Monday, August 29, 2016

Matthew Cheney: Why I Am Not a Poet

In the 16th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Matthew Cheney, author of Blood (Black Lawrence Press), explains why fiction needs poetry.

In her 1932 "Letter to a Young Poet," Virginia Woolf wrote: "For how, we despised prose writers ask when we get together, could one say what one meant and observe the rules of poetry?"

Though "Letter to a Young Poet" is not among Virginia Woolf's best essays (nor did she think it was), it has its marvels, among them the last line: "And now for the intimate, the indiscreet, and indeed, the only really interesting parts of this letter. . . ." Not only is there the marvelous alliteration (how poetic!), but there is also the entire other letter, the one outside this text, the one that promises to be so much more wild, and which becomes visible as the shadow of the "Letter to a Young Poet". Having given us her public letter, Woolf encourages us to imagine that other one. It is a gift to us, the readers, because that letter, which we have now imagined, is the real letter, the one we most need, the one we can learn the most from.

(How could one say what one meant and observe the rules of poetry?)

Of course, Woolf was wrong about poetry. There are no rules of poetry. I think she knew this, but didn't want to admit it, because she had pushed the "rules" of prose so far that it was, perhaps, terrifying to think poetry might not have any rules. (A New York Times review of the novel she'd published just before the "Letter to a Young Poet" declared, "the real reason why The Waves comes close, as a novel, to going out of bounds is that its true interests are those of poetry.") To allow herself freedom in prose, Woolf needed to think of poetry as less free.
Woolf: Who's Afraid?

One of my favorite poets, Frank O'Hara, began his poem "Why I Am Not a Painter" thus:
I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not.
As for me, I am not a poet, I am a prose writer. Why?

I am not like Woolf, I don't think poetry is a set of rules to be observed, so it is not a freedom-granting opposite for me. There is something else.

I care about words, structures, rhythms, resonances, patterns, allusions, borrowings, sentences, images, emotions, voices, dreams, realities, fears, anxieties, failures, yearnings, and much more, but I don't really care about telling stories. The story is a kind of vehicle, or maybe an excuse, or maybe an alibi. The conventions of the story can be followed and forsaken in ways that get me to the other things, the things I care about.

All of those things I care about are things common to poetry — some more common to poetry than to prose, I'd bet — and that is why I read poetry, but even though I read poetry, I write prose because I just don't know how to do those things unless I'm writing prose.

(I think I would rather be a poet, but I am not.)

When I teach writing, I try to teach the students to think like poets, even if they don't write like poets, even if they write the prosiest prose. These days, I mostly teach First-Year Composition, and so my primary task is to unteach much of what my students think they learned before. (The structures and institutions within most high schools, especially public high schools, encourage students to fear risk more than anything else, and so regardless of what the teacher teaches, the typical student will learn not to take risks as a writer. Writers who don't take risks succeed only at being boring.) Poetry is great for my iconoclastic intentions, because even students who have had wonderful, innovative teachers of poetry in the past may still hold on to an idea that poems are things that sound like Hallmark cards and work like cryptography. This idea is deep and it takes more than one teacher to shatter all its perniciousness, so I do what I can for the cause. I give them poems by Frank O'Hara, Gertrude Stein, Adrienne Rich, etc. Even though this is my approach with First-Year Composition, I would do the same thing in an MFA fiction course, because perhaps more than anybody else, fiction writers need poetry, especially fiction writers who have begun to develop some skill and some sense of themselves as fiction writers. Yes, definitely, more than anybody else, these writers need poetry.

Lesson: Grab a random poetry anthology off a shelf and read it while telling yourself, as firmly as you can, that you are reading short stories. Then grab a random short story anthology off a shelf and read it while telling yourself, as firmly as you can, that you are reading poems. (What does this do to your brain? What does it do to the texts?) Keep at it.

Lesson: Read John Keene's Counternarratives. Read Carole Maso's Ava. Read Jean Toomer's Cane. Read David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress. Read Djuna Barnes's Nightwood. Read Mac Wellman's Terminal Hip. Read Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts. Read Guy Davenport's A Table of Green Fields. Read Dambudzo Marechera's House of Hunger. Read C.D. Wright's Cooling Time. (Read poetry that isn't poetry and prose that is.)

