Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Writing in Fragments

Sometimes you can shape your life to the cadences of your creativity. Sometimes you have to shape the cadences of your creativity to your life.

When I first decided to become a writer, at the recklessly young age of 20, I embraced Hemingway's preferred writing rhythm: to wake early, write for two or three hours, until the writing juices were spent, and then not think about what you've written the rest of the day–a strategy to replenish those precious creative juices, to let thoughts percolate in the unconscious.

I constructed my life so that I could write in such a manner for several years (waiting tables at night so that my mornings were perfectly pristine for writing), and I loved that life. I'd love to live that life now, in fact, but I have children now, and I have to work 9-5 jobs, the kind with health insurance, so my time to write becomes ever more narrow and unpredictable, a matter of fragments, or even fragments within fragments.

Instead of writing in my best moments, I write mostly in my worst moments, late at night or during the intermission of a child's performance or in the five minutes I have before booting up the computer in the morning (I probably spend a little bit more time with my kids than Hemingway did).

This is all to say that I'm constantly scheming and rethinking my writing process, if not the actual products of writing itself.

I recently flipped through Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer in search of random writerly guidance and she commented how the best writers create their minor characters in just a few deft strokes. As an example, she showed how Jane Austen “speedily and almost offhandedly dispatches” Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood.

“He was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather coldhearted, and rather selfish, is to be ill-disposed: but he was, in general, well respected; for he conducted himself with propriety in the discharge of his ordinary duties. Had he married a more amiable woman, he might have been made still more respectable than he was: he might even have been made amiable himself; for he was very young when he married, and very fond of his wife. Mrs. John Dashwood was a strong caricature of himself;–more narrow minded and selfish.”

Capturing a character in just a few lines is a difficult thing to do, but it plays into a writing project I just started. In tandem with the literary journal I began earlier this year, 100 Word Story, I've been trying to write one 100-word story each day. It relieves the tension and frustration of not being able to truly delve into the writing life, but it also does a number of things:
  • Makes me pause and notice things in a way that I ordinarily wouldn't because I have to conjure a new story each day;
  • Makes me focus on a condensed, succinct piece of writing–no fluff, no extra words, no padding;
  • Helps me keep the writing momentum going–and even develop future longer pieces (I look to some character sketches as the foundation for future NaNoWriMo novels);
  • Allows me to have a number of prose poems and short shorts to be able to submit to magazines–so I can submit more frequently, instead of waiting months to finish a 20 or 25 page story (literary journals are more likely to publish shorter pieces anyway) or years to complete my novel.

I've been applying the Francine Prose quote to characters from stories I've written over the years to see how I can distill their characteristics into such a short space. I'm also occasionally taking characters from current longer pieces and writing miniature stories about them. Even if I never do anything with these pieces, they are a way to enrichen my longer stories and extend them in different directions.

It's safe to say that I will probably never again experience my “ideal writing life”–life is rarely so kind–but circumstances often unexpectedly lead one to a better place. I think of Lydia Davis, who decided that she couldn't possibly write a novel as a single mother, so she wrote all of the intriguing short shorts that made her name. Likewise, Toni Morrison, another single mother, finished her first novel by writing for 15 minutes each day after putting her children to bed.

Progress happens in the accumulation of increments. That's where I find my writing faith at the moment. I bow to small things and hope they lead to larger things.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Dean Young: Failing Better

I wish I could vote for poet laureate. I'd vote for Dean Young.

It's clear cut for me. He's simply the only living poet who truly gives voice to the tragic and ridiculous and tender and doomed existential meaning of life through his whimsical, searching verse. When I read one of his poems, I never know where it's going from word to word. I know I'm going to be surprised, but I don't know how I'm going to be surprised. It's likely that I'll laugh, but it's equally likely that I'll laugh and cry, or something else.

I'm not going to write an essay on Dean's poetry (I previously wrote a ditty on his book Skid). He'll never be voted poet laureate because he's a bit too dangerous, a bit too wild and unpredictable. Poet laureates need to clearly edifying in some ways--they need to serve, after all--and I doubt that Dean Young is clearly edifying to most, although he is to me.

I just wanted to pull out a couple of quotes from a recent interview with him in fail better, a mag I love, and one that's a natural for him if only because his latest collection is titled Fall Higher. If you're going to describe Dean's poetry in two words, "fall higher" might be the best two words.

For one, he not only honors imperfections, he seeks them out. Dean says, "I certainly don't believe in the making of art as a pursuit of perfection, rather the exploration of errors and stumbles, smudges and yelps."

When I read that quote, I think of Cassavetes' films, except with a few wiffle balls of Dada tossed in. He says that "art may be made carefully but it's never made by the careful." That's such good advice these days when so many artists have become more attuned to the selling of their art than to the recklessly inclined soul behind its creation.

Dean's interview appeared in fail better after he received a heart transplant earlier this year. It will be interesting to see how such an ordeal will affect his work. He's faced death. He's been given life. His words already traced indeterminacy, yet they were full of a gleeful plunging, a death-defying, exuberant vigor.

"I'm still searching and messing about, making wild forays I hope," he says. "Time is always running out for everyone although I'll admit everyone doesn't have such huge scars. But one thing's for sure. I don't only want to write from the prospective of those scars."

Even if he writes of his scars, I'm sure there will be a smirk, a "yippeee," an unexpected observation, someone dancing, a roller coaster, a worm, a lizard, a clown, a bordello, an astronaut, and more.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Revision Tip No. 2,043: The Art of Dancing to Guy Lombardo while Drumming to Mingus

I've often heard it said that writing is revising, and that's true in the sense that you're adding layers and nuances and telling details in revision that often aren't possible in the bustle or turmoil or excitement of a first draft. You're making a fine wine in revision, in other words, which takes time, finesse, and sagacity.

Because of this, revision is an art that requires constant scrutiny. You can't just muscle through a revision like you might a first draft. It needs to be a process of challenge, counterpoint, and exploration—all within the malleable structure you've put forth—yet I've found that revision can be the opposite of this. It can tend to become lazy, an exercise in reading more than an exercise in active change.

Here’s what often happens to me when I revise a piece (and I've heard similar tales from other writers). Author writes first draft of story. Author sits down to write second draft of story. Author reads story start to finish making editorial scritch-scratches in the margins. Author types in changes. Rinse. Repeat. Reload.

Hmmm…it's a little bit like dancing a waltz, following the same steps over and over again, feeling the nice rhythms of the music, but unable to add the sorts of flourishes, startling details, absurd moments, etc., that make a story special.

There are a good 2,042 tips about how to revise a piece so that you’re not just pushing a plow through an already plowed row, but I’ve come to like no. 2,043.

Here it is: Instead of reading your story start to finish, don’t read it. Don’t even have the story in the room with you. Don’t have your laptop either. Your dog or cat can stay along with your preferred beverage, but that's it.

The thing is to revise as if you’re still creating, not just refining (as important as refining is). My best moments of creativity happen when I’m not writing within a structure, but meandering—caught in a drift with only the faintest sense of purpose.

So here’s one way of doing that: I grab a few books of poetry, an art book or two, my describer’s dictionary, and I page through them randomly, with some Mingus or Sonic Youth or Calexico or Arvo Part on in the background, and think about my story through all of these influences. I drop in and out of poems, riff on a phrase or a word or whatever comes to mind.

