I feel honored to be tagged for The Next Big Thing Project by May-Lan Tan, whose singular voice scared the crap out of Captain Fiction a couple winters ago. I was lucky to witness that sublime classroom moment, in which May-Lan recited her sentences from memory, facing our beloved Gordon directly. I'm glad to see she continues to be diligent at the writing desk. She is a unique talent. Read her.
So what is The Next Big Thing Project? It's one of those blog tagging exercises, where writers encourage each other to answer a set of questions. It's fun to click back and forth through the responders. There are so many of us toiling at this thing we love. Serious people. The questions are standard, but the answers aren't. Why not participate? Good excuse to get back into my blog. Here's my interview.
What is the working title of your book?
LIGHT STREAMING FROM A HORSE'S ASS.
Where did the idea for the book come from?
It's a story collection, so each story germinated differently. The title story was inspired by a realistic fiberglass prop horse I used to see in the parking lot of my loft building in North Brooklyn. The story is set in that unheated, illegal live/work space, though the protag is a photographer and I never was. All the stories concern artists--visual and literary, some more successful than others--struggling with materials, egos, and economic realities. I find the relationship of an artist to his/her work a rich territory, and artist communities are fun to write about, full of professional jealousy, but collaboration too, all kinds of push-pull conflict that lends itself to fiction. The same kind of complicated love you get in a family.
Into which genre does your book fall?
Literary fiction. Short stories, so pretty much meant to be consumed by other writers, I suppose.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
One of my characters, a writer swimming in rejections, ridicules writers for mentally casting their stories with movie stars. So should I answer this question? Should I be as bitter and judgmental as my character? Not my style. I think her role, Rebecca the frustrated writer, should be played by Rachael Harris, who has a way of making anger really funny but also scary. I'll stop there.
What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
Emerging artists fight with their materials, their bills, and their expectations in this linked collection of stories and novellas.
How long did it take to write the first draft of your manuscript?
About nine years, but I wrote a novel during that time too.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I can't pinpoint a moment for the book as a whole. Generally one story led to the next. I would get charged by a secondary or tertiary character in one story and make her the protagonist of the next one. The linkage is pretty organic. Once a character starts to feel real, all you have to do is add a setting and problem and you're off on a new story.
I must say, however, that my in-person writer's group, my online community, and the various workshops I have taken have inspired me to keep going. I can't emphasize enough the power of the writer's community to keep a body in the chair. I am so grateful.
Time for me to tag others. I hope they haven't done it a year ago and don't find it a nuisance. (If so, ignore me! Not another word.) These writers each have a new book entering the world soon and I want to help them get the word out, so at the very least this is a plug. I tag Mary Akers, Brian Kimberling, Stephan Eirik Clark, and Kelli Dunham.
Found yet another treasure trove of audio files. UPenn's Kelly Writer's House has a searchable database of recorded events, both lectures/classes and readings. I greatly enjoyed this reading by Grace Paley, which is available in both RealAudio and MP3, in which she shares a short story, several poems, and a short autobiographical essay. What a mind, and what courage. I love how she talks about her perennial protag: "This Woman, Faith, Who Works for Me." Grace, Faith, both fantastic qualities this writer left for us to learn from.
Here's the reading with audio only. Finally figured out the widget thing (again).
Hoagland: "The Naming is Not a Divorce from the Thing"
I've discovered a new audio resource, a ton of interviews, lectures, and readings of poets and writers both living and dead. It's called Wired for Books, from Ohio University radio, and I'm just scratching the surface.
Love him or hate him, this one is worth a listen, Tony Hoagland lecturing on poetics, the "new" and "old" poetry, and litany poems as a good place to see what "new" is. He talks about the "American plain style," as given to us by William Carlos Williams, and its legacy in the last 40 years, in which language is pushing its way back up to the front. On the gap between the word and the thing: "The naming is not a divorce from the thing; the naming is a kind of wedding with the thing."
Among the poems he reads and unpacks is "Or," by Thomas Sayers Ellis, which embodies the American plain style and also a sense of the "game" of language.
If you're a fan of Marc Maron, you'll recognize his ability to zero in on the troubled soul of his subject, in this case writer and mentor and inspiration Steve Almond. Almond almost sounds like he is disappointed with himself. I guess even rock stars are human. Steve, you didn't disappoint us. We are here. We are reading. We are grateful for your stories.
In a world where there are a lot of people saying "no," it's nice to hear someone say simply "good." Not "the best." Not "better than his but worse than hers." Just "good." Without any specifics or actual judgments. That part is up to you, the writer.
Because are we really doing this for approval? Really? There are much easier ways to get approval, I think.