Lesson: Our stories need poetry. Not "poetry" like puzzles with hidden meanings or songs of sugary sap, but real honest-to-goodness poetry: how the most vital of the young poets (whatever their age) write, the attention to sound and structure, the comfort with parataxis, the willingness to go off on a rant or a tangent, the desire to accumulate lots of vernacular language and assemble it into a newfangled thang, the yearning for lyricism while being suspicious of lyricism, the worship of exact detail, the obsession with form, the embrace of obscurity, the belief that nobody is reading their writing and therefore they are free to write as they wish, the acceptance of defeat in the face of language, the joy in throwing a pie in the face of language, the ambition to be other than everybody else, the fascination with failed performances of self-awareness, the energy that comes from seeing the page not as a place to arrange stately paragraphs but as a blank canvas for words, words, words.

(Could one say what one meant and observe the rules?)

Go out of bounds. If your true interests are those of poetry, it doesn't matter if you're not a poet.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Zachary Tyler Vickers on Keeping the Reader Engaged

In the 15th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Zachary Tyler Vickers, author of Congratulations on Your Martyrdom! (Break Away Books), discusses the importance of emotional inflection.

The Literary Twinkie and The Light Switch 

There’s an exercise in John Berger and Jean Mohr’s book, Another Way of Telling, in which participants interpret a photograph of a little girl hugging a doll. The interpretations range: she’s laughing, she’s maternal, she’s spoiled, she’s German. But most (is it her squint?, the wrench of her mouth?) determine she’s crying. Subtleties create the fine lines between our expressions and, therefore, emotions. If we had the audio, maybe we could better discern the little girl’s situation. Maybe not. Because sound, too, can be expressively ambiguous.

The little girl was hungry, by the way. She was trying to eat the doll.

The last story in my collection, Congratulations on Your Martyrdom!, deals with the nuances of audible emotion—the negligible vocal intonations that differentiate the many motivations of crying. Since the primordial ooze-bath, we’ve communicated through inflection. If I cry (say, if I stub my toe, or if the deli runs out of olive loaf even after I’ve called ahead and specifically asked them not to run out of olive loaf) all it would take was an alteration in my pitch or tempo, or even my breathing pattern, to make it sound like laughter.

Allan Gurganus told me that readers should laugh and cry on every page. This is important and daunting. Because stories must escalate. But amplifying emotion can lead to monotonous apathy (and a lack of resonance), or (as Gurganus puts it) “nougat-icky” sentiment.

Sentimentality is a paraphrasing of the heart. It’s the hydrogenated Twinkie of literature—sure it tastes goods, but it’s empty calories. It’s not uniquely human. If you intensify one emotion too much, then you’ve made a longwinded greeting card. E.g. if a sad sack becomes an even sadder sack who, through a series of sad-sacky conflicts, culminates in the saddest sack moment—well, it’s just not very sad. By the time I get to the –est sack moment, I’ve become desensitized and unempathetic. I’ve got one foot out the door.

I want idiosyncratic feeling from my fiction experience. So to create this, for me, I try to disrupt my emotional escalations with a contradictory one.

Think of a light switch—the age-old battle between light and dark. Stand in a pitch-black room too long and your eyes adjust, you get used to the darkness, you get comfortable, you begin to see the shape of the room. The same goes for brightness—you may squint, avert your eyes, but stay long enough and you acclimate, the room becomes less intense. Meaning, if I’m too tear-jerky—or, conversely, too playful—I risk disengaging you because you’ve become accustomed to the room I’ve put you in. But, if I keep flipping the light switch—your eyes never adjust. You remain in the lightest light and the darkest dark because I’m constantly competing emotions. The best joke can come amid a dark circumstance and break tension. A devastating line or admission will vibrate with affecting sobriety among the light.

