Thursday, June 23, 2011

That stinks!

I've come to the frustrating conclusion that I don't know my protagonist. Sure, I could describe her physically. I can tell you where she went to school, what she studied, what she eats for breakfast and what kind of car she drives. But I can't tell you how she feels about certain things: life, whatnot ("Life is not whatnot and it's none of your business"). I can tell you that she's sad inside because her brother up and killed himself, but most people wouldn't take the death of a sibling very well (self-inflicted or not). I don't know who she is. And that really kind of sucks. Because for all my yammering about writing without consequence and freeing myself up to jump the curb and go off-roading, I can't very effing well do that if I don't have a clue who my effing protagonist is! I mean, I can write about all sorts of things going on in the story, but it all feels pretty insubstantial when I look at it through this new epiphany. Damn you, insight!

I know what you're thinking--this is exactly when I need to buckle down and keep writing. I get it. I know it. Betsy once said, when we were talking about the hurdles we needed to clear to get to the good stuff, "You have to be present for those moments."  Those eureka moments. The moment when you finally break through all the gray, cloudy, empty, directionless crap you've been writing and get to the rainbows and unicorns and roads made of lollipops.  It's true. I won't figure out who Maggie is by watching the Wire (or maybe I will). I'll only get there by spending some time with her (sorry for the Tori Amos-like personifications. It even unnerves me a bit as I write it).

And I guess just as I have those unwelcome insights about what the story is lacking, I'm sure to have more revelations about how to get where I need to go.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Quirks and Idiosyncrasies

I've started working (again) on the novel (yeah, it's about time). It happened quite by accident, the other day. A section in Maggie's voice (the protagonist) just kinda popped into my head--not fully-formed, mind you. Mostly it was just a general idea of what she wanted to say, the information she wanted to explain or examine.  So, I started scribbling it all down. It's ugly right now (most initial drafts are--the brain, while usually functionally elegant, sure can be a crap-pile at times), but it's there. I'm hoping to get more written this evening--that is if I can get through the crap.

Methodologically, I have a sneaking suspicion that I'm a quirky writer (it's not easy to stand out as one in this circle, believe me).  My early drafts are never typed--I shamefully admit to having a stack of handwritten, hand-edited manuscripts in a filing cabinet that are downright Joycian.  I'm a terrible typist and a scattered thinker. It's hard to maneuver around a keyboard when my thoughts are pinging all over the place. So much easier to scribble in margins or on napkins or sticky notes and synthesize it later.

Once I have most of a first draft done (or, more accurately, I've stalled out/hit a wall), I start typing all that chicken scratch (I have terrible handwriting, too.Which means I've never had to hide a private journal. I'm confident that if I have trouble deciphering my own handwriting, no one else is going to waste time trying either. Besides, I keep a boring journal. You know, when I keep it...But, as I was saying, the translating of handwritten stuff to the laptop is pretty goddamned challenging when the lines on the page look more Cyrillic than Roman.). As I transfer what I've written into Times New Roman, I'm also editing. Odds are the process from pen to PC has taken a few weeks, and so I've gotten a different perspective which I'll happily take advantage of. Once that's done (i.e. I've typed in all there is to type) the process starts again. Except this time, I print the newly typed manuscript and work directly from that. Usually with a red pen.  Then once that gets too messy, I am forced to go back to the computer ("The files are in the computer!") and make those changes. Sigh.

Well, I've done all that with the novel (I'm calling it "A Different City" mostly for the purpose of not calling it "The Gabe and Maggie Story" anymore), but I need to really make some huge edits.  The problem is I can't. What I mean is, I feel terribly hemmed in by the boundaries of what I've already written. I can't seem to think beyond what's already there--the trajectory of the story as I've already written it--and right now I really really need to get the hell away from that story. Right now I need to get beyond the little universe I've created, because I'm just spinning my wheels in the muck and mud of that world.

That's where the tablet paper comes in. I have a bunch of tablets--the yellow kind, with the glue at the top. Now I start writing on those. I print the manuscript (yes, I know, I am an awful paper-waster. Sorry.), then I work through it, tablet at the ready. When I get to a section that needs help--more help than I can fit into the margins, more help than I can possibly make on the page, or when the whole damned thing needs to be completely trashed--I start working on the tablet paper. I don't know why. For some reason, the physical act of moving off the manuscript is freeing. I'm physically removing myself from the now-claustrophobic space I created and I've got more room to wander. If feels less consequential. And I mean that in a good way.