I’m not really thinking of my story, yet I am. I’m tracing moods, dreaming, conjuring, whatever. I write little scenes, character descriptions, single words that I like. It’s all a collage, which for me is the word that defines the best sort of creativity. It’s playful. One thing layers upon another. It’s impossible to make a mistake.

And that’s the crux of a second or third draft—the tendency to want to preserve instead of explore. The curves of a creation are in place, after all, so it’s difficult to want to give them a different shape, which means that a story can tend more toward the rigidity of ossification.

I find when I work outside of the story in this manner, and especially in the slow ease of  longhand, that nothing I write has to make it into the story. Still, I usually create a piquant scene or two, a more lyrical description here and there, and even figure out how to cut some of the bad stuff out.

It’s like a new, exciting kid has just moved next door and I’ve got a fun playmate. We run through the neighborhood without supervision. We feel the sweat on our bodies as if for the first time. We lose our breath from running.

I know that there will be revisions and more revisions, of course—and that sometimes it’s necessary to stay in the rut of the story for refinement’s sake, just to smooth those uneven surfaces. But this is one fun way to challenge a story, hopefully bring it to life in a way that a more workmanlike effort can’t.

On to revision tip no. 2,044, "Taking an Exotic Foreign Vacation to Revise Your Story." I have to admit that this one is my favorite. Although 2,045 has its place: "Marrying Rich to Revise Your Story."

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The 1,394 Word Sentence (Which Is a Story)

While it’s often said that few people read literary journals, especially the writers who want to get published in them (ahem), one great reason to read lit mags is to discover writers who you wouldn’t ordinarily read.

Think about it. When you go to the bookstore, at least if you’re like me, you’re either looking for the latest book that received buzz or you’re searching through the stacks for books that have been on your list anywhere from a week to years.

How often do you peruse the shelves to read even a few paragraphs by someone you’ve never heard of? Someone who doesn’t have a publicist, perhaps not an agent, and certainly not a marketing machine behind him or her.

When I read lit journals, however, I often avoid the name authors and only read the writers I’ve never heard of. Perhaps just because I’m suddenly in the world of my peers and I want to see who they are. It’s exciting.

So I’m grateful that I read Ted McLoof’s wild, long-ass, touching sentence/story in Monkeybicycle, “Space, Whether, and Why,” which totaled 1,394 words (seriously—top that).

McLoof’s sentence was not only an achievement of word length, but of storytelling.  Although I imagine a Guiness Book of World Records type of competition where people cram donuts in their mouths, except with authors stuffing words into a sentence, there was nothing extraneous or gorged about McLoof’s story—every word and comma felt necessary. The lack of a period felt intrinsic to the meaning of the piece.

In fact, I didn’t even realize it was a single sentence until afterward, and then I traced back through it looking for a period.

I’d seen Monkebicycle’s one-sentence story feature before and considered how to write such a piece, but I admit that I conceived of it as a typical sentence—20 or 30 words or so, max.
So I asked myself, who the hell is this guy, Ted McLoof, who writes sentences longer than my granddaddy after his third bourbon? Let’s find out.

How did you decide to become a writer?

Short answer: I’ve never been good at anything else, really. In the same way that when a person loses one of his senses, the others get heightened, I think that, if I have anything to offer in the field of writing, it’s probably because I don’t have much to offer anywhere else. Oh, I’m pretty good at pool, too.

Longer answer: I basically grew up in front of a TV, and spent pretty much all of high school watching movies, so most of the time when I was a teenager I’d be writing screenplays instead of doing actual homework. These screenplays weren’t very good, but I loved writing them. But the thing about screenplays is, when you finish them, you’re really only done with the first leg of a much longer process. You still have to get them, you know, made.

Then I took a fiction workshop as an undergraduate, where we were made to write actual stories—not just journal entries or thinly-veiled recreations of our own lives, but real stories, with stakes and epiphanies and everything. As soon as I put the last period on the last sentence of my first story, I knew what I wanted to do with my life.

Why did you decide to write “Space, Whether, and Why” in such a long, single sentence?

I always prize interesting characters over interesting style. In other words, I’d never tell students to avoid writing interesting-characters-for-the-sake-of-interesting-characters, but style for the sake of style tends to be a real issue among younger writers. Usually it supplements story instead of complementing it. So if there’s an out-of-left-field choice (like a 1,394 word sentence), I always think it’s right to demand a reason.

In this case, the story’s about two people who are so stymied by a lack of space in their relationship that they never get to examine it properly. Each event piggybacks on the last one, and they never get the benefit of perspective, and that dooms them. I wanted the reader to have that same feeling of breathlessness, of an inability to pause even for the length of a period to reflect, because that’s a distance my characters weren’t allowed.

Do you hold the world record for the longest sentence for a short story?

I just Googled that; it was a half-hearted search. But without any concrete answers, let’s just say I do. It’ll make me feel good.

Your stories are interesting because your main characters are often unable to truly communicate with those around them—they’re connected to a community, yet alone, struggling to find a place of solidity in the world’s moral ambiguity. What’s your take on the existential situations you place your characters in?

I think there’s nothing sadder than someone who has something to say but who can’t articulate it, either because he lacks the vocabulary or because no one wants to listen. It’s a very lonely feeling, that kind of isolation—surrounded by people but still alone. I think maybe I write about those people because then, at least, their stories get told.

Since you write about families and have a nice touch with younger characters, have you ever thought of writing Young Adult fiction since it’s such a booming market?

I would totally write Young Adult fiction, mostly because I think that's a completely admirable audience to try and reach. As far as being part of the booming market you're talking about, I don't think I'd fit in. That market has gotten very cynical. It's all sexy pouting vampires and well-to-do upper East Side boarding school kids. They're easy to churn out because they're not very well written, and they're easy to sell because they're wish fulfillment.

My favorite kind of Young Adult fiction is the kind that happens to be about young adults, but is universal in its themes. I mean, Holden Caulfield was an upper East Side boarding school kid, right? It doesn't all have to be wish fulfillment.

What's the most important thing you've learned from a favorite author?

A really pretty wonderful piece of advice from an author came from Nicholas Montemarano, who visited my undergrad right before I left for grad school. He mentioned that the great advantage you have before you ever get published is that "no one is waiting for the next Ted McLoof story."

In other words, without an agent or a publisher or fans, even, you don't have the pressure to a) produce, and b) write in whatever milieu you've carved for yourself. Because you don't have one yet. So it's a good time to try new things, to stretch, to find a voice, which is something that surprisingly few young writers do, I think, in the rush to get published.

Are there any authors you've tried to imitate? Has it helped or hindered your craft? Or both?

I don't think there was a syllable I wrote in my first five years of writing that wasn't in some way trying to sound like Nick Hornby. I fell head over heels for him at sixteen, and that was partly a good thing. Mainly, it gave me an outlet: I had all these things I wanted to say, and aping his style gave voice to those somethings. But eventually the problem became that I was too successful at imitating him. What started out as an avenue to get my voice heard turned into the opposite. I couldn't say anything that wasn't drenched in a complete stranger's tone.

Eventually I broke out of it, but it would be appropriate to paraphrase Hornby from an essay in which he discusses his early love of Anne Tyler, and how he still doesn't feel he's expressed himself in his own writing as well as Tyler once did on his behalf. Hornby speaks to what I hesitate to admit is the real me, the me who reads High Fidelity every time I get dumped.

How do you choose where to submit your stories?

