Thursday, August 24, 2017

Jacob M. Appel on Being a Good Literary Citizen

In the 13th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Jacob M. Appel, author of The Liars' Asylum (Black Lawrence Press), lists a few things writers can do to give back.

I am frequently asked to give advice to aspiring writers—which usually means offering whatever limited wisdom I have on how to craft better stories, secure agents and publishers, and increase book sales. All of these are reasonable goals, likely shared by the overwhelming majority of readers of this post. Yet as a professional ethicist, I thought I might tackle this subject differently this time around and offer some tips on how to make the literary world a better place:

1. Be Positive or Be Quiet
I am proud to say that I have never written a negative book review, either for publication or on sites such as Amazon, Goodreads, Librarything, etc. You shouldn’t either. Any literary work you encounter was once someone else’s baby, a beloved repository for another human being’s imagination and emotion. Needless to say, some of these metaphorical babies grow up to be admirable adults—and others, quite frankly, do not. But what possible good comes of denigrating them once they are in print? If you don’t admire a work, not reviewing it at all is statement enough. With so many wonderful books on the market, any time or space spent penning a negative review occurs at the expense of other great works deserving of exposure.

2. Donate Books
Not everyone is James Paterson and capable of providing millions of dollars in seed money to public libraries, but most writers can afford to give away a few free books—or, at least, ebooks—to worthy individuals, causes, and institutions. Generosity starts at your local public library. Ask the librarians if they’d like free copies of your forthcoming book; if they tell you they have it on order already, ask that they cancel the order and provide them with the copies at no cost instead. Maybe suggest the work of an emerging or marginalized author they might purchase with the savings. Send copies of your latest volumes to charitable auctions, book drives, schools, hospitals, and nursing homes. You need not spend a fortune: even one or two copies a month, over time, can make a difference without breaking your piggy bank.
James Patterson: Super-mensch

3. Thank Other Writers
I do not mean to thank them for doing you favors such as writing generous reviews or offering blurbs—although obviously, one should do that too. I mean thank them for being good writers. If you read a story or novel that you admire, send a brief email message to the author telling him or her so. A kind word from the ether never hurts, and on occasion, I have struck up wonderful friendships with fellow authors that originated in a complimentary note. And, needless to say, blurb liberally. I do not blurb every manuscript I read, or even read every manuscript I am sent, but I at least try to read an opening chapter or two whenever possible.

4. Thank Your Readers
The easiest and least costly way to thank your readers is to answer their correspondence. I suppose that may be difficult if you are one of the dozen or so authors likely to be recognized in a public place, or a serial killer with a best-selling memoir, but most of us mere mortals do not receive enough mail to require secretarial assistance. Another way to say “thank you” is to give freebees to fans: free PDFs or signed galleys always make welcome appreciation gifts. Even an email, letting a reader know you’ll be speaking or signing books in her state or city, can show gratitude for a kind review or fan letter.

5. Do Not Complain
The literary life is tough – on the pocketbook, on the ego and on the soul. But if you had wanted an easy job, you’d have become a neurosurgeon or an astronaut. While it is certainly acceptable to point out structural inequities in the publishing system, far less palatable are personal jealousies or claims of individual victimization. Bear rejection gracefully. Admire candles that burn brighter than your own. We’d all like to be Toni Morrison or Philip Roth—but nobody is owed that success. Not even if he or she pens a brilliant book. Being published, and being read, is not a right, but a privilege.

There is a lot of incivility in the world today. Sometimes it feels as though anger is the new national currency. But in the literary community, at least, that need not be the case. And any writer, no matter obscure, has a part to play: The wheels of fate may decide whether you are eulogized as a brilliant writer, but each of us has the power to determine whether we are remembered decent and virtuous literary citizens.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Edie Meidav Urges You to Fail

In the 12th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Edie Meidav, author of Kingdom of the Young (Sarabande Books), encourages writers to take chances.

Best advice for any creator: Fail.

Fail not just better, not just once but do so frequently, boldly, beautifully. Flail as much as possible.

And if these words give you pause, consider drafts of artwork by almost any great painter. Or take Leonard Cohen, who remains one of our chieftains of failure. Even from the grave he appears to have died only half-completely, so resolutely present remains his life. One of his most penetrating songs speaks of the kabbalistic idea that through our flaws, our cracked selves, light best shines.

