Tag Archives: work

Reyn til Runa: Seek the Mysteries

There is an emotional truth or reality at the center of a story I may be writing.  I have a fleeting sense of it and then I start off by trying to explore it, trying to get to the center.  Then I always stop.  Sometimes it’s because I’ve forgotten that “fleeting sense” and consequently do not know how to proceed (a kind of amnesia in which I know that I had the emotion, but I can’t feel it or understand how to be guided by it anymore).  Sometimes, it’s because I can’t face what I’ve discovered–conditions in my life have made such an emotional realization too painful or too difficult in some way.  But if I can realize the truth of that emotional center deeply in myself, if I can come to terms with it in the deepest possible way, then I can move the story toward completion.  The end of the story is always a revelation because it remains hidden for most of the process.

In this sense, many of my “story fragments” are still waiting for me to come around to that place where I can recognize what they are and what they mean.  A fragment waiting to be finished is a piece of me waiting to be recognized and realized.

This goes further.  As with stories, so with certain themes in life, certain personal relationships, certain avenues of self-work.  Everything is ultimately and inherently a story, which is to say, an unfolding emotional self-realization.  This is mysterious.  This is why it takes endurance to write outside of outlines and formulas.  And this is the difference between making art and telling someone else’s story–which is something you haven’t lived and are not.  This is also why no one can tell you what your creative project should be.  No one can know what you need to realize.  No one can see that far into you.  Only you can seek this mystery.  And it begins in that painful moment when you are entirely alone before the blank page, which is to say, before the mirror, asking, “Who am I becoming?”
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Art is Your Right

Don’t buy into the romantic assumption that being a creative artist is easy for those who are truly talented and meant to do it.  This is a materialistic commercial lie.  Something I believe: art is part of being human and must therefore be available to everyone.  And those who do it right never find it easy; though, the publishing industry, for example, may find it easier to sell certain books if readers believe that the writers being published are like idiot savants.

Everyone has an aptitude for some kind of creative process.  Finding out what it is means finding out more of what it means to be human and alive.  Not investigating this firsthand means voluntarily accepting an impersonal, commercially interested assumption about one’s creative potential—some external story about you imagined and written by someone who doesn’t even know you.  It’s an affront to everything unique and valuable in the individual self.

Moreover, it elevates money over art, which is fundamentally disconnected from the reasons we make art in the first place.  This is essentially stupid.  Therefore, we need to appreciate art.  We should create it and consume it, but we should not assume that it is something  mysterious, selective, elite, or random.  It is better to think of artistic ability as an attainment, a product of self-cultivation that uses materials we already have.  And our job is to understand it, interact with it, develop it, and teach this praxis to others.  Our job is not to worship those being held up to us as a select, anointed group.  Our job is to understand how commerce reacts with art and then to set all that aside so we can do our own work.


The White Space and Transitions in Short Stories

The following is taken from my response to a former student who asked: “When writing a story and you find that you need to hop around from one scene to another, but not start a new chapter, what do you do?”  In other words—how I decided to construe the question—how do you break scenes and create implicit transitions between them?

When I started training myself to think in scenes, I relied heavily on the “white space” as a time lapse / separator.  The visual analogue of this would be the classic “wipe” transition from TV and movies.  It’s technical shorthand for “there is nothing more of significance to show in this particular time and place.”  We can use this because modern writers have pretty much stopped trying to adhere to the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action.

Here is one theory about this departure.  As a form, the novel is older than the short story and the stage play is older than the novel.  Each form owes a lot to its predecessor.  Even late British stage melodrama generally observed the Aristotelian dramatic unities.  In other words, the only “jumping around” were the extremely conservative transitions between acts and scenes on stage—existing primarily so the stage hands could change the scenery and the actors could change costumes, etc.  But as western culture changed, public and private space got redefined, and middle class leisure reading became important (Habermas is the man to read to understand this in conjunction with the rise of the novel).  Fiction in English began to transform from highly episodic, picaresque shipwreck narratives (think: Defoe) and expositions of female morality (think: Richardson) to the highly stylized escapism of the Gothic novel.  The aesthetic of Gothic romance rebelled against tightly controlled forms.