When I first started sending out, the standard was, Whoever Will Have Me. Now...well, it's pretty much the same. But I think what's changed is that I actually do my homework now (I read like twelve interviews from The Review Review to prep for this interview). For a while, the only journals receiving submissions from me were major cities with the word "review" after them, just 'cause I thought it sounded professional. Now, though, I surf regularly, and I make sure to read a journal's issue before sending, and to make sure the story I'm submitting matches their aesthetic.

Do you read lit journals regularly? If so, which are your favorites?

The only old standby I have is Tin House, I think because, for a major journal, it's kind of inspiring how you never know what to expect. And not in a McSweeney's, we're-so-quirky-you-don't-know-what-to-expect! kind of way, but just in a way where you totally buy that all they're really looking for is quality, and other than that it's fair game. Otherwise, I tend to read stories I like in end-of-year collections, and then read the journal they came out of. That's how I found Monkeybicycle, from a story in Best American Nonrequired Reading.

Have your stories been shaped by the editors you’ve dealt with?

Sure, if you expand the definition of "editors" to include "anyone who reads an early draft." Two of my mentors helped me a lot: James Hoch told me no one would ever read my stories twice if I didn't start surprising people with where they went, and Manuel Munoz advised me not to ignore going to my "dark side," which I think is good advice, even if my dark side is probably more boring than other people's.

My best editors, though, are the people from my hometown, about whom I write. My friend Melissa, who I've written about a great deal, is always very patient about that, and tells me whether I've been accurate while occupying space in her head.

How do you deal with editorial suggestions that you don’t agree with?

I have a lot of blind spots, but perhaps the biggest one is the editorial process. I'm simply a bad reader for my own work. When I first started out, every time someone criticized something I wrote, it was just, you know, "Fuck you. You don't know what you're talking about." And then later I'd read the piece with the suggestion in mind and, yup, they were right, of course.

Because of that, I'll listen to pretty much anyone I trust now, no matter how off-kilter the suggestion, so long as they seem to get what I'm doing.

You’ve published several stories now. Are you ready to publish a collection?

Are you offering?

I’ll have my people call your people. Short of that, do you enter contests? Do you have an agent, or are you looking for one? Do you go to writers’ conferences?

My manuscript when I finished grad school was a collection of seven stories. I've now published two of those seven, so my plan is to try and publish all seven, and then see if that garners any interest from an agency. I have zero idea whether this is a good plan.

What's the single most important thing you learned in your MFA program?

Well...we more or less lived at the bar. And the classroom is obviously the place where ideas get focused and contained, where you learn craft, and where there's some sort of order. But I think I've learned that it's the community itself that really feeds you material. Everything is looser at the bar, and your real opinions can run wild, and you can meet plenty of characters to write about. Maybe that's the Jersey boy in me talking.

What’s your take on Rimbaud’s dictum that writers should undergo a “immense and rational derangement of all the senses”?

Well, Rimbaud was a poet. I'm pret-ty far from being a poet. When I think of poetry and fiction I always come back to Roddy Doyle's thing about jazz and soul music, respectively, in The Commitments. Jazz is free-form, it's experimental, you can rehearse a thousand times and then, bang, mid-show someone busts out a twenty-minute solo. Soul music has corners, it's the working-man's music. If you have the heart, you can learn it and play it.

That's like poetry and fiction to me: both totally noble pursuits, but if you're writing the kind of plain, clear prose I read, you're probably not all that concerned with deranging your senses. It's much more about keeping your wits about ya in our business.

What do you think of the maxim that writers should “write what they know”?

It's pretty hard to avoid, and why should you? I think the only trouble is figuring out why you're writing what you know. It can't simply be for lack of imagination. Too often I'll get fiction students who take that phrase literally, and turn in meta-fiction or autobiographical stuff. Like, a student from the "University of Schmarizona" goes to a party, gets drunk, and has to put the pieces together the next morning. It's more about writing the emotional truth, writing what you know.

How do you make sure that you’re always taking risks with your writing and stretching yourself?

Usually, I just get in moods. I'll go on a kick, I'll read a story that connects with me but that has a sensibility I've never even thought of approaching before, and then I'll read a bunch of novels by that author, and I'll just say to myself: okay. Here's something new. Here's something you've never tried. How can I keep the stuff that makes me me, while blanketing my story with what that guy just did? It's a tough balancing act, one I haven't really perfected at all yet, but if I can come close, I think that'll be a satisfying enough career.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Things I Like About 100 Word Story

The second issue of 100 Word Story is out, and there’s much to love.

Here’s a list of my favorites:

I love that the poet Myra Sclarew was drawn to write 100-word stories because by condensing her poems, she can “get to the white heat of experience."

I love how Tsering Wangmo Dhompa uses the word “pulchritude” in “The Self in One Part.”

I love that Patrick Williams wrote a 98-word song to his photo of that crazy blue 70s car—the photo that inspired so many stories in our monthly photo prompt.

I love how Roxanne Barber’s story shows how a scar is not just a scar, but a possible window to salvation in her story "Scarred."

I love how Jim Fisher captures the damnation of “Wrath’s centrifugal force” in "Ezekial"—I feel the world’s righteous churning with such a force.

But thank God there’s some good, hot sex in R. Neal Bonser’s “Seasoning.” Thank God for hot sex.

And even though sex (or love, rather) might be wanting in R-Chi London’s “Good for Business,” there’s something comforting about the self-sufficiency she shows in a romantic woman who sees a different path to fulfillment.

But the thing I most like about 100 Word Story is how it’s opened doors to an artistic community for me, Monsieur Lonely Writer. I’m not only in contact and publishing old writer friends and professors, but I’m encountering so many new wonderful writers and artists, such as Joel Brouwer and Liz Steketee—our featured author and photographer for the next issue. Both of them inspire me so much, and that’s all I want to be, inspired.

I also want to give thanks to the many wonderful submissions we receive. Unfortunately, we can only publish a small percentage of what we receive. As a writer, I learn from each piece I’ve read. It’s a sign to me that none of us go it alone. It’s a sign that what matters is the making, not the getting published.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Short, Short Story: 100 Word Story Magazine

This review should only be 100 words long. Most things should only be 100 words long. After all, we live in an age where even the approximation of totality can seem exhausting. We inhabit glimpses. We remember shadows. We listen to a snippet of a song, then watch a flash of a movie.

Now there’s a literary journal, started right here in the Bay Area, that aims to capture such a fragmentary nature of life: 100 Word Story (full disclosure: I’m one of the founding editors).

If you’re still reading (after 80 or so words), consider this journal within an ever-evolving American obsession with the art of brevity, in both a literary and a cultural sense.

Hemingway started the trend with his famous six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” You could say that the sensibility behind those six words led to our Twittering culture itself.

Such a short, short story isn’t about the word count, though—it’s about what’s left out. Remember that Hemingway’s famous dictum of writing was that a story should be an iceberg: only ten percent of it should be visible.

The 100-word format whittles that figure down to one percent. Traditional “flash fiction” is generally defined as being between 300 and 1,000 words, so a 100-word story becomes more akin to a narrative haiku.

It’s “a limit that inspires compositional creativity,” says Paul Strohm, who sparked the whole idea with his stories in Eleven Eleven. After I read Strohm’s stories, I started writing and swapping stories with a friend and was quite taken by the genre. So I decided that the last gaping hole among lit journals was a mag dedicated to 100-word stories.