As he lived—bon vivant, zen monk, dandy, gracious, generous, self-absorbed, unable to commit, leaving a trail of broken hearts behind him, aware of his peccadilloes as an artist, singer, fellow human—so he died, ready for it but nonetheless shining forth this: the beauty of the incomplete, testified to by a man ignored for years, celebrated again at the end, but all along bearing the ability to reinvent himself as an artist, embracing whatever little was left of his voice.

Leonard Cohen: Hail to the chieftan
Years ago, in my first awareness of the shard as a necessary companion to the creative life, I watched a girl drawing. We were at a summer camp riddled with the requisite mosquitos, shaming, joys, hysteria, and odd moments of education in exactly the sites one expects them least.

There on her bunk she sketched in a figure.

Stop, I wanted to tell her, stop right there, and there, and there. But she kept going. How beautiful it had been to see, as Elizabeth Bishop might have put it, the crypto-proto-ruin, the figure only as she began to allude to it, and what possibilities were foreclosed as the more predictable part of her began to fill it in. So arrived my first aesthetic lesson in the art of incompletion, in taking a path toward the unexpected.

Years later, in speaking with a fellow writer with a similar love of novel writing, he and I discussed the charismatic mystery of the unexplained and the unfulfilled. A character's backstory need not be known, but the energies of most beginning writers go toward filling in that figure.

Because readers wish to know, because we have orthodoxies about how to continue. Doesn’t the story have to end like this, we say, shouldn’t we know more about her?

Or do we?

Often the very thing we think we must do as we set out to write, or continue to write, or have finished writing something is to achieve that very beautiful platonic ideal that occurs somewhere, so tantalizingly, in the first eighth of any project. The ideal becomes visual meze, oversaturated, overglutted, every part presented and filled in, no hunger left unsated.

Yet among ancient altarpieces, we find beautiful the very roughest, those that peel and undo themselves most before our gaze. So our modern eye has learned how to calibrate what is present with what goes missing. So we have learned to love absence, which probably speaks both to our contemporary anomie and to something more enduringly existential. The funerary stele, the elegy: these, our oldest forms, celebrate absence.

Which relates directly to the mid-stage of any creative process. There comes a moment when we must willfully embrace the incomplete, where we must propose to ourselves a kind of ecstasy—literally, standing outside of, in this case, our original idea, whatever got us going.

Any singular artwork we witness, made by another, commands our respect in this way: It offers us a mirror ecstasy, a spine-shivering thrill since we are pushed out of our daily habits of hearing, thinking, seeing. We enter the work, we complete it through our imagining. The greatest artists lure us to incarnate ourselves subtly and differently. And, as recipients of art, our education rests in allowing the artist to teach us to find a new way to live in the world with the elements familiar yet the order shifted, life’s hierarchies questioned.

So what the creator can ask herself is this: What information do I need to gather now? What would provoke me beyond myself? How can I omit, how can I have a noble failure, what crack in the pottery might let the light shine in?

Try, when writing, to see if you can change your usual instruction manual. Abandon the platonic ideal of the finished object and allow what might at first seems to be an organic or aleatory irregularity to become your gift and singularity. What you pay attention to most is your gift, even if—especially if—your very attention is incomplete. If you wish to challenge the history of your discipline, resting in prior structures of construction will not help you. And if you are at the point where you have begun to repeat old tricks, cannibalizing past successes, you might need to enter your studio backwards, figuratively, as a way of honoring whatever thinking could split your assumptions, whatever waits for you to uncover its truth. Consider the suggestive beauty of both veil and shard, and always befriend failure; it will never desert you and might become your strongest ally, a guide for life itself.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Lee Upton on Obsession, Denial, and No-Guilt Naps

In the 11th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Lee Upton, author of Visitations (Louisiana State University Press), answers a few questions.

When was the first time you wrote an explicit sex scene?
That hasn’t happened yet…. I have that to look forward to…if I become an entirely different person.

What emotional states interest you as a writer?
Obsession. For example: In Visitations, a woman in the story “A Stalker” says of her obsession with a man who had once loved her: “Being wanted—it was like a worm delivers a drug right into your bloodstream. Then you’re unwanted, but the worm wants more.”

Another emotional state that interests me: Denial. In another story in Visitations, “Gods and Goddesses in Art and Legend,” a character attempts to numb her grief: “People paid too much attention to what passed for romantic love. It was sentimental, overwrought. Hyperbolic. In the end, it wasn’t profound. No, it was only regrettable, not tragic or even sad. Still, people shot each other in the head because of it.”

