasé panel of Big Six agents and junior editors slid into Q&A and began to explain how tired they all were, how overwhelmed, and what this meant for the the future of publishing. Charlie’s twin, replete with slicked back hair and facetious grin, was saying something about having five novel manuscripts to read on his flight back to New York the next day.

Then a hand went up.

“Yeah?”

“But what are you reading for dinner tonight?”

She must have been 24 or 25. No one in the room seemed to know how to react to her question.

Even Charlie hesitated. “I think I’m free.”

Nice. There was an exhalation. Somebody clapped. People laughed. Love conquers all. An elderly woman with long silver hair, her face flushed purple, stood up, said, “Shit,” to no one in particular, and stalked out of the room. She couldn’t accept the inherent beauty of a community of writers coming together to engage in mutually beneficial intercourse.

I thought: somewhere Indrid Cold is watching all this. Toward the end of the scene, we realize John Klein can’t accept that the older man is just telling him to give up.

“I was investigated, almost arrested. My wife divorced me. My kids stopped speaking to me. Do you know what four years in a psychiatric hospital can do to you? Being right is worse than being wrong. If you’re wrong, you’re just a fool. If you’re right, you’re a suspect.”

I knew the lines by heart. Was it better to be a fool or a suspect? What do people want to hear? And why should anyone care? Bring your manuscript to dinner. Wear something sexy.

Somebody raised a hand and asked whether literary fiction, given Harry Potter, was finally dead. One of the editors started to describe how he’d first met J.K. Rowling and what a wonderful person she was. The woman who’d invited Charlie to dinner sat there with arms crossed, not looking at anyone, a smug expression on her face. That’s when I left, too.

If you’re smart, you don’t confess it the way you think it happened. You’re smarter than Jim. You’ll say, The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had born as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge. You’ll say, I swear I was in my right mind at the time, just as I am now, and I recall everything perfectly. I chose to do it. I planned to do it. Moreover, I’d do it again. As I transcribed those words, I’d know that you were lying. But the detective will merely sigh and say, go on.

To tell a true confession is to confess it like it’s true. It’s not about what happened, what Indrid Cold whispered to you over the phone at midnight. It’s about how you narrate what happened. It’s about your delivery. It’s about suspension of disbelief. If you want to tell it right, you have to set the scene. You lay down some back story. You make it plausible—even if you are lying and are trying to confess a crime you didn’t actually do.

“You always walk around with sharpened pencils in your pockets, Jim?”

“I just had one, alright?”

“How sharp was it?”

“Pretty fuckin’ sharp.”

“Give me the sharpness on a scale of one to ten.”

“Are you kidding me? It was a pencil. All I know is it was sharp.”

Later, after “Horror and Sci-Fi Taken Seriously” and “Ecological Cowboy Prose of the New American West,” I decided drive back to Michigan the next day. Theo found me on the phone in the lounge of the Hyatt, letting the car rental company know. When I hung up, I could see that he was functionally yet unquestionably drunk.

I told him about the interview, how all they’d really wanted to know was whether I’d take a one-year teaching appointment instead of the tenure-track position they’d advertised. Theo shook his head the way you do when you hear your teenage cousin got arrested again. He’d been drinking gin steadily since the night before, his own bottle, up in his room.

I asked him what he’d gone to at the conference and he said, “Do you . . . think I could make it in sales?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Good. Because this English crap won’t hunt.”

I agreed. The English crap wouldn’t hunt. It wouldn’t bark or roll over or bring you your goddamn slippers unless you took it out to dinner. I told him I was driving back in the morning. But he was concentrating hard on standing up.

“Sales,” he said.

I nodded. “Sales.” And I raised my fist.

I finished the last transcript sometime after midnight, then finally got a little sleep. I left my plastic key in the motel’s after-hours drop box and got on the road before dawn, feeling like this was probably going to be the last AWP Conference I’d be attending.

I’d wasted a lot of money and time to bear witness to the fall of the academic-trade segment of the publishing industry with all its slaves, clowns, and dancing bears. I didn’t have a job offer or a book deal. Then again, I wasn’t the one getting plugged by a poor-man’s Charlie Sheen in exchange for him reading my novel manuscript. The road, at that point, felt like a relief.

I suppose Confucius said that you should dig two graves because vengeance is the path of destruction and that which you offer to others, you offer to yourself. The wisdom of this is beyond reproach. I’ve thought about it carefully. However, it does not account for how you will get your victim and yourself into the graves once you’ve committed the act—to say nothing of who will replace the dirt on top of you.

This means you will either need accomplices or the second grave isn’t for you. The entire interpretation changes. And the true nature of Confucius emerges as a lethal, cold-blooded killer. Don’t just take out your enemy. Take out his friend or a family member likely to avenge him. Do it in twos. You’ll be glad you dug the graves ahead of time. Then at least you’ll have a good story to confess.

So It’s the end of October now and I think I’m going to vote for Hillary, even though I have my reservations. I’ve seen too many lousy politicians come and go to consider the alternatives. But the harder thing will be what to say to Theo. I’ve changed a lot in these last six years. I’m not sure how I could possibly explain, in an email, the twists and turns my life has taken since I left Denver in that rented van. If Albert Leek is right, confessions make you into either a fool or a suspect. And I suppose what I’ve written here will do both. But it’s something. And it’s all true, as well as I recall it. Would you believe it? And believing, would you hear me out if my name were Indrid Cold?

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On Productivity and Publishing

I’ve written three books of fiction to date, all story collections; though, only one of them has been published. This is not remarkable or typical in any sense, even if I do have the stereotypical writer’s voice in my head telling me that I should be submitting to more book contests, etc. My submission schedule results in about 2-3 stories placed in magazines every year, a process I actually enjoy, and I have no plans to stop doing that. Still, I sometimes wonder whether the world needs another immature literary magazine, another lousy e-book marketing campaign (what Chuck Wendig calls the “shit volcano”), or another mediocre career-building novel entering the flotsam. What does the world need?

