Sunday, December 19, 2010
Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,
The Our Stories application will be launching shortly on the App Store. Myself and Joseph Nalbone and CJ Moutinho have been working quite hard on the app for the past four months. A lion's share of the credit goes to the two of them. While the app is not out yet (don't worry, we'll blog all about that soon) we are required to begin setting up all the functionality to ensure that our users will be able to give us feedback.
This blog post will serve as an informal listing for our application and can be used by all Our Stories app fans to give us feedback and drop notes for issues and future development ideas.
The support email for all Our Stories issues is: firstname.lastname@example.org
The support website for the application is here: http://ourstoriesblog.blogspot.com/2010/12/our-stories-app.html
Wishing you all the best,
Alexis E Santi
Thursday, December 16, 2010
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
This fall marked the arrival of new novels by two authors whose previous books I really loved: Nicole Krauss’s Great House and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. I was literally counting down the days to Great House. And, of course, you had to be living under the proverbial rock in order not to get worked up about Franzen’s new brick of a book. Everyone was taking and writing about it. As fall turned into winter, if somebody with any connection to the literary establishment whatsoever confessed that they hadn’t yet cracked the tome, usually they’d offer a well-formulated and strategic explanation. It wasn’t simply that they hadn’t had the time.
Most reviewers lauded Freedom not only as brilliant, but also as very important: literarily, socially, historically, politically, environmentally (except for all those trees cut down to print so many copies of so many pages). Supposedly, it was the book our descendants would read to get the perfect snapshot – or supersize serving – of the American society in the early 21st century. Liberalism, environmental crisis, war profiteering, rock-and-roll, overpopulation, the impact of easy access to pornography on the culture are all major plot engines. Given these topics, it’s easy to see why the book seems so utterly relevant - required reading for anyone who cares about the US, where it’s been and where it’s heading.
Freedom participates directly in the current cultural and political debate.
While I admired many aspects of the novel, particularly its masterful crafting, it engaged me primarily on the intellectual level. Many would agree that the goal of literature, as that of any art form, is not only to inform us and make us think, but also make us feel things, feel more deeply, more complexly. In this department, Freedom left me largely unmoved. It also made me, as a writer, anxious about the so-called relevance of my own work, much of which is not set in present-day USA and doesn’t tackle the hot topics of the day in a head-on fashion.
Then I read Nicole Krauss’s Great House, a novel better understood through its themes (loss – an overpowering black hole among them) rather than plot (a giant writing desk passes through several people whose lives had been affected by the political upheavals of the 20th century: the Spanish Civil War, the Holocaust, the Governmental Junta in Chile, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.) Most of the storyline is set in the past, and even when the events do take place in the present, they exhibit a dreamlike, timeless quality. I often had to leaf back to locate the exact timestamp. In the end, it didn’t really matter; I was traveling through time to arrive at a more complex emotional understanding of life.
But, the thing is, I can’t quite articulate what this understanding is, unlike I can, for example, explain the theory behind the Club of Rome or reforestation after mountaintop demolition for coal mining, to both of which Franzen devotes many chapters in Freedom. This understanding has settled in my body, in the chest, and is more intricate than something that could be summed up in neat generalizations, such as: war permanently derails innocent lives; its destructive effect spreads a wide geographical and social net and lasts for decades.
Great House immediately reminded me of Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project, which features two narratives: in the present day Vladimir Brik, a Bosnian-American writer based in Chicago, travels back to Eastern Europe to write a story about Lazarus Averbuch, a 19-year-old Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe who was shot dead by the chief of Chicago police in 1908.
W. G. Sebald also came to mind due to associative quality of Krauss’s plotting. For me, reading Sebald was one of those transformative experiences a writer can have that allows him or her see literature in a whole different dimension. In his books, I can’t separate the emotional impact from the intellectual impact: they work in perfect synergy.