Why? Because emotions are the frictions of dichotomy. We giggle at funerals, bawl at weddings, laugh when the Grape Stomp Lady Falls or Scarlett Takes a Tumble, and engage in dimorphous expressions—the kind of cute aggression that triggers mothers to bite their babies’ toes and coo, “I love you so much, I could just eat you up!” Contradictions make poignant moments stick to readers’ ribs, or ache from light relief. In this way, the writer works with the nuances of the heart—these subtle tonal intonations—to keep stories fresh, deeply felt, honest, and personal.

In this way, I try to keep the trauma, tragedy, and heartache of the final story in my collection from becoming sentimental, or feeling emotionally stale—and to keep it resonating—by adding competing moments like, “…he dropped trou and bared bony thighs and tight briefs, asking what her protocol was on placing a shampoo bottle up someone else’s butt?”

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Debbie Graber and the Freedom to Be Foolish

In the 14th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Debbie Graber, author of Kevin Kramer Starts on Monday (Unnamed Press), tells a whale of a story about a story about a whale.

Describe an unfinished story that you want to go back to but haven’t quite figured out yet.
I wrote a story a long time ago about a killer whale. The whale’s name was Stanley, and he performed at a theme park. The park came under intense pressure from animal rights groups to release Stanley back into the wild. Things went south from there. Stanley was released and started following a group of wild orcas in the hopes of joining their pod, but he didn’t have anything in common with them. He was accustomed to life in the above water world: He had been taught by his trainers at the park to do the New York Times crossword puzzle religiously. He was up on all the current Broadway shows, and could tell the difference between a good cup of coffee and the dregs from the break room. He liked figs stuffed with goat cheese.

The wild whales couldn’t relate to Stanley at all. I had them speaking their dialogue in Chaucer-style Old English. They were a rough bunch. Picture a group of extras from Game of Thrones, only whales. They beat each other regularly with their enormous tails. They tossed sea lion pups around for fun, and then ate only their livers. They smelled really bad. Stanley was appalled by their brutality. But he felt he had no choice but to join them– this was his life now, and he had to learn to be a part of the group. The pod leader told Stanley that he could join as a junior member, but that would have to kill something first as an initiation. Stanley had pretty much convinced himself to do it, when he heard splashing and laughing nearby. He surfaced and noticed a rowboat with a father and two children out in the nearby harbor. Without hesitation, he swam toward them, knowing what he would do. He would approach, and then, from a safe distance, breach out of the water, turning a somersault. After the family stopped applauding, he would roll over on his back right next to them so they could rub his tummy. Then he would nudge their boat and they would all have a great time playing tag. He pictured the two children laughing with delight. Tears of joy sprang to Stanley’s eyes. “Finally,” he thought, “it’s showtime.” That was the end.
Stanley? Ye olde orca

I workshopped this story in a writing class. People thought there were too many points of view for a short story. Some felt that the Old English dialogue was a weird choice. Many weren’t on board with the idea of talking whales. I put the Stanley story away, unfinished.

I share this experience because something about this story speaks to me. I believe there could be kernels of gold hiding just beneath the surface. Maybe a more successful story could emerge from the wreckage of this talking whale story. Maybe it’s a story about Stanley’s trainers at the theme park and their guilt over letting him go, knowing he’d never make it in the wild. Or maybe it’s a story about Stanley’s everyday life of desperation in captivity. Or maybe it’s a story where the whale dialogue is “translated” because whales don’t speak English. Hmm, not sure about that one. The point is that there are an infinite number of “maybes” in every story. It’s about which path feels right. Or less wrong.

We all have writerly instincts that shouldn’t be ignored, even if they seem to be going off the rails. Even when a story is universally panned. We cannot allow criticism to completely sway us. We must demand the freedom to be foolish. We must give ourselves the room to write stories about whales who do crossword puzzles. We must give ourselves the space to write about quiet lives of desperation. We must allow ourselves to fail, again and again, over and over. The hope is that, eventually, our patience will pay off and we will discover what a story needs. And then we will figure out what we need to do in order to write that story. And then we will write that story. Finally, it will be showtime.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Patrick Dacey's Brief Warning to a Young Writer

In the 13th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Patrick Dacey, author of We've Already Gone This Far (Henry Holt & Co.), describes what serious effort requires.

