Sunday, November 30, 2014

Vikram Paralkar and the Agent's Letter

In the 49th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Vikram Paralkar, author of The Afflictions (Lanternfish Press), presents a fanciful response to a manuscript submission.

Dear [Author Name Redacted],

I read your manuscript with great interest. I was in a rocking chair on the back porch of my ranch home, sipping my usual El Injerto coffee and looking over the yellow grass while it rippled in the breeze (as grass is wont to do). Your story started off slow, with some real trouble spots—the murders were insufficiently detailed and the lovemaking excessively so—but after Matilda’s aunt was revealed to be working for the NSA, I felt engaged in the narrative. Enough, apparently, that I didn’t notice the neon glow spreading over the above-mentioned grass.

Cliché alert: Alien abductors
A theremin-like sound made me look up. As a literary agent, I abhor clichés, and so my feeling was primarily one of disappointment at the sight of that saucer-shaped craft and those beings with bony limbs, bulbous heads, and large black eyes. They took me, which wasn’t unexpected, though I didn’t expect they’d also bring along your manuscript.

Many things happened, and I won’t go into them all here, but I’ll describe the portions that involved your writing. The aliens were actually quite pleasant. They’ve had a long-standing research interest in human cognition, and they asked me to read the rest of your manuscript while they used neural stimulation to alter my mental states. Suddenly, your writing took on an immense significance. Matilda’s gender confusion, Ezekiel’s search for God, Brijesh’s Oedipal urges, all felt terrific in their immediacy. I laughed, I wept, I moaned in terror. I saw greater themes in your writing—the parallels between societal and intimate violence, the lure of the Panopticon, the arbitrariness of sexual morays. I became convinced that you were one of the finest chroniclers of human frailty.

Though my abduction lasted at least a few weeks, the aliens deposited me back on my porch on the same date and time they’d picked me up. Space-time warping, I presume. There were only three proofs of their visitation—my memories, your manuscript (which was now extensively dog-eared), and a sizable crop circle. Hungering for that transcendental feeling again, I dove back into your work. Imagine my chagrin when I found it quite banal. The characters were superficial, cookie-cutter, forced into situations in which they did not belong, and to which they reacted in outlandish ways. All the grand truths I’d seen had vanished, not unlike Matilda’s aunt in the penultimate chapter. In essence, active neural stimulation by aliens was the only thing that had imbued your writing with humanity.

Since that reduces your potential readership to a vanishingly small niche, I regret that I cannot offer you representation at this time. Bear in mind that this is a subjective business, and others may feel differently.

Best wishes,

[Literary Agent Name Redacted]

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Jennifer Horne Wrestles with Her Conscience

In the 48th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Jennifer Horne, author of Tell the World You're a Wildflower (University of Alabama Press), discusses striking the difficult balance between writing the truth and not hurting others' feelings.

“When I argued, somewhat lamely, that it would be pointless for individuals to try to identify themselves since I carefully constructed composite characters that would defy any attempts at labeling or identification, I was silenced: ‘Nonsense! You know us for better than that. You think we didn’t, each of us, sit down poring over every page until we had recognized the bits and pieces of ourselves strewn about here and there. You turned us into amputees with hooks for fingers and some other blackguard’s heart beating inside our own chest.’”
—Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics

One of my favorite childhood books, Harriet the Spy, turns fifty this year. This classic novel by Louise Fitzhugh tells the story of eleven-year-old Harriet M. Welsch, who observes her neighbors and classmates and takes notes—not always nice ones—on what she sees and hears.

When I first read this book, I was around eight. A born observer, I admired Harriet’s regular “spy” route, her notetaking, the way her imagined occupation combined adventure and careful watching. I was already writing poems about art, beauty in nature, and my yearning to travel, and my writer mother encouraged us to make up stories about people we’d see at the grocery store, the bank, or Hancock’s fabric store. I had a notebook of poems and a pen that had four different colors of ink so you could choose your mood as you wrote.

In the drawings that went with the book, Harriet had straight hair and glasses and liked to wear a hooded sweatshirt, jeans, and tennis shoes. So did I. Harriet didn’t quite fit in at school. Neither did I.

But there the resemblances ended. I lived in Little Rock, Arkansas. Harriet lived in a Manhattan brownstone and drank egg creams—whatever they were. How exotic and sophisticated that sounded to me! Harriet also had a nurse named Ole Golly who quoted Dostoyevsky and Wordsworth and was wise and surprisingly complicated.