Are the stories in Visitations united in any way?
Yes. Many pivot, at some level, around the subject of books. About over-valuing a book and undervaluing one’s own experiences. Or undervaluing books. How myths and fairy tales and early childhood reading contour an entire adult life. Why it would be such a pleasure to join the world’s laziest book club. The crevices inside books from which we can pull fresh meaning.

What habit do you recommend for other writers?
Napping. I used to work full-time at a credit agency and struggled to stay awake. I worked my way up to eight cups of coffee a day, and I was still sleepy. I remember how desperately I didn’t want to be exhausted after work so that I could write. When the weekend arrived I was so tired that I fell asleep in the afternoon with my papers and books around me on the fold-out couch in my studio apartment. My exhaustion might have come from not only working hard and being bored while I worked, but from loneliness. Loneliness is exhausting.

The thing was, when I woke up from that first nap on my first Saturday of my first week at the credit agency, I began to write with great concentration—as if words had been assembling themselves while I slept. It was like that fairytale, a touchstone for so many writers who rely on the unconscious: “The Elves and the Shoemaker.” While the shoemaker sleeps the elves cobble shoes for him. Later I made friends, moved into a house with roommates, met others who wanted to be writers, and wept with gratitude for my new life. Those naps had helped me, but I no longer needed them as much.

Napping: sometimes a surreal experience
I’ve had children—and so like anyone else who has raised a child, I know about standing exhaustion and what a privilege it is to nap. Now, usually, I can’t nap often—because of other responsibilities. But a while back, after a series of small crises, I went to bed in the late morning and napped. After I woke up, within two hours, I napped again, and then I napped yet again. I napped so much that I dreamed I was napping. In the dream I kept telling myself “Wake Up! You’re napping too much!”

I hadn’t wanted to nap; I wanted to write instead. When at last I woke I experienced what I’d felt all those years ago: the softening of boundaries, the sense that I could easily slip through a portal into intense concentration. As if the elves had been cobbling for me. I need to find ways to nap more often.

How do you know when a story is finished?
I’m going to answer the question by asking another: How do I know when a story begins? I tend to write long fiction that needs to shrink. Often that requires deleting many pages of false beginnings and frumpy middles. When I find the true beginning I can work toward the true ending. One encloses the other, in embryonic form. There has to be a sense of movement too, a sense of the tactile. You know how a card shark can shuffle cards and the cards, splayed out, are then snapped back into one stack? That’s how it doesn’t feel, although I’d like it to feel, at the moment when a story is finished.

Where do you get your ideas?
Often I’ve heard this question referred to in terms of frustration—sometimes with a clever put down from the writer to the questioner.

Why does the question elicit such derision?

Because stories are not “ideas”? (Yet stories can’t escape ideas, and even slippery stories foster ideas.) Because there is no physical space from which the author retrieves stories? (Yet we speak of scene “building,” and aren’t we often indebted to spatial metaphors?) Or is it because some writers guard jealously their sources of inspiration? Or because the question might suggest that writing is merely a matter of finding a premise and, as such, the question downplays the diligence, discipline, intuition, and luck that writing a story requires?

But, really, the question is a compliment—you have ideas! Writing—it’s like nailing clouds. Where do you get your hammer?

I love the question even if it is largely unanswerable. It humbles us and elevates the craft. Here’s the best I can do: I get my ideas from missed connections, things that turn my stomach (oh rich source: shame, linking us all as social creatures), the chasm between what we’re supposed to feel and what we actually feel, incongruities (especially comic incongruities), the urge to reflect the dignity of those who are ignored or neglected and treated unjustly, the wish to illuminate what might be called the inner life in a way that may have a bearing on a reader’s life. Moments of gratitude and love unearned but desperately needed. And, often, affection for the stories I grew up with and the urge to pay homage to their self-renewing, thorny, perennial mysteries.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Tim Weed and the Ecstasy of Influence

In the 10th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Tim Weed, author of A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing (Green Writers Press), discusses eleven books that have inspired his writing.

Which books inspired you the most? Which authors have been your role models? I’ve been surprised by how difficult questions of influence are to answer. Even easy questions such as, “What was the best book you read in the past year?” may cause an embarrassingly long silence as I rack my brain. Putting together an accurate top-ten life list would probably take me a week of thumbing through overstuffed bookshelves—likely supplemented by visits to various online book outfits for memory-jogging summaries and reviews.