A Brief Warning to a Young Writer

If you’re writing fiction, if you feel compelled to write fiction, then you’ve already joined the party, which isn’t a very fun party; in fact, it’s the worst party you’ve ever been to, and, ironically, it’s the one you’ve been fervently anticipating your entire life. Why are you here? Who would spend so many hours alone in a room of infinite voices? Don’t you realize that, by the end of the night, the only thing you will leave with is confusion?

Your entire life is dedicated to the idea of love. Not happiness, sadness, jealousy, rage, or amazement—these are fleeting abstract emotions—but love. Love is poised to exist in us at all times, as is hate. You cannot have one without the other. You love the earth; you hate the people who destroy it, and so on. That’s the main conflict in every story. How can we love and feel loved when everything around us is on fire?

That’s not to say you have to be ultra serious about everything you write. Love is the little fart sounds our bodies make when pressed together, just the same as it is the regret one has from leaving a lover in the middle of the night.

If you’re prepared to take on the question of love, then you must feel everything, you must be afraid, awed, disgusted, impressed, and embarrassed.

You should also want to be read. There’s no point in writing if no one is reading what you’ve written. A storyteller is meant to be heard. Write every first line that comes to mind. Pursue it. Be disciplined. Be open to the source, the voice that says, “It was clear to everyone that A’s eulogy was much better than B’s.” Don’t censor your wild mind. Be a conduit for all that happens in the unseen world inside your head.

Be prepared to spend hours revising what you’ve written. If you find yourself bored by any line, delete it. If you find yourself nodding off by the end of the first page, throw the entire thing away. Make sure you have a good title. Use real objects in the world, and make them magical. Also, write every day. Be willing to go broke, lose people in your life, suffer, fall in love too easily. Get away from whatever is considered a “literary scene,” live alone, write in silence, be a good person, talk to strangers, watch your neighbor’s dog and look at their stuff, take long unplanned trips, be open, be sincere, be honest.

Accept favors.

Say thank you.

Don’t apologize.

Most of all, though, you should understand that if what you’re writing is any good, you will find yourself thoroughly exhausted, possibly devoid of emotion, at the end of the day. You give a piece of yourself away with every story you put out in the world, until, eventually, you have nothing left to give, and you are forgotten. Don’t be dismayed. You were able to create infinite histories recorded in infinite volumes, little treasures to be found when least expected.

You have served your purpose—the only purpose. You have conquered time.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Amy Gustine on the Virtues of Both Virtual and Real Bookstores

In the 12th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Amy Gustine, author of You Should Pity Us Instead (Sarabande Books), confesses a reluctant fondness for a certain online retailer—and nostalgia for the sense of discovery that browsing in the bricks-and-mortar world can bring.

I have a dirty little secret: I don’t hate Amazon. I like being able to buy used books, out of print books, weird books, twenty books on the same abstruse topic, e-books, and just about everything else in the world without leaving my house. Like a lot of writers, I’m a homebody and an introvert. Plus I’m always getting interested in some crazy idea and doing research that requires a pile of books unlikely to be stocked at even the biggest brick-and-mortar.

These pro-Amazon sentiments aren’t popular and I understand why. I’m a “both” kind of person. I see both sides (most of the time), and I want it both ways. I think we ought to have online and bricks-and-mortar stores. I’m reminded of this every time I go to Ann Arbor, about an hour from my house. When I walk into Nicola’s or Literati and the particular scent of paper and ink hits me, when I stroll slowly by the tables and shelves, waiting for that serendipitous moment when a particular cover grabs my attention, or when I spot an irresistible title.
Bricks 'n' Mortar: Ann Arbor indies

Each and every time I think of the store I miss most, one of the many that fell to the pressures of profit margin: Thackeray’s. It was in my hometown, Toledo, Ohio, about a two-minute drive from my mom’s house. On Sundays Thackeray’s put out big oak—yes, that’s right, oak—tables and laid out discount books. My dad would pick me up for our Sunday outings and our first stop was always Thackeray’s. He’d grab the Sunday New York Times, then we’d browse, always the sale table, sometimes inside, each showing the other books we liked. Eventually, when he saw me spending long enough studying one in particular, he’d ask, “Do you want it?” He never once said no to my choice. Dad’s philosophy is any book is a good book. When you were shopping at Thackeray’s, with a curated inventory, that was a reliable theory, but what it meant was something much more profound. It meant that my interests were respected and valued. I always felt like a grown up when Dad and I walked out, each holding our selections. I learned something every week about what he thought was interesting, and he paid me the compliment of wanting to know what I enjoyed reading.