Better: what do I need?

Books are not the only way to be published, even if they are the fiction writer’s holy grail—specifically novels, ideally lots of novels—because they sell and therefore build careers. Or, as an industry professional once said to me at an AWP conference, “You need to write at least a novel a year for the next five years if you want to be a contender.” He was an important person in the publishing world, had a red nose, a cigar in his lapel pocket, and I was completely intimidated by him at the time. So I nodded as if I understood. But I didn’t and should have asked, “A contender for what, exactly?”

Publishing only feels like boxing. In reality, it’s business, the alchemy of transforming things into money. When business and art collide, a volatile chain reaction usually takes place resulting in all sorts of monstrous transmogrifications, creeping morbidity, and a certain amount of screaming. Put simply, how many writers have you heard of who built a career out of publishing a book a year? I can think of maybe one or two and none writing outside strictly defined genres.

The only literary writer who may produce full-length books with that kind of regularity is Joyce Carol Oates, someone as great as she is prolific but who is entirely unique. So “a book a year” might not be the best advice if you’re in this to make art. If you’re in it to make money, why aren’t you running a brothel, flipping houses, developing apps, or managing a hedge fund? You can probably make an app a year. Brothels, I don’t know, but I imagine their schedules are a bit more eventful.

Every writer asks a version of this question, sometimes on a regular basis: should I be writing harder, faster, longer, mo betta? Should I be soaking down the meadow like a frustrated stallion on horse viagra? How much is too much and why is it that by asking this question I feel soiled? Of course, as with most questions writers ask themselves, there are no answers. There are only opinions and that vague soiled feeling. To be honest, there is only subjectivity in this context.

So how much? Stop asking. Stop thinking about it. Just write. And if you want to be a “contender,” find a different metric against which to measure your progress.


Acts of Defiance

I once took a creative writing workshop from Richard Ford, in which he spent a lot of energy inveighing against the epiphany in short fiction. This must have been in 1997 or 1998. Little did any of us suspect at the time that his vehemence was probably a reaction to a single bad review that had come out for Women with Men by some no-name writer with an ax to grind. The review criticized Ford for being unwilling to let his characters change or realize very much as they suffocate though postmodern American decline.*

I’ve tried unsuccessfully over the years to find that review. It has mysteriously disappeared from the internet. Does that actually happen? Does the writer now swim with the fishes? Maybe it came out in Kirkus or in the AWP Chronicle; though, I tend to think it wouldn’t have been the Chronicle, given how careful they are with avoiding the faintest whiff of contentiousness toward the darlings of the Big Six in one of the most atavistic industries in the world. So probably Kirkus. Or Salon. I think people at Salon could still read at that point.

Anyway, the review was scathing. I remember it not because I necessarily agreed with it, but because at that time I was in awe of Ford in one of the most unproductive and frankly brutal workshops I’d ever experienced. The Xanax intake in our class went up precipitously after the second meeting, while the likelihood of dissent dropped to 1938 Great Purge levels. All heads were bowed. Everyone had joined the party. Dissidence was shown zero tolerance. And I felt that our instructor had gradually begun to resemble Frank Booth offering Jeffrey a ride in Blue Velvet as if we relived that scene in each critique.

Ford’s ability to craft fiction nevertheless spoke for itself. That was the problem: you might think the guy tuning your piano is a surly misanthrope until he starts playing Rachmaninoff. Then you decide you must have been wrong about everything. How much more do you think a highly accomplished yet incredibly acerbic celebrity could shock a group of young students just starting out? Several of my classmates quit writing fiction for good after sitting through critiques that took apart their 20-page stories sentence by sentence. The rest of us were intimidated yet determined not to seem that way. We wanted to be real writers. We would endure. Since then, I’ve come to believe I was more impressed with Ford’s craft and less with his worldview; though, young writers tend to conflate the two when under the influence of a particular teacher and I certainly did.

So when he talked about the epiphany in fiction as being largely an empty obsolete convention, we nodded and wrote it down. What the hell did we know? Besides, the term had religious overtones. That was an absolute no-no. The largely white, upper-middle class Breakfast Club of terrified 20-somethings in my shop immediately started to write gutless (and mostly bad) Ford-Carver imitations—pared-down realism in simple declarative sentences where nothing much happens beyond a .000001% change in the protagonist’s depression.

The theme of every piece became: please don’t hurt the writer of this story. Joan, a secretary at a Toyota dealership—who’d decided to take a story writing class through open university because she liked reading Stephen King—was the only student who’d had the guts to write a scene involving prayer. I remember her story. Though it was painful to read, she may have been the worst writer and the best human being in the room. After her second critique, she developed a facial tic, but she kept coming. I kept coming, too, and tried not to notice that my cigarette and coffee intake had almost tripled as I subconsciously girded myself for fiction fight club. And I also took multiple beatings. You don’t forget beatings like that. They qualify as formative experiences, not because they help you be a better writer but because they show you what not to do, what psychological damage feels like, and how unnecessary it is.

Class and money, of course, were part of the problem. This was at a state university in California, the program I was in before I applied to the MFA at the University of Montana and learned that not all writing programs are created equal. Maybe fortunately, I hadn’t yet seen how students in Ivy or near-Ivy writing programs are coddled and courted as long as they have connections. In Montana, several of my classmates had agents before they even started (or wrote anything). Famous visiting writers showed up twice a week and yawned through their workshops, occasionally meting out a beatdown to the group pariah—usually the kid on heavy student loans whose parents don’t happen to be international art dealers. It makes strategic sense to do this. You look like you’re doing your job and a bit of focused brutality keeps the others in line. Plus some kid without connections won’t likely be a problem in the future.