The big irony is, maybe 80% of my published work came out of working with Barry's method. Some of it even came out of the class itself. Barry's focus is on imagery and working in series. She steers away from publication, fame, all that claptrap. Regarding fame, she says, "It's a cookbook," which only the gray haired people and science fiction geeks understand, but then she is kind enough to explain. I won't here. Wikipedia does a good job.
Virtual Summer Conference: Sellers on the Nonexistent Top Ten Tips
Given recent events, it's hard to just resume activities. But I am doing it.
Back to the Virtual Summer Conference. Here's a podcast I have listened to often, Heather Sellers giving a talk called, "10 Tips for Finishing Your Book." She confesses early on, "there are no top ten tips," and, "when you're at a conference, it's really easy to turn into a child," with respect to the plethora of advice one receives at these events. "Remember, you already know every single thing you need to know--you just need to do it," Sellers says. So the bulk of her talk is about how to find the kind of solitary play that fosters the right mindset for finishing a long project. She's from the Lynda Barry / Robert Olen Butler school of teaching writing, which I always find gets things moving for me.
Our NYC writer's community lost a beautiful soul and giant talent on June 18. Cheryl Burke, AKA Cheryl B, died after a difficult battle with Hodgkin's Lymphoma. Many of you knew her well and don't need to be told what a heartbreak this is for all of us. Each of us has our particular reasons for missing Cheryl. I'm going to tell you mine.
I met Cheryl onstage at a poetry slam at the Nuyorican in the early 1990's. I had been on that little postage stamp of a stage plenty, and was old hat at slamming. I was a little cocky. Along came the new girl, this pale, beautiful, feisty, well-dressed, dark-haired lesbian chick, one of the other three slammers, and the minute she began speaking into the microphone, I knew I had no chance of winning the slam. She was angry, but in a way that was disarming and humorous and united the room in laughter. The poems were crafted, but natural, and their message was clear: this was her three minutes on the mic and she was going to fucking USE IT. She would not apologize for being who she was. She was loud, she was direct, and she was funny as hell. And she had unbelievably great shoes.
Later, after we got to know each other, I told her how intimidated I was by her that night. She surprised me completely (again!) by telling me how much I had inspired her, before she ever got on the mic. She had been going to hear me perform with my gals the Pussy Poets, and ours were among the voices that had encouraged her to speak up with her own. The inspiree had become the inspiration. This would turn out to be a theme in our friendship.
Since then, Cheryl and I have crossed paths in many creative endeavors. We were in a band together, Hot Sauce Gizzard, in which we performed our words with a funk ensemble. She did a poem with a hard rock song backing her up, about her beloved New Jersey and a very unusual drive down Route 35, involving a BK drivethrough and thoughts of Sylvia Plath. The band, and her poetry, was featured in a documentary film, Beef, by Jon Baskin.
Cheryl became a poetry curator and invited me to read at her Atomic and Poetry vs. Comedy series. I became a chapbook publisher and issued her tiny volume, Chicks, on Big Fat Press. She invited me to be her opening act on at least one occasion. She was becoming a headliner and I was happy to tag along and watch her audience grow.
And, aside from the collaborative ventures, we attended each other's readings. A lot of them. It always felt really, really good to look out from the stage and see a familiar face. It always felt really, really good to sit in the audience and hear what new material she was coming up with. I went to Cheryl's readings to let her know I wanted her to keep doing it. I went to her readings to hear what the hell she would come up with next, in her hybrid of poetry, comedy, and memoir.
Later still, we were in a small writer's group together for several years, and shared raw work. This was my opportunity to get to know the offstage Cheryl better, and to learn what an insightful reader she was, as well as writer. She had the unique ability to get at the meat of an issue with an unfinished piece, in very few words. By now she had an MFA, but didn't talk in workshop-speak, just told us in plain language how she reacted to our work. I realize why her students kept coming back to her at Gotham. I began wondering if Cheryl was an introvert or an extrovert, and I discovered she was a little of both. There was something so special about this quiet, non-performative side of Cheryl, and this is the part I am going to miss most. We had rich conversations about crafting words, living gently in the world, finding love, and coping with difficulty. We shared a fondness for animals, cats in particular. We talked about our families. We talked about where to buy the perfect outfit for $30. Including shoes. We commiserated over computer problems, as writers do. She enlightened me on issues in the LGBT community, and entertained us with stories of lesbian courtship rituals.
