Tag Archives: Writing

Update on Midnight Gladiolus . . .

I’m currently going back through the first 75 ms pages of the novel, making notes and essential line edits, and putting in reminders of the edits people have suggested to me here and on Wattpad.  This has been a great experience so far and I’m excited that Chapter 10 will be done before long.  Since I’ve never written a science fiction novel before, much of this is new in process as well as substance.  Keep the emails and comments coming and thanks for reading. ~ Michael


The Writing Life Ain’t Easy, Kid

Today I’m thinking about how most people locate the center of meaning in their lives in their social identity, which is synonymous either with their career role or some caretaking role or both.  But the artist finds the center of meaning in the act of making art.  This is an important distinction to keep in mind, especially for me when I’m not writing.

When I don’t feel capable of producing writing, I nearly always get depressed to some degree.  My insecurities get stronger.  I start wondering whether I’ve wasted my life following insubstantial dreams.  Nevermind that I’ve already accomplished things my younger self could have never imagined possible.  It’s as if none of that ever existed.  It’s failure, failure, failure, failure, failure on repeat in my head.  And it never relents.

Of course, this doesn’t happen in productive times because, when I’m actually involved with my work, I’m not even considering other things.  At most those old insecurities are tiny thoughts, easily dismissed by the reality of the page filling up with words.  Writing is all-consuming when it’s happening.  When it isn’t, when I’m unable to move my mind into focus, I feel incredibly empty and worthless, which reminds me of something my first creative writing instructor once said: “Writers drink and use drugs probably because when they can’t write, they think they don’t exist.  And they will do anything to escape that pain.”  It took me years to fully understand what he meant.  But I don’t try to escape the pain that way.  I just suffer. 

No matter how much I publish, no matter how many stories and chapters and essays and posts I write, it’s never enough to make me feel satisfied like I’ve arrived in a secure, content, stable place in my life and work.  As soon as I write the last word of something, I’m already thinking about the next thing.  Only during those moments of actual work, when I can forget myself fully do I feel any respite.  

When I’m like a clear pane of glass and the light of my work is shining through me, I experience a kind of bliss, a satori.  Nothing is ever that good.  Drugs or alcohol can’t come remotely close because they shut down or at least reconfigure thought processes.  Writing, when I’m immersed in it, enhances all processes, all existing configurations of thought—even the critical and analytical routines that consider form and technique—and precipitates insights, perspectives, realizations.  This is far better than taking drugs.  These are the drugs of the mind.  And the only thing I live for is to be in that place, putting words on the page.  The rest of my life, actually 90% of what I do that isn’t writing, is preparing to write or recovering from having written so I can do it again.

This way of life emphasizes introspection and subjectivity.  It is not contingent on the opinions of others, permission from authorities or institutions, or any other sort of social frameworks external to my inward experience.  That is a wonderful thing, sometimes.  But sometimes the alienation I feel can be terrible: from friends, family, society, culture, what passes for normal life.  The constant pain of living in my own subjective universe and knowing that, while others may do the same, they can never truly share this experience with me, is very subtle but very tangible, especially when I’m depressed about not writing.  When there is no bliss, there is only emptiness and doubt, an inner stage devoid of actors, props, and background, all too easily filled with regret, self-criticism, worry, and the memory of past failures.  But that’s the life.  That’s its hard interior, even when it looks soft on the outside.  

It means I have to make a living somehow as well, whether though freelance work, teaching, or something else.  When I’m producing, that’s fine.  It’s easy to accept when you’re high on life.  But these needs, these ups and downs, having to be a responsible adult while also being this other thing, a writer, an artist, can make life quite difficult when the words aren’t there.  The thing that society labels “artist” the way people label “happiness” or “love” or “god”—using the term in an offhand way, while not truly knowing what it is or truly caring that they don’t—is the life of Persephone, half on the earth, half in that other place.

All jobs are hard.  All lives are challenging for the people living them.  This one, too.  Even those days when I manage to get it right.  Why do I do it?  Maybe I’m obsessed.  And I guess it’s something at which I’m reasonably competent.  And I like it better than mowing lawns.