To his credit, this did not happen in Ford’s workshop. Everyone took a beatdown. Then again, no one had an evident future in creative writing. So he might have been shouting at a room full of corpses, professionally speaking. He seemed angry about having to teach the class in the first place. I think he was there as a personal favor, produced no doubt through the clandestine machinery of patronage and obligation that keeps the MFA Ponzi scheme up and running even in the lowliest regional colleges. Look at the list of visiting writers on any half-page AWP Writer’s Chronicle MFA program advertisement and compare this to the names consistently showing up in Best American Short Stories over the last 20 years. Then look up who’s publishing those people and where they’re teaching now. Who takes those classes? Who can qualify to enter those MFA programs? You’ll figure it out. It’s not hard. And, after that, I’d like you to sweep out the break room.

However, there is another difference between the finishing-school MFA and the one I was in at that time: lack of tact. Students in the highfalutin MFA programs, especially the students on big loans, have a very powerful sense that they must not argue too loudly. They are, after all, being taught by MacArthur fellows and the Pulitzer winners. But go down to a state college on the edge of a farm community where Animal Sciences gets more funding than English, Art, and History together. There you will encounter a type of student looking for an education and angry that she isn’t getting it. Already alienated, many of these kids will gravitate towards the arts, not because it’s a cool thing to talk about at daddy’s dinner parties, but because they have become true believers. Debt is going to be part of their lives forever, but maybe they’re still idealistic enough to want to become artists even though their future as parking lot attendants is pretty much locked in at that point. Every class matters to them. Every text is something that they’ve had to sacrifice for. And if they’re going to be publicly abused and their work put to the question, they want it to be for a good reason.

Thus it came to pass that on the day we were talking about publishing (such that it was clear none of us would ever publish a damn thing because, hey, look around), Karin** raised her hand. I knew it was coming. I could feel the barometer drop as Ford, in mid-sentence, looked over at her. She’d had a pissed-off look since the first day and, meeting by meeting, she seemed to be holding in the rage. I never got to know Karin very well, but I remember that she had a lot of piercings and bright carrot-orange hair which must have been dyed. She was gravely serious about becoming a writer. She was making it happen through loans and waitressing at Denny’s. Moreover, she had a two-year-old son. Karin did not lead an easy life. She led a determined one. And she was not impressed.

She asked a question: “Can you talk about how you first got published? I mean, isn’t it true that you’re so famous whatever you write can get automatically published at this point?” In the spirit of Mark Twain’s after-dinner speech at John Greenleaf Whittier’s birthday party, “the house’s attention continued, but the expression of interest in the faces turned to a sort of black frost.” The daffodils in the faculty club immediately turned to ash and crumbled. Dogs began to howl. The corner of Joan’s eye began to violently twitch.

The way I remember his response was that it was something acidic and dismissive. It was not altogether as harsh as I had expected and, to my surprise, he did not command her to commit ritual suicide then and there. But Karin never came back to class after that meeting. I may not recall his exact words because, in that moment, I was having what can only be described as a major epiphany. I realized it wouldn’t make a bit of difference if I came to the next meeting or went to a bar and got drunk or wrote 20 pages of the best possible prose. What mattered was my attitude to my own work, how sincere I was while remaining dedicated to learning the craft. That’s what being a real writer is. I have Ford’s workshop to thank for that.

It was the first big realization I had in the writing life: every act of writing is an act of defiance. All else is opinion, vanity, and marketing. If that sounds too extreme, let me respectfully suggest that you’re not expressing yourself as fully or as honestly as you could. Let me suggest that you write something that people will disagree with and that you also happen to believe. And let me suggest that you put it out there to publishers and learn to deal with the inevitable beatings. And then defy those and do it again.

 

 

* Kathy Knapp does an updated version of this critique in American Unexceptionalism: the Everyman and the Suburban Novel After 9/11 (2014).

** Not her actual name but close enough for those who might remember.


Weirdo: Visions of Future Past

Cunning is what counts in this life, and even that you’ve got to use in the slyest way you can; I’m telling you straight: they’re cunning, and I’m cunning. If only “them” and “us” had the same ideas we’d get on like a house on fire, but they don’t see eye to eye with us, and we don’t see eye to eye with them, so that’s how it stands and how it will always stand. The one fact is that all of us are cunning, and because of this there’s no love lost between us. – Alan Sillitoe, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner”

Long ago, in another, more colorful life, I knew an aging exotic dancer named Juliette. She was 22 years older than me and beautiful in ways exotic dancers half her age weren’t or weren’t anymore. Usually when someone starts off by saying, “I knew an exotic dancer named Juliette,” the preterit know must be read in the most expansive and liberal sense. However, Juliette and I had a far more intimate connection—the greatest intimacy with many in her profession being not so much sexual or romantic as sincere. We were friends. We got along.

Specifically, I would sit in the club with a bottomless coffee (yes, even the coffee) and write fiction. On her breaks, she’d sit with me and eat—a bowl of potato soup or chili con carne, pot pies, various pulverized Stouffer TV dinners heated up at the liquor store a block away. Dancers need to eat just like the rest of us. And her breaks were the times she didn’t have to try to be sexy or smile at people, even though she still did when we’d sit in the back and talk about the weather. There is nothing sexy about a pot pie.

I was a 29-year-old graduate student. And Juliette—especially given the local culture of Missoula, Montana—was certainly old enough to be my mother. At 50, she occasionally looked her age. But she most often looked about 25. She was one of those gifted people who always look young and who always look happy even when they’re sad. Born in Manchester, England, she’d made her way across the Atlantic and across Montana first by marriage then by inertia. And she once told me she didn’t see how Missoula was any better or worse than where she grew up in “Gunchester.” It’s an old story. Goes like this: you get married; you get citizenship; you get away from Anaconda, MT the way you got away from the UK; you take off your clothes for men every night in a bar; you get money for regular frozen beef stroganoff and peas; you befriend the dopey-looking guy scribbling on a steno pad in the corner. You are amused. He publishes a story about you. It’s a living.

