Anyone who knows me—anyone who has spent even 5 minutes with me—knows I care about writing. I care about many things, but writing is what I talk about the most. When I preach, it’s usually the Gospel of Language.
In this digital age, though, purposes get conflated easily. Take Facebook, which for me began as a way to keep up with old friends and acquaintances, and to meet new, potential friends, but which also functions as a kind of cut-rate publicist. Twitter, of course, is worse in this respect, magnifying the solipsistic tendencies of even the nicest people. Logging on to Twitter is like walking into a gymnasium filled with millions of people (it’s a big gym) and they’re all yelling at the top of their lungs. Nobody’s listening. Sometimes they listen just to re-shout what another person shouted a few minutes ago in a different corner of the gym.
I’m joking on the square, but I’m not giving up the digital life. I’ve had far too much success (and fun) online. I love Facebook, and, yes, Twitter. The night after we met, my future wife messaged me on Facebook. It was on a blog like this one that I first published interviews with some of my favorite authors. On Twitter, well, nothing has really happened on Twitter yet, but it might. You never know. I’ve made the acquaintance of writers whose books I’ve reviewed, writers I admire. I’ve even had some editors solicit work from me, and more than once. For connecting with the world, social media, if used properly, can provide a wonderful experience.
But I do feel a bit conceited about sharing my writing-related posts with my friends (just because they’re my friend or I met them once doesn’t mean I expect them to read everything I publish). And I feel doubly self-conscious about sharing my private life with wholly professional contacts. Does that famous writer I met one time—and who only dimly remembers me, if anything—really need to know how I feel about my grandmother? Does that person I met once at a party in college really want to read another book review I published in The Rumpus? Well, they might. Plenty of my professional contacts are also friends.
However, this post signals the end of my private and public internet presences getting mixed up. As much as I can, I’m going to untangle them. I know that the line of demarcation might be blurred, but that doesn’t mean I can’t try. What it really means that if you want to know anything about my writing, you’ll need to “like” the page on Facebook where I’ll post writing-related things, including literacy initiatives, articles by friends or interesting essays, jokes about writing and books, and, yes, my own work, although I’ll try to keep that to a minimum. The big thing is, I don’t want to double post something. I hate when my newsfeed fills up with the same posts from people. So if you don’t like my page, you’re going to miss a lot of what I post about. For some of you, this will be very sad. For others, it’ll be a huge relief.
I know well enough that I don’t really deserve what used to be called a “fan page” on Facebook. I haven’t accomplished much in the world of writing. However, at the same time, I am publishing consistently. I have 3 outstanding assignments right now, plus an article I’m writing on spec. I’m also working on the novel. In fact, last night, I stayed up well into the morning with one of my closest friends, talking about the book, taking notes on how I can make it come to life. I have over 10,000 words in the First-Time-Out (1XO) Draft. I have countless notebooks filled with scribbles that I’ve yet to transcribe. In less than a week, I’m traveling to the Eckerd College Writers’ Conference, where I’ll be working as a faculty assistant. In April, I’m traveling to Moscow, and, with another of my good friends, I’ll give a reading in the Third Rome, the Whitestone, the… Well, those are actually the only nicknames I’ve heard for Moscow.
When you add someone on Facebook, I think, they feel vaguely obligated to add you back. Not so with signing up for a feed. This is the last good reason to make a Page and Twitter (along with this blog): Anyone who follows me wasn’t pressured to add me after I met them at a conference or a party. They have a choice. Anyone who sees another post about a book review or a forthcoming short story brought it on him or herself. If you “like” the Facebook page or follow me on Twitter, I know that you believe in me, you enjoy my posts, and you want to keep hearing about my upcoming (mis)adventures: My time in Florida, my attempt to turn a typewriter into an iPad dock, my quest to build my own Little Free Library.
Everyone is invited. I hope you’ll seriously consider opting in.Read More
Since the 17th century, certain people have feared the number 13, ostensibly because of the connection to the number of guests at history’s first soon-to-be-a-murder-mystery dinner, The Last Supper, where one of the guests ended up betraying the Son of God and getting him executed. Later, of course, on Friday, 13, October 1307, hundreds of the Knights Templar were arrested and eventually executed, too, under the direction of Philip IV, also known as “Philip the Fair,” King of France.
But as I sit in my office and look out my second-story window over the snow and ice, I can’t help but feel optimistic about 2013. In fact, for whatever reason, I’m almost superstitious about it—as an agnostic and a writer I obdurately retain my capacity for any and all kinds of unfounded belief—and whatever your goals, hopes, or aspirations, I hope 2013 is a watershed year for you. Right now, I’m going to cut this blog post short, since I have time and quiet to write on my novel. Still, I’ll be thinking of you out there while I work, my friends who also write, or who act, or who compose, or who teach, or who are doing exceptional work in their chosen fields.
You know who you are.
Good luck.Read More
This Sunday, The Kansas City Star published their list of the 100 most important books of 2012. Of course, I don’t agree with all of them, and neither will you—still, I contributed a few, and I’d encourage anyone and everyone to pick them up and peek between the covers. Particularly, of course, those I would endorse, books I loved when I read them: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon, You Came Back by Christopher Coake, Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins, and The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty.
From my editor, Steve Paul:
If you think books have begun the inevitable death spiral in the overcrowded circus of our entertainment culture, here’s a reminder that much is alive and well in the world of literature and reading.
Our contributing reviewers, friends and other avid readers who helped compile The Kansas City Star’s Top 100 Books of 2012 had no trouble finding passion, quality and transporting armchair experiences to highlight.
This year seemed an especially big one for fiction and our top picks — the books that stand out as the best of the best — include an unexpected and eclectic range of page-turning hits, somber emotional journeys, suspenseful escapades and cogent, firecracker satire.