Certain alchemy occurs when narrative layers set in different times are planted closely together. Krauss does this via the desk: our perception of the writer working at it in present-day New York is influenced by the desk’s tragic provenance. Sebald usually does his layering via locations: his alter ego walks around formerly grand or busy and now empty and decaying places while gathering stories about commoners as well as cultural and political celebrities of the bygone era or recollecting his own past involvement with the environs. In a passage towards the end of The Rings of Saturn, he threads the historical events on a single day, as though the day is a needle and centuries are sheets of cloth. I couldn’t resist a quote:
“Today, as I bring these notes to a conclusion, is the 13th of April 1995. It is Maundy Thursday, the feast day on which Christ’s washing of the disciples’ feet is remembered, and also the feast day of Saints Agathon, Carpus, Papylus and Hermengild. On this very day three hundred and ninety-seven years ago, Henry IV promulgated the Edict of Nantes; Handel’s Messiah was first performed two hundred and fifty-three years ago, in Dublin; Warren Hastings was appointed Governor-General of Bengal two hundred and twenty-three years ago; the Anti-Semitic league was founded in Prussia one hundred and thirteen years ago; and, seventy-four years ago, the Amritsar massacre occurred… Fifty years ago to the day, British newspapers reported that the city of Celle had been taken and that German forces were in head-long retreat from the Red Army, which was advancing up the Danube valley. And finally, Maundy Thursday, the 13th of April 1995, was also the day on which Clara’s father, shortly after being taken to hospital in Coburg, departed this life.”
When I read this passage, I can’t help but feel, naively and fantastically, that if only one could somehow throw a wrench into this indifferent machinery of time (even now is not too late!), then history might have changed its course and turned out a little less tragic.
In The Lazarus Project, in addition to travel layering – Vladimir Brik’s trip to Ukraine and his hometown Sarajevo feels like a journey into the past – I noticed a threading of the dislocated, searching souls: “She smiled at me – I could have kissed her right there, those living lips, those gloaming eyes, that pale face. That’s me, I thought. That woman is me,” writes Brik, and then “It took a while to find a way out. Rora’s hair was sweat-pasted to his skull and neck, a gray oval of perspiration growing on his back…And again I thought: That’s me…She was me, Rora was me, and then we came upon the man on the bench, drooling asleep, his mouth open enough for us to see a graveyard of teeth, his hand wedged inside his pants’ waist – and he was me, too. The only one who was not me was myself.”
Another common element in Krauss, Sebald and Hemon is their characters’ obsession with retelling the stories over and over, literally writing the past into the present. In Vertigo, the narrator spends countless hours reading at the library, saying, “I happened on one thing or another that might well be worth retelling some time…” Sebald retells many stories. Hemon’s Brik retells the story of Lazarus that was left out of the newspapers’ reporting of the case in 1908. In Great House, the characters retell stories of their loved ones in flashback or their own stories in the form of addressing someone else. In retelling, they revise their past, try to find justification for their behavior, work through the guilt from their mistakes. Even Freedom doesn’t escape the lure of a story within a story. Significant plotline is delivered through one character’s therapist-encouraged autobiography, and the points where real events echo or amend this narrative are some of the most emotionally resonant in the novel.
It’s not my intention to conclude that stories within stories or writing about writing and writers are the only ways for the author to imbue the book with emotional power. I simply tried to figure out why this way of structuring the material had such a powerful effect on me as a reader.
Krauss, Hemon and Sebald’s novels make us think of the present and future in relation to the past – but not just immediate past, such as the protagonist’s childhood – but layers of past going decades, even hundreds years back. There is enough space between these layers to fill certain historical references with our own ideas of them, our own memories or stories we’d heard from our parents. In my mind, I imagine the layers bunching up like the folds of a giant accordion, now compressing, now expanding, to produce a rich sound particular to each reader.
Perhaps, this is where my deeper unarticulable “understanding of life” came from. Freedom organized complex information into appropriate compartments of my mind, and by no means do I want to diminish its achievement. Each work of art takes a small step towards conquering the chaos of the universe. But Great House, The Lazarus Project and the novels of W.G. Sebald went farther: they made my soul vibrate.
In conclusion, or perhaps to make myself feel less anxious as a writer, I propose that even books that are not set in the immediate or glaringly referenced and brand-ed present participate in today’s “national conversation” as long as they supply authentic voices. And (sorry to end on a depressing note) many stories are worth retelling over and over for history indeed repeats itself. Sebald writes in The Rings of Saturn, “history…is but a long account of calamities,” and I will echo what has been said before by many – calamities caused by humanity’s insatiable longing for a few true things and fear of and never-ending fight for what is mostly false or transient.
Happy Holidays, everybody!
Friday, December 10, 2010
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Writers have generally taken any number of shitty, easily replaceable jobs that let them write while getting paid, meet ‘characters,’ and never have to take work home. This pattern has become cliché enough to appear regularly in author bios as some kind of literary version of street-cred; i.e.: “He worked as a human guinea pig, a sock darner, a construction worker, and (without fail) a bartender…”
The realities of these kinds of jobs are things we don’t like to discuss until someone has broken free from the constraints of poverty and “made it.” The stereotype of the writer who is broke and struggling may seem interesting from the outside, but it’s not when you’re living it.