Things Get Weird in the Chong Market

So yesterday I came down with a bad case of synchronicity. I hadn’t thought of Juliette and our conversations for a long time. She was entirely unique, one of nature’s prototypes, completely unashamed of her body, and someone who shouldn’t be forgotten. Unlike most in her profession, she didn’t secretly hate men for being the hog-faced repellent bastards that we generally are. And that alone should have commended her to my active memory. Still, a lot had happened since then. I’d lived in five countries and spent a significant amount of time in several more, lost myself, found myself, learned to speak poorly in various foreign languages, deliberately forgot certain things and inadvertently remembered others at the least advantageous times.  I’d done my own long slow dance with the devil in the pale moonlight.

I did not dwell on the painful exigencies of the past because I typically do not like feeling depressed. And my MFA years were full of neuroses, desperation, and dread—in my fellow grad students and in myself—which is what I mostly think of when I remember living in Missoula. People in the English department there hardly ever seemed stable and never seemed happy. All in, it was a stereotypically morose humanities graduate program experience best forgotten, which might go toward explaining why I wrote half my first book in a strip club. But that is a subject for a different (and no doubt equally painful) excavation of the past.

But synchronicity: standing in the narrow crowded Chong Market (the only place I can find Mama-brand noodles in Oxford that taste like the ones I had on a daily basis in Bangkok—I am that guy), I had what can only be described as a supernatural-level return of the repressed. While looking at a stack of tiny red plastic offering bowls, I heard someone pronounce “Chinese bowls” like “Chinese bowels.” I wasn’t sure who said it (the place was packed), but I remembered Juliette and her innumerable bowls of chili, which she called as “bowels of chili soup.” I never mentioned how funny that sounded to me because I was afraid she’d take it the wrong way. Over time, her accent had evolved from heavy Mancunian English to some utterly unique amalgam of Manchester dialect plus upper United States and lower Canadian. It was an amazing moment. And, for the rest of the day, I felt surrounded by the kind of trippy new age glitterdust that only comes with spooky action, tinfoil-hat Sedona harmonic convergences, and Tinker Bell. How could I have forgotten Juliette?

A Moment of Spontaneous Hoodoo

One of the greatest features of the Chong Market—other than their extensive assortment of ramen and fish sauces—is the enormous red and gold Hotei shrine dead center in the store. Having had such an intense resurgence of memory, I decided something momentous had just happened. When the hand of the past reaches out and tweaks one’s nose, one should pay attention.

I thought of making an offering to Hotei Buddha for the health and excellence of my longish writing projects, even though that had nothing directly to do with my memory of Juliette. Of course, I’m not in Asia but in Oxford and so, after standing there for a while, drawing weird looks from people going down the narrow aisle, I started to think Hotei might not be the way to go. If I was feeling like working some kind of old-timey Seven Lucky Gods Hotei hoodoo, would it not have been even better to go the Saint Friedeswide route and light a candle in the abby down the street?  The trouble was, the culture of Oxford doesn’t particularly like its medieval saints and I’m still waiting for Frida to return my previous call (it’s not me, it’s her—she’s been busy—don’t I think it might be good to start seeing other towns?—am I seriously jealous of the time she’s been spending with Binsey?—let’s act like adults for once—she needs some space). So I decided to settle for just my little Hotei figurine at home, some incense, a stack of hell money, and a shot of something strong to salute the mystery of it all.

Because moments like that are all about mystery. Synchronicity is memory plus pattern recognition. And memory is narrative, wherein lies what the ancient Greeks referred to as the mysterion—more than just your garden-variety Professor Plum with a revolver in the conservatory. It’s the thing that only reveals itself in your life by degrees, unfolding like a Rose of Jericho. It’s the palimpsest you solve over time. It demands interpretation.  I bought my noodles, put two pence on Hotei’s shrine, and drifted along Hythe Street Bridge, feeling Tinker Belled, like I was missing something. What message was I sending myself?

If You Were Any Good . . .

By the time I reached the other side of the bridge, I felt I had the answer: it’s important to remember as much as you can, no matter how painful, because this is what creates you. By extension, it is how you create.

Earlier in the day, I’d had a conversation about a family member who’d written me off a long time ago to the tune of if you were any good, you’d ________. Every writer hears that at some point; though, I count myself as one of the unfortunates who’ve had to hear it more than once from resentful friends as well as distant and immediate relations. Okay, friends? Maybe “people I used to know and no longer like all that much.” But you can’t beat hearing “if you were any good” from family. That’s a special kind of wonderful. When you hear this, remember it because the past is a mysterion you need to constantly interpret and whoever said that, no matter how much they grin and prevaricate, will have your worst interests at heart going forward. As the person writing the developing narrative of your life, you are the one responsible for writing the plot.

There is absolutely no way a writer can avoid dealing with the past. The entire problem of leading a creative life is bound up with personal history and the old sad “if you were any good” attack. It’s the meritocratic lie that creeps up from the subconscious in the long dark of your novel-length writing project. It’s a nutty relative coming out of nowhere to say she knows that what you wrote is all about her and that’s why she’s so upset. It’s your uncle asking you if you have an agent yet. It’s feeling like you have to do NaNoWriMo to prove something on Facebook. It’s the thing you should never forgive or forget if you respect yourself as an artist. Let them insult you all they want and critique your work on its merits, but never put up with them insulting you through your work.

