Friday, November 28, 2014

Tracy Daugherty On Walker Percy's Thought Experiments

In the 47th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Tracy Daugherty, author of Empire of the Dead (Johns Hopkins University Press), analyzes Walker Percy's diagnostic approach to fiction in The Moviegoer.

What makes fiction unique? Worth preserving? What does fiction do that no other form of human expression accomplishes? Walker Percy conceived of fiction as a kind of laboratory report crossed with a thought experiment. Place a person, imaginatively, in a situation and determine—through dramatization, speculation, and reflection—his options and responses. The result will be an on-the-ground bulletin about what it is to be human.

Percy’s first and best novel, The Moviegoer, disarms the reader with humor, a hapless but likeable narrator, and a casual pace. But its set-up is fierce and methodical, strict as science. Every writer can learn from it.

The Situation: Contemporary America (the novel was published in 1961): site of Life, Liberty, and Happiness; the Bomb; conformity in the suburbs; the deadening effect of personal rituals and work habits; spiritual ennui.

The Subject: Binx Bolling, average white male, Southern.

The Subject’s Dilemma: Whether to settle for the “Little Way,” the “sad little happiness of drinks and kisses, a good little car,” or chase the “Big Happiness,” Beauty and Bravery, escape from the trap Kierkegaard mapped in The Sickness unto Death: “The specific character of despair is precisely this: It is unaware of being despair” (this quote serves as the novel’s epigraph).

Alternate Responses to the Subject’s Dilemma: Repetition— that is, seeking to replicate past experiences that gave The Subject joy, in an effort to locate the true root of happiness. Examples include driving a sporty car or flirting with a secretary in the office (Linda or Sharon, it doesn’t matter). Or Rotation—that is, seeking a new experience with potential for surprise, the unexpected, the wonder of life. The problem with Repetition is habit. It can kill the original joy. The problem with Rotation is the need for extremes, an escalation of novelty leading to very real danger.

The (Possible) Solution: A Search, beginning with the admission that despair is despair. “Just getting by” will no longer suffice. The Search requires seeing The Situation clearly in order to reject Alternate Responses that are circular or unsustainable. Seeing the Situation Clearly requires reading The Situation’s clues, a form of:

Semiotics: What does a sporty car or a pretty new secretary really mean to us? What aspects of secretary or sporty car (physical, cultural, social) are we responding to? Why do we think they give us joy? Where do our notions of joy even come from? Why does a rush of happiness often occur in the vicinity of danger? Does the intense feeling of “being alive” require the immediate risk of not being alive?

Using Semiotics, The Search can be conducted:

Vertically—Leaping into the depths of history, books, the Wisdom of the Ages, or:

Horizontally—Taking one step after another with no set purpose (other than The Search), discovering Wisdom along the way.

Either direction requires movement through three distinct stages (here again Percy takes his cue from Kierkegaard): The Aesthetic, The Ethical, and The Religious, testing the efficacy of personal gratification, the gratification of life with others in a system of equitable laws, and transcending the need for gratification.

Percy’s Subject, Binx, enters and exits these categories in his thirtieth year, a time of transition from relative youth to early middle age, under pressure, personally and professionally, to “get serious” and “settle down.” Though large changes occur as the year passes, by the end of the novel his Search remains incomplete, inconclusive. At least he has become less isolated and more responsible in caring for members of his family.

This schematic summary does not do justice to the richness and complexity of Percy’s novel, but it is, I think, an accurate rendering of the novel template Percy used and continued to use, more or less, in all his fiction.

As a fiction writer, Percy was a diagnostician, probing the mind’s and body’s afflictions, our culture’s malaise, seeking causes and possible cures. In the course of his experiments, he mixed philosophy and linguistics, just as a medical chemist tinkers with multiple compounds hoping for potent combinations. The combustibility of drama: for Percy, this was fiction’s unique quality as a form of expression: its capacity to contain and set in motion observation and ideas, the outer and inner lives of an individual. Time and again, this quality made fiction his preferred investigative method, the basis of his diagnoses.

And his prescription for robust health? Well, who can read a doctor’s writing?

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Nick Ripatrazone's Sacramental Vision

In the 46th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Nick Ripatrazone, author of Good People (Foxhead Books), explores his awe of words.

In his brief essay, “In Awe of Words,” John Steinbeck writes “The discipline of the written word punishes both stupidity and dishonesty. A writer lives in awe of words for they can be cruel or kind, and they can change their meanings right in front of you. They pick up flavors and odors like butter in a refrigerator.”