One of my former instructors said that writers need to learn how to write without consequence. And at this point in the story, that's what I need to do. It's incredibly difficult, though. More difficult than it sounds, this act of exploring on the page. Why does it feel so downright Augean to break away, to pick my feet up and allow the current to take me where it will? Why is it so frightening for me to let go? Am I afraid of wasting time? Pffft. Hardly. If that were the case, I'd have picked a different hobby, fer crissake. Am I afraid of ruining something? Why do I treat the edits as being some kind of permanent, carved-in-stone commandment?

That's dumb. I should stop that. I realize this, I do. I realize how very illogical, how very idiosyncratic my attitudes are.  And so part of the whole writing process for me is wrestling with those weird creative ticks, hence the yellow paper. It seems to work for me, and I guess that's what's important.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

First the gods smack me around, then they smile on me

Publishing is such a funny business. And by funny I mean "bizarre" and "arbitrary." And let's not forget how unforgiving it can be too. Oh and rewarding. Um..what?

Getting rejected is tough. It doesn't really get easier the more it happens, either, at least not for me. It still stings. The best ones, in my opinion, are the rejections from publications that I know didn't even read my manuscript. I get an automatic email within days of submission, or I get my manuscript back, in my neat little SASE, with nary a crease in the corner--a crease that would indicate that someone, somewhere had at least turned to page two. They're usually the big journals, the ones that publish literary stars on a regular basis. The ones that won't even open an envelope or an attachment if the name sending it doesn't ring a bell. I don't ring bells.

I least like the personal rejections, the ones that took the time (about three seconds) to send me a personal note--"while we thought you had some nice touches, we felt the story took too long to get started..."--effectively letting me know that they actually did read my manuscript....aaaand they still rejected it.

I know not everyone agrees with me; some people like to know that someone took a moment to really consider their work...before tossing it into the dustbin.  Some people hate the idea that the results of hours of toiling in front of a laptop screen, of months eating/sleeping/breathing a protagonist, of countless sleepless nights could be tossed aside with such cavalier casualness.

Whatever your preference, it still sucks. No getting around it. And when it happens, it's difficult, if not impossible to remember that even if your manuscript was carefully read and contemplated and debated over before finally being put, however regretfully, into the 'reject' pile, it's still an arbitrary decision.  Consider this: the New Yorker--a publication that's showcased an author or two over the last few decades, and that had previously given a young upstart writer by the name of JD Salinger some space--decided to pass on  a new manuscript he was working on about an alienated, angsty young man named Holden Caulfield. Ooopsie.

See? Don't make no damn sense. So it's no wonder that sometimes the logic gets buried in the emotion of it, in the WTF-ness of it. That's what happened this afternoon when I got the email that began "Thank you for sending us "Marble." We appreciated the chance to read it."  I didn't really have to read the rest. I've read emails like that before. I know how that story ends. Boo. Rejection. It gets under your skin if you let it. And I let it. It bothered me.  How dare they! They wouldn't know a good story if it jumped up and punched them in the face! Harumph. Fine. I guess I'll go find some other journals to query. Fine. Fine.

Then something funny happened. A few hours later, I arrive home after a weekend with my family. I can see from the curb that there's a package in my mailbox. Weird. Did I order something and forget about it? Did the mail carrier accidently give me my neighbor's mail again?  Do I have a secret admirer? Nope. None of the above.

Instead, contained within the manila envelope is a copy of the most recent edition of Echo Ink Review, containing a short story of mine that had been accepted for publication nearly a year ago. I knew about it, of course. This wasn't news, but it wasn't rejection, either. This was the opposite of rejection. This, my friends, was a check in the "accept" column. A win, if you will.

I can't help but think that it showed up on my doorstep when it did for a reason. I know it might sound stupid, or corny, but I kind of took it as a sign. Yeah, I got rejected today, but I totally forgot that I've also gotten accepted. I just didn't get "Marble" to the right reader, that's all. But I will, eventually, I'm sure. And I'll get accepted again. Maybe not at the next attempt, but maybe the one after that, or the one after that. It'll happen, sooner or later. It'll happen.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

I'm Still Here, Just as Unfocused as Ever

Well, hey there! I kind of fell off the face of the planet, didn't I? At least the blogging planet (not that my posts were all that regular anyway, ahem). Meh. It happens. My apologies.