For the sake of convenience and cost we’ve sacrificed an experience that for me was the gateway to a life-long love of reading, but even more than that it was about sharing interests with my dad and learning from him why all these books, from gorgeous coffee table spreads to pulp mysteries and great literature, mattered. But this kind of loss is hardly unique to Amazon. The Internet has stolen many other pleasures and possibilities. Collectors of anything from political ephemera to art pottery used to spend Saturdays hopping from one garage sale or antique mall to another, experiencing the thrill of luck when they found a new addition at a good price, talking to the proprietor, maybe making a new friend or learning a new fact about the things they collected. One summer my mother-in-law came back to the cottage we were renting triumphantly bearing a Roseville wall pocket vase she’d come upon down the road. Twenty dollars! A great bargain. It was a gift for me, which is why she was so proud.  Finding something for ourselves is never quite as fun as finding a treasure for someone we love.

The Internet has taken such moments away from us. Now, you sign on to eBay, or some other site and within a moment, there the treasure sits, just waiting for you to key in a credit card number. That’s no fun at all. Every summer my father took me to the Crosby Art Festival at our local botanical gardens. I would browse the jewelry booths, select a handmade silver ring or bracelet. My dad would choose a birdhouse or a decorative plate for his mother’s birthday gift, first asking my opinion of his choice. My daughter signs onto Etsy without leaving her room.

Efficiency and abundance, especially when it comes to books, have tempted me like so many others, but come Sunday mornings, when I sit down to read The New York Times on my iPad, I think about Thackeray’s, and how much I’d like a reason, and a neighborhood store, to go buy a newspaper, flip through the sale books, and see what might light up my child’s face.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Helen Ellis: A Writer's Ten Commandments

In the 11th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Helen Ellis, author of American Housewife (Doubleday), lays down the law, old school style.

After many years of writing and failing to publish, I quit writing. And then I started writing with a story about a writer who quits writing. The story is "How to Be A Patron of the Arts" which appears in my collection, American Housewife. In the story, I give the heroine (and who are we kidding? ME) this list of ten writerly commandments:
I. Thou shalt not put your writing before your health.
II. Thou shalt not compare your writing schedule to Stephen King's.
III. Thou shalt not curse those published in Tin House.
IV. Thou shalt remember that you wrote one page of one story and that is more than most people do.
V. Thou shalt write a monthly check to Sallie Mae to pay off your student loan and not make a fuss about it.
VI. Thou shalt kill your darlings.
VII. Thou shalt not beat yourself up for not writing any darlings.
VIII. Thou shalt not plagiarize just to get the ball rolling.
IX. Thou shalt not lie that you are "working on something."
X. Thou shalt not envy those who really are.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Jacob M. Appel's Tips on How to Market Your Short Story Collection(s)

In the tenth in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Jacob M. Appel, author of Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana (Black Lawrence Press) and The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street (Howling Bird Press), gives it all away.