I agree that the act of writing requires significant awe for words. Awe is not equivalent to innocence, but they are not exclusive. When asked what the word "religious" meant to her, poet Denise Levertov said it was "the impulse to kneel in wonder . . . the impulse to kiss the ground . . . the sense of awe.” Like Levertov, I am a Catholic, and think a sacramental vision of the world means that even the most profane and pungent words carry some residual awe. The same goes for people. By titling a story collection Good People, and admitting that the characters contained within do very bad things, I am dissociating action from actor. That might sound like a generous theology, but if I am truly in awe of words, I am not doing my characters any undue favors; I am simply giving them the freedom and power to organically evolve.

That freedom is an action of awe. My awe for words is not idolatry; it is a recognition that the finest and foulest stories in English must choose from the same 26 letters. Like Steinbeck, I think awe is connected to a willingness to be surprised. Our surrounding world can be painfully prosaic. We can find thousands of things to bemoan. These are failures of perspective; of spirit, perhaps, as William Faulkner claimed. Failures of sight and sense.

Although it is often mentioned in connection with poetry—think of Gerard Manley Hopkins in “Spring”: “What is all this juice and all this joy?”—I think the short story is the perfect form for awe. Sonnets are made for questions and answers, and sestinas for recursivity. Essays are bred for inquiry. Short stories tend to lean forward. They end almost as quickly as they begin. And, if crafted well, they open many doors fully but leave others only cracked.
Indelibly awesome: "they is" thrice

I think of Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” which begins as sardonic as they come, gets absolutely violent, but ends on such a perfect note, with a boy’s misspoken words: “they is, they is, they is.” Catholics haven’t cornered the market on awe, but Wolff—writing about the work of fellow Catholic Andre Dubus—said “the quotidian and the spiritual don’t exist on different planes, but infuse each other... ordinary things participate in the miraculous, the miraculous in ordinary things.” Of course awe can lead to sentimentality. Devotion and dogma are best left for the cold wood of pews and the privacy of hearts. Faith works much better on the page. Faith is pliable, imperfect, a work of passion. Like awe, faith requires a good deal of fear. I don’t trust a story that I’m writing unless I am unsettled by the decisions of the characters. I need to offer them the path to a bad place, and then, once there, they can remain or seek resolution.

Awe is what suffuses those characters with the sense of mystery necessary for fiction; it is what makes me treat my characters with care, even if I’ve created situations where they might suffer. That paradox is a necessary one in Catholic theology, and is equally applicable to fiction. If a story draft feels like cardboard; if my characters talk and live toward theses, then I have failed to see the world with awe. I have fallen for the cynicism of reduction. But the beautiful thing about fiction—and life—is that there is always time for a second, third, and tenth draft.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Why Ali Eteraz Stopped Trying to Be an American Writer

In the 45th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Ali Eteraz, author of Falsipedies and Fibsiennes (Guernica Editions), discusses his quest to crack the code of American writing and why he abandoned his efforts.

They say about the poet William Carlos Williams, an immigrant, that he "nurtured a first-generation American’s obsession with the idea of an indigenously American art." Whether or not it was true in Williams' case, this obsession certainly applied to me.

Ever since I arrived in New York via the Dominican Republic and Pakistan and was met with Edgar Allen Poe, I yearned to be an "American" writer, to produce stories that would be deemed quintessentially American. I maintained this aspiration even though I learned that Europe thumbed its nose at us, and increasingly Asia did, too. Even after 9/11, when people that bore my kind of name were no longer deemed to be represent America, I still wanted to be an American writer. I went so far as to write to a prominent American writer from Texas to ask how I should write in order to feel like an American writer. I think I asked him because he was i) white, ii) wrote about the working class, and iii) from Texas, which I had been told was a very American place. I don't know if I was looking for the formula for American writing as much as I was looking for validation from him, which I could then use as an invisible grant of literary citizenship. Either way, the Texan didn't answer, and I continued my obsession alone.

My focus was in the arena of short stories. I read everyone from Flannery O'Connor to Raymond Carver to Willa Cather to Bret Harte and Shirley Jackson and anyone else that pops up when you run a search for "American short story writers." I was convinced that somewhere in their stories I would reach epiphany, discover the blueprint for what might be called "the" American style. Then it would only be a matter time before I too would appear on web searches for American short story writers.

Briefly I thought I discovered that blueprint in The Rebel by Albert Camus. In the tail end of that essay, Camus makes a distinction between American writing and French writing. The former is focused on externalities and appearances, while the latter is internal and psychological. When I applied that analysis to the Americans I had read, in most cases it did hold true, and so with a nod of gratitude to Camus, I thought I was on my way. I would write realism. Rather than long internal monologues I would gesture at the psychological states of my characters using objects as symbols. I would provide meaty descriptions of place and setting.