I was discussing this recently with my friend Charles Hale, who works as a window cleaner in Oxford, Mississippi and is writing a novel. He also wrote a completely surreal fictional column for Oxford’s “Local Voice” called What the Faulkner?
Despite getting him right after work when he was tired and cold he had a lot to say on the subject of the trades.
“I took this job exactly five years ago,” he told me. “I was running a restaurant that had already chewed me up and was in the process of spitting me out. I thought I would clean windows until I found another restaurant job, but I could tell immediately that it was a better gig. I kept it because it gave me the mental space to write. And the days that I write are better than the days that I don’t write.”
It’s safe to say Charles’ fiction is exclusively about working people. And it’s often hilarious, reminiscent of George Singleton’s writing and other novels in which people drive trucks. But he’s careful not to glorify his subjects.
“All the clichés about blue collar folks being more honest and salt of the earth are B.S.” he said. “But it’s important their stories are out in the world. I write about working people because that’s most of us. Why wouldn’t I write about them? We’re living in a time when there’s decreased value of labor. People are treated poorly, refused a living wage, their workload is increased. People are forced to stay in shitty situations for fear that the next thing, if available, might not work out. One of the characters in my novel faces this decision. He’s unable to make a living wage at his job, and because of a desire to do better for himself, leaves for one that’s gone within nine months. The shitty but steady job he’d had isn’t available anymore and neither is anything else. He is screwed either way.”
“I was in a customer’s house in the last year or two,” he told me. “It was during the recession and the price of oil was steadily increasing. She explained that oil was used in making trash bags and that in five years they would be two or three times more expensive than they are now. Her strategy for dealing with the recession, her one piece of advice, was to buy more trash bags and stockpile them. She was convinced that this was the kind of step that people needed to take.
“Come on,” I wanted to say, apart from the other reasons this is dumb “living paycheck to paycheck is real, and I don’t have the money to buy five boxes of trash bags each time I walk into Wal-Mart.” The disconnect between people who are affected day to day by the economy and those that aren’t is one of the reasons that I believe it’s important to write about working class characters.”
“I’m reminded of the William Carlos Williams poem So Much Depends,” he said. “It’s about twenty words long and anyone who reads it can visualize the poem. So it’s accessible but that doesn’t mean it’s simple. There are three concrete images in that poem, white chickens, rainwater, and a red wheelbarrow. The way I read it, the white chickens represent plant and animal life, the rainwater represents heavenly or spiritual elements, and the wheelbarrow represents human kind. And so much depends on those three groups functioning together. The wheelbarrow is an interesting choice for humans and I think William Carlos William used it because it’s a symbol of work. That for humans so much of our lives depends on how hard we work. That’s me in a nutshell. The only things that are important in my life are the things I’ve had to work for. Once you understand that, it makes you appreciate help. And it makes you more likely to help others.”
Charles Hale is working on a second draft of his novel, and on a “fictional memoir” about work. “I exaggerate,” he said of his memoir. “But I’m not the James Frey of window cleaners.” His fiction appears on the web at places like “Smokelong Quarterly” and “Fried Chicken & Coffee."
Monday, December 6, 2010
I have tried not to be one of those white, overly educated people who misguidedly attempt to "speak for the natives." Therefore, after a few years of living in Ecuador, when I wrote my first short story taking place there, I felt uneasy in my role as an outsider attempting to represent the culture intimately. The story, which will appear in the next issue of Gargoyle, is based on a real-life incident concerning a young woman who bound her stomach to hide a pregnancy, and then died giving birth unassisted. Ultimately, the fact that this situation reflects not only the condition of women in Ecuador, but in many countries where they are shamed for having a baby out of wedlock and where even minimal health care can be a luxury, eased my discomfort somewhat in writing the story. I told myself that I was not "speaking for" Ecuadorian women, but rather speaking to the global issue of reproductive rights and women's health care.
My latest project is a novel, which tackles issues of misogyny and race. My protagonist is victimized by what I call "the cult of whiteness," a kind of fetishizing of women with light skin and Caucasian features as an expression of internalized racism. The character fetches a high price for her flesh and her actual racial and cultural makeup is of no consequence to those who profit from her, rendering irrelevant at the same time the personal and historical narrative constructing her existence.
The trafficking of women all over the globe is the slavery of our time. However, writing about this manifestation of racism and sexism puts me in a difficult position, as delving into it inevitably leads to a kind of cultural critique that could easily be viewed as an outsider's condescension. (And, in the end, how can I be sure it is not?)