Harriet’s crisis comes when her classmates see what she has written about them and shun her. Ole Golly has left because Harriet is grown up enough not to need her anymore, and Harriet feels abandoned and angry, but also guilty.

Harriet the Spy was surely the first book I read about the ethics of being a writer: How do you balance your desire to examine and describe against the feelings of those who might recognize themselves in your work and be hurt?

This question comes up regularly in my writing life. My first husband asked me not to write about our divorce, but I did anyway; I had to make sense of it through writing. I’ve recently typed and gathered together my mother’s poems, twenty years after her death, to create a book for friends and family. But should I include poems she wrote about my parents’ divorce if they might hurt my father, still very much alive?

My current book project combines memoir and biography in telling the story of Sara Mayfield, a childhood friend of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald and a biographer of Scott and Zelda and H. L. and Sara Haardt Mencken. I’m constantly wrestling with what parts of my family story are mine to tell, what might injure—or possibly heal—in the telling.

Here’s how little my family likes its stories told: My mother’s two uncles were WWII Navy pilots, and the more famous of the two was due to be honored some years ago by having a street in their hometown of Fordyce, Arkansas, named after him. My mother’s first cousin Jo called to let me know about the ceremonies and to share a concern: She was worried that all this attention would uncover a family secret, namely that my great-uncle’s father and the father’s sister had had a falling-out, did not speak, and only pretended to get along when their parents came to Fordyce to visit, so as not to hurt their feelings. This falling-out would have occurred around 1920. I feel a kinship to Ellen Douglas and her 1998 book Truth: Four Stories I Am Finally Old Enough to Tell; one of her criteria for telling was that the people she wrote about were now long dead.

At Harriet’s low point, Ole Golly writes her a letter in which she says that of course Harriet should put the truth down in her notes, because “What would be the point if you didn’t?” She goes on to encourage Harriet to start writing stories based on her observations, and says that she will read them if Harriet writes them. “Remember,” she says, “that writing is to put love in the world, not to use against your friends. But to yourself you must always tell the truth.” 

To put love in the world. To always tell the truth to one’s self. How do you reconcile, how do you balance? The words come from the world of accounting, and perhaps that is what each of us, as writers, must do: account for ourselves. Find what balance we can. Then be willing to face the reckoning.

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.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

David Ryan and the Crowded Room

In the 40th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, David Ryan, author of Animals in Motion (Roundabout Press), discusses the inspiration he has drawn from the work of other writers.

A long time ago I discovered a handful, and soon a crowded roomful, of writers whose work baffled and compelled me beyond the ideas of craft I’d been trying to sort out. These writers seemed to focus less on the typical notions of craft—setting and event and character—choosing instead to enlarge something I couldn’t yet identify. Or rather, they did it all so well—these typical crafty things—but so strangely and transparently, with a special sort of undertow. These were writers doing something simultaneously deeper and more diffuse than what I was used to, and I wanted to know how.

Collectively they didn’t fit into any particular school—some seemed to live on the outskirts of the literary establishment, while others should have fallen into the mainstream pretty easily. But they were each in their own way estranged from what I’d read and been taught up to then. And the more I read, the more badly I wanted to crack their strange codes. Some of them: Emily Holmes Coleman, John Hawkes, Grace Paley, Isaac Babel, Alexander Kluge, William Gass, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Lydia Davis, William Gaddis, Peter Mathiessen, Walter Abish, Claude Simon, Elfriede Jelinek, Henry Green, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Paula Fox . . . the list could continue—and does. Some threw out conventional notions of story entirely—for instance, the early novels of John Hawkes. But others, say, Paula Fox, or Isaac Babel, managed to tell stories that follow familiar conventions, yet always generate a complex, diffuse heat. If they used the codes of realism, these codes bubbled up from an extraordinarily erratic and, as I saw it, peculiarly human impulse.

So, if the books I’d read and been taught in my formal education had been the nucleus of an apprenticeship, I’d suddenly landed on a bunch of electrons that materialized and swarmed around anything I’d known before. Often the power of these writers’ work seemed impossible to grab hold of, and this alone drew me in—the difficulty in understanding how they did what they did. Even the simple stories didn’t feel simple. Their surfaces felt sticky, deceptive, even as they pulled me into them.