Over the past three years, I have had the good fortune to publish six short story collections with four excellent independent presses—and I’ve spent nearly every free waking minute of that time, not devoted to writing or paying my bills, traveling the country in an effort to market these books. My itinerary has included forty states, dozens of literary festivals, and scores of bookstores and small libraries. I’ve delivered talks for audiences as large as five hundred and as small as one. I’ve waited in the airport while TSA agents flipped through the pages of fifty identical books, ascertaining that none contained a hollow compartment. I have even been mistaken for another author named Jacob Appel and asked to sign one of his books. In that time, I’ve picked up a few tidbits about marketing independent short fiction—and while my wisdom is limited, I am more than glad to share the few tips I have:

1. Give away books! 
Give away as many books as you can afford to anyone and everyone who might be interested in reading them. Your goal as an independent author is not to guard your prose like a Great Depression survivor stockpiling cash under a mattress, or to turn a quick profit, but to build up an engaged readership. If you deliver a talk in a library, make sure you donate a few books to its collection. If you sign books in a bookstore, offer complimentary copies to the cashiers—and ask them to hand-sell your work. Even if you’re too impoverished to provide free paperback copies to anyone other than your grandmother, you can always distribute free PDFs, which cost you absolutely nothing. (If you are reading this, and you’d like a free PDF of one of my collections, please email me.)

2. Market collaboratively. 
Unless you are a household name, you’re unlikely to host an event that exceeds the capacity or potential sales volume of most independent bookstores. However, you can easily team up with two or three other authors and pack the house. So why go it alone? Whenever I pitch myself to a venue for an event—especially those away from New York City—I offer to coordinate a reading or signing with other authors. Often, these are writers whom I’ve never actually met, but whose work I’ve enjoyed. Such joint events enable me to meet colleagues, and their fans, while offering the attention of my (however meager) fan-base to them. (If you’re a published author who would like to do a joint reading, please email me.)

3. Accept all invitations. 
I suppose there are some limits: If my Uncle Saul invites you down to his cellar to inspect his cleaver collection, I’d politely decline…but, for the most part, any opportunity to write, speak, present or endorse is worth serious consideration. Over the past year, I’ve given free talks at libraries, community centers, nursing homes—in short, any place that asks me to come and doesn’t charge me a fee. I won’t blurb a book I don’t admire, but I make every effort to consider every request. What better free publicity than your own name on the back cover of another author’s brilliant book? I’m always willing to sit down for an interview, even with a junior high school newsletter. (If you’re the editor of an obscure publication interested in an interview, please email me.)
Rejection? Get in line

4. Support other authors. 
One of my hobbies—possibly my only hobby fit for mention on a family website—is reading literary journals. Lots of them! About five years ago, I started writing brief notes to the authors of stories and poems that I’ve liked. I did this with no ulterior motive—merely a desire to convey appreciation from the ether. However, I’ve recently discovered that these kind words often lead to valuable professional connections—a pool of literary teammates who can provide juicy information and moral support when I visit their cities. (If you’d like me to visit your hometown, please email me.)

5. Never take rejection personally.
Even when it is intended as such. I have now acquired roughly 21,000 rejection letters—and that doesn’t even include romantic propositions. If you strive to market yourself proactively, you will face the same. Not every bookstore or university library is begging for you to squander their space. Fortunately, unlike that boy or girl who rejected you in high school, most of these venues are likely to reconsider in the future, especially if you keep in touch and build up a good track record. (If you’d like to reject me, please take a number.)

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Becky Hagenston Wonders: What If?

In the ninth in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Becky Hagenston, author of Scavengers (Univ. of Alaska Press), discusses where stories begin for her and how she knows when a story isn't working.

Where does a story begin for you? 
More and more, my stories begin with an annoyance in my daily life followed by this general thought: Wow, it would be really weird if this other thing happened. The title story of Scavengers came about because a stranger came to my door on a scavenger hunt, which I found both annoying and presumptuous—as if I’d give some stranger a pair of red socks, or whatever it was she wanted. I didn’t have what she was looking for, but then I thought: What if she’d asked for something really specific, that only I would have? Like the diary with a gnome on it that I kept when I was fourteen and still have somewhere in a box in the closet?

A more recent story started when the electricity went off for a few hours during a storm and I was really annoyed that I couldn’t watch my nightly Netflix. And then I thought: Well, what if the Internet never came back? And what if there’s an Internet troll out there who will not know what the hell to do with his life now? It’s a fun way to start a story, because I entertain myself trying to figure out what would happen.

What do you do when you get stuck?