All of this, as Ecclesiastes might say, is vanity. It gets in the way of mental health, but more so if you allow yourself to forget it.  NaNoWriMo, for example, is an interesting exercise the way having a colonoscopy can be interesting. It’s a unique experience. You have troubling thoughts about the people providing that experience. You walk out stiffly and tell yourself you’re glad you did it; though, you’re not altogether sure it was necessary, and you quietly resolve to never do it again. If you were any good, you’re sure you’d have loved it.  Keep that in mind for next year.

For that matter, if you were any good, you’d be living in New York City. If you were any good, you’d have a novel being optioned, you’d be on the NY Times bestseller list, have a Stegner Fellowship, and no doubt have rancid AWP Conference hookup fellatio scheduled right after the panel discussion in which Charles Baxter says things about moral fiction that everyone will try to forget. If you were any good, you’d be something in residence somewhere. You’d be making a fuckload of money for yourself and around 200 better dressed people who majored in English at Brown and Vassar. More importantly, you’d be making your friends and relatives finally shut up about your life choices because you’d be on that Limitless drug that shot Bradley Cooper through a cannon and transformed him from a writer into a low-fi Jeb Bush. All these things you have to have and make and do in order to be real. If I’d said as much to Juliette, she would have laughed me out of the strip club.

Oh Yes Money is Part of It: The James Patterson Experiment as a Case Study in Thuggery, Bullshit, and Woe

I took my Chong Market mysterion as an opportunity provided by my subconscious to remember and therefore create. In other words, don’t have selective memory. Hold onto the good things, the good conversations, the good people, but keep the painful things pressed hard against your heart. For creative writers, this is essential. Allow yourself to forget a good person and you profane what the world has given you. Allow yourself to forget a painful experience and you lose a hard-won part of your soul.

Walking back home across a city in which people put razor-sharp spikes on four-foot backyard fences because they feel they should, I thought about my old friend, Juliette, and wondered where she was, if she still was. Was she back in Gunchester? Did she get married and become a happy homemaker? Did she wail off half-naked to the horizon on the back of some werewolf’s Harley? Juliette could have done anything because she knew how to survive anywhere. One thing she understood better than I ever have: money will win in the end but that doesn’t excuse us from anything.  We still look to the past in order to create the future.

Consider the “James Patterson Experiment,” which sounds like a funk band started in 1975 at Chico State but which, in reality, was a cynical (but rather funny) project by an unpublished ebook writer named Paul Coleman. Coleman boiled James Patterson’s bestseller formula down to a relatively depressing yet realistic set of principles: “Paul is using Patterson’s fast-paced style (short paragraphs, short chapters), plenty of action (‘when in doubt, blow something up or shoot someone’), and plain language (no purple prose here), among other tactics.” Why? Because Paul wants to get published and pay rent and James Patterson is one of the wealthiest writers alive ($94 million).

Now also consider that there are other “real” writers out there: E.L. James ($80 million), Danielle Steele ($23 million), Stephanie Meyer ($14 million). Searching for literary authors with money gets us the likes of Richard Ford, Haruki Murakami, and Donna Tartt (who, according to Vanity Fair two years ago, was the “It Girl” who’d become the “It Author,” having written The Goldfinch, described as the “It Novel”— read some Vanity Fair and then say it with me: fuck It). These people have all the talent. And if you don’t agree, we’ll replace you online with a 404 Error page and send some Viking-Penguin leg breakers to beat your mother into submission. If you were any good, you wouldn’t be googling the net worth of the person who wrote 50 Shades of Grey.

You don’t mess with enfants terribles littéraires who suddenly get money. And you definitely don’t mess with the hideous lampreys who make a living off of them. There is no one more gangsta than an author (plus lamprey cloud) who can now tell the world to kiss his ass. To be fair, most authors feel they’re due for a little ass worship, given the abuse that comes standard with the writing life. But feelings aren’t the point. In the immortal words of Boss Hogg, “Blood may be thicker than water, but money’s thicker than blood.”

When you’re talking about creative works that produce millions, it’s no longer about art or even about taste; it’s about intellectual property. So Paul Coleman’s website is now a 404 Error result. Why is that, do you think? Where is Paul Coleman now? Google “James Patterson Experiment” and see what comes up for the first 10 pages of results. No, this is not paranoia. This is the notion of “loss prevention” filtered through high-end corporate logic.

To wit: if you pose the classic Foucaldian question: “What is an author?” you may receive a list of brand names that represent intellectual property interests distantly related to human beings alive or dead. If you disagree with this list, we throw our heads back and laugh because you’re broke, chump! Get some talent and you’ll get paid. Then you’ll be real. Only then. If we don’t disappear you in the meantime for asking too many questions since, if you were any good, you’d be something you’re not right now. But I think about Juliette, who was wholly herself. And yesterday, I may have asked the Foucaldian What, exactly, am I? more than once on my way to my little house on the meadow.

One Last Tiresome Synthetic Connection Evoking the Restless Spirit of Bob Nucklet c. 1989

Bob Nucklet (Where are you now, Bob Nucklet?) played the trombone. He was tall, still wore his band letterman jacket two years after graduation, and had his drunk of a father to thank for the fact that he couldn’t walk straight. Bob was an amazing trombone player, but his day job was waiting tables at Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego. We’d stayed friends after I’d transferred and he graduated due to our mutual love of comics and music. Picture me, 17 years old, tooling around San Diego with Bob in a broken-in-every-way-possible 280ZX to buy comic books. We’d discuss Seven Samuroid and Axl Pressbutton over 7-11 coffee with the intensity of post-Soviet avaunt-garde film critics.

When I woke up this morning, thinking about the past, about all these things and more, I had another resurgence of memory: me haltingly trying to explain to Bob that I was picking up classical guitar as well as piano, worried that he would respond like all my other musician friends with piano players think they can play anything. Instead he simply nodded and said, “Just keep playing, Michael. Just keep playing.” And I think I should keep that memory close as well because I have kept playing in my own way—with words and doing my best to avoid the if-you-were-any-goods coming at me from time to time.  Hotei knows, it hasn’t been easy.  