It’s just so hard to say. There are so many great works of fiction. It’s difficult to narrow the ones I’ve read down to a list of favorites—harder still to speculate about which authors have had the greatest influence over one’s work as a writer. I like the analogy of books as fossil fuel: lush vegetation trampled down in an ancient epoch only to bubble up years later in a spontaneous wellspring of newborn prose. Who can say whether that font of bubblin’ crude, that metamorphosed Texas tea, was once a royal palm or a tree fern?

Still, I’m going to give it a try. So here are eleven books that have most influenced me as a fiction writer (I tried for ten but just couldn’t squeeze 'em in):

Looking back on these books, and thinking about the reasons they have stuck in my mind, I think of irresistible characters, high stakes, and immersive storyworlds. I think of Tolkien’s wondrous Middle Earth, of LeGuin’s bold reimagining of human sexual dynamics, and of the unforgettable sunlit intimacy of Renault’s mythohistorical vision. I think of the limpid, merciless clarity of Paul Bowles’ exotic tales, and of the storytelling genius of Robert Stone and Edith Wharton: the relentlessness of her ratcheting tension and the pitiless journeys their protagonists must undertake. I think of the profoundly affirmative versions of human consciousnesses passing through rich sensory worlds painted by Jim Harrison, John Cheever, and Larry McMurtry. And, especially with Cormac McCarthy and Peter Carey, I think of the sublime possibilities of language. Its sheer, terrible beauty.

I note somewhat sheepishly, that only two of these books are story collections (three if you include novellas). The truth is, while as both a reader and a writer I love short fiction, I’ve been more influenced by novels, possibly because the form allows for a more profound immersion in the storyworld—or, if you prefer, for a more intense and long-lasting measure of escapism. I use the latter word intending none of the negative connotations often associated with it.

The poet David Baker once said that all poetry can be divided into two categories, the ironic and the ecstatic. If we assume a continuum rather than a dichotomy, I think the same can be said of fiction. The Greek origin of the word ecstasy is “ekstasis,” meaning “to be or stand outside oneself.” Ecstasy is transcendent, implying a state of trance, vision, or dream. Irony, on the other end of the continuum, is social, worldly, and rooted in the intellect. Irony is essential in literature of course, as an antidote to sentimentality. But for me, the best-remembered fiction—the work that sticks with me long after I’ve put it down—is to be found on the ecstatic end of the continuum. The kind of story where one forgets all about those black marks on the page and enters the narrative as one would enter a trance, a vision, or a dream.

At various times and in various ways, all of these authors have done that for me. It is a gift for which I owe them a lifetime of gratitude. And I hold out the cautious hope that I can, therefore, claim them as influences.


Thursday, August 3, 2017

Describe Your Reading Habits: An Interview with Deb Olin Unferth

In the ninth in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Deb Olin Unferth, author of Wait Till You See Me Dance (Graywolf Press), answers questions about what and how she reads.

Unferth: Well, I have a fairly complex system for reading. This may surprise you to learn, but I keep a list of every book I’ve read or listened to for thirteen years now. I also count every hour I read.

Unferth: No, alas, half-read books do not count as read books. If I read a few stories from a volume, I don’t get to list it as a book I’ve read. I have to read all the stories. If a book is incredibly long and I only make it three-quarters through, too bad for me. In December I am often hurrying through a few books I tossed aside months before in order to make my goal by the December 31 deadline.

Unferth: I never reach my annual goal. Or I should say I have never reached my annual goal. I may yet.

Unferth: Yes, well, I have other goals, rules, and suggested guidelines for reading too.

Unferth: A guideline is different from a rule in that I don’t absolutely have to follow it. There is some flexibility there. For example, I keep the books I’ve read separated from the ones I haven’t read. That part is a hard and fast rule. The guideline part is that if I haven’t read a book, it’s not supposed to go on my nice bookshelves in my office. It’s supposed to go out on one of the hallway bookshelves. But that part is merely a guideline, you see, because I do have books on my office shelves that I haven’t fully read, only I keep them on a different shelf. These are dictionaries, reference books.
Pictured: (left) an Unferth office bookshelf,
(right) a pile of rule-satisfying books

Unferth: Sure, some people read whole dictionaries.

Unferth: I do have a dictionary system, but that’s a different topic. Beyond our scope here.

Unferth: Yes, I count audiobooks as books I’ve read, though they don’t go on a shelf, but I am nervous about it. I had never thought much about it until my colleague, Lisa Olstein, pointed out to me that I do not read the audiobooks, but rather they are read to me. It was a good point, and disturbing, but I have not stopped counting them.