The earliest clue I could find, and what became the primary draw, was the language itself. Language was the spark, the essential magic. These writers’ extraordinarily precise language pushed into and through the center of their subject, drove it into unfamiliar territory. Language was the deranged genie, the genius—this monstrous undertow that rose up to the surface and dredged the depths, brought with it certain appealing murk. Language had the power to conjure a beautiful and glimmering pollution from a reader’s inferential capacity.

Perhaps this can’t really be called a craft issue, and yet I have learned so much about my writing through it: how gorgeous is the fuzzy light we generate through a reader's own associations with our words—if they’re chosen carefully. How powerful that we can tell one story on a surface, while lodging several others deeper, purely through our understanding of the inferential force of words, how the combustible qualities of one idea can sit beside another and ignite “a gathering web of associations,” as the British novelist Henry Green once suggested fiction should be.

I'd like each story I write to feel as if it were just barely concealing its own unconscious. That something anarchic and unruly was generating the words above. That at any moment something could snap free of the page and fly away. Because this seems to me to be how we as human beings draw our lives up. The world threads itself through us, and we respond—our irrational ways of taking and making meaning from the randomness of our day, the unpredictable gusts of life thrown at us, the insane bluster of our responses. We do the best we can, we give each day a form and then we go to sleep. Life is our monster and we are its shaping, its containment, its formal arrangement. This is the ultimate creativity, these occasionally extraordinary moments we shape around chaos. I want my fiction to live in that kind of skin as it responds to the world flying through each moment—I want it to reflect all that we don't notice about ourselves, even as it says everything about who we are. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Hilary Mantel's Ten Observations About Writing

In the 39th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Hilary Mantel, author of The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (Henry Holt), shares the benefit of her experience.

Ten things I’ve learned….since I started writing my first novel, in 1974 (which feels like yesterday). Ten things to think about, or ten rules I try to keep: I won’t call them advice, as I’d hardly presume to give it.

1.  If you see a problem in your narrative, go there fast. Head for the point of danger. It’s where the energy is.
2.  Free up your creativity: Liberate it from your expectations and experience. When you have an idea, don’t assume it’s a novel or story, just because that’s your usual medium. It might be a play, poem, song, or movie. Who knows, it might be best expressed as garden design. Or maybe you should knit it?
3.  If the rhythm of your prose is broken, read poetry.
4.  Cut every page of dialogue by one-third. 
5.  If a phrase troubles you, strike it out, and if there seems no alternative, try simple omission. If you are dubious about it in your manuscript, you’ll shrink from it in the printed book.
6.  If you don’t know how your story ends, don’t worry. Press on, in faith and hope.
7.  If you see a habit forming, break it.
8.  Control where the story starts. In a novel, don’t put anything important—like a clue—before "Chapter One." Prefaces, epigraphs: 90% of readers ignore them.
9.  When you break through, not everyone close to you will enjoy your success. Accept this.
10.  Writing for the theater is the most fun. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Jen Michalski Starts with a Dream

In the 38th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Jen Michalski, author of From Here (Aqueous Books), discusses drawing from real people and situations to fill in stories inspired by dreams.

Do you ever borrow characters or situations from real life, and has anyone ever confronted you about it, been angry or pleased? 
I find that my writing is a collaborative process. A lot of my stories begin in dreams, and I supply many of the other details through people and situations I’ve known. My dream life is so rich, so powerful, that I find it therapeutic to explore the implications of these loves, these fears and sorrows, in a controlled environment such as writing. Although director David Lynch believes that “waking dreams are the ones that are important” because “when you sleep, you don’t control your dream,” I love the paradox between having no control over the narrative of a dream and then shaping it, dominating it, in waking life.

Perhaps I am working through my own wish-fulfillment or aversion with my dreams, but the vessels into which I inject these feelings usually are real places and people. In the story “The Substitute,” for instance, my high school English teacher did take a half a year off to recover from an illness. It was little discussed and speculated to be anything from prostate cancer to alcoholism. And his son did become his substitute during his winter break from college for a few weeks. Those few weeks stayed with me, not because I thought his son was cute and smart (he was attending Swarthmore, and we lived in a little hick town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland) but because although “Patrick” was only a few years older, he’d crossed that huge divide between high school and college, and I wondered what he thought of us sophomores and juniors, if we were incredibly childish compared with his 21-year-old self who lived now in Philadelphia and saw so much of the “world” (at least compared with us).