The genre is a narrative snapshot, which is why we offer a photo prompt every month and a theme to write to.

In practical matters, if you have writer’s block or are the type of writer who procrastinates before diving into a longer work, the 100-word format is a perfect warm-up, a way to capture a single intense moment within a longer piece, or condense that essay or story you might never quite have the time for.

Other than that, we have great t-shirts and mugs and trucker hats for sale. And more.

Read. Write. Submit. Buy. Repeat.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Hotel Amerika's Take on Great American Literature

You know to expect something different from Hotel Amerika just from its name. It’s going to take you elsewhere, or if not, it will give you a decidedly different take on the place you call home.

In an interview with editor David Lazar, words like “disorienting,” “radical,” “transgenre,” and “flaneur” are used like others might say, “write what you know.”

Let’s just say that Hotel Amerika publishes a distinctly Amerikan prose, and it’s a journal with its own democratic sensibilities.

Tell me the story behind the name Hotel Amerika—especially since there's a real Hotel Amerika in Denmark.

I’ve always wanted to stay at Hotel Amerika. Apparently, they bring you eggs and The Trial. I think our name is disorienting, but metaphorically apt. We’re a hotel: we have somewhat continental affinities, room for different sensibilities.

You say your editors favor “work with a quirky, unconventional edge.” What do you mean by “quirky” and “unconventional”?

We like work that looks different, that tests generic boundaries, work willing to say things radically, say radical things. That said, we also like work, especially nonfiction, that is beautifully confident of his generic history, and can perform, say, the essay, in ways that are confident, originally voiced, and stylistic rare. We like sentences.

What distinguishes Hotel Amerika from other literary journals?

Fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency. I’m sorry, I was thinking of something else.
I think the magazine looks rather lovely. I think the combinations of prose, poetry, transgeneric writing—which we now include as a permanent category in our contents—and fiction continue to be surprising—at least, I hope they are. We’re utterly open to writers at all stages of their careers. We take a lot of material from over the transom, along with solicited work, and continue to publish first-time writers, and highly rewarded, well-known writers.

What percentage of the submissions you receive do you publish?

I couldn’t tell you, and wouldn’t want to research this. Not a high one. But that’s true everywhere.

Tell me about the submission and review process.

There is a first line of readers, which consists of Adam McOmber, my managing and associate Editor, and the assistant editors, Jennifer Tatum-Cotamagana and Micah McCrary, and several student readers and other writers who serve as readers, and Garnet Kilberg-Cohen, who is fiction editor. I read much of the nonfiction, and have final say on all acceptances.

Can you point to a piece or two that are quintessential Hotel Amerika stories or poems?

I’d say our special issues were very defining: the Transgenre issue, our recent Aphorisms issue. There are writers we have ongoing relationships with, such as Peter Lasalle, Mary Capello, Cynthia Hogue, Brian Teare, Alice Jones, Colette Inez, and others.

What advice would you give to a writer submitting to Hotel Amerika?

I would not submit the kind of autobiographically narrative poems that you might be likely to see in a dozen other literary magazines. Something has to be different.

I would not submit a piece of memoir unless it’s performing something so interesting, doing something with its language or form that it’s going to stop me in my tracks.

We tend toward a more urban sensibility. Favor self-reflection. Flaneurs welcome.

If you could publish any living writer, who would you pick?

W.G. Sebald.


O.K., Max Beerbohm.

You’re mainly a print publication. Do you have any plans to put issues online?

Yes. Of course. It’s simply necessary.

As a writer, how does editing a literary journal affect your writing?

Well, it takes time away, for one thing. Which is a harrowing idea every writer-editor thinks about. But, it also hones your instincts. Continually sharpens them. It’s a bit of a deal with the devil.

Does Hotel Amerika throw publishing parties? What are they like?

They’re raucous, but also slightly melancholy, filled with a combination of readers huddled in the corners singing Doo Wop, despite the malfunctioning mist machine, and senior editors pathetically trying their hands at Gangsta Rap. We serve jello with fruit and ladyfingers.

Strictly BYOB. But we’re all teetotalers, except for . . . well, I’m just too discrete for that.

David Lazar's books include The Body of Brooklyn (Iowa), Truth in Nonfiction: Essays (Iowa), Michael Powell:  Interviews and Conmversations with M.F.K. FISHER (both Mississippi)His prose poems and essays have appeared in The Southwest Review, Denver Quarterly, Best of the Prose Poem, Gulf Coast, Sentence, Southern Humanities Review and many other journals and magazines.  He is the director of the nonfiction program at Columbia College Chicago, and the editor of Hotel Amerika.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Laura Albert and JT LeRoy: Mask as Muse

When I came across the Greek maxim “Know thyself” in my college freshman humanities class, I thought it was the key to life.

Then a couple of years later, I decided to become a fiction writer and discovered Hemingway’s dictum to “write what you know.”

Such a thing seemed simple, but it took me another 20 years or so to realize just how difficult it is to “know thyself” or “write what you know”—we’re elusive creatures by design, always changing, seeking, and fleeing.  Writing what you know becomes something like a pilgrimage, a chase scene, a dreamscape, a meditation, and a scientific experiment all in one.

In fact, according to the Suda, a 10th Century encyclopedia of Greek Knowledge, “Know thyself” has contradictory meanings. On one hand, the proverb is applied to those whose boasts exceed what they are, but on the other, it is a warning to pay no attention to the opinion of the multitudes.

I’m traipsing through such thoughts because I’ve been revisiting that crazy, fantastic, compelling “hoax” of JT LeRoy since Laura Albert (aka JT) contacted me when she stumbled on a blog piece (Finally, the Great American Novel) I wrote when the whole scandal went down five years ago.

In case you missed it, JT LeRoy was a young truck-stop prostitute who had escaped rural West Virginia for the life of a homeless San Francisco drug addict. Laura Albert and her boyfriend Geoffrey Knoop rescued JT and helped him get treatment by a psychologist. Then, with the help of literary luminaries such as Mary Gaitskill and Dennis Cooper and others, JT wrote critically acclaimed works of fiction noted for their stark portrayal of child prostitution and drug use.

Shy, wounded, reclusive, yet riveting, JT attracted a swirling flock of celebrities like Winona Ryder and Courtney Love—except it turned out that JT was Savannah Knoop, Geoffrey Knoop's half sister, who wore a wig, sunglasses, and a hat in “his” few public appearances. And Laura Albert penned all of JT’s books.

Looking at the photos again, it wasn’t as if JT was disguised with any CIA type of sophistication. Yet people believed that JT was JT, perhaps against their better judgment, for reasons that might tell a larger story (what did they see in JT that they needed to see?).

When New York Magazine and The New York Times uncovered the true story of JT LeRoy, the story turned into a scathing public drama that was the literary world’s equivalent of the press chasing O.J. as he tried to escape in his SUV (except without any blood), with many of JT’s one-time supporters caterwauling, “Shame, shame!” in outrage.

I don’t truly know Laura Albert, but from our recent correspondence I like her as a risk taker who is genuinely trying to represent a “truth” in the world—the task every serious writer takes on. She pursues such a truth more in the vein of Werner Herzog’s notion of “ecstatic truth”—a truth that is the enemy of factual truth in its aim of capturing something more sublime. Herzog says that “to acknowledge a fake as fake contributes only to the triumph of accountants.” And much of our narrow-minded, prudish literary establishment.