Inside you also will find recommended reading in nonfiction, history, biography and poetry as well as books for young readers. There are enough books here to make it through the coming winter, a season made warm by climate change, fireplaces and/or the power of words on page and screen.
A couple of weeks back, I fell behind on my novel-writing schedule. My goal was to polish a draft from my extensive hand-written notes and passages. I always write in a black Moleskine notebook with a Uniball Vision Rollerball pen, waterproof, fadeproof, with a micro point (.5 mm) tip. Usually, I write a sentence 7 or 8 times, crossing out my previous attempts, until the words form a construction I can live with. By the time I type it into a word processor, the sentence itself is several drafts ahead—in this way, I tell myself, even though it makes me a slower writer, the finished product has higher-quality workmanship. There is no scientific way to prove this.
I also keep my daily word counts in an Excel spreadsheet, a deadline-based form that calculates my goals on a rolling basis. It takes a deadline I set for myself (e.g., January 15, 2013) and then calculates how many words I need to write per day to reach my goal. On each line, a box turns from FALSE to TRUE if I hit that daily word count number. On the main page, a couple of charts tell me my overall percent progress into the book or project. Right now, those numbers are too low, and there’s far too many red boxes with the word FALSE in them. But I’m not giving up. I’m redoubling my efforts.
It’s time for a hard return to writing. Especially now, as so many people gear up for National Novel-Writing Month, or, as the abbreviation-obsessed call it, “NaNoWriMo.” So this week I set about writing and thinking about writing even as I struggled to keep from getting sick. Even as I planned to remodel my house, even as I worked at my full-time job during the day. I just forced myself to find the time. I also forced myself to read, and I’m about 75 pages into The Best American Short Stories 2012.
In the hours in-between, late at night, or early in the morning, I pitched freelance work. I sent out queries, and, in some cases, heard encouraging things from editors. I also set to work on the novel again. There’s nothing quite like the swollen, bloated, complicated anatomy of a novel, the sheer size and scope of it, the number of words a novel comprises—100,000 words for a 300-page book—and the number of ways you can go wrong when writing a creature like that into existence.
If you feel so inspired, feel free to share your stories of deadlines and goals with me in the comments section. I’d love to hear how your work is going. But even as I type this, I know that, if I write tonight, I might be able to get back in lockstep with my word-count deadline.
So it’s time to wrap this blog post up and get back to writing.Read More
Begin with an empty notebook. Or you can start with a blank word processing file, or a sheet of paper in a typewriter. But blankness remains essential. You will also need an imagination. Obstinacy helps, as does linguistic flexibility, so cultivate a diverse lexicon and “a refusal to believe what all sensible people know is true.”
Write. Keep writing. Fill that blankness up with the linear progression of your thoughts.
You will need optimism and pragmatism. Try to be a little insane. Not too insane, though. Just insane enough. If you can, try to suffer from a mild imbalance that enhances the creative abilities of artists, something like cyclothymic disorder. Don’t take it too far and become, like, an alcoholic or a solipsist, though God knows plenty of those have succeeded as novelists.
Do not mistake the encouragement of your friends and family members for the unbreakable single-mindedness you will need to write a novel. Other people cannot, by definition, dream your dreams for you. If your spouse wants your fiction to succeed as much as you do, then he or she is codependent or bizarre and should be regarded with suspicion. This is not to say that loved ones should hate your writing or that they should discourage you. Their reactions should fall somewhere on the spectrum from “That’s nice, honey,” to “Don’t you think you should stop watching TV and write or something?”
No one can help you. You have chosen to write a novel, a choice not unlike crossing the Empty Quarter in Saudi Arabia. You can buy all the supplies beforehand—books on writing, sunscreen and a keffiyeh, pens and pencils and programs that keep track of your characters—but once you’re lost in that desert, brother, no one can save you.
You have two choices: (1) Push through, survive, and return to civilization with your vision like a prophet of old; or (2) Turn back and give up and decide that you’re better off as a [Barista, Salesman, Proofreader, Copyeditor, Social Worker, English Teacher, CIA Agent].
Good luck. Remember, “More people fail at becoming successful businessmen than fail at becoming artists.”Read More
In 1932, almost 30 years before he entered the Mayo Clinic for “hypertension” and “a very old case of hepatitis,” Ernest Hemingway wrote a polemic to Paul Romaine, a bookseller and publisher in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The letter concerns Romaine’s assertion that Hemingway should play politics in his fiction. The response is as hilarious as it is belligerent.
“I do not follow the fashions in politics, letters, religion,” Hemingway rages. He goes on to assert, “There is no left and right in writing. There is only good and bad writing.”
“I’m no goddamned patriot,” he says, “nor will I swing to left or right.”
Besides being blustery and even homophobic—at one point he warns Romaine that “they want you to swallow communism as though it were an elder Boys Y.M.C.A. conference”—Hemingway’s letter highlights a well-established paradox. Fiction and democracy must each remain for the people and by the people. However, especially today, fiction and politics are completely antithetical terms.
First, definitions. Great novels have been written about politics or with explicit public agendas. Some examples include A Tale of Two Cities, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, All the King’s Men, and The Jungle. The disenfranchised make good material for fiction, of course, but that’s not the whole story; defined in a certain way, fiction is, as Jane Smiley suggests, “always political,” because it must concern a person’s relationship to a larger group of people.
So, on the one hand, there’s a long tradition of activist fiction.
The problem lies with political discourse, which encourages opposing sides to paint one another as caricatures. Anything that mocks complexity or flattens personalities cannot have an end goal of empathy. Worse than empathy-destroying propaganda, though, is false empathy, the I-feel-