When I got the idea to write “The Substitute,” almost twenty years later, I had begun to worry about my own mother’s health intermittently (she had had a serious hospitalization every decade of my life) and how adrift I would feel to lose her at such a young age. “Patrick” returned to me in a dream, and I wondered how he would deal if confronted with the possibility of his father’s death when both were so young, when Patrick, thinking he knew everything as a college junior (as I surely thought I did), would no longer have his father around to guide him through the first job, the first breakup, the first major adult disappointment. I wanted to explore that crossing over into adulthood, where one is tentatively independent but with that independence comes a real fear of loss. I wanted him to take the symbolic mantel of manhood by having his heart broken and by also acknowledging the greatest heartache, the death of parents, yet to come.

Ironically, my own mother died a few weeks ago. It was unexpected, and I was no more prepared for it than Patrick was with the thought of his father’s own. But I guess that’s life; we each have our own instruction manual, and we write it as we live it. We think we may pass it along to others, to our own children, but they must write their own anew.

Will I write a story about my mother’s death, since I didn’t seem to get the closure I’d wanted for myself from “The Substitute?” I probably will, but it will have no resemblance to my mother. It will probably start in a dream and wind up being about a former coworker or a person I notice in the row in front of me at the symphony or in line at the grocery store. Yet it will be so loaded with her essence that I won’t even be able to read it again once I write it.

Oh, my high school English teacher and I reconnected on Facebook about a year ago. He loved the story; we meet for coffee every once in a while. It’s strange to be his age now, when he was my teacher. I feel as if I know so much less now than I did then.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

J. Robert Lennon and the Sweet Spot

In the 37th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, J. Robert Lennon, author of See You in Paradise (Graywolf Press), talks about putting the right amount of pressure on himself.

If you weren't a writer, what would you be doing?
Probably I’d be an unsuccessful musician with an office job.

Describe an unusual writing habit of yours.
I often wait until there is almost not enough time to finish something before I start it, then do it very, very fast, so that I don’t have time to think. I’m not a procrastinator, per se; if I give myself only a day or two to write, say, a book review, it's bad, and if I take a whole month to do it, it’s also bad. There’s a sweet spot that lets me work in near-panic at a high level of competence, and I try to spend a lot of time there.

Do you ever borrow characters or situations from real life, and has anyone ever confronted you about it, been angry or pleased? 
I used to always say no to this question, but then I actually read what I’d written over the years and realized that there are plenty of repurposed real-life personality details. But no one has ever recognized himself. A few people have thought a particular character was them, but been wrong.

What one story that someone else has written do you wish you had written?
Pretty much all of Donald Barthleme. It’s tragic, trying to emulate him, because it was never the stuff he thought to write about that was so important; it was just the fact of his being Barthleme, which of course cannot be imitated. I’m also envious of Kelly Link’s story “Stone Animals.” It feels like the funnest imaginable thing to write. I liked that story very much as a reader, but as a writer, I find it inexhaustibly delightful.

Where do you do most of your work?
The living room sofa. Sometimes in bed. Sometimes at a coffee shop. Almost never at a desk, though there are four desks in my life where I do other things.

What do you do when you're stuck or have "writer's block”?
I give myself a prompt, or go do something that isn’t literature—play the guitar, play a videogame. I’m lucky to be able to get over writer’s block pretty easily. Often some assignment comes down the line—a book review or other piece of topical writing—and I am forced to write by circumstance. That helps a lot.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Treasure nothing, be willing to throw out anything. The story you just wrote that you are proud of should not be coddled and worshipped. You can do it again. If your house burned down with all your work inside it, you would still be the writer you are, and you would continue to be worth something.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Jack Livings on Dealing with Rejection

In the 36th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Jack Livings, author of The Dog (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), shares insights gained from being on the other end of the slush pile.

About ten years ago I put in some time as a slush pile reader at a literary magazine. Submissions arrived daily in huge canvas U.S. Mail bags, the kind you’d use if you wanted to dispose of a body in the East River. There were teetering piles of manila envelopes everywhere.

The magazine’s offices were in a New York townhouse, and readers sat in the basement in old wing chairs. In the morning you’d put your stack of envelopes on the floor by your chair, and over the course of the day you’d read your way down to the grimy carpet. There was a window, and it had bars on it. I tried to read carefully, with hope in my heart. On any given day I rejected between 50 and 70 stories. In retrospect, I probably wasn’t doing myself any karmic favors.