I’m not so concerned about the rich and powerful being scammed for what is the equivalent of loose change to them, or whether they had their feelings hurt. What interests me is the nature of writing with such a mask on, and I appreciate the moxie it took to put on such a performance.

“Performance” is the key word here. I like to think of JT’s novels not as just novels, but as part of a larger performance piece—one that put a wispy, vulnerable figure who looked like one part Andy Warhol, one part Michael Jackson, and one part blank slate on stage.

Instead of viewing it all as a swindle, I view it as an act of creation that grew in wild and unexpected ways and became far bigger than could have been imagined. I say “act of creation” because creation seemed to be at the root of it—a rollicking, gleeful, daring, probing, and carnivalesque exploration that in the end reflected our culture in a way that few acts have (I’d trade several National Book Award winners for it all).

And in the end, the fundamental question remains: If you liked the novels when they were written by JT LeRoy, why should you esteem them less when you find out they were written by Laura Albert? Perhaps the work should even grow in stature.

Just read the blurbs for the novel Sarah—blurbs that aren’t your ordinary blurbs churned out for marketing purposes. The authors who blurbed the book—Chuck Palahniuk, Jerry Stahl, Suzanne Vega, etc.—wrote truly imaginative, energetic assessments. They loved JT.

“JT LeRoy’s Sarah is a revelation,” writes Dennis Cooper. “It makes you realize how overused words like original and inspired have become. LeRoy’s writing has a passion, economy, emotional depth, and lyric beauty so authentic that it seems to bypass every shopworn standard we’ve learned to expect of contemporary fiction. This is a novel gripped by an intense, gorgeous, yet strangely refined imagination, and its experience is unforgettable.”

Laura—who might still be one part JT despite the obvious forcefulness of her personality—sent me a video of her recent appearance at The Moth (see below), where she gives her side of the story. It’s interesting to hear how her path to becoming JT wasn’t full of the calculation the press seared into its headlines, but was a mask that opened up a path to a story—a mask created from her own past as an abused child and the tales of others she took in.

Most, if not all, good writers write via a mask of some sort, whether named or unnamed, acknowledged or not. The notion of a single, pure self is antiquated (even the Greeks knew as much in their aphorism). We know ourselves principally through the eyes of others and the ways we seek to be seen. So writers put on guises, code switch, mimic, and dramatize themselves to find the story—and then the reader does the same in seeking to see himself/herself in the text.

Knowledge is a game of storytelling, as akin to fiction as nonfiction. Tell yourself you’re a victim, and you’ll get one storyline and one set of “facts”; tell yourself you’re a hero, and you’ll get another. 

I’ve always been a solitary writer, to my disadvantage. Recently, though, in the act of sharing my writing and writing with readers in mind, I’ve discovered how the context of writing (the cloak of self-mythology you write in, who you want to be seen as) informs and changes the text.

I think of Roland Barthes and his concept of the jouissance, the play, the erotics that occurs between writer and reader. “The text you write must prove to me that it desires me,” he writes in The Pleasure of the Text, claiming that writing is “the science of the various blisses of language, its Kama Sutra.”

The writer seeks a reader, seeks ways to reveal and touch, and will put on any guise available to accomplish those ends, like a good lover. There are many different ways to tell a story (“various blisses of language”), which makes the notion of “write what you know” quite complicated. We write through the “anxieties of influence” of past authors, as Harold Bloom has famously noted, but we also write through the masks we create in pursuit of self.

An outlaw’s attitude is essential. “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies,” William Faulkner said.

So I invite you to watch the video below and ask yourself whether Laura Albert is a “fake fiction writer,” as she has been called? Is she an outlaw? A charlatan? Does it matter who JT LeRoy is? Who are you when you write? Who do you want to be?

Sunday, June 05, 2011

J.M.G. Le Clezio: Loss in the Foreign Lands of Ourselves

One way to judge the significance of a book is by how much its mood affects you afterward. Such criteria doesn’t fit into any academic critical framework, but it’s the one that matters to a reader in the end.

As Roland Barthes said in The Pleasure of the Text, “The pleasure of the text is not necessarily of a triumphant, heroic, muscular type. No need to throw out one’s chest. My pleasure can very well take the form of a drift. Drifting occurs whenever I do not respect the whole, and whenever, by dint of seeming driven about by language’s illusions, seductions, and intimidations, like a cork on the waves, I remain motionless, pivoting on the intractable bliss that binds me to the text (to the world).”

Such is the way I’ve learned to read J.M.G. Le Clezio: with an appreciation of drifting, if not an indulgence in it.

I hadn’t heard of Le Clezio when he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2008, but when I read the comparisons of him to Paul Bowles, another author best read with the sensibility of drifting, I was eager to read him.

First I read The Interrogation, his first novel, which he now calls “close to a joke.” He’s right. It reads like a noveau roman written by a young writer bursting with adventurous and daring, if not ridiculous, pretensions. It put him on the literary map in 1963, though, and because of his chiseled good looks, he became known as the French Steve McQueen (his photos, especially the ones by Henri Cartier-Bresson, are indeed quite compelling in a cinematic sort of way).

Then I read The Prospector, which gave me a sense of Le Clezio’s art as drifting, but I wasn’t taken by the novel, and in fact, I questioned his Nobel.

I rarely give an author a second, not to mention a third, chance, but then, finally and fortunately, I read Desert, which is magnificent, memorable, moody. Not Paul Bowles, but there won’t be another Paul Bowles. And Le Clezio has a markedly different sensibility—he’s less interested in seeing the danger and estrangement in others and other cultures than seeing a purity of being in the elsewheres he writes about, a truth that can’t quite be reclaimed.

Desert tells of the diaspora caused by the French colonial army in North Africa when they defeated the nomadic Tuareg, the indigo-robed Blue Men. It’s a narrative of two characters: Noura, who in 1909 migrated north across the Western Sahara in a caravan of nomadic Berber tribes, and a dreamy orphan named Lalla, who escapes the shany towns of Tangier (Paul Bowles’s territory) to move to Marseille.

The novel moves in a time that is almost lifelike: slowly, without the drive of plot. The rhythm is set by the swirling sands of the desert, the pulse of the sun, jagged rocks, and blistering heat. The caravan plods for hundreds, thousands of miles, and you feel each of their painful steps as they leave a home and look for another one far away.

Meanwhile Lalla searches for that lost home in a more mystical sense, escaping the harsh realities of life through her communion with an outcast named al-Ser, the spirit of the blue man warrior who serves as a guide to the natural world.

The desert is the main character of the novel, however. Despite all of the harshness it delivers, Le Clezio sees in it a primordial grace, a numen that deserves reverence.

The idea of loss is at the center of Le Clezio’s work—people banished from their paradise by the hostile forces of civilization. But he portrays this loss in a complexity in which there are no winners.

As he puts it in Mexican Dream, a collection of essays on the conquest of Mexico, “In destroying Amerindian cultures, the conqueror also destroyed a part of himself, a part he will undoubtedly never find again.”

As an author, he writes as one listening to the music, a witness rather than one imposing his will upon the narrative. His characters often seem to move with the wind itself. In tracing the connections between the modern industrial world and the world that existed before it, he has likened himself to a spider, “touching threads to see where the vibrations come from.”