Enter: Jane Austen and Northanger Abbey, her first published novel and pretty much a parody of the Gothic style.  As soon as we got this, we were ready for Victorian realism in the novel, which kept the idea of what a novel could be (a long, sometimes convoluted, graphic portrayal of a person’s life) and dropped the Gothic melodrama.  This is important because Edgar Allen Poe, one of the most significant figures in the early development of the short story form, argued (roughly around the same time) that a story should be readable in one sitting (back to Aristotle).  His reasons were less aesthetic and more practical: he wanted to encourage magazine fiction as a legitimate market (here is a good summary of his motivations).  So the story form emerged in a time when the novel (as the dominant form of fiction) was breaking away from classical, formal assumptions about when / where / how.  And the short story was defined (and marketed) as something compact that you could read out of a magazine in a single setting.

This is where the use of white spaces comes in.  Early story writers either used them to tell broader more “novelistic” stories or didn’t use them and scaled everything down in order to tell a more compact tale.  The idea was to produce a single emotion (incidentally, where we will get the modernist concept of epiphany).  Twain used white spaces like this.  Hemingway adopted them but more sparingly (we see them also in Fitzgerald and Maupassant)—still trying for that definitive emotional moment.  But in the 1960s, the maximalists rebelled against this, arguing that life actually wasn’t at all the way modern realism made it out to be.  Given the highly subjective, variable nature of human experience, the early maximalists (think: Elkin, Barthelme, Coover) found “minimalist realism” to be highly unrealistic!  This means that in their work technical moves like white spaces could be a lot of different things (look at the Coover link).

Realists loudly criticized such maximalist departures from what they considered to be a highly defined, clearly articulated form.  Needless to say, their vehemence fit right into the tradition I’ve been describing (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Pirsig is a wonderful exploration of the tension between classical and romantic aesthetics).

Can we use the white space to good effect, defining what it will be the way Coover does in his famous story or in the way of William Vollmann, David Foster Wallace, Lorrie Moore, Denis Johnson–the recent postmodern maximalists?  Yep.  We can.

So back to the original question: “When writing a story and you find that you need to hop around from one scene to another, but not start a new chapter, what do you do?”  Given everything I’ve said, here’s the answer that might not have made sense otherwise: first determine what you’re trying to make the reader feel.  Because “form” should follow function instead of a set of classical assumptions about how to dramatically interpret experience through structure.

Moreover, everyone wants to write a story that will show up in the New Yorker or a novel that will make them famous with the NYC publishing machine.  But the corporate model for success as a fiction writer actually cannot be taught or learned.  That kind of success is as serendipitous as any other—no matter what the book industry would have young writers believe.  So if I were to tell students, “Do what feels right and make your own rules,” no one would listen.  Instead, I have begun with “let’s follow some of the rules.”  Only later have I followed that with: forget about what people say you should do.  Study literature as your guide and learn from what other writers have done.  Then do your own thing.

Right now, I’m writing a story, a novella, and working on a full-length novel.  In each of these, my only goal is to create the emotional movements / moments I need to create.


My books and stuff…

While my second story collection works its way through book contests and small presses, everyone is invited (cordially, emphatically) to buy my first book and love it: http://amzn.com/0887485081 ~ M


New story–magazine publication forthcoming.

Good times.  My story, “Ghetto Fabulous” is forthcoming in the Atticus Review.  I will post more information when I know the particular issue.  Whee!