I was, at the same time, sending my own stories out to magazines. Three or four times a month I’d go to my mailbox, and there would be yet another thin envelope addressed to me by me, and I’d open it hoping to find a scribble at the bottom of the slip, a lifeline. Try us again? I wish I could say that reading the slush pile made me sanguine about my own rejections, but it still stung when I got a rejection slip, and it still does.

I did, however, form some impressions that might be of use to you. For starters, we writers can never know what’s led to a rejection. Sure, it’s most likely that our story isn’t half as good as we think it is, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume your story is publishable. It could just as easily be that the editors already have two stories on the same subject in the hopper and, as good as yours is, they don’t need another one. Or it might not fit into a theme issue the editors are putting together. It’s possible that your story, which happens to be written entirely in dialogue, is brilliant, but the editors might be into heavy exposition. Who knows? You can avoid this situation by actually reading copies of a magazine before you submit your work. You’ll have better luck with places that publish fiction you like. Trust your taste.

Know that editors don’t read with the eyes of god. Do you have strong opinions about fiction? So does the person reading your work. Would you call your opinions subjective? Same goes for the person reading your work. See where I’m going with this?

Even if your all-dialogue story lands in the hands of a dialogue-loving editor, she might not connect with your story. She could be a wildly sophisticated city kid who doesn’t get the lizard metaphors in your story, which happens to be set on the edge of a desert. Or, as luck may have it, your story might find its way into the hands of an amateur herpetologist who knows so much about desert lizards that he can’t reconcile your metaphorical use of the fringe-toed lizard with his own knowledge of the reptile’s habits. Do not let rejections determine whether or not you will go on.
Fringe-toed lizard: Apt metaphor?

Because when we’re starting out, there are so few tangible markers of success—there’s publication and there’s rejection—it’s easy to look at that stack of rejection slips (or queue of emails) and see an argument for giving up. Do not give up. Read. Work. Labor over your sentences. Learn. Success isn’t publication, failure isn’t a rejection slip. In this most human of endeavors, mark your progress according to the honesty of what you’ve put on the page. Have you told the truth? Find the answer, and your worth as a writer, in the solitary process of writing, in your dedication to the practice of the art. Do it well. Go on.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Kent Nelson and the Quest for the Right Cover

In the 35th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Kent Nelson, author of The Spirit Bird (University of Pittsburgh Press), talks about the cover of his book and the craft of writing.

When my publisher and I were discussing the cover for my book, I suggested we look for images that represented the mood of the whole. “What is it?” the publisher asked.

I think of my work as serious, literary, based in various landscapes I know from birding excursions, and with the emotional lives of characters existing below the surface of the dialogue and action. In this collection are stories set in Alaska, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, Washington, and California. The protagonists are men and women, young and old. But I couldn’t figure out a mood for the whole. The lead story is about a Mexican boy who comes across the border “to do something great,” which turns out to be growing chiles. And midway is a story about a grieving woman who’s cutting hay. But there’s also a story about a man who turns into a donkey.

In the end, the publisher used the title story as the cover, because birds are a thread that runs through many of the stories in the book, directly in “The Spirit Bird,” but tangentially in other pieces—a man in North Carolina who puzzles over birds, a woman in Seattle who is a bird poet, a runner/glassblower who knows tundra species.

No one can instruct someone else about how to write a story or a novel. A short story to me is a created microcosm of the world, and I love to figure out what is going to happen to my characters in the circumstances I conjure up for them. There’s no formula, no established way to order the events or make up what characters say. I don’t ask myself how I do it, and I don’t want to know.
Just another book that
has a bird on its cover

When I read, I look at stories as having two elements: the plot/characters and the execution of the writing. It astonishes me so few writers (and editors) pay so little attention to the craft. It’s as if they’re playing tennis without lines or basketball without knowing how to dribble. Beginning writers repeat certain words and phrases so often they become an issue for the reader, but famous writers published in The New Yorker and by Farrar, Straus and Giroux or Knopf) do this, too. “Just” is a such a word often repeated. In the last fifteen years it has crept into our speech, but it now pervades our fiction. (There are over 600 uses of “just” in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.) “That” is another overused word. (“I saw that she had arrived...”) Other words and phrases that appear over and over are “always,” “began to,” “would” (when applied to the past), “as he/she,” adverbs generally, and verbs of speech followed by a participle (....,” he said, fuming about repetitive word use). 

I could go on, but who listens?

I love writing and will do it as long as I can. There is nothing harder I know of, and what could matter half as much?