The fact remains that to most American readers, Ecuador is a mere concept, a tiny blur somewhere on the map that has little meaning for them. It could be argued, therefore, that any writer who takes on the location as subject matter has the responsibility to represent accurately and to educate the reading public. Yet, this is an impossible task. The story I tell will always represent reality as I see it. My intentions could also be misunderstood and the book condemned for promoting the cult of whiteness, rather than deconstructing it.
In the end, my novel is not an anthropologic text or a socio-economic study. It is, like all writing, an exploration of unknown territory, full of inherent dangers and booby traps, along with the potential for revelation. I will have to accept the awkward position I occupy and the possibility of fallout, or else leave the story untold.
We need your stories and we want to review them for free!
Our Stories is renowned for the breadth of our contest and workshop reviews. Our reviews are page-by-page, MFA quality, diagrammed reviews where we give feedback on the entire manuscript. We know that our reviews are worth it, however, conveying our process has not always been clear to those who had not taken the leap of faith with us before.
We'd like to change that.
We are in the process of recording video tutorials of our staff members editing manuscripts and need your support to make this happen.
Here's where you come in: we would like to offer you a free critique. We would give you the same quality of review that we offer for all of our contests and workshops but record that review using video screen capture software of us working through the manuscript in real time. We would post the video on our website, blog and YouTube.
Your critique will include:
-- "Opening Thoughts" section where we give you feedback about how the story opens and the immediate impact that your story has on the reader.
-- Line edits that give you feedback on grammar, awkward phraseology, word order, etc.
-- Page-by-page comments regarding your dialogue, plot, logical flaws, and overall story development.
-- "Closing Thoughts" section where we give you overall thoughts on the story and a brief plan for revision.
To protect your story & identity:
-- We will black out the title and your name from the story.
-- We will cut out three to four pages of the story in the final video cut so that the story cannot be read in its entirety.
-- Your story will not be presented in any publishable format so you will be able to use these revisions for another draft and sent it out to for consideration at other journals.
--We will provide you the edited final draft of your story for free, in a Word and PDF version.
If you are interested in this mutually beneficial process we would like to hear from you.
Send the Editor in Chief of Our Stories, Alexis E Santi an email at email@example.com and let us know you're interested. Stories should be under 5000 words and not be novel excerpts.
We'd like to do 7-10 video tutorials by the end of February.
Saturday, December 4, 2010
Friday, December 3, 2010
Wednesday, December 1, 2010
Here they are, their stories speak for their themselves:
Ozymandias by Roy Jeffords
When They Come For You by Daryl Morazzini
Touch by Jesse Goolsby
A Simple Migration by Onnesha Roychoudhuri
What Snuggle, the Fabric Softener Spokesbear, Says As He Takes the Seat Next to You on Continental Flight 3411 to Buffalo by Louis Wittig
Winter's Coming by Mark Wolsky
Monday, November 29, 2010
Jenni was one of three or four women who were killed November 19 in the United States by intimate partners. Since her death ten days ago another 30 or more have died or disappeared.
The narrative surrounding her death is a familiar one. And Watson’s murderer, Steven Peiper, fits a very typical profile of a controlling partner, a boy who called and texted her continually when she was not in sight, who limited her contact with friends and family. One photograph has appeared in the media of Peiper, a thin wide-eyed young man with the terror of being photographed for a mug shot evident in his face.
But the narrative that is being built in the media will not focus on Peiper. It will focus on Jenni; the tragedy of Jenni Watson’s death as an unavoidable, random loss. It will not focus on her murder as part of an epidemic of violence that is well documented, well studied, and has well known root causes, among them the killer’s exposure to a pervasive attitude of misogyny and a culture in which women are devalued.
Jenni Watson has already been described in several newstories as “pretty.” Photographs of her in a bikini on a beach, dressed as an angel in a spaghetti straps and cardboard wings, hugging a teddy bear, and practicing ballet have all accompanied stories of her disappearance and murder. The practice of describing rape and murder victims as “pretty” and “attractive” has been going on for a very long time. Joan Didion wrote incisively about it two decades ago in the essay “Sentimental Journeys,” which appeared in the New York Review of Books in the early 90s and is still one of the better pieces about how rape is covered in American media. Part of Didion’s piece focuses on written descriptions of victims, surreal in their neo-pornographic or overtly racist and classist content. Descriptions, like the ones of Jenni Watson, that reduce the victim to a series of symbols, that convey a kind of subtextual propaganda.