Never fear, though. I have been doing other, writerly things, which is good. I started another short story (actually, I think what I really have are just a few really good scenes, but I'll take it), got some critiques in for other writers (hope they were helpful), spent some time scribbling some for-my-eyes-only ideas in a private journal, etc. But it's always a struggle, this parsing out of the extra time that I have. A friend of mine, a writer (a damned fine writer), mother of two pre-teen girls, calls this battle--between the time spent doing what we have to do to earn money to pay the bills and the time we have to do what we want to do--the new math. Twenty-four hours per day minus eight to ten for the "real" job, minus six or eight for sleep minus a few more for some miscellaneous stuff (eating, showering, playing tug with the dog, posting photos of said dog on Facebook. You know, the important stuff!) and poof! day is almost over. Sure, I have time to do something each day. But just one something most days. I can either work on the blog OR write in a journal OR work on a manuscript OR read something OR OR OR...I find it frustratingly difficult to juggle everything or work on anything with any worthwhile regularity. I guess I could jettison all kinds of crap from my brain on these pages, just to get something up, but that doesn't really feel like a good use of time or this space. One of the reasons I started the blog was to try to make sense of all that detritus that's built up in the ole noggin. It takes me a considerable amount of time to edit that stuff into (somewhat) coherent essays.  I don't know if that's more a commentary on my weaknesses as a writer or on the sorry state of my brain...Regardless, the point here (somewhere), is that this is the new math and I kind of suck at math (thanks a lot Mrs Murdocca)

Wah wah wah. I know. Want some cheese with that whine?

Seriously, it is frustrating. What gets the attention? What deserves it more? I absolutely loathe the idea of mapping out a schedule (i.e Mondays I post, Tuesdays I work on manuscripts, Wednesday I go completely nuts from following some stupid and arbitrary schedule) like I loathe a new Coldplay single. Ugh.  No. That won't work.  Know what else isn't really panning out for me? My quest for a Medici-like patron (or, in more current parlance, "sugardaddy"). Nor are my lottery numbers hitting. So...I'm left with this problem of subtraction.

Maybe I'll get better at it. Maybe I'll suddenly become an expert in time-management. Maybe I'll find the kind of discipline that one needs to be able to grab a minute here or there and accomplish something.  For now though, I have to go with whatever feels right, I guess. I guess if I'm really hot on a manuscript, then that's going to be my focus until it grows cold, posts be damned, right? You guys understand, right? Right?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Nostalgia is a Four-Letter Word

My grandmother, Elizabeth (Betty), had what seemed like a billion siblings, all flung throughout northeastern Pennsylvania (where she was raised) and the boroughs of New York.  Two of them, my (great) Aunt Peggy and Uncle Bill, lived in the afore-alluded to Queens, NY and, as my grandparents settled in South Central Pennsylvania when my mom and Uncle Ted were children (they migrated down here with a few more of my grandmother's siblings--my great uncles Dave and Joe), she and her brother Dave (she called him "David" or, as she pronounced it "DAY-vit!") often visited Peggy and Bill, bringing various combinations of her children and grandchildren with her.

I remember these trips in a vague way. I was young--seven or eight. And while I think what I am remembering are moments form a dozen or so trips, what my mind is most likely doing is chopping up recollections of maybe three trips and tossing them around so they feel as if they cover a much longer span of time.  This was the mid-to-late seventies. It was Ed Koch's New York. Before the Guilianification of Manhattan. This was when you didn't even so much as look in the direction of 42nd Street; it was Saturday Night Live and Saturday Night Fever ("don't touch the hey-ya!"); it was Son of Sam and the Sugarhill Gang.

Funny. I can't honestly say that I have fond memories of that time, but only because I was far too young to really have many meaningful ones (even the few things I mention above come not from direct experience, but from somewhere else, sometime after the fact). What I remember is vague, a little fuzzy around the edges. I remember not going up to the top of the Empire State Building because I had to pee and no one could remember if there was a bathroom up there or not. I remember a hot and claustrophobic climb inside the Statue of Liberty, the zoo in Central Park, Penn Station lockers, a man on the subway with a gun in a holster, another man, obviously in drag (even to my young eyes I could tell she was a he.  "And the colored girls sing Do da do, da do, do da do, do...") our waitress in a restaurant with an enormous black beehive and a long, almost unbelievably long, thumbnail, painted a glittering gold, that was clamped over the edge of the plate she was carrying. Of my aunt's house--a standard three-story brownstone carved into apartments, I remember the back staircase that connected her second-floor space to her son's third floor abode.  I remember a clothes washer in the kitchen and my great Uncle Ralph's very progressive record collection (He liked Pink Floyd!)