Our Job is to Write

“Some people write for fifteen years with no success and then decide to quit. Don’t look for success and don’t quit. If you want to write, write under all circumstances. Success will or will not come, in this lifetime or the next. Success is none of our business. It comes from outside. Our job is to write, to not look up from our notebook and wonder how much money Norman Mailer earns.”

– “The Long Quiet Highway,” Natalie Goldberg


On writing when you feel uninspired and dead inside . . .

  • Set a word count goal. My minimum goal is 7 pages per week, which comes to about 2450 words.
  • Give yourself permission to write poorly. You are the worst judge of your own writing, especially in a first draft. You need to get around your hangups if you want to be productive.  The only way to do this is to stop caring what the world will think.
  • Meditate. I do it for 15-20 minutes before I start. I close my eyes, pay attention to my breathing, and still my mind. You can’t focus if you have a head full of burning spiders.
  • Never talk about what you’re currently writing. Talk about what you’ve already written if you must. Ideally, unless you need to be flogging your “platform” and self-promoting, don’t talk about your writing at all.  Put it out there and let others talk about how great or horrible you are.
  • Always talk about the craft of writing but only after you’ve done your writing for the day.
  • Program yourself by creating rituals and routines that inform your body and mind it’s time to write. I try to write at the same time every day.  After I meditate, I have coffee, light a little incense (which replaced a cigarette years ago), and disconnect from electronic media.
  • Always end with something more left to say in the scene. It will take far more energy tomorrow to start from zero than in media res.
  • Do not compare yourself to other writers, ever. You are a unique snowflake. Believe it.
  • Avoiding low blood sugar is one of the secret keys to intellectual productivity, especially for creative people. Have your donut, but be sure to also snack on fruit and seeds.
  • After you write and dump all your energy into your work, do a little exercise to avoid feeling exhausted for hours. I currently do yoga and chi gong, but a good swim or a jog would be just as effective, I think.

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place Not Requiring Fumigation

tumblr_inline_nx0i37Gzbg1rbqvxq_540I’m back in Oxford today, immanentizing the eschaton once again in the Social Sciences Library, where I must regularly do at least 67% of all my work. The other 33% is done either in pubs (sometimes quiet and wonderful places to sit, sometimes full of stinkin’ drunks, though what do you expect, eh?) or coffee shops (usually loud, packed with psychotic tourists, and unclean just an hour after opening). Unlike London, Oxford is not predominately a culture where people will sit in cafes working. I was surprised at that when I first arrived, having become very comfortable with the American and Central European styles of productive solitude-in-a-crowd encaffeination.

Cafe culture is slightly different wherever you go, but there are certain international standards one can expect (that is, everywhere but in Oxford). I think my top five favorite cafes of all time have to be:

(1) Cafe 976 in Pacific Beach, California, essentially a well-kept house from the 1920s with a big porch and a garden, where I used to while away the evenings of my misspent youth reading tarot;

(2) Cafe Josephine in Tallinn, Estonia, as much for the owner’s dog, Bari, a gregarious old retriever who functions as the unofficial greeter and maître d’hôtel, as for the coffee, which is also excellent;

(3) Cafe Indigo in Prague, which I think has gone the way of the dodo, but which used to serve an Algerian coffee that would knock you out of your shoes and realign your priorities in life. It was a great gathering place for students and literary types;

(4) Zeitgeist Coffee in Seattle for frankly being one of the coolest places you’d ever want to sit and think; and

(5) Osama’s in Columbia, Missouri, where I used to hold my office hour and drink Turkish coffee after Turkish coffee in order to cope with the sad realities of teaching freshman comp in the Midwest. It was run by Osama Yanni, the nicest guy you’d ever want to know but unlucky enough to have a name recognizable by the vast unwashed proletariat of the Show-Me State. It closed.

There have been many others (and more than a few in Tallinn and Paris), though these are the ones I think I’ve liked the most in my itinerant writing life. These are the places where I’ve written some of my best stories.