Today with the aid of facebook and flickr, we have access to intimate and casual photographs of victims. And these inevitably become a crowd sourced beauty contest. Nearly without exception, every online story about a woman’s death, sexual assault or disappearance that is accompanied by a photograph, is also accompanied by commentary from readers with sentiments like “She’s hot!” or “I’d do her.”
Why don’t we see full body pictures of men who are kidnapped or murdered? When a high school or college boy is assaulted why don’t the stories run with several pictures of the victim wearing a bathing suit? Dressed for prom? Standing shirtless with a group of friends? Trying to look sexy and charming for a photo their girlfriend took in better times?
A person’s gender determines whether or not we will see them partially naked after they have been sexually assaulted or killed. Their body offered up for titillation, and excitement. Their body offered up, without their consent as a public curiosity, just as it was in life.
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Yee-haw! Are you ready for all these players to arrive for Thanksgiving--not to mention all the other upcoming family get-togethers in 2010? If you're not gathering with family, you're likely gathering with friends. And, regardless of the specifics, there's probably a healthy doe of dysfunction and stress to go around when any large group of people get together to give thanks or celebrate.
What's excellent for us as writers is that we can use any tense conversations, wacky behaviors, and Black Friday adventures as material. Notice the way Aunt Becky neurotically touches her hair all evening. Burn to memory the way Cousin Crystal picks longingly around her mash potatoes while her brother shovels rolls down his gullet.
What better place and opportunity to observe and process tension than in a room full of vivid characters you know better than anyone else? You certainly don't have to divulge your family secrets or begin a memoir here: just practice your craft of noticing detail and describing conflict.
The scene is set, the characters are in place: let the story begin!
Thursday, November 18, 2010
Katherine Gehan earned her MFA in fiction from Emerson College and her BA in English from Haverford College. The first short story she remembers writing was about a man who washed up on the shore of an island he would later discover was heaven. She was eight at the time. And had she spent any time revising it, she's sure it would now be a best-selling pamphlet in Sunday Schools across the country. Katherine has played the flute at Carnegie Hall, lived in cities as varied as Vienna and Indianapolis, climbed mountains and raced in triathlons, given IQ tests to over 200 twins, and worked in higher educational publishing for over ten years. For the last four years she's put her creative energy towards procreating rather than writing, but she's now getting enough sleep to begin her first novel and polish up some stories.
Q: Could you tell us something about the life of a writer who is also a parent? What strategies have you found for getting in that precious writing time, and how does raising another human being change a writer?
A: Well, I'm sad to report that I have failed miserably at being a writer while my children are very young. But I will say that the rich dream-life of pregnancy, the sheer mind-bending experience of sleep deprivation, and the roller coaster of nearly-adolescent-like hormones that come with procreating do provide an amazing set of experiences for a writer. I've felt emotionally raw—nearly skinless at times—and in that state stories come to me in waves, but I've frustratingly missed the opportunity to write much down. If you're not knee deep in explosive diapers or praying for a long nap, you're tip-toeing around narcissistic, OCD toddlers with horrid tempers. Once you are a parent you are no longer captain of your own ship.
All is not lost though. Now that my children are a little older (2 and 4 yrs) I'm able to find more time—I don't pass out at 8 pm anymore, and I can prioritize an hour here or there to write during the week. In the end, it's what we all know as writers: If you don't schedule the time and sit down and do it, it's just not going to happen.
Raising human beings, or being solely responsible for any other person, can force a huge shift in perspective. Every day, and sometimes every hour, I am forced to face my own selfishness and vanity. I tap into levels of patience and creativity I didn't realize I had, and, as trite as it sounds, buried memories of my own childhood resurface and teach me things about my own parents and siblings. Parenthood also connects me with my community and the larger world in new ways. I care more about the future for all of us. All of this makes me a better person and a more sympathetic writer who is able to see the big picture.
Q: Could you also get into your own writing process? How do you approach your work, and what kind of characters haunt you?
A: I find inspiration in everyday situations, like conversations I overhear at the gas station or story lines in the news. I'm a runner, and over the years have trained for several half-marathons. On my long runs, I delve into characters or work out plot lines. There's a meditative quality to running that gives me silence and mental space—away from everything else—to ask questions of characters and their problems. Then, when I have the time, I write down what's been accumulating in my head for an hour or so. (You may wonder why I'm not writing during the time I'm running since I'm so strapped for time as it is. The answer is this: running keeps me functional in all parts of my life—without it, there's no writing, really, because I turn into a basket case.)