Perhaps LeClezio has such a talent because he grew up as a child in strange lands, born in France to a family that had lived for generations in Mauritius, and of a British father who was a doctor in Nigeria. He was fascinated by the alien landscapes he lived in, the differences between his western heritage and the manners of a more ancient culture.

He’s now a dual Franco-Mauritian citizen (who resides in New Mexico). “I’ve always felt very much from a mixed culture—mainly English and French, but also Nigerian, Thai, Mexican. Everything’s had its influence on me,” he said.

The Prospector, in particular, captures his sense of the lost idyll in its rather simplistic plot of Alexis L’Etang, a dispossessed son, who escapes from a dreary job to go treasure hunting. But it’s not so much literal treasure that he seeks, but the memory of his childhood and his father.

The characters in The Prospector aren’t particularly individualized; they’re almost flat, moving through life through their senses rather than the logic of their thoughts. The desire is simple: to be at one with the world’s rhythms, its seasons—an impossibility with civilization.

“I am as adrift in this lonely valley as I was on the vast ocean,” Alexis observes, but that isn’t a complaint. Drifting is an aspiration, an idyll.

You could say that he’s guilty of overly romanticizing the primitive (anything barefooted is celebrated), but a sense of utter loss hangs over it all, and there’s really no return. Although Alexis is driven at once by a traditional quest/adventure narrative—to return to a state of being “utter savages”—he’s at the same time undermined by a more postmodern sense of a world fragmented and lost.

In fact, that’s what LeClezio is about: loss. He’s not arguing for a return to a better kind of life, he’s just saying that it’s gone.

In a life haunted by loss, it’s not the quest for what’s lost that can deliver us, but an embrace of our essential alienation. As Le Clezio says about his predilection to seek new places to live, “you have to get rid of old habits, change your points of view, adapt. It gives you a kind of youth, which is good for writing."

Friday, May 20, 2011

Finding Oneself in Flight. Or Not.

I like searches that lead to other searches. Existence that lacks resolution. A drift of self that becomes a strange sort of home after a while.

These are the themes I’ve been writing about for the past eight years in a novel titled Elsewhere. I’m fascinated by a placelessness of identity that can overtake, if not guide one, especially in travel. A diaspora of self that afflicts and enlivens at the same time.

It’s difficult to capture such a state in words without becoming too indulgent and losing the narrative thread of the novel, which was why I really enjoyed the coincidence of coming into contact with a film, Volo, that my old friend Jerome Carolfi has been working on. He calls the film “a meditation that blends travel and dreams, confronting travel as an escape from reality and dreams as signposts which reveal our deeper psyche.”

Those words don’t do the film justice, though. What I admire about the film is the way he’s captured the textures of such moments of estrangement and quest, a disjointedness of self in flight, through the layers of his collage of images. He’s truly created an arresting dreamscape.

It’s a reminder for me of the power of experimental film, which is more akin to poetry. As a viewer, you follow the mood rather than the action of a main character. The plot points become internal. The experience becomes the narrative. You drift, in short.

The only weakness of this film is my amateurish voiceover, but I was honored to be invited to contribute. Please watch.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Script Frenzy and Me

What's a blog for if not self-promotion? Or self sabotage.

The latter is more likely the case here, but since this is one of my few onscreen forays, I figured what the hell, I might as well share the video. And I loved participating in Script Frenzy--an event put on by the local Office of Letters and Light, which also puts on the famous National Novel Writing Month--so I'm willing to be embarrassed to support the event. The basics are that you write a 100-page script in a month.

I wrote (or rewrote) a script about the ever dramatic, damnable, alcoholic, love-starved, and sex-starved Hart Crane. Who also wrote quite magical poetry.

The thing I learned in shooting this video (especially at a cafe after lunch) was how difficult it is to talk cogently to a camera. It requires practice. I have much more admiration now for every puffed-up, fluffed-up newscaster (yes, even you, Katie Couric).

Okay, let the rotten tomatoes be thrown...

Friday, April 15, 2011

Reality Hunger: A Manifesto that Invites Manifestos

It’s odd to say, but I have a soft spot in my heart for manifestos.

Despite what some might see as a fuming belligerence that characterizes our age (tea partiers, Rush Limbaugh, Charlie Sheen, etc.), I think we’re hampered by a cultural tendency to be overly polite, especially when it comes to the arts.

Go to France and England and you’ll find people practically dueling over an aesthetic or intellectual dispute—and then inviting each other to dinner the following week for round two. But in the U.S., I’ve seen friendships break up over an artistic difference voiced only the slightest bit ardently—as if to talk passionately and argumentatively is bad manners. Kumbaya.

We’re a country of book clubs whose main purpose is to drink wine and chitchat about novels that go half-read and half-thought-about.

For God’s sake, let’s take our reading seriously and argue the hell out of it. Our books aim to represent life after all, metaphysically and phenomenologically. So…do you agree with an author’s take on reality or not?

That’s why I love the often pugilistic tone David Shields takes as he essentially puts up his dukes to the literary establishment in Reality Hunger. At the heart of Reality Hunger is Shields’s critique of the literary world’s rather stodgy proclivity to privilege the traditional realist novel as the mirror of reality—a representation of reality that has held firm since the 19th century despite all of the world’s changes.

What if Impressionism had continued as the dominant art form for the last 100-plus years, but just with different subject matter? What if Cubism still dominated the art world for that matter? Think of all of the exciting, compelling, challenging, wondrously disturbing (or disgustingly disturbing) art we would have been deprived of.

So Shields takes on this intractable monolith of realism, the novel, and exposes the form for its calcifications, limitations, and, well, its sometimes God awful boringness (Shields says he’d rather die than read Jonathon Franzen—oh, if there were a literary death match on TV, I’d love to see Shields vs. Franzen).

It’s all about a definition of reality in the end. “Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art,” Shields writes (or does he write, because the book is an assemblage of short, aphoristic entries, many of which are plagiarized—with plagiarism operating as a premise of reality, so is it really plagiarism?).

There’s a disturbing complacency in how the majority of the reading public has come to unquestioningly accept the standards of literary fiction—usually written in the third person, adhering to Flauberts style indirect libre, removed from the heartbeat of reality that’s so immediate in a first person narrative of an essay or memoir that doesn’t adhere but explores, ventures, jaunts, and perhaps even fails.

Yes, fails.

Shields appreciates a text’s rawness—a messiness that is absent from much contemporary fiction and much of the real-life fiction foisted upon us in our lives, whether it takes the form of a politician, a newscaster, or an advertisement.

He prefers the essay—the attempt—to the polish of the three act plots that guide most novels. “My medium is prose, not the novel,” Shields writes.

By emphasizing prose, Shields neuters plot. To read in pursuit of the end, or at least the next, is one way to read, but Shields asserts the meaning of the moment, a narrative of pauses and drifts of dramatic tension (yes, dramatic tension that can occur without plot).
“The lyric essay doesn’t expound, is suggestive rather than exhaustive, depends on gaps, may merely mention,” he writes (quoting John D’Agata and Deborah Tall).

On the other hand, novels tend to be written toward conclusions instead of questions.

“The novel goes hand in hand with a straitjacketing of the material’s expressive potential,” Shields says. “You can always feel the wheels grinding.”

What fun is it to read such a grind of authorial construction? Somewhere within that grind, you can almost feel an agent or editor looking over the author’s shoulder. The click of a stopwatch that says it’s now time for the reversal, now time for the denouement.