But cracking the secret to the American short story did not work out. All the stories I produced had in them things that I could dismiss as non-American or un-American: they were set in other countries, they were psychological, they veered into the surreal or darker places, they were set in time periods that contemporary American literature didn't touch. It got so bad that I decided that perhaps I was wrong to think I could ever be American; that perhaps out there was another literary citizenship that I needed to find.

Then one day I rediscovered some short stories by Richard Wright I had read in high school. Wright was an American who became a permanent expatriate after penning an essay called "I Choose Exile." He was, in some ways, the opposite of me. I came to America looking to merge myself into it, while he was born here, only to find disappointment and disillusionment. The collection that impacted me the most is called Eight Men, about black men in confrontation with a largely white world that disenfranchises them. The story "The Man Who Lived Underground" meant the most to me, about a man wrongly accused of murder who makes a new life for himself in the sewer. As a teenager, I had read these stories from a distance, throwing a cloak of fabulism over them, as if the kind of oppression in them could only occur in the realms created by fantasy writers. As an adult, I read them as calm and incisive meditations on the American experience, on its inadequacy, the way it failed people, the way it forgot people.

As a result of this re-acquaintance with Richard Wright I no longer cared whether anyone considered me indigenously or truly American or not. All I cared about was whether my stories were engaged in the act of remembrance, in the act of witness, in the act of representation, of the sort carried out by Richard Wright. This, to me, is all it means to be a writer, whether in exile, or of a nation.

As for the code to American writing, I know that I will never find it. Nor do I want to.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Laurence Klavan and the Sense of Unease

In the 44th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Laurence Klavan, author of The Family Unit (ChiZine Publications), relates how a bad experience triggered the writing of his stories.

The collection came about because of fear. Most of the stories were inspired by my dread, anxiety, and unease after 9/11.

In November of 2001, my then-girlfriend, now-wife, Susan Kim, and I rented an apartment ninety miles north of New York City. We intended to use it as a kind of bomb shelter where we would flee on weekends. It was in a ragged little ranch-house building complex that resembled a nursing home.

When we first came to look at the place, there was a police car parked outside. The super emerged from behind the building, where woods were. He was carrying a shovel on which we could see a small animal twitching. The cop left his car and went with the other man out of our view, into the trees. We then heard a dull pop. When the two men returned, the cop was holding a plastic garbage bag, tied at the top and weighed down at the bottom. He got into his car with it and drove away.

“Rabid woodchuck,” the super said, with a shrug. “Want to see the apartment?”

We barely decorated it, bought just a table, a futon that doubled as a bed and couch, and silverware and cups; it looked like the apartments that terrorists inhabit while hiding in sleeper cells. (One time, we brought Susan’s cats with us, and they were so terrified by all the empty space that they hid in closets or under the futon cover, looking like three cancerous lumps. All have since died.)

Every day and night, the old woman in the next apartment watched The Sound of Music and smoked cigarettes; smoke seeped through the thin walls and coated our clothing and hair and was impossible to get out. Other animals—raccoons, skunks—haunted the backyard, baying, foraging for food, and leaving their own bad smells behind. Eventually, the super was fired for selling meth and, upon leaving, abandoned the cats he had owned, which joined the other tormented, keening strays behind the house. One night, I sat on the futon and, in the morning, found a gray paté-like substance splattered on the wall behind it: I had inadvertently crushed to death and smeared a mouse there.

Dead bee: uninvited guest
While we were gone, phone messages would be left for the same local boy, telling him where and when his Boy Scout meetings were, messages which he apparently never got (or had gotten years before, when he was still alive; that’s what it felt like). One day, when we walked in, we found that the pipes had burst and scalding hot water had sprayed onto the futon where we would have been sleeping; it had bent and melted the candles we left there and curdled the pages of books open on the floor. The next time, a hive of bees hidden beneath our windowsill outside had been jostled loose, and the place was filled with dying bees which had gotten in and couldn’t find their way out. We cleaned up as many as possible but still awoke with bites all over us and more dying bees everywhere.

We ended up feeling unsafe in the place, as if we had brought the danger with us or, wherever we went, we would always find another threat, and so we moved out.

This was where some of the stories came from. I had lived my adult life in cities, and I was antsy in the “exurbs,” as this area is called in New York. Susan saw and heard my disquiet and suggested, exasperatedly, “Why don’t you just—I don’t know—write a story, or something?” I had been writing books, plays, and other scripts and hadn’t written a short story in years. So I gave it a shot.