I'm haunted by characters who throw themselves down wells. Ultimately, they own their flaws and make their own choices, but sometimes bad luck or circumstances have pushed them to the edge. I want to pull them out, or at the very least, give them a view of a blue sky when they look up.
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Before and during the times when I was working as a reporter upstate I worked as a bartender in a town that had no traffic light and a population of 1,800. The bar had a kind of derelict hominess, was frequented by old time musicians, Viet Nam Vets, families with young children, professors and a surprising number of know-it-all drop outs, rural hipsters, and the under-employed.
I took this job because it paid vastly more money than I was earning working as a managing editor of a literary arts journal. My shift began at four and I would pick my son up from second grade on the way to the bar and bring him with me. He would help me open. Turn on the taps, bring bottles up from the basement, set silverware out on tables, and then stand on a milk crate next to me, leaning his elbows on the bar as the first of the regulars rolled in. At seven-years-old he could make a martini, a cuba libra, and a white Russian, while keeping up a pretty decent banter about the mars rover and pirates.
His father would pick him up on his way home from work around five thirty, and I would spend the rest of the evening pouring drinks, then go home smelling like cigarettes and bleach and kiss my sleeping boy goodnight.
One of the regulars who would arrive early and leave at closing time was a guy named Clint Swank. I didn’t make that name up. A jazz musician who could have been anywhere between forty-eight and ninety-years-old. He chain smoked camels, talked about physics, literature and religion and sat in the bar all night arguing and laughing. I had never once seen him sober and I contributed greatly to his “delicate condition.” Despite this he was still one of the more lucid regulars I dealt with. Low on the conspiracy theories, not fond of academic jargon or bucolic sentimentality, had never killed a guy or a deer and was always in a good mood.
“Why the fuck is someone like you bartending?” He asked me one horribly rainy Sunday evening while we were watching the news together and drinking Guinness in the empty bar, and I was dying to go home to my kid.
“To support my family.” I told him. “Obviously.”
“What a fucking load of shit,” he said. “A person like you goes to law school if they want to support a family they don’t hang out with a bunch of drunks at a dive out in the country. Don’t fucking kid yourself. If you really loved your kid you’d get a real job.”
“What the hell are you doing out here?” I asked him.
“Now you’re getting it,” he said, fixing me with a look of profound recognition. And started laughing.
As if to further illustrate this cautionary tale Clint moved into an apartment above the bar, took a job cleaning the bar and spent all of his time drunk in the bar.
It was like watching a monk set himself on fire. And it made me take up writing fiction with a seriousness I hadn’t before experienced; eventually getting a fellowship that enabled me to stay home with my kid, where we read The Odyssey and Treasure Island, built a pyramid for a dead goldfish and did not learn any more cocktail recipes until he was headed off to college.
The one thing everyone had always been able to agree on, even people whom he mocked and irritated, was that Clint was a monster talent. But now he could barely play. Things weren’t going so well for the man, though he too got to stay home a lot. He’d lost weight, looked a wreck and was in and out of the hospital.
“It’s all fine with me,” he said, rolling a cigarette with shaking hands on a bench outside the bar. “I’d be happy to die doing something I love.”
Eventually he was sent to a year-long rehab program and returned a remarkably clear eyed and foul mouthed Buddhist. He got new teeth and good health and went back to giving music lessons. “But it would have been okay either way,” he said to me later sitting on a bench outside the coffee shop. “I’m not caught up in the material world. You of all people should know that.”
As Thanksgiving approaches my thoughts turn to Clint and I’m grateful. Grateful that he called me out and told me to get a job. Advice that would have meant nothing coming from a parent or teacher but from a gifted self-saboteur was absolutely chilling. Grateful for his stories and for his being a monumental pain in the ass to the right people. But most of all I am very grateful that he is alive and playing.
For some of us, it wouldn’t have been okay either way. Happy Thanksgiving Clint Swank, rogue professor of life beyond lost causes. I raise my glass of water to you!
Saturday, November 13, 2010
Thursday, November 11, 2010
Sunday, November 7, 2010
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
With a Bandana Rolled Over our Eyes we Strike with a Heavy Stick to Knock the Piñata Down (or Roadblocks)
WE START OFF OUR STORIES WITH VAGUE NOTIONS. We think things like, I’d like to set a story right before WWI in a German training camp. Or something like, I remember my mother crawling into bed with me and crying after she had a fight with my father. The trailer at the movie theater reminds me of the last time I saw my sister alive. That’s usually how it starts. A vague notion where you decide that the way you see the world means something. We all do this. I don’t care whether you have your MFA or you’ve never written a story before. We all capture moments in our lives that we believe are significant, that a we believe—for one reason or another—that there is a story behind what we saw in our mind’s eye.