I wonder what Juliette would think if she met Bob. I’m sure they’d fall in love.


Kill the Beta Reader

I’m sitting in a cafe in downtown London with a show tune version of the Doors’ “People are Strange” playing overhead. At some point, some focus group, some collection of sample listeners employed by a marketing concern or polled through a survey, decided that this schmaltzy cover was better than the original. Based on their decision, the track was included. This is the hidden world of the beta listener, beta reader, product tester, quality control specialist, and sometimes that of the literary editor. And it smells like untreated beta.

Let’s play a magical game of what if? What if you wrote something and not everyone liked it? Would you still be a legitimate writer? In the words of the incomparable Ksenia Aneske:

Stop worrying about what will happen. Will anyone read my books? Will anyone like them? Will anyone buy them? Will my mom call me and tell me I’m a genius? Will my dad send me a pistol to put to my head? Will I have to forever hide from my friends in an opium den and will my face slide off my head from shame and embarrassment at the atrocious and absolutely abominable quality of my prose? Put it out of your head!

Yes. Stop. And fuck the beta reader. Do this for any number of good reasons that remain good no matter what kind of writing you’re doing, how famous you are, or whether you feel the thing you just wrote is brilliant or incoherent.

One of them, maybe the biggest one, is that ultimately only one entity is served by the advice of even the best beta reader: the publisher. Having beta readers for your story or novel helps your publisher in three ways: (1) it lessens the already considerable work of the publicist-editor-copyeditor tasked with getting your manuscript in line with what the publisher wants; (2) it focuses your work towards a viable consumer demographic; and (3) it reminds you, the author, that you are not as important as you would like to think, given the cruel, rapacious hellworld of publishing.

Why does having a beta reader do these things? Because there is a difference between a beta reader and someone just providing feedback. This difference is rooted primarily in the language and assumptions of genre presses and e-book publishers; though there has been some bleed into the general vernacular of publishing in general.

Consider the submission guidelines for the “Harlequin Heartwarming” imprint. It’s worth reading the entire set of guidelines for all the Harlequin imprints, by the way:* “Similar in tone and feel to movies and TV shows like Sleepless in Seattle, Parenthood and Enough Said.” Why would a publisher say something like this as a guideline? Why, indeed. Because the job of a beta reader on a manuscript meant to be sent to this imprint is to give feedback relevant to that tone and feel—i.e. the beta reader’s job is one of aesthetic critique and revision. It’s writing-by-committee. And it sucks.

This is exactly the problem in MFA programs with the soulless “workshop story.” As the Writer’s Digest article puts it, “a workshop story is . . . insidious: on the surface it appears authentic, profound, meaningful. But really, it isn’t about anything.” Yup. It’s about style at the expense of substance. And this is the realm of the beta reader. In a bad workshop, every participant becomes a MFA beta reader, an experience worse than death.

Oh, you’re an artist? Excuse me. Hugh Howey puts it like this:

[W]riting within a genre is a huge first step in being discovered. No one is looking for you or your particular book. You are both unknown unknowns. So you better write a book that’s near a specific book. You can either change your name to L.E. James or you can start writing billionaire erotica. Of the two, I’d go with the latter. Science fiction, romance, new adult, erotica, fantasy, crime all sell better than literary fiction.**

This is unquestionably true. But if you want to write a memoir or a novel about an old couple living in Kansas, please, please, please do it. Please don’t make it a novel about a teenage couple having a romance in a post-apocalyptic Kansas because you think no one will be interested in the novel if you don’t put zombies and vampire ninjas in it.

In contrast to the beta reader, the person providing feedback is not reading relative to a particular style sheet—or she shouldn’t be if she’s trying to be a good reader. She’ll try to understand your project. And she’ll give you feedback that helps you realize that project more fully. That’s it. And that is very hard to do. It’s what happens in a successful story workshop. It helps writers become more of who they already are as artists. It does not churn out something that can be positioned as the next big salable thing (which is bullshit anyway—ask Hugh).

Back to what if? What if they held a workshop and nobody came? What if you’re writing all by yourself in your drafty garret? What if you actually are writing a teen paranormal werewolf romance novel in a post-apocalyptic dystopian vampire Kansas? Do you need a beta reader then? Not really. Do you know what you’re doing? If you don’t, aesthetic quality control isn’t going to be that much help (Um, I think, the scene in the taxi could be a little more like that one scene in Sleepless In Seattle . . . ). If you do, your polished draft will arrive in the editor’s inbox with only a few changes necessary–which is part of being a professional instead of a hack.  I do think reading and sharing our work is really important and useful. But the beta reader is a creature of marketing, not art.

 

* Note: I choose to pick on Harlequin because they’re an institution in the world of the romance genre and because I am not aware that any of my writer friends are publishing with them. Of course, I want all my friends to publish everything, get rich and famous, and bathe nightly in bathtubs filled with Cristal if that’s what they want. Still, it won’t stop me from grinding my axe on this blog. Sorry, bubu, them’s the breaks.

** Hugh Howey has good things to say and I’m not disagreeing with him about being discovered. I’m disagreeing with the attitude that literary fiction is irrelevant based on what sells.


On Envying Other Writers

Dost thou wish to be praised by a man who curses himself thrice every hour? Wouldst thou wish to please a man who does not please himself? Does a man please himself who repents of nearly everything that he does? – Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, Book VIII

Most writers will tell you that envying the success of others is lethal, stupid, wasteful. They will tell you this because they have no doubt experienced the consequences of crippling envy firsthand. It comes with being an artist. But it’s something we have to get past and learn how to avoid. Envy is one of the many things that will destroy a writer emotionally, creatively, and sometimes even physically.