Think simply of most characters in realist novels, who generally operate around one or two contradictions or counterpoints—life represented as relatively neat and tidy in comparison to the many personas and doubling backs and strivings that form most of us.

Shields is after something without so much artifice, which is why he says that memoir and creative nonfiction are the most compelling genres of our age. Life not as it’s represented via authorial filtering, but as it’s lived.

“Not only is life mostly failure, but in one’s failures or pettiness or wrongness exists the living drama of the self,” says Shields.

But here’s where I stub my toe with Shields. I don’t buy that the best “fiction” is being written as nonfiction, although I appreciate how he emphasizes the fictionality of nonfiction.

If anything, I feel that we’re living in an age where memoir has become bloated. As Neil Genzlinger put it so perfectly in the “The Problem with Memoirs,” “There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occur­rences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment. Anyone who didn’t fit one of those categories was obliged to keep quiet. Unremarkable lives went unremarked upon, the way God intended.”

I think what Shields is actually getting at is Camus’s thought that writing should be confession. “A guilty conscience needs to confess. A work of art is a confession.”

To use Franzen as an example again (just because I love picking on him), his novels read with the wheels grinding, the studious craft of storytelling guiding every sentence. But his novels don’t read as anything close to confession. And that’s the problem. To write with a sense of confession brings writer and reader closer to a hungered for reality.

To strive for authenticity is different than striving for what is real—and this is the crux that dooms much realistic fiction. The literal truths (which Franzen aspires to capture in his socioeconomic approach to characterizaiton) aren’t as important as the poetic truths (which, say, Bolano or Kundera aspire to).

“You adulterate the truth as you write,” says Shields.

Forms must change.

“If you want to write serious books, you must be ready to break the forms.”

And write manifestos. And break forms. And then write manifestos again. Here here.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Notion of a Reader: Poet Jack Spicer

After an odd, misguided lifetime of writing mainly in solitude, I’ve started to share my writing with others. Sometimes just for the hell of it, sometimes to have another simply witness my writing, sometimes with the idea of receiving useful, intelligent feedback—and sometimes for all of the above. The whole experience has given rise to thoughts about what it means to think of writing with actual flesh and blood readers in mind.

I’m more and more convinced that great art and great creations in general (yes, I believe in greatness, at least unless it includes me) are in essence collaborations, even if unwittingly. Would there be a Patti Smith without a Robert Mapplethorpe? A Jack Kerouac without an Allen Ginsburg? A Sartre without a de Beauvoir? A Brad Pitt without an Angelina Jolie (kidding)? And vice versa in all cases.

Life at its best is a constant riff, one idea arising from another in a wild, jazzy ping-pong match where you lose track of whose idea is whom's. That’s art for me, even if you have to shuffle back to your hovel to record it all in mildewed solitude.

Such chemistry is rare, almost divine I’ll venture, whether it’s in the form of a true artistic collaboration or simply the good fortune of finding a trusted reader. But just what makes for a good reader is worth pondering.

Despite going to grad school for creative writing, I’ve had many more bad readers than good ones (hence the years of writing in solitude, I suppose). When John Updike was asked who his ideal reader was, he once spoke of a teenage boy in a library, walking the aisles and pulling books off the shelves, more or less randomly, looking for literary adventure.

But I challenge Updike. His teenage boy is a nice notion, but I don’t want such an abstraction—it seems useless to be so removed from a real person who can receive one’s words.

Likewise, Harold Bloom posits that great writers feel an “anxiety of influence,” that they’re writing in a spirited competition to outdo their literary heroes, dead or alive (yes, a very male competitive notion of creativity).

Again, while I certainly write with influences and voices in my head, they’re more friends than competitors (could this be why I’m not a great writer?).

If love is a desire to reveal and relinquish at the same time that it’s a desire to possess and understand, then a writer wants to find a reader in the same mold. A writer wants to hold another with his or her words, to have a sense that words flow into feelings, that a pause is struck upon another’s gaze of life, if not a transformation.

You might say that the writer’s audience is always a fiction, a projection—as most of life is, certainly—but that’s not to say it doesn’t exist. Again, to pick up the metaphor of the writer as lover, a writer writes for effect, to give pleasure and meaning, to pique interest. It’s only with a loving or inviting recipient in mind that such effects can be achieved.

So what do I want from a reader? I used to think that I wanted a biting critique, a certain regimen for self-improvement, but I don’t think that’s necessarily so valuable. In the end, I want someone who’s fundamentally interested, who I feel wants to read me in that pure energetic and curious way that one person wants to know another.

If I feel that, then I can write to move another. I’ll scrutinize each word, make sure I’ve challenged each scene. I’ll know whether I’ve succeeded just by the enthusiasm of the response, not through any workshop critique (most of which end up as, “I want to know more about….” and more and more and more—sorry to all who've received such bad reading from me, which I'll call "stuck in the workshop rut of response").

I’ll leave the teenage boys looking for books in libraries and the writerly workshop folks to others. The ideal reader is not someone who adores without question, but one who wants to love and be loved, which as anyone who has loved knows, can be a quite complicated scenario. I’d expect nothing less than complexity from any reader. I’d never want a lover who didn’t challenge, scrutinize, dare, and sometimes ignore.

So reader as friend, lover, source of generosity, curiosity, yet intelligent and critical and biting if necessary, or something along those lines. But a real person.

This is all a lead-in to a piece the Bay Area poet Jack Spicer wrote on audience—in the form of a letter to Lorca (an essay on audience with a dead poet in mind, you might say—but an audience nevertheless).

Dear Lorca,

When you had finished a poem what did it want you to do with it? Was it happy enough to merely exist or did it demand imperiously that you share it with somebody like the beauty of a beautiful person forces him to search the world for someone that can declare that beauty? And where did your poems find people?

Some poems are easily laid. They will give themselves to anybody and anybody physically capable can receive them. They may be beautiful (we have both written some that were) but they are meretricious. From the moment of their conception they inform us in a dulcet voice that, thank you, they can take care of themselves. I swear that if one of them were hidden beneath my carpet, it would shout out and seduce somebody. The quiet poems are what I worry about—the ones that must be seduced. They could travel about with me for years and no one would notice them. And yet, properly wed, they are more beautiful than their whorish cousins.

But I am speaking of the first night, when I leave my apartment almost breathless, searching for someone to show the poem to. Often now there is no one. My fellow poets (those I showed poetry to ten years ago) are as little interested in my poetry as I am in theirs. We both compare the poems shown (unfavorably, of course) with the poems we were writing ten years ago when we could learn from each other. We are polite but it is as if we were trading snapshots of our children—old acquaintances who disapprove of each other’s wives. Or were you more generous, Garcia Lorca?

There are the young, of course. I have been reduced to them (or my poems have) lately. The advantage in them is that they haven’t yet decided what kind of poetry they are going to write tomorrow and are always looking for some device of yours to use. Yours, that’s the trouble. Yours and not the poem’s. They read the poem once to catch the marks of your style and then again, if they are at all pretty, to see if there is any reference to them in the poem. That’s all. I know. I used to do it myself.

When you are in love there is no real problem. The person you love is always interested because he knows that the poems are always about him. If only because each poem will someday be said to belong to the Miss X or Mr. Y period of the poet’s life. I may not be a better poet when I am in love, but I am a far less frustrated one. My poems have an audience.