But today, today brothers and sisters, I am holding forth from the holy of holies, the inner chamber of the inner chamber of the great whited sepulcher of sepulchers, the ivoriest of the ivory towers. Actually, it’s not that grand. I’m in the steel-and-Formica lounge of the Social Sciences Library, over by the vending machines. It’s a spot where I can at least eat a sandwich and have my coffee without being psychically accosted by some miserable family on vacation from upper Spokaloo, pissed that they just paid £15 each for breakfast on the Tolkien Walking Tour. It happens. Now you’re all wearing identical Gandalf vs. the Balrog T-shirts. Balance your expectations relative to that choice, okay?

Naturally, this is a university, the university, and people don’t just come here for the amenities. They come to do the work (always the work, whatever it happens to be), to get recognized, and to generate sufficient cultural cachet for them to continue on in the style to which they are accustomed. The coffee can be bad. It’s for the service class anyway.

Enjoying what you’re eating often upsets people here for many reasons. You are expected to frown into your soup and sigh over your bagel. You might even go so far as to faintly shake your head at your Greek salad, implying thoughts of great consequence that probably have nothing to do with your packet of fattening and therefore off-limits croutons. The weight of the world is buried in your mashed potatoes. Your parfait is the parfait of melancholy. To enjoy any of it is to indulge in an unforgivable lapse of seriousness.

In such an environment, one tries to be as gentle and understanding as possible toward the highly refined sensibilities of the world’s future ministers, art patrons, and captains of industry—most of whom were born after Kurt Cobain died but who nevertheless seem to constantly reference his death as if that were some kind of magical touchstone for sincerity. This makes me kind of tired, but I try to get along.

For example, I will not smuggle lunch into a reading room. I signed a five-page agreement when I got my very special non-student library access card (speak friend and enter), stipulating that I would not bring food and drink into Moria no matter how lightheaded or hypoglycemic I might become. There are the vending machines outside. There are enough steel-and-Formica tables in the lounge to support an army. So I intend to honor that agreement. And I acknowledge that seeing me in the corner with a Cesar salad might drive some of my more delicate colleagues over the edge.

They might snap and order a pizza in the middle of the night, discipline punctured, starvation-vegan diet shot to hell, shame, existential angst, eventual career failure, disinheritance. There shall be no cheese and pepperoni. For many of these kids, life is a game of no-limit hold-em with the Devil, but as long as they do exactly what they’re told, they feel they’ll keep on winning the way they always have. The thing most of them don’t seem to understand is that if you build your life around a game, even if you never lose, that’s what your life will be about. Welcome to the casino of success. You are a VIP for life. When you die, we’ll bury you under the craps table.

So food. It’s problematic. Earlier, I was breaking about half of the rules, enjoying a deli sandwich and reading Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, which also meant I was smiling. So it was not surprising when I felt hot darts of psychic rage boring into the side of my face. They were coming from a very thin, aggravated girl at the table across from me. She had on a sweatshirt that looked a few sizes too big and what I assumed was her usual expression of dislike mixed with contempt. I thought what I always think: who, me? But then I realized: it wasn’t the standard-issue animosity most people display in this environment. It was a food thing. Next to her laptop was a plastic bag of carrot sticks and a bottle of mineral water. Lunch. I’d be in a bad mood, too.

I looked back down, pretending like I didn’t notice her staring, but I was also thinking, you know, there’s this golden retriever named Bari you really need to meet. If only. A clean, well-lighted place and a friendly dog can make all the difference in your life, in your work. I dug into my sandwich. It was good.


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.


How to be Good

It was the beginning of a time when it was almost as if the novel itself didn’t matter anymore. Publishing a shiny booklike object was simply an excuse for parties and glamour and goodlooking authors reading finely honed minimalism to students who would listen rapt with slack­jawed admiration, thinking, I could do that, I could be them. But of course if you weren’t photogenic enough, the sad truth was you couldn’t. – Bret Easton Ellis

John Berryman is supposed to have said that a writer never knows if he’s any good. He asks himself this throughout his life and dies without a satisfactory answer—no matter what prizes, money, publications, or objects of social approval have been tossed his way. It’s easy to conclude that this is just an egotistical hangup for celebrities with enough time and money to fish for validation. Am I good? Tell me. Really? Tell me again. But what Berryman didn’t say was that these doubts seem to come to every person in every field. And insofar as nothing in this world is ever finished or static, such questions must always remain open.