The best way for me to get un-stuck is to read and read and read some more. I recently read Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble and it’s such a wild book that it made my brain feel fizzy. And I love to re-read Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which are so twisted and disturbing and have lately inspired me to write some very weird stories involving toads and chopped-off fingers.

How do you know when a story you’re in the process of writing is or isn’t working?
I can tell it’s not working if I already know what’s going to happen. If I’m three pages in and I think: Oh, right, this is where it’s going, then I lose interest. I also read out loud to myself a lot, and that’s a way to tell if there’s any energy there. If my mind starts to wander as I’m reading my own story out loud to myself, then I know it’s definitely not working.

Also, there’s something about that moment just after I hit Submit on Submittable that makes me suddenly very clear-headed about what I still needed to fix!

Describe an unfinished story that you want to go back to but haven’t quite figured out yet.
I have many, many of those. I have a first sentence that I’ve kept around for years: "Two years after the town was renamed in his honor, Roy decided to move away." I really want to know what’s up with Roy, but so far I haven’t gotten any further.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Johnny Townsend Writes What He Knows

In the eighth in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Johnny Townsend, author of The Washing of Brains, discusses the particular niche his fiction occupies.

One of the comments I hear most often when I tell friends about my books is, “Your writing is too narrow! You need to broaden your appeal!” And in a sense, they’re right. There can’t be that many people reading about disaffected Mormons. And it’s not every Mormon who will pick up a book entitled Zombies for Jesus or Sex Among the Saints.

I started out my writing career with an MFA thesis, a collection of short stories about my two years as a gay Mormon missionary in Italy. Now that’s specific. I was told at the time, “You need to appeal to a larger audience.” But my professors weren’t criticizing me for writing about Mormons. This was the 1980s. They were criticizing me for writing about gays.

Today there are so many gay novels being written that an author could easily be lost amid the crush of publications. And this is my beef with the criticism in general. My friends tell me to stop writing about Mormons and ex-Mormons and instead “just write about people.” I assure them that it is hard enough rising to the top among a pool of fifty writers. It would be next to impossible even to be noticed among a pool of tens of thousands.

And I have another beef with the criticism. No good author writes the sentence, “The woman put on her best dress, looked in the mirror, and knew she was ready for a fun evening.” What in the world does the reader now know about how that character looks? We need specifics. Details are what make a story interesting. William Faulkner created an entire career writing about the folks in small-town Mississippi. Those weren’t just “people.” They were from a very specific culture and environment.

I’ll go one further. Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote about ultra-Orthodox Jews in the shtetls of Eastern Europe. How’s that for a niche audience? Especially since by the time he wrote those stories, that entire culture no longer even existed.

I hardly need to remind anyone that both Faulkner and Singer won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

So did Sigrid Undset for writing about Norwegians of the Middles Ages. As did Halldór Kiljan Laxness for writing about the Icelandic people. And Miguel Angel Asturias for writing about the indigenous peoples of Latin America. If you look at the history of those awarded the most prestigious prize in literature, almost all of them were writers who chose to write about very specific subsets of people because they realized that one could only honestly tell the universal by detailing the particular.

There’s no guarantee that I’ll ever sell more than four hundred copies of Mormon Underwear or Marginal Mormons, much less win any recognizable awards. But if I just write about generic “people,” I’m even less likely to be noticed. There is simply too much competition out there. It’s not a matter of being a big fish in a small pond. It’s a matter of finding any water to thrive in at all.

I’m involved in the Mormon literary community, such as it is. I proofread for a progressive Mormon magazine (yes, there are a good three or four hundred progressive Mormons out there!). I proofread and edit for a small Mormon publisher. I help critique the work of other Mormon and ex-Mormon writers, and they do the same for me. I financially support their work as well when I can. At the very least, there is camaraderie inside the niche.

Plus I follow that age-old maxim: write what you know.

Yes, I have a very specific audience, but the fact is, at least I have an audience. And there’s always the hope that with a little skill, some hard work, maybe a bit of useful marketing, and that special ingredient of luck (or Divine Ex-Mormon intervention), I can eventually reach that mythical “larger audience,” who I firmly believe care as much about specific people as they do generic ones.