What I can say is that these memories--as gauzy as they are--fill me with a sense of both longing and satisfaction. It's the same feeling I get when my ear catches the melody of a long-forgotten yet much-enjoyed song. The same feeling I get when I stumble upon Ponyboy and Dally do it for Johnny! For Johnny! while I'm flipping through the channels. The same way I feel when I read the Giving Tree, or hear the late-August cicada chirping after dark.  I believe that feeling I'm describing is called "nostalgia" and that's a dirty word in literary circles. Nostalgic writing is treacly and cloying, overwrought and ham-handed and should be avoided at all costs.

The other day I was looking out my bedroom window.  It's something I do often, because I like the view. The view, however, is not spectacular. It's just the backs of my neighbors houses--two long rows on either side of an alley. I see their backyards in profile.  That day, while gazing on this less-then-impressive landscape, I realized why I like it so much. It reminds me of my time in New York. And I get--gasp!--nostalgic. I can't help it. I look out my bedroom window and see the backs of my neighbors' homes--the brick rowhouses identical to my own--with their long, narrow (sometimes completely concrete) backyards, the mashup of fences that look like row after row of crooked teeth, the fans spinning lazily in windows--and I see Queens, circa 1977.  I see Jamaica Ave and the white tee shirts hung on a laundry line that spanned two houses, strung across an alley, three flights up. I smell the hot, musty, urine-tinged air blasting up through a subway grate, I feel the grit of the city in my eyes, on the back of my neck, feel the stick of it under the soles of the shoes my mother bought me at Murphy's.

I could stare for hours out of that bedroom window--indeed, I've lost a few lazy Sunday afternoons doing just that.  At least I thought that's what I was doing; just mindlessly staring at brick and aluminium and tar paper. It occurs to me now, though that what I've really been working on is trying to find a way to talk about the feelings that this view churns up inside.

I read over what I've just written and realize, with disappointment, that I'm not there yet. That this is just the surface of the surface. I haven't even made a mark on it. I have a long way to go.

As I was writing all this, I was watching a spectacular electrical storm from that very window. It both frightened and fascinated me, and that's exactly how I feel about the writing tasks that lie ahead of me.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Shape of Things

I like structure. At least I like it as it relates to fiction. I like playing with it,  mucking around with it, seeing how the shape of a work can inform its meaning, or add another layer to it. (Structure, in the general, life-sense, seems to elude me, however.  Perhaps I like fiddling with in in my fiction because it's the one and only place I seem to be able to control it.). Much of the fiction I read--or, more accurately, enjoy reading--uses structure to add texture or meaning or tension. This is not a gimmick, at least not in the stuff I prefer. The twisting or confounding of structure in the fiction I most enjoy is not a contrivance, or doesn't feel that way. And I spend a great deal of time trying to take apart those kinds of stories to see why and how they work. Stories that I'm sure I've mentioned previously--Hemon's The Question of Bruno, Anton Shammas' Arabesques, Joanna Scott's Arrogance to name a few. And now I have another novel to add to my growing list: Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red.  (If you've never read it, do yourself a favor, drop everything and go purchase a copy. You won't regret it. Come to think of it, that directive applies to all the writers I named above. Seriously.)  I'm not deeply into it, but already I'm hooked. The story--a combination murder mystery/love story/treatise on art--takes place in 16th century Istanbul and centers around the murder of an illustrator (a miniaturist who was working on a secret, and possibly blasphemous book, for the sultan).  I believe the story takes place over nine days--beginning with the murdered man narrating from the well in which he was dumped.  Each subsequent chapter is told by a different narrator and the narrators can range from the aforementioned corpse, to the man trying to unravel the mystery of the artist's disappearance, to a mongrel dog, to an illustration of a tree. It's a sprawling, complex work of art and I'm falling deeply in love with it. It's not an easy read, but then I'm drawn to work that takes effort to unpack. (While reading Arabesques, I had to create a kind of family tree to keep track of all the intertwining stories and relations. I loved it. I think I still have the charts). It also may very well have won Pamuk the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. At least it didn't hurt.

I love the story for another reason--it's a wonderful little template for me.  I read it and it gets me wondering what I can take from his technique and use in my own writing. By the way, I've discovered I do this a great deal--I read, not for the story, not for the pleasure of reading, but for what kinds of things I can glean from a work and use. Is that bad? I mean, I read for pleasure, of course. For the pure joy of the words on the page. But I do find that I end up reading with a particular goal in mind--i.e. figure out how this writer did this or that because whatever s/he did is exactly what I am trying to do.  I think I've mentioned this previously, but I'm all but certain that ever since I read Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, every single thing I've ever written has been my attempt at re-creating that story. I think that's why I tend to gravitate toward those novels and short stories that use structure as part of the storytelling experience.