In fact, most things a writer may ask herself about writing (usually in a fallow time when she isn’t writing and feels hollow and dead inside) have no real answers. There is no objective standard for writerly success. You’re never going to know, quoth Berryman. Perhaps because of this, the path of a developing writer is fraught will all kinds of psychological pitfalls, uncertainties which emerge in the space between creation and judgment—writing the thing and then deciding whether it’s worthy.

Consider the luminous transcendent moment when Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for literature. Let’s be honest: she fucking deserved it as well as anybody else. Do you mean to tell me she isn’t a skilled writer? That she hasn’t led the life? That she doesn’t deserve to get paid? Sure, the Nobel system is a politicized, public relations hype-sandwich. In that, it’s no different than the Pulitzer, the MacArthur Genius Grant, the Stegner, or any of the other smaller awards that function as patronage for writers.

Still, I had to laugh when Bret Easton Ellis—who is also great but very different—commented that “Alice Munro was always an overrated writer and now that she’s won The Nobel she always will be. The Nobel is a joke and has been for ages.” After the inevitable social media backlash, he added, “The sentimental hatred for me has made me want to re-read Munro, who I never really got, because now I feel like I’ve beaten-up Santa Claus.” That one kept me laughing for about a week. But the truth is a lot simpler than whether or not Ellis beat up Father Christmas: Munro might not be his cup of tea. But nobody can say definitively that she is “completely overrated” because nobody actually knows. Not even, I will venture to say, Alice.

Young writers (in years and / or in terms of artistic development) especially try to fill this gap with metrics designed to quantify success and banish their excruciating doubts. But most writers have to fight this battle, some throughout their entire careers. Over the course of many years in the writing life, one sees it all:

  • the hack machine who puts out a formulaic novel every three months like clockwork and points to this as the ultimate sign of achievement;
  • the bitter self-publisher, who has completely dismissed the Manhattan book industry as a hive of scum and villainy, and who now only writes direct-to-Lulu ebooks because nothing else matters anymore;
  • the one who can tell you any any minute of the day or night how much money his books are making and exactly why other writers are so jealous of his commercial prowess;
  • the defensive YA-ist (Young Adulterer? Young Adulterator?), who started out trying to be Pam Houston but after the first orgy of rejections turned to Harry Potter the way an abused housewife turns to brandy—it takes the edge off in the middle of the day, helps her convince herself that writing about fairy children with super powers is her true calling, and makes it possible for her to stop experiencing those week-long fugues of black existential dread in which she used to compare herself to Pam;
  • the lost soul in the MFA program, trying desperately to clone herself into Alice Munro or Donna Tartt or Jonathan Foer or Gary Shteyngart or whoever else is currently receiving the publishing industry’s golden shower du jour (Look how closely I can imitate X! Can I get a cookie? Do you love me? Why won’t anyone love me? You promised me a cookie. Where’s my cookie! I’ll be over there, cutting myself, until you bring me my cookie.);
  • the lost soul after the MFA program, trying desperately to justify himself to his drunk brother-in-law at Christmas dinner by mentioning all his literary journal publications (I just put a story in Bumfuck Quarterly! It’s my fifteenth publication! And fuck you, you philistine.);
  • the lost soul who got the two-book deal early on, enabling her to worm her way into a tenure track position at a small liberal arts college, and who behaves outwardly as if this validates every word she has written and will ever write (but who continually asks, Is this it? when she’s not buying cases of gin at the package store because maybe Gilbey’s is the only answer);
  • others, many and various.

I know. I’m being cruel. Although cruelty does come standard with the writing life, these are stereotypes and we all have a little of this inside us.  So pointing fingers is a bit hypocritical.  Call it the pathology of trying to be a writer in a system that presents itself as a meritocracy but functions via medieval power games and nepotism. And we can be as angry as we want. We can shake our little fists at the heavens or spend hours upbraiding ourselves in the mirror. But we’re never going to know how to be good. We’re only ever going to know that we want to be.