During Cheryl's illness, I had an opportunity to get to know her partner Kelli. Their love and loyalty to each other was an absolute blessing, and the constant, intelligent humor they shared felt good to witness. I was so grateful to see Cheryl with a person so trustworthy, a person who clearly loves her and will miss her in ways the rest of us can't begin to comprehend. My relationship with Cheryl was one of writerly camaraderie and mutual creative support. I can only imagine the deep loss those in her immediate circle are feeling now, Kelli and the rest of Cheryl's family, both the family she was born into and the family she found in the lesbian community. My one solace as I think about her last days was knowing she felt loved, and that Kelli helped her greatly to feel this way, and that she died in safety of Kelli's arms.
Cheryl's example of sobriety and self-care inspires me to pay attention to my health and the health of those around me. Her fierce desire to live, against what proved to be horrendous odds, inspires me to respect life. Her bravery in her work and life, her defiance of labels, artistic and otherwise, and her commitment to empowering others in her community of writers and comics inspires me to keep working and reaching out to other creative people. And her dark, dark sense of humor will probably surprise me still in the years to come, when I come across her words somewhere, and find myself laughing again.
Cheryl was one of those people who was getting more and more and more interesting with age. This is what is absolutely breaking my heart. We won't get to see what the hell she comes up with next. The last time I saw her was about a week before she died, with the other members of the writing group. Kelli laid out a potluck buffet for us on the hospital tray and made a plate for Cheryl, then let us have some alone time with her. Though Cheryl was struggling for air and quite medicated, she managed to put several Cheryl quips into the conversation. Beside her bed was a card she had received from a grade school student. On it, in scratchy marker, the child had written: I hope you get bitter. The kid obviously meant better, but Cheryl had pulled this card out of the batch of thirty to put at her bedside. "That's my favorite," she said.
She never stopped being her. She had a real gift, an ability to make the dark things light.
Please rest in peace, dear one. Your unique voice, your laugh, your kindness, your generosity, your good example, and your ability to make any situation--and I mean any situation--funny: these will all be missed terribly, but not forgotten.
We interrupt this Virtual Summer Conference to bring you a Bloomsday interlude. My hubby introduced me to this podcast by Frank Delaney, who dissects Ulysses line by line. I've embedded the intro episode below, or you can go to the site and click to the rest of them. Every Wednesday for the next 22 years or so? Enjoy the "vulgarity of a single day" in Dublin!
Virtual Summer Conference: Bender on Boredom, Weirdness, and Humor
Aimee Bender always livens up a conference. Here she is speaking to Google employees and enjoying the free M&M's. She reads the short story "Fruit and Words," then answers questions about the writing process. She's pro-Nanowrimo, for its power to make writing less precious and more fun. She talks about her 2-hour daily writing regimen, which eliminates the I-should-be-writing guilt and makes her just bored enough to push herself into areas of weirdness and humor.
Virtual Summer Conference: The Obligatory Publishing Panel
What's a summer conference without a publishing panel? My summer conference will have a little point/counterpoint. We'll start with agent / publicist Erin Cox's talk, "Agents: How to Find One, Keep One, and Be Inspired," which focuses on the basics of getting started in traditional publishing: find the right agents for your material, treat the agent like a human (ie don't send them all the same letter), know your audience, and find your reading public before you approach agents.
Or, are you becoming totally jaded about platforms, proposals, and all the trappings of today's gasping publishing industry? Check out this international panel of "revolutionaries" (surprise! They think big houses have their role in the culture, as much as little houses!) who have defected from big places for the creative freedom of small places: Ben Greenman, Mykola Riabchuk, Dale Peck, Carmen Boullosa, Amy Scholder, and moderator (dressed as "the man") Lisa Dierbeck of Mischief and Mayhem. Defection goes both ways. Authors start at small houses and defect to big ones, or start at big houses and escape to little ones. Is editorial guidance "censorship?" (My opinion? Maybe so, with the author's partial responsibility. Censorship brought on by desperation.) The lighting is a little dim, which makes them seem like those brave people who risk grave danger to talk to reporters on television.
I can attest that Steve Almond gives a good workshop. Here he is answering the questions of a group of fiction students, and reading from his self-published collection. It's like his workshop, only without the manuscript part...
We can pretend to go out for drinks after the reading and talk about their viruosity with voice, or the fact that both stories feature looming incarceration, or what crushes we have on them as writers.
AWP has started podcasting weekly! Here's what they have on offer. You can subscribe via iTunes too.
I found myself laughing outloud at episode 15, Junot Diaz reading at the 2011 conference. When asked about the use of profanity and rough language in his work, he talked about the "culture of respectability" as a way to silence others. Censorship becomes "a wonderful way to obscure the vast, violent privilege of the people who have it." It's the keeping-it-real argument all over again, but I never tire of hearing it, because it's true. And as for his focus on Dominican-American identity (as well as New Jersey identity), it really is an offshoot of the reading he did as a kid, where he felt he was not represented.