For some reason, us descendants of Sisyphus; the writers of poetry and prose, decided that writing things down would be where we got our kicks. Other people become stand up comedians, others become painters, or musicians, sculptors—you catch my drift, all of us artist types are telling stories. However, the true laborers (in my opinion) are the writers, the ones that metaphorically put pen to paper, hands to the keyboard, index finger to the iPhone—drift caught. We set off, deciding with sure-fire audacity, “I’m going to write that down.” And just like that we're spun arond three times fast, dizzy and confused and start off. With a bandana rolled over our eyes we strike out with a heavy stick to knock the piñata down. To nail that damn story with our big stick so that we can be rid of it.
The truth is when we start writing—be honest here, folks—when we start writing we don’t know what the hell we’re doing. We start imagining things that include the setting and try to picture the world these characters we’re trying to sketch out. We use our senses and try to sniff things out, we reach our hands into the grass and feel, we’re served some deep dish and taste what the story has to serve us. We are truly lost. All we have is the vague notion that the story is out there, somewhere. So we lurch forward, taking our wild swings at a story, trying fitfully to get at what is encased inside that stupid flimsy paper mache so that we can have it spill all over the page.
What I notice is that often (with us emerging writers) is that we make choices that can corrupt the process of telling the story. We make really bad choices through no fault of our own we do this. And when I say us I include me in the process, I know I do this. Show of hands, who does this—see that’s a lot of people out there! The reason we do this merits an essay by itself but simply put: we make bad choices because we believe the artistic process should not be “messed with”. First thought, best thought, drift thrown again and drift caught? It’s like we believe that the original idea for our story is this perfect little ET alien that we gotta let sit in our closet and not talk about. Ignore it and it'll be cool. I mean, just let that weird dookie looking thing chill and let us tell the story in whatever way we want, cause homie, if you mess with it too much it’ll just disappear, get sick and stuff. The story will die if I talk about it! I am here to tell you the following: bullshit. You have to look at what choices you make in telling your story, you have to have a moment in your creative process where that pencil pusher devil on your left shoulder gets a chance to add some things up. You gotta do the math for a second and see if it totals out. Because, folks, hear me out already, if you don’t take a moment and reflect you will have wasted your talents on a story that is DOA: Dead On Arrival. I know that’s cold. I know. I know. But I’m giving it to you straight. Let me give you some examples that I recently saw. The details have been changed to protect the author’s original idea.
I read a brilliant short story this quarter about a kindergartner who takes her homework and burns it in a bathroom. It was hilarious at every turn but since the story was told from a first person present (from the 5 year old’s voice) it was entirely incoherent for me to understand what was actually happening. Next, I read a very compelling story about three cowboys who were stuck in the middle of the desert surrounded by coyotes. The trouble with this story is that the story was told by a third person narrator that sounded so academic that I thought I was in Cambridge and not in the Mojave. And finally, if my point is still not clear, I read a story about a woman who had attempted suicide but since the story was told in the first person past tense it became boring, since I knew she was alive and well, reciting the manuscript.
Now, with that being said, I am not saying that these can’t be done. Seriously, it can all be done—it’s just that if you start off on the wrong ways you have to write to a level that is sheer brilliance. So, for example, about the suicide attempt, there is the potential that the story can be amazing. However, the writer has to make the voice of the character so interesting, so incredibly beautiful that we are horrified that they would ever want to take their life. It’s always possible to tell that story but it takes, I’d say, 10 times the work. In the end, take a breather instead.
Now, the very hard part of the job as editor at Our Stories is reading these stories that are brilliant, smart, and hilarious—yet—have an enormous logic flaw inside of them. There is literally no worse news I can give a writer when this occurs. The only thing the writer can do is revise from the very foundation. Not good. This is not the sort of feedback I relish in giving. In fact, I almost wish I did not see it at all and I could just tell them that their plot needed “work”. If only other journals gave that little, right comrades? I digress.
Let me get to my point. Here’s the deal, Power Rangers, when you first start writing your story—somewhere after you get that brilliant epiphany that gave you the idea of your story and before you write the second page of what you believe is the “the best story you’ve ever written.” you need to pause. Take a breather. Get up out of your chair and stretch. Go outside. Have a smoke. Have two smokes while no one is looking. Then, before you walk back inside to your computer ask yourself whether you’re handling the story in the right way. Think about whether if you changed the story to a past tense whether it’d be better. Decide whether the voice of your 1st person narrator is someone who your audience would like to spend the fifteen pages with. Analyze whether your 3rd person narrationo is up to snuff. And if you have doubts then it’s not too late. You haven’t taken too much time out of your life to look back at that point.