Finally there are friends. There have only been two of them in my life who could read my poems and one of that two really prefers to put them in print so he can see them better. The other is far away.

All this is to explain why I dedicate each of my poems to someone.


To Write or Not to Write. To Be or Not to Be.

I never had a good writing teacher, or at least not until I actually attended grad school in creative writing. I actually don’t even recall being taught to write. It was more like a checklist. Topic sentence. Check. Thesis. Check. Conclusion. Check. With some grammar tossed in.

Learning how to write was an exercise similar to memorizing facts in my schools, akin to knowing how to spell the words on a spelling test even if you didn’t know their meaning. It wasn’t something that was practiced in a genuine way with any idea of, say, an audience, a reader who you might want to move or persuade.

In the hierarchy of school subjects, writing was just a notch above penmanship in elementary school. If you had the gumption to copy your research paper from a World Book Encyclopedia and put it in a nice cover, you usually got an A (I essentially learned how to write by plagiarizing, which isn’t a bad technique, but that’s another story). It was a variation of the same in high school. To write well, to write in a probing and expressive way, to wend through nuanced meanings or titillate with mellifluous flourishes—or just write for the simple joy of it—no.

I think alliteration might have been alluded to in a random reading of a poem in high school. I didn’t hear the phrase “vivid verb” until a twelve-year-old kid I tutored mentioned it to me—this was post-college.

In fact, I learned a lot about writing while standing in front of a classroom and teaching it as a marooned adjunct community college composition professor, scared as hell as I stared into students’ searching, scrutinizing eyes. I was afraid because I’d never been trained to teach such a thing (and teacher training, not to mention a teacher community, is quite valuable in such moments, trust me, because there are few things more frightening than being a teacher in a classroom and not knowing how to do it).

I don’t mean to unnecessarily disparage my teachers—I don’t think they were equipped or encouraged to teach writing. Perhaps they had the same feeling I did when I first opened a composition textbook and taught grammar as if a comma was something one took out of a kitchen drawer, the one right next to the drawer with the colons and semi-colons in it.

Which brings me to my point: the disturbing news that the National Writing Project lost its funding last week. The National Writing Project, where I’m employed, is one of the nation’s preeminent writing organizations because of its “teachers teaching teachers” model of professional development. Teachers attend NWP summer institutes at more than 200 sites across the U.S. each year and write—because you can’t teach writing without writing yourself—and examine, explore, and demonstrate effective classroom practices, whether they involve journals, blogs, wikis, or post-it notes (the ideas and the creative uses of various tools is just amazing). And then those teachers teach other teachers in their regions through their local sites.

It’s an organization that has proven to be very effective in its 37 years.

But why is writing important? Why shouldn’t it stay just a step above good penmanship?

Writing is thinking. It’s as simple as that for me. Try it out the next time you have a thought to explore. Pause and write it down and flesh it out and you’ll find yourself testing it, adding counterpoints and layers and details, and the thought will sink into your consciousness and anchor itself there in a way that it wouldn’t have otherwise. You might even change your whole thought in the process—and that’s the definition of thinking, isn’t it? Just like a scientist testing a theory in a laboratory and revising it depending on the outcomes.

Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, two scientists, explore a number of benefits of writing in their book Sparks of Genius, which analyzes the 13 thinking tools of the world’s most creative people (Robert Root-Bernstein, a professor of physiology at Michigan State was awarded a MacArthur “genius grant” himself). Writing weaves its way through modes of thinking such as “recognizing patterns,” “analogizing,” and “synthesizing” that have produced Einsteins in all fields.

For example, the Root-Bernsteins say that writing is important across disciplines because it aids such important thought processes as observation and imaging—noticing the things that often go unnoticed and visualizing things from other realms. A thinker can model a theory through words, pen keen observations (think of Piaget constructing his theory of child development with his notebook in hand as he watched his children), or develop empathy for another by entering “into the person you are describing, into his very skin, and see the world through his eyes and feel it through his senses,” as Willa Cather put it.

Cather describes more than empathy, though; she’s really discussing the genesis of a  perspectivist mindset that goes beyond the narcissism of a child’s mind. To go into another’s skin, after all, is the first step in being able to hold various viewpoints in mind and see the world in its multifarious truths. (Remember F. Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of a first-rate intelligence: “the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.")

Isn’t this the kind of sophistication we want from students? Isn’t this the foundation of such traits as tolerance, grace, humility, creativity, critical thinking, understanding, and problem-solving that a democratic society relies on to function? I’d venture to say that it even provides the foundation of a constructive bipartisan approach, God forbid, so perhaps our representatives in D.C. should take a break to write about what the other side might be thinking. Gosh, how transformative that might be.

Without good writing teachers, I don’t worry about kids like me so much. I was a strange kid because I would go to the stationery store and lovingly stare at the assortment of pens and notebooks like other kids might go to a candy store and drool over lollipops. I was fascinated by the instruments of writing, genetically inclined in a peculiar way. I owned my first diary (with a nifty and necessary lock) when I was only five or six. I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t write.

Still, what I would have given for one of the teachers I’ve met through the National Writing Project to actually teach me how to write at an early age—and without copying World Book Encyclopedia entries. To feel the passion and purpose of words. To rank writing at the top of the academic hierarchy.

So I worry about the students who don’t dote on fountain pens in their free time. The mathematicians who might think that math is only about numbers, or the scientists who think science happens only in test tubes, not to mention the kids who could open a door into their souls and understand themselves in this crazy world just a little bit by writing their stories.

The Root-Bernsteins wrote Sparks of Genius in part because “ever-increasing specialization is clearly leading to a fragmentation of knowledge” in our schools. We’re losing the benefits of the multiple approaches for true creative thinking. “Learning to think creatively in one discipline opens the door to understanding creative thinking in all disciplines. Educating this universal creative imagination is the key to producing lifelong learners capable of shaping the innovations of tomorrow,” they say.

I don’t think the keys to making the world a better place require much research. If everyone ventures into the world with a true desire to explore it and their place in it and tries to articulate their experience in a meaningful way that creates dialogue, I trust that we’ll be all right, no matter one's political persuasion.

Yesterday I walked into my son’s public school and watched the kids buoyantly dash around in their wondrous world of play and thought how the school should be a source of hope, but it’s not. I turned to see stressed-out, unsupported teachers and stressed-out, unsupported parents trying to keep all of the pieces in place. We’ve lost ground each year despite the energetic efforts of all of us who now show the ragged edges of our toil. Third-grade test scores are already being used to plan future prison capacity in the state. I’ll watch a boy dash to the swings and wonder who he’ll be running from ten years from now.

When I was in fifth grade I first encountered the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and I was fascinated by the arguments on each side—and still am. I’m afraid I argue much less fervently for the power of the pen these days, though. I’ve seen the sword in all of its various guises win too many times (the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, etc., no matter who’s president).

The people with pens in their hands will be the ones making sense of it all in the end, however, whether they’re writing about climate change or writing apocalyptic novels. If the sword wins, I know those holding the swords will have to look to the scribes to understand the world they’ve created. They might even pick up a pen themselves.

So we shouldn’t sacrifice the teaching of writing. Now more than ever in our fast-paced world, we need to honor that mysterious pause that occurs when one sits down to type or write words. It’s in that pause that we discover the rudiments of thought itself, almost without even knowing it. So if you want to take out your pen and take on the swords, go to NWP Works to help out.