Lit TV: Robert Olen Butler and the Terrorism of Our Own Longings and Horrors
It's like going to school for free! It's like being in Georgia without getting on a plane! Check out Robert Olen Butler talking not only about his novel HELL, but also about the creative process. He argues that the artist creating the object is akin to an athlete "in the zone"--too much analysis destroys the ability to create the object being analyzed. Do we analyze literary fiction too much? Are conscious craft and technique "the antithesis of the creative process?" To him, the artist is the one who "faces down the unconscious," and is "profoundly uncomfortable" with abstraction.
This craft talk by Peter Straub, offered by The Center for Fiction, starts off jokey but ends up quite serious indeed. He opens with rules and tricks, like starting a sentence with "and" or "but" is like "a rimshot" (and not in a good way), but by part three, admits to slogging with the process like anyone else. There aren't really any tricks. With regard to revision: "What really works for me is always related to something I'd written earlier, and the best advice I give myself in such times is to really go back and look at what I did on page four, look at what I did in chapter three--because there's a reason those things happen. They seem random, and at the time when you write them they may be random, but as you go on, they're determinative. They color everything that happens afterward, and they must be remembered."
He reminds that it's not about you, it's about the thing you are making. With respect to killing his favorite parts: "You have to forget yourself." I think I need to hang that sentence over my monitor.
FREEDOM's Just Another Word for Me Missing My Train Stop
This blogger thinks Jonathan Franzen's FREEDOM lives up to the hype, and earned its sprawling proportions. (Love a spread-out book about, among other things, the harmful nature of spreading out.) Family conflict runs deep, and it takes a lot of pages. Just ask those Russian novelists the character Patty keeps reading. Meticulous plotting, with many, many ends he manages to tie up. Characters you love but might not want to live with--the best kind!
If you enjoyed it as much as me, you might get a kick out of this podcast from Slate's DoubleX Gabfest, in which they hash out all the major characters and themes (including spoilers, so read it first for sure). Is it a masterpiece? Do we care? What will we do until the next Franzen opus?
And on a lighter note, Franzen is among the advice-giving writers in this old Guardian article, "The Ten Rules for Writing Fiction." His #10, which reminds me of his characters: "You have to love before you can be relentless."
Youtube, Vimeo, and the like are loaded with live reading videos, which can be a fun way to get to know literary magazines. This video, sponsored by CLMP and NY Public Library, features members of the editorial staff of several magazines. They make macro comments about each magazine, talk about publication schedule, philosophy, and history, before reading excerpts.
With so many folks around me learning to cope with serious illness, grief, and transitions, it's absurd for me to obsess on my recent batch of routine literary disappointments. The skinny SASE's and almost-theres are nothing new to me, and I have plenty of practice handling them.
One disappointment has nothing to do with literary merit. The class I was planning on taking this summer has been canceled. I heard from Captain Fiction himself that he has chosen to take care of his own health instead. Six-hour lectures are no joke for anyone at any age. He clearly made the right choice, one that I hope might lead him back to the writing desk. (It's selfish of me, but I would not mind reading another single-paragraph Lishkowitz novel.) Maybe I can learn, if not from his yelling voice in class, from his example of self-care. (Dumb, therapyish choice of words, for which he would probably yell at me, but yeah. I said it.) He is "refusing the gas pipe," to use his own words. Refusing suicide-by-teaching.
I find myself running all those choice sentences through my head, the ones I have been composing carefully and hoping to test out on him, the man with the magic ear. Then it dawns on me: this is just the usual schoolgirl crap. Hoping to please teacher. Hoping to please editor. Please, notice me! Notice me! When will I just stop already?
The teacher I need to please is me. The editor I need to please is me. The ear I need to tune up is mine. Self-care is how adults cope with routine difficulty and disappointment.
And with that in mind, I went back to another teacher, one I have never met. Natalie Goldberg's books helped me access some rich subject matter back when I was first exploring fiction-writing. I discovered they are available on audio download, for a reasonable price, read by the author, with remarks thrown in, the 50-year-old Natalie commenting on the 36-year-old Natalie. She has evolved, but also cares for the person she used to be. It's a self study that is full of the right kind of humility. In her Long Island accent, she "nags" (her word) me gently to "get to work."
Teachers come in all forms--some gentle, some not--some in person, some far removed by geography or time. So, for the moment, I'm back on track. Writing. Back in the practice, as she says.
I feel impotent in the face of the frailties of body and spirit I have been hearing about in the past few weeks. I think we all do. For all of you I know who are heartbroken or grieving or in pain or facing giant challenges right now, I think about you every day, and wish you peace of mind, energy, and courage.