Monday, August 29, 2011

The art of dialogue

Wow. Hey. I'm still here. Been a cuh-razy week or so. But. It's been filled with writing, just not stuff that's good blog material. The good news is that I done gone an' got me big ole paid freelance gig. Yup. It's not official *official* yet (I was, ahem, recruited for this position), but hopefully it will be soon and I can talk all about it. It's public health-related, and--did I mention this?--I get paid. For reals.

My monthly writer's group starts up again in September, too,so hopefully I can squeeze some blog time in-between everything. Because, you know, I've been so good about it so far...

Anyway(s), I have been reading, too, and recently dug into some Welty, as I'd said I would a few weeks back. I remember reading "Why I Live at the P.O." and "A Worn Path" from years ago, but this week I started with "Petrified Man", because it's what I have in an anthology.

Wow. I'd forgotten that Welty gives great dialogue. I think that's what impressed me the most about the story. I mean, dialogue is tough. Real, authentic-sounding dialogue is an art unto itself.  She not only manages to get the accents and slang/colloquialisms and natural speech patterns down without making those dropped "g"s or regional expressions stand out, but she also gets the personalities and agendas of the speakers out on the page. It's amazing. In fact, "Petrified Man" is nearly all dialogue between two women. It's damn near unbelievable. The story is ostensibly about the shenanigans of one Mrs. Pike, but, instead, the reader gets a peek into the personalities and motivations of the two women who are gossiping about her (Mrs. Fletcher and Leota). It's an incredible feat to be able to create such an expansive story based almost entirely on subtext; nearly an impossible thing to give so much information by what is not said. I'm still kind of blown away by it.

I think my next foray into Welty will be her collection, The Golden Apples, which is series of stories that center around one particular (fictionalized) community. Since I keep wandering around my own neighborhood and picking up bits and pieces of things that I hope will eventually turn into stories, I'm really interested in seeing how Welty treats interconnected tales. I'd love to try something similar with the great characters I have here in my own backyard.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A disorganized mind

So, it's all Hemon all the time here, lately. I know what you're thinking and this is different than most weeks. Most weeks I just kind of talk about how great a writer he is and sometimes I lament (if not on this blog) how I will never write like him (though, truth be told, few people ever will). But this week, I actually have to produce some ideas of consequence about him.

One of my former writing instructors organizes a book fair in Scranton, PA, each October (have I written about this in the past? I can't remember because: Please re-read title of this post.). This year, the festival managed to snag Hemon and I volunteered to write a few essays for the blog. And by "volunteered" I mean I told Bill that I would be writing some essays. I think I might have used phrases, in the course of our conversation, like "incur my wrath" "won't leave you alone until you say yes"--that kind of thing. Happily, though, he agreed and asked (diligently) for a personal essay and a "critical but accessible" one.  The personal one is pretty easy. I can pretty much just cut and paste a bunch of these post and--viola--done and done.

The critical one is a bit trickier. I've already decided that I would focus on Hemon's second publication Nowhere Man, for a few reasons: 1) In terms of favorites, it's second only to The Question of Bruno, which will most likely never be unseated as My Favorite Book.Ever. 2) It gets overlooked. Sandwiched between a stunning debut /MFB.E and the Lazarus Project, which nabbed him a National Book Award nomination (he was robbed), Nowhere Man gets short shrift. 3) there's a crap-ton of stuff going on in the book, so it's full of possibilities to examine.

And that's where I'm getting into trouble. I can't focus on what I want to talk about. I can't go all fangirl on it (my first impulse), but everything I manage to scribble down just slides right down into overly-effusive, starry-eyed goo.

But why? I mean, the story isn't flawless. In fact, I'd thought about discussing exactly what about the narrative wouldn't get past a typical workshop. I mean, there are at least three different narrators who tell the story of Jozef Pronek, as he meanders from a childhood in Bosnia to adulthood stranded in Chicago, which isn't unusual, but at least two of them are so undeveloped as to be nearly non-entities. And one defies logic completely. Is it a mouse? A spirit?  A god? How is this narrator in Pronek's head, yet speaks in first person? What? It works, though. Somehow, Hemon pulls it off.

There is the language itself, which could take up considerable essay space. Laura Miller, in a piece for Salon says "...and then there's the way he wrenches English words into previously unknown yet alarmingly fitting configurations" and uses his description of a "throng" of "wizened" carnations as an example. The NYT Book Review claimed that Hemon "can't write a boring sentence" and boy, is that true. In the bathroom, Pronek sees "the toilet bowl agape, with a dissolving piece of toilet paper in it throbbing like a jellyfish."  I'd be perfectly happy spending the next few hours simply going through the text and showing you examples.

Of course, when examining Hemon, one can't discount the way the writer deposits himself within the story. Pronek's bio mimics Hemon's almost exactly. Both are of Ukrainian decent but grew up in Sarajevo, in Tito's Yugoslavia, both came to America in 1992, intending to stay only briefly, both were stranded in Chicago when war broke out, both survived with a passing understanding of English and took menial jobs to pay the rent. Is that the angle I want to take? Or is that low-hanging fruit? Too easy?

Then, there are the themes of loneliness, isolation, of a stranger in a strange land, of guilt of separation that inform nearly everything he writes. The non-linear narrative, the weird narration--it's all pieces of the collage that create the character of Pronek. Another rich topic.

Of course they're all related. The quasi-biography/alter-ego, the isolation/separation, the off-kilter yet gorgeously appropriate language, the fractured and unconventional narrative. They all go together to create a novel that is at once cohesive and mysterious.