Unferth: Yes, I did say that I also count the number of hours I read. And I count the number of hours I write. And the number of hours I exercise, do school work, volunteer, clean, and several other activities. I keep it all arranged in Word docs and I keep printouts on my desk in a folder. I review it every day.

Unferth: Correct. Every day I read over how many hours I’ve read since 2004.

Unferth: Correct. And how many hours I’ve cleaned.

Unferth: In all recorded categories I’ve gotten a little worse as I’ve grown older.

Unferth: Well, I feel a bit foolish to reveal all the rules on my list of rules for reading. I will say that I have two rules designed to keep me from reading more than 25% white men. That percentage has lowered by about 5% per year for many years. Other rules have to do with when books are written (it’s easy to be too contemporary top-heavy), what kind of books they are (I have several categories and subcategories here), and rereads (I require myself to reread a certain number of books each year—I believe there’s value in it).

Unferth: Absolutely it’s confusing. I spend a significant amount of time arranging piles of books and figuring out which requirements they fill.

Unferth: No, not enough time that it warrants its own category but enough time that I sometimes feel like I should be getting “credit” for it in some category or other, though I’m not sure which.

Unferth: Don’t be cute. There is no “waste of time” category. 

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Siel Ju and the Suitable State of Mind

In the eighth in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Siel Ju, author of Cake Time (Red Hen Press), discusses her writing and reading habits.

What influenced you to become a writer?
I feel like my becoming a writer has happened through a series of serendipitous accidents—and perhaps some laziness. For example, I decided on English writing as my major simply because I had the most AP credits in that subject going into college. Then I decided to go to grad school mainly because learning seemed preferable to working a "regular job"—and I applied to writing programs since that was what my major was in.

Of course writing is something I've done and enjoyed since I was young age—which explains to some extent why I had the AP credits and how I got into grad school. But honestly, when I look back not only on this but most other aspects of my life, chance and circumstance seem to have played a bigger role than anything else.

Describe your writing habits.
My habits vary quite a bit depending on what else is going on in my life. Right now, with promoting Cake Time while also considering a day job shift, I write fiction just an hour a day, between 1 pm to 2 pm. I used to think I wrote my best fiction first thing in the morning and so for many years always tried to write then—but I've chilled out on that a bit. Hopefully my writing hasn't suffered; I'm not the best judge of it at this point.

The only real constant with my writing habit is the sense that I could and should be writing more, and faster too. I feel I spend about as much time worrying about my writing than as I do actually writing—but I'm working on changing that.

Where do you do your best work?
I feel I'm most focused at home, when I write in silence—but this is something else I'm trying to chill out about a bit. I'm kind of at the point where I feel that if I'm less rigid about what I believe to be the perfect, most conducive circumstances of my writing (the where, when, how, with whom, etc.), I'll be more apt to write whenever and wherever more easily and joyfully.

That said, I do most of my writing at home, alone, in silence.

Describe a physical, mental, or spiritual practice that helps put you in a suitable state of mind to write.
I have a whole semi-elaborate morning routine. First, I  journal for about 45 minutes—with a green smoothie, then coffee, and then either a smoothie bowl or oatmeal. Then I mediate for 15 minutes (I recommend the Headspace app!). Then I do some type of movement—lately, yoga—to get the blood moving. After that, I can sit down to write.
Morning routine: Drink of green

I'm actually not sure that these practices are specifically about getting into a state of mind to write. Even if I didn't write, I'm pretty sure I'd need to do these things to be in a suitable state of mind to live.

Describe your reading habits.
Thinking about my reading habits brings up a lot of emotions for me; I do enough of it that I go through periods where I actually worry my excessive reading is a sign of something, I don't know, bad. Reading's such a calming activity—and one that feels vaguely productive, too, while being simple and easy—so I find it very addictive. I'm often tempted to read instead of write, which is a real issue, if you're working on a novel.

Right now, I'm more or less a full time writer—and once in a while, all I'll do in terms of "work" in a day is read—then I'll go out to socialize in the evening. Those are the days when I worry a bit about what exactly I'm doing with my life. The days are fun, but a bit unanchored, basically.

Other times I feel like all the reading's fine. I mean, what else am I going to do with the time I get to spend at home? Watch TV? Raise kids?! Reading seems a lot more rewarding and pleasurable. I keep a reading journal of sorts on Instagram, and I'm part of a handful of book clubs ,and I love all of it.