I think before the second page is the perfect time to question these things. At that point you can still write the story in two, three different ways. I remember Richard Bausch would tell us examples of novelists that would write hundreds of pages in one or two ways and then decide which they liked better. You can at least take a couple pages and work this out. I know it’s a lot like asking a bull to stop bucking, like a bird to stop flapping, like a duck to stop . . . drift caught again, bing! What I’m saying is to just take a moment before you make a mistake that ends up throwing all of these roadblocks in front of you where they’re not needed. You owe it to yourself to open up the closest, spank that dookie headed ET and see what they say—don’t worry, you can throw them back in the closet when you’re done getting what you need.
Okay. That’s it for now. Enjoy the Fall 2010 issue, I love all of the stories we published this quarter, they all show us something beautiful. We’ll be back when there’s snow on the ground and we’ve found our third annual Richard Bausch Short Story prize. For those of you applying to MFA programs good luck. Write well.
Monday, October 25, 2010
Recently a friend who’s been reading my blog asked why I only write about the things I think and not about things I do or stories about my life. It’s a good question. And while the obvious answer is that I’m trying to maintain some privacy, the bigger picture is that it’s not easy to write about the people you love.
But since it keeps coming up, I have two stories for you about my brothers.
The first brother story is simple:
While walking home from first grade in the wintertime some older boys walking behind me started throwing snow balls. They hit the back of my coat and I ignored them, but finally one hit the back of my head and I turned around. That was when they stopped laughing and looked shocked and horrified. “Oh shit.” one of them said “Oh my god.” They ran up to me, brushed the snow off my coat and hat and out of my hair, asked if I was okay and did I need them to walk me home? “Please,” they said, “don’t tell your brother.” This sense of guardianship is very likely the reason I’ve never had any accurate sense of my own height and weight. And while our politics and values often drastically converge, while this brother called me by no other name than “little bonehead” for twenty-five years, (even going so far as to make me a Christmas present of a racoon skull with the words “little bone head” decoupaged all over it). He’s also clearly the reason I’ve rarely had a sense of limitations. If a little girl can instill horror in neighborhood thugs just by turning around, if she can become a woman who accepts skulls as presents, she can move through the world differently.
The second brother story is more complex but doesn’t involve animal bones:
Years ago, driving to the ocean with my younger brother the two of us were captivated by the site of forest fire. Trees black as soot, stunted and narrow and shaped like coral stood beside the tall green canopy of pines and maples that flanked the road.
That’s amazing my brother said and I nodded. It was otherworldly. An outgrowth of Heironomys Bosh’s hell sprung like an oasis inside the neat chuck of remaining forest that hadn’t been turned to highway.
My brother, who was paying for this trip, was a businessman who lived in Manhattan and worked seventy hours a week. He was so overextended he sometimes fell asleep in the shower while getting ready for work. The two of us talked on the phone often in those days when he was driving home, about books and politics and if there was some kind of unifying theory that could make things right in the world. I urged him nearly every day to quit his job, a job that would in just a few hours see us basking on the beach and eating lobster on the pier. This was the first vacation I’d had in more than five years. I had at the time an 11th grade education and had just been laid off from my job landscaping gardens on the campus of a lesser Ivy League school in a small gray town unreachable by trains. I was raising my son, collecting unemployment, writing and freelancing.
Which of us was, at that point in our lives, the domesticated forest and which was the site of the fire was a question that played out silently while we drove.
My brother supported my writing and he supported me when I was out of work and it made me feel simultaneously like a complete failure, and like a very loved, very lucky person.
I have lived between these brothers my whole life. One, now a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who has sleeve tattoos, three children, a dog, a house in the suburbs, and his own unfinished manuscript; the other, now a bio-ethicist, who lives so lightly on this earth and in his skin and so heavily in his mind, his ultimate goal is to own nothing, to move with his wife into a Volkswagon camper van with a couple changes of clothes.
Fraternity and diversity are what I know most deeply of family. My brothers have made it possible for me to know what it feels like to love unconditionally a businessman and a soldier. And this is no small thing, to see behind the curtain of the dominant culture of men and corporations and war, and to know that they are built on the intentions and talents of individual boys.