How to Live as a Creative Writer

The way to lead the writing life is brutally simple–simple because it’s easy to understand, brutal because it’s difficult to do.  Here it is in three steps: write, bring into your life everything that helps you write, and eliminate from your life everything that prevents you from writing.  This includes jobs, family members, social obligations, habits of mind and body, friends, and the opinions of others (especially other writers). Evaluate each one. Does the thing or the person help you accomplish your writing? If yes, good. If no, be ruthless in getting rid of that thing or person.

Additional advice that follows from this:

Learn to accept (and ideally ignore) the low opinions of others. They are not doing what you are doing and cannot be expected to understand. Forgive them and then jealously guard the rest of your emotional energy. This includes critics of your work. They may be accurate when they tell you that you have produced shoddy work, but whether their criticisms are accurate or not is irrelevant. You will write more. You will improve or take a different path in your writing. But promise yourself that it will not be in response to their braying.  In creative workshops, see your colleagues as assistants and apply the test: are they helping you improve? If yes, take what is useful from their comments. If no, recycle their responses and save trees.

You can be a creative writer if you have space, time, and the ability to satisfy personal needs. Getting these amounts to bringing into your life everything that helps you write. You can be an electrician, secretary, housewife, criminal, janitor, teacher, cook, paralegal, or any other job that gives you space, time, and wellness. If you are working at the office 80 hours a week, you will not make it. Accept lower social status and forgive your disappointed parents. You do not have to be poor. By all means, be rich (and send some to me).

Read. You are not a scholar. You are a creative artist. This means you can read anything that inspires you, from recipes to comic books to Proust to the Greek Magical Papyri to Don Delillo. You don’t have to worry about acquiring an encyclopedic understanding of Kafka. If you like “In the Penal Colony” and do not like “The Metamorphosis,” good. You know what you like, which is part of being inspired. Read without guilt as long as you are learning and becoming inspired. As soon as you read literature out of obligation, you are no longer functioning as an artist.

Avoid trendiness and over-stylization. These are traps designed to convert art into money. If you want to make money your primary focus, go into business and save yourself the trouble. Do your own thing aesthetically. You know what you like, which is an invitation to pursue it artistically.

There is a lot more that can be said along these lines. However, it all comes down to the three essential steps: write, bring into your life everything that helps you write, and eliminate from your life everything that prevents you from writing.


On the Creation of Time

When I was in graduate school (for 12 years altogether–what was I thinking?), I had a rigid uncompromising attitude toward my own deadlines.  I had to meet them, even if it meant allowing the rest of my life to collapse.

Not surprisingly, putting myself in this do-or-die frame of mind often resulted in exactly that: my physical and emotional health would suffer.  I would have fulfilled my responsibilities and I was often extremely successful in those narrowly defined areas, but I would feel cheated because everything else would be wrecked.  I’d have to begin rebuilding my life after every major work project.  It was exhausting.

Now, I’ve learned to make time.  I have more deadlines than ever, but I take an attitude of mastery instead of servitude by saying, “Sure, I’ll get to it when I get to it.”  I’ve found that this nearly always makes me more efficient.  By giving myself permission to remain whole–a whole person–I am no longer a slave to some external timetable.

On those rare occasions when my work is late or when unforeseen complications lead to a less-than-desired outcome, I’ve learned to say, “So be it; I’m human; I’ll fix it now and do better next time.”  Sometimes, this means comping work, spending extra time to make things right, or taking some other loss.  But we might just call that the price of sustained excellence.  It’s easy to operate at the top of one’s ability every now and then.  It takes moderation and self-control to stay in that state of optimal performance long term.  It takes a sense of balance and the maturity to recognize the value of personal wellness.

This was a hard lesson to learn, since I am “up in my head” most of the time, planning and scheming.  I also have an over-inflated sense of responsibility linked to the need for me to see myself as a high-functioning player in every situation.  I grew a lot when I admitted to myself that I had these Type-A traits.

Now I breathe, relax, and make my demons work for me instead of being tortured by them.  I think, when we accept the need for balance, we’re accepting life instead of the deadening supposition that our worth is defined only by what we produce in certain narrow categories.