I wrote animal stories, family stories, working class stories, some but not all set in a version of the town and apartment, most filled (I found at the end; I didn’t intend it) with the unease I felt there, both inside and out. Some of the stories were discarded, others held for a (I hope) later collection. One title for the book was “Bomb Shelters.” I later chose “’The Family Unit’ and Other Fantasies.”

In the end, maybe it wasn’t just the effects of 9/11. Since my childhood had been spent in the suburbs, maybe the town reminded me of being little, and that added to the uncanny and disorienting quality the stories ended up having. But like so many things about the experience, I’m not sure about that.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Kim Addonizio "Borrows" from Real Life

In the 43rd in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Kim Addonizio, author of The Palace of Illusions (Soft Skull Press), discusses her writing habits.

If you weren't a writer, what would you be doing?
I think if I weren’t a writer, I might cease to exist, or anyway shrink down to a single-celled organism like a slime mold. Though the other thing I’m involved with is music. Without writing to obsess me I might have more time to practice. I’d be a world-class harmonica-playing slime mold.

Describe an unusual writing habit of yours.
Sometimes I’ll literally turn my face away from the keyboard as I type, trying to access my unconscious a little more. Like if I don’t look, I can fool it into coming out of its cave.

Do you ever borrow characters or situations from real life, and has anyone ever confronted you about it, been angry or pleased? 
I borrow—it’s more like steal—things all the time. Then I use them for my own purposes. I worry about it, but I do it anyway, and try to explain to the people I care about that this is how writers work, using the stuff of the world and filtering it through our imaginations. 

What's the worst idea for a story you've every had?
Any time I start with an idea for a story it’s pretty bad. I like to just find my way in and then see where I am.

Where do you do most of your work?
In bed, where I feel far from the world and thus able to engage in the aberrant act of writing. Sometimes, for variety, I move to the couch. I haven’t worked at a desk for a couple of years now.

What do you do when you're stuck or have "writer's block"?
Freak out, mostly. It’s like being an athlete with a broken leg and worrying it will never heal. Then I remember I’ve been there before, and try to trust that it will come back.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Do the work. Understand that it’s a very long road. Strive to be a good writer rather than a published one.

What else (beyond books and writing) informs or inspires your work?
Every creative and/or fucked up act by other human beings. Mortality. The need for love. And beauty in any form. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Sara Lippmann Gets Over It

In the 42nd in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Sara Lippmann, author of Doll Palace (Dock Street Press), discusses overcoming shyness and offers tips on giving a reading.

I am that kid. Small, hunched. Shagged in thick bangs designed to hide my watery eyes, which at any second are bound to spill; the kind of child people call “sensitive.” My clothes itch. Turtlenecks dotted with cherries strangle my neck. Polyester pants on the story rug attract a steady wave of static electricity. People are shocked if they touch me.

When I say my name it sounds like this: SA-WA WIPPMANN. Oh, it’s endearing – when I am four; cute, maybe, at five and six. But by nine, I am no button. I am dead fucking serious. I have opinions and ideas. I want desperately, more than anything, to express them, to be understood.

Just don’t make me talk in public.

School play: The South Park version
Excuses ensue. In the school play—on tooth decay—I bow out of a speaking part. All I have to do is Velcro a cardboard cavity to the buoyant blonde playing the lead bicuspid. When the spotlight shines I nearly trip over my pigeon toes. I dart along the back wall, the black hole wilting in my grip.

My grandmother wipes away tears: “So you won’t be an actress.”

If only it were simple. But maybe you’ve heard—the world’s a stage. I practice my speech. Girl, hurl, world. Stretch my tongue down to my chin and up to my nose, curl it into a bun; I fold it in half like a sheet. It is pathetic. In high school, my English teacher counts the number of times self-doubt rears its ugly head during an oral report, every “like” and “I don’t know.” He intends to teach a tough lesson: Words alone won’t transcend a performance. Sound like a bimbo and people will pin you a bimbo. I am a bimbo 87 times in 10 minutes.

So I write. In college, I keep my mouth shut. Before graduation, my thesis adviser tells me to stand up straight, better advice than any note on my manuscript. But it doesn’t immediately sink in.

When asked to co-host the Sunday Salon reading series in New York’s East Village, I laugh. Me—on stage? Of all the cruel jokes.

But Nita Noveno, series founder and cohost, is an inspiration. Her commitment to celebrating a diverse group of writers every month is heartfelt and unflagging. How can I not help out?

For the past handful of years now, I get up. I’m no Jimmy Fallon. I don’t ad lib. I redden like a teenager in love. But if I’ve learned anything from the experience, I’ve learned it’s not about me. It’s about fostering a warm, meaningful connection between the audience and the authors we host.