A True Story from the MFAkong Delta

I remember one afternoon toward the end of my MFA. I’d been teaching a beginning fiction writing class and was fortunate enough to have a good group of undergraduates in the workshop. They were serious, smart, and several of them were in the process of applying to MFA programs themselves.

Because it was late spring and because my tiny office in our brutalist 1970s humanities building resembled a janitorial closet in a parking structure, I held my office hours outside. Twice a week, I could be found sitting on a grassy hill in front of the administration building. Students actually showed up and we talked about their work. It was good. It also kept me away from the toxic environment of the English department and the Machiavellian absurdities in perpetual flux on every level at every moment. Give me grass and sunshine and a passing Golden Retriever any day.

My students and I had a friendly relationship and I looked forward to meeting with them. One afternoon, we were sitting on the grass immersed in conversation when I felt someone staring at me. It was one of the professors in my writing program. Here I will call him “Professor Careerist.” (Why Careerist? Because the vast majority of the things he said in my workshops had to do with getting published by the Big Six and what not to write if you wanted to be famous.)

Anyway, I noticed him standing across the quad, glaring with a mixture of contempt and disgust. Later, I had the misfortune of passing him in the hallway outside the department office. His expression hadn’t changed. When I was far enough away that a full conversation would have been impossible, he turned and called out, “Davis, don’t get used to this life for much longer. You’re not going to have it.

At the time, I took this to mean that I’d be graduating and moving on—and that thinking about this pleased him deeply. I also felt that Prof. Careerist disliked anyone who seemed remotely content not to be hustling and constantly self-promoting. When he noticed students putting thinking about art before trying to get ahead, it offended him deeply.

Ironically, Professor Careerist taught me as much if not more than any of my other professors—about what not to do. His negative example has served as a guide in very tough times. And what he said to me in the hallway has unfolded with many levels of meaning over the years. One of the most profound is: there is no free lunch, not in writing or in anything else. Because of this, an artist has to make a decision whether to write for a commercial interest or for herself or for a little bit of both. But she should never expect the world to take care of her (or even pay attention to her) unless she’s offering something of value in return.

The Kindness of Strangers

When Careerist said, you’re not going to have it, what he really meant was you’re not going to have it without my help. And, brother, that’s one thing you’re definitely not getting. In that, he was correct. I didn’t get his help and didn’t get that life.

Nearly every one of my fellow MFA students was a gifted writer. Some were shockingly brilliant. But today only a handful of us are still writing. And an even smaller group of us have found permanent teaching positions. This is not because we weren’t all talented, hard working, and sincere about becoming creative writers and teachers. It’s because some of us had help and some did not. Some of us offered something of value. Others sat back and waited for a line to form outside their door.

Prof. Careerist never helped me (deliberately), but others did—enough to help me continue. And, because I had very little to offer those who helped me, I have to add that maybe there is a free lunch sometimes. Maybe I was a rare, lucky exception to this cruel economy of patronage and fear. I’m still writing, still interested, still doing my thing. I seem to have had the knack for showing up when certain professors and administrators were about to do their good deeds for the day.

Dry Rot and Perdition

Years later, about to finish my PhD, I had lunch with a fairly well-known visiting novelist. I’d just published my first book of stories, Gravity, with Carnegie Mellon UP (through a largely serendipitous convergence of allegiances that had little to do with me as a writer). I also had 18 or 19 magazine publications and a handful of small writing contest wins. I was not (nor am I now) a big deal. But the novelist (who was a big deal) really wanted to know if the other graduate students in my program hated me now that my book had come out. I said that I didn’t know and I was being honest. My mom had just died horribly. My father had started a second pathological adolescence. I was worried sick about the future. I didn’t care what my fellow neurotics in the department had to say.

I guess the reason he asked was because something like that had happened to him. And he still cared, though he’d been out of his MFA program for close to 20 years. At some point, people had envied him, despised him, traumatized him. And this highly accomplished, famous, established writer was still thinking about it.

That night, at his reading, I sat in the audience while he spent half an hour talking about his creative process. His thinly veiled egotism curdled the air like a rotten onion for nearly 2 hours. I could see him, sitting at home, reading the AWP Writer’s Chronicle and giving himself an ulcer because so-and-so got an interview or some other bonbon and he didn’t. And I could see that even now, deep down, he feared he was a bum. This is what happens when writers forget why they write. This is what envy does to us.

So why do we do it?

I guess there are as many reasons as there are writers. But I think it often comes from the inability to separate commercial success from creative satisfaction. We’re told to eschew fame but emotionally wired to seek it. We’re told that success as an artist is a meritocracy—much like what we’re told in graduate school about finding teaching positions: if you’re good enough, there will always be a spot for you. Right.

Moreover, most of us hold ourselves responsible for our relative success or failure, forgetting that much of it depends on the opinions and assistance of others—people who may only be thinking about sales or who may be in the position of gatekeepers but who may have no aesthetic sense or artistic ability whatsoever. We often overlook (in fact, we’re often encouraged to overlook) the fact that a commercially successful career as a working artist depends very much on trends, consumer demographics, timing, and the decisions of those who may or may not stand to gain by helping us. Patronage is alive and well. We ignore this and we suffer accordingly.

When we do experience a modicum of success, we often celebrate a bit too loudly as a way to release all the angst we’ve otherwise acquired. Unfortunately, it is guaranteed that someone is hating us twice as much as a result. First, for our success. Second, because we seem to be enjoying it too much. And the extent to which we crow about our successes is the degree of envy we will feel when others pass us by. It’s absurd. It turns us into fools, victims, slaves.

Remembering Who We Are

Caught up in all the envy and jealousy, we tend to forget ourselves—that we originally became artists not for fame, wealth, or to demonstrate our worth to a cruel world. We did it because we wanted to create.

