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.