When you have a book, there is no choice. Putting yourself out there is a necessary component of the writing life. Every time I have a reading or an event, I face the constellation of old fears. The child inside wants to dive under the covers. Some of this unease is probably on par with that of others who spend countless hours holed up alone in their heads. We tend to be an introverted bunch. But over the years I’ve had the immense privilege of reading with writers born for the stage, who have broken into pitch-perfect song, and the incredible honor of hosting writers who have brought the entire room from full-bodied laughter to chills then tears. While I wouldn’t say it’s gotten easier, I know I’ll get through. Sometimes, I even enjoy it.

Here’s what little I know:

Be yourself. The biggest and fanciest don’t necessarily make the best readers. Whoever you are, it’s not enough to bumble through your piece in a dismal monotone. Know your music. Play that song.

Check your ego. Consider the audience. People have come to hear you. Look up and acknowledge them once in a while.

Keep it short. Satisfy the listener, but it’s all right to leave them wanting more. I once heard a very important writer drone on from her very important chair without lifting her head for almost an hour. This is never okay.

Preparation helps. Sure, you wrote the thing, so it may seem counterintuitive to practice, but reading your work out loud demands a different kind of attention. Print your document in a large font or if you are reading from your book, mark up the text for pauses, emphasis, etc.

Captivate your audience. Remember your beloved school librarian? And the kid next to you who wet his pants because he was so enthralled by her swash-buckling pirate tale? Strive for that. Bonus points if they forget all bodily functions.

Storytelling – that’s why you’re here. Tell a damned good one. This is your job.

If you still have the jitters, hit the bar. One drink—not six—before show time should do it.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Alden Jones's Writing Advice: "Don't Listen to My Advice"

In the 41st in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Alden Jones, author of Unaccompanied Minors (New American Press), offers some tips worth following—or not.

If you’re planning to have children, don’t use up your favorite names on your fictional characters. You want a clean slate with your brand new, real-life babies. You won’t want associations with your fictional characters. Especially because if you are writing interesting stories, your characters will be highly flawed, even problematic, people.

Rebel against the “backwards checkmark” structure of the traditional short story. Try writing stories with no plot. Write something solely to explore the postmodern concept of the Active Female Subject. Subvert the dominant ideology through form and content. Make your reader decide what actually happened in the story. But don’t do this for very long. You’ll learn a lot about narrative structure—mainly how important it is.

Write tons of sex into your book if that’s your thing. But make sure your collection has at least one story that doesn’t center on sex, because when your book comes out, your parents will invite all their friends to come hear you read at your hometown bookstore and you’ll want to have something to read.

Make sending out your work for publication part of your writing process. It’s a great way to feel productive while you’re procrastinating. And don’t be deterred by rejection. It may take you—I don’t know—fifty-four rejections before your story is accepted by some magazine you’ll be really happy about, like—I don’t know—AGNI.

Big Mistake: Get back to your desk!
Don’t fall in love with the wrong person. This one is important. When you fall in love with the wrong person, instead of writing fiction, you will write emails to this person. Instead of hollowing out a place in your consciousness for your stories and characters to unspool, your creative energy will burn almost exclusively on imagining the next time you are in bed with this person. You will think, “Who needs writing? Love is all you need!” And then, because they are the wrong person, the relationship will eventually collapse and bury you in its rubble, and for a long time you will not want to write at all because you are depressed. When that happens, give yourself a break. You’ll go back to writing when you’re ready. But boy, what a long and unnecessary distraction! (Then again, maybe all of this will be great fodder for your third book.)

Nourish the other parts of yourself. Find a good partner. Be a good parent. Or a good yogi, or a good carpenter, or whatever makes you feel like your best self. Spend fall days walking your dog in the woods. Watch television without feeling guilty about it. But don’t forget to read. A lot.

Don’t listen to advice about how to write or how to be a writer. Don’t listen to my advice. Don’t listen to anyone’s. Someone will tell you something, trying to be helpful, like: “You’re not a real writer unless you write every day,” and instead of motivating you to write every day, this declaration will plague you with insecurity over whether or not you can call yourself a writer. For years. Or you’ll hear: “The first draft is supposed to be terrible. Getting it down is the important thing.” But you know in your heart you are a writer who needs to hit the vein, to really nail something important in the first draft. And you’ll spend more than a year writing something you know is terrible because someone convinced you if it was terrible, you must be doing it right.

The only advice you need comes from that Nike copywriter who said “Just Do It.” Do it your way, but do it. You’ll make mistakes. They will be your own mistakes. In the end, after your books go out to meet the world, you’ll be amazed by the advice you will want to give the person you were when you were starting out.