Argh. If this post sounds a lot like someone who's just throwing out random ideas, that's exactly what it is. Sorry it couldn't be more elegant. Grace will come another night. I hope.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


It's been a rough week (and yeah, I know, it's Tuesday).

It started out well (thankfully!)I had a wonderful meeting with Betsy and Nancy (my Panera Bread crew!)--I got to discuss the unbelievably gorgeous short story Betsy wrote called "Trajectories" (look for it soon--any journal that turns this gem down is not worth the paper it's printed on or the...uh...the website thingie stuff it's taking know what I mean) and Nancy turned in something new. So I have even more good stuff to look forward to reading.

But it kinda went downhill after that. Nothing that I need to discuss here. but just an FYI, I guess.

At any rate, I'm working on making it better. In the meantime, I've decided that Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor are the next contestants on "Finding a New Author to Obsess Over" Lucky girls, that Eudora and that Flannery. And save the pearl-clutching. I have read some  of both,  just not as much as I'd like, or as much as I think I should read, especially since I fancy myself a short-story writer. And besides, I like saying the word "Eudora." And didn't O'Connor write that story about the man who steals a woman's fake leg?! How can you go wrong with that?!

My point here is: What's your favorite story from either of these Southern Belles? I remember loving A Worn Path and of course A Good Man is Hard to Find, but what else? Any suggestions?

(Don't worry, I'll get back to getting into Baldwin shortly, I am sure).

PS: Thanks to Eddie for the Sebald article!!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Searching for the perfect white noise

Okay, so I still can't find the stupid Baldwin short story. One day I will. Or I'll just break down and buy the collection it's in and be done with it.

Anyway, I've decided I need to retire ocean side (I'll go "downey ocean" as they say in these parts of Bawlmer). Really. I seem to get a good deal of substantial writing done while there. Amazing, since usually when I'm there longer than a few hours, it's in a condo with nine other people, all of whom are related to me. Which is not exactly the best environment for quiet contemplation. I also tend to do things like eat M&Ms for lunch, which, I'm guessing, isn't conductive to creativity either. But who knows. I actually kind of think it's because I'm usually in a state of sensory overload that I'm able to retreat and concentrate (it's a defense mechanism, I'm pretty sure).

I can't write in complete silence, but too much noise or noise that's too familiar is just as distracting. My ears are too spazzy, too easily seduced by an interesting topic or a much-loved melody to be able to concentrate on the task at hand. I've tried playing music that's completely foreign as background noise. It works for a while. Until either the music becomes more familiar, or I hit a wall in the writing, and I start looking for distractions.

But here's the thing: Waves, like the kind you commonly find at the beach, don't have that effect (affect? I can never remember which. I'll look it up later) on me. I can sit by the coast all day and not once will I be distracted by the noise from waves crashing on the beach.  It's a damned-near perfect white noise machine. It's a hell of a lot more pleasing to the ear (in an unconscious way, naturally) than tv static (and way less little-girl-with-long-hair-in-her-face-is-going-to-jump-out-and-kill-you, too). Which I can't get anyway now that everything's digital (and that silent blue screen you get now is just creepy. Like HAL 9000's weird older brother, Todd. It just stares at you. <shudder>). The other eleventy billion people on the beach with me don't really bother me, either. Which is strange, if you know me. Because even really nice and conscientious people bother me most of the time. But for some reason, when I'm there, I'm focused. I do tend to write about the beach more--I mean, there's tons of themes in there, right? Themes that have been written to death, mind you. But I write when I'm there. The details are insignificant. :)

The key is the waves. They're perfect. They're pleasing to the ear, but not intrusive. They're constant, but not really rhythmic (so there's no pattern for my ears to latch on to). And, you know. it's the beach. I think I should retire there. Like tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Go tell it on the mountain

I've been tearing the house apart for the last thirty minutes or so, looking for my copy of James Baldwin's short story, "Going to Meet the Man,."  To call it a harrowing and explicit examination of the mingling of racism and ignorance, sexuality and violence in the mid-60's south is an understatement. It was brutal, but somehow beautiful, too. I wish I could find my copy so I could give you some examples of how elegantly mesmerizing he could be while describing the most savage and sadistic depths of humanity.

I've been thinking about that story ever since I realized that today would've been Baldwin's 87th birthday.  I didn't know much about him before the story was assigned in an identity class, and I'll shamefully admit here that I've not read much else of his. That'll change shortly, however. Funny, I've been floundering a bit lately with my reading; I just haven't really found a writer that I can get excited about. Sure, I've read some great stories here and there, but I really need a writer who will provide me with endless hours of obsessive and compulsive reading; I need a writer to keep me company. Someone to latch on to, like the desperate literary spinster I am. Basically, I need a good literary boyfriend. Past romances include the oft-mentioned Hemon, William Faulkner, JD Salinger, Joanna Scott and WG Sebald. I had a minor fling with Chang-Rae Lee a few years ago, too. I tried hanging out with Barry Hannah after reading "Testimony of Pilot," but either he or his protagonists don't care much for women. And even if it's the latter rather than the former, I'm still not interested in reading stories that are just chock full o' misogyny.  Bolano is great, He's a commitment--I mean the man's been dead nearly a decade and he's published more since than most writer's who are still breathing.

So, what say any of you? Baldwin? Should I give him a shot? "Going to Meet the Man" was definitely impressive; I know that in some circles he's lauded for his non-fiction over his fiction, but I'm not exclusive. I think I could get into a good bildungsroman, I think.

Any other suggestions?

PS: I'm going to find that story and talk about it one of these days. Promise.