We have to keep in mind that the pain of not being able to create to our own satisfaction is only superseded by the pain of self-doubt that gnaws away at us and will not depart until we accept that we have limitations. Ultimately, being an artist is a love affair with our creative impulse—not with hype, not with fame, not with feeling clever or showing up the competition.

It’s far healthier to say, I am going to make this small interesting thing. I am going to do the best I can and then send it out into the world and forget about it. I am going to do this over and over because it makes me happy. So please don’t tell me what it should say, how much I should be adored at this point in my professional life, how much money I should be making , or who should be coming over for dinner.

You write your thing and I’ll write mine. And if I’m writing for pay, let me do the best possible work for my employer. If I’m writing just for myself, let me know my creative genius in the deepest possible way.


What am I working on?

My friend and fellow writer, K. Murphy Wilbanks kindly mentioned me in a blog post focusing on what she’s working on right now. So I will follow suit. Though I have the usual 100 things blowing up my computer, I am focusing on a few big projects at the moment.

What am I working on?

First and most painfully, I’m working onVelouria, my novel about a guy who lives in Washington D.C. and works for one of the smaller Smithsonian museums. I’m just about to close out the first draft at 250 ms pages, which warms the cockles of my heart. I will be completing this draft in just over a year of toil and misanthropy in poorly lit rooms.

Then there’s Heavy Industry, my novel about snow, murder, and the food and beverage industry in Illinois. That is also nearly finished and waiting for me to come back to it. But, since I’m getting ready to finish Velouria, I’ve already resumed work on it a bit.

My third story collection is in progress. I think I need about four more stories. Cruel Stars, my second, is still making the rounds at small presses and literary contests. I’ve had a lot of close-but-good-luck-to-you interest in it. Sometimes, I wonder if it’s going to get published before I’m too old to remember that I wrote it. But that’s how it goes with literary submitting, specially with story collections. Everyone tells me to self-publish. I might do this around the 100th rejection. I’m only up around 20 or so. Yay. Let’s submit 80 more times!

I’m also working on a super-secret screenwriting project, which is one of the most enjoyable things I’ve done, well, ever. I’m also learning that screenwriting is different enough from fiction writing to present an entirely unique spectrum of writerly challenges. That, in itself, is cool because I feel like I’m learning more about narrative structure and how to control a story.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Literary fiction is a genre. But that doesn’t mean it has to march in lockstep with an editorial style sheet. At least, we like to imagine the best literature takes its own shape and carries its own unique message. A lot of this uniqueness comes from particularity—how a piece of writing expresses a vision that has not been expressed before. Of course, this can be highly threatening to those who spend a lot of time identifying with existing motifs and types in their genres in order to advance their careers.

So this question can be taken a number of ways. I prefer to read it as a question about particularity instead of the kind of theme-and-variation question we sometimes see in publishing industry blogs and magazines—designed to make hack writers and their handlers feel like they’re not just automatically churning out the same old thing. In other words, I’m not interested in a question that goes something like, how does your work stay faithful to the editorial hand that feeds you while still allowing you to feel like a creator? Whatever. I’ll answer this one: how do you imagine that your work finds a unique vision and voice relative to everything else? A writer should be able to answer this.

My answer is that I’ve gone through a long period of exploring idiosyncratic first person. That was what my first book, Gravity, was mostly about—seeing how voice can implicitly move a story forward without having to rely on the tired scaffolding of transparent, third-person realism. Basically, I was apprenticing myself to the tradition of literary maximalists in North American fiction. It’s a tradition that goes back at least as far as Stanley Elkin in the 1960s and runs up through David Foster Wallace and William Vollmann. But I’ve moved on now, I think.

Now I’m more interested in the atmosphere of place and the kinds of textures that can spontaneously arise from physical environments. I still have my obsessions: unemployment, suicide, social alienation, love, darkness, funerals, architecture, snobbishness, explosions, travel and petty theft—maybe a few others. But I’m thinking about all of these things in terms of environment now. I see my characters relative to their environments and how they interact with them. I think this makes my work particular. At minimum, it gives me a focus that other published writers don’t appear to have right now. I’m sure there are others out there who share my current interests. Let’s hope I don’t meet them before I finish this round of projects.

Why do I write what I do?

I write what I can. My work and my creative impulse are very closely aligned. So I don’t choose what I write as much as make myself receptive to what’s already there, if that makes any sense. I will write anything, in any mode or form or genre, that pleases me. Maybe it is better to say that I will write anything that pleases that part of me over which I exert little control.

It’s like sex. We like what we like. It’s not a studied decision unless we’re intimidated into functioning like whores. And then are we really enjoying it? Sometimes, maybe—the way any professional can enjoy the familiarity of an articulated process. Then again, I see a difference between simply being highly professional and being a highly professional artist. The artist puts the art first and the professionalism second becauseno matter what your publicist may say in that passive-aggressive conversation about how they might “position your book”professional polish and artistic creation are two different things.  A lover puts the love first and the sexual maneuvers second.  That isn’t professional, but it’s authentic.

That said, I think I also write because otherwise I would be a severely self-destructive, depressed, impossible person. It’s a common thing to say, maybe a cliché, but I think it’s true for me. Writing is my outlet. I have always escaped into my imagination. Now I do it so that others can join me there. That is very satisfying in a number of ways.

How does my writing process work?

I write as often as I can, ideally every day. Though, it doesn’t always work out like that. I try to write about 2 ms pages a day. This produces a story or a chapter every month. That’s as fast as I can do it and I find that’s all I need to do. It gives me time to think and keeps me from burning out.

I write what I feel drawn to write that day. Surprisingly, I get nearly everything done because I always have multiple projects in development. As long as I show up ready to get out of the way and let the creative impulse guide me, I’m good.