But I digress. Back to My Name is Red (I keep typing "Read" instead of "Red". Oh homophones, you tricky little devils) and its structure. Or rather, how it's structure can help me figure out what the heck I'm doing.  I think I've talked a bit about this novel that I'm working on. It too is a bit on the sprawling side (or will be) and has a sh*t ton of different narrators. But I'm getting overwhelmed working with all of them. I'm having difficulty keeping it all moving forward in one piece. Sometimes it feels like I'm trying to float it on a cork raft and bits of it keep floating away and the cork breaks off and disintegrates. I can't seem to gather all the pieces that want to drift off. And I'm worried that it's too much. That a reader won't be interested in trying to keep track of so many people, so many voices.

And yet here's this gem. Countless people have thought it worth digging into (of course a kick-ass story helps keep them interested. And an even kick-assier talent for writing doesn't hurt, either. Whatevs.). And that gives me a bit of hope. I can do that. I can figure out what makes that work, what holds all those little bits together for him. And if I can do that, then maybe the success of my own writing won't be so damned elusive. Maybe if I can harness whatever it is that he has, figure out why what he's doing works so well and somehow make it all fit into what I want, the story I need to tell, I can finally tell it.

Sigh. Maybe.

At any rate, I am sure you'll be hearing more about this book as I work my way through it (Thanks to Betsy for the loan of it, by the way).  It's absurdly well-written and I'm eager to dive in.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Sun has Set on this Empire, Or Why VS Naipaul is such an Asshat

Perhaps some of you heard that Nobel-prize winning charmer and all-around curmudgeonly scamp, VS Naipaul gave a splendidly tone-deaf interview to the Royal Geographic Society recently wherein he delightfully expressed his charming, old-world views about womenfolk and their confounding insistence on getting out of the kitchen and birthin-room because they want to be all writer-like. Pffft. Women. When will they learn?  Never! According to Naipaul. (In case you missed it, here's the Guardian article:

Oh ha ha. That Naipaul.

Seriously, once I realized the pot-bellied septuagenarian's comments were made in earnest, with a straight face and everything (I had to first be sure this was not another Onion article), I was puh-lenty pissed. And, my buttons being sufficiently pushed (if one considers being hit with the force of a sledgehammer being "pushed"), I did what any appropriately outraged person does in the 21st century.  I posted my disapproval on Facebook.

And then I seethed about it. "What a jerk!" I thought. "Who does he think he is?" I fumed. I read Enigma on Arrival and it sucked! Really. It did. Could not finish it. In fact, I hated it so much that I take every opportunity to remind the instructor who assigned it for a class how very much he missed with that selection (apparently, I have a bit of the ole VS charm myself!).  Enigma, for me, committed one of the seven deadly sins of writing: It was, above all else, boring as hell.

Why, you ask? Well, aside from being glacially paced--in no small part because the writer insisted upon suspending all progress while he lingered, descriptively-speaking, on the maddeningly mundane minutia of his surroundings (Here's a tip, novice writers: Lots and lots and lots of adjectives and other descriptive language does not automatically equal good or important writing)--it was also unfocused and meandering (in scope). And, (wait for it) it was sentimental. Yup. Ironic much, VS, buddy?

Honestly, though, unlike my paunchy friend, I can't go into much more detail about the book--in part because, as I said, I could not bring myself to finish it (I believe I opted instead for the more exciting and dynamic act of watching my nails grow), but also because I believe my natural defense mechanisms have blessedly blocked much of the offending and traumatizing memory.

Thank you defense mechanisms!

As I write this, it's the end of the day. I've had time to get all uppity about it; now my ire is slowly deflating.  The more I think about what he said, the more he starts to sound like someone's grandfather who is wistfully remembering a long-ago overly romanticized ideal. You know, the good old days.

Look, Naipaul is of another era. Born in Trinidad to Indian parents, he was educated at Oxford. He's a product of British colonialism. That's what he knows and that's what he's clinging to.  So, really, his comments shouldn't come as much of a shock (they now seem to me, mere hours later, more quaint then incendiary); they are of another time, too. No, it doesn't make his attitude right, but, when taken within the context of his upbringing, they almost make sense. Almost.

His comments call to mind the fading glory of an empire weakened by time and age, propagated by a doddering old writer decades past his prime. They call to mind--not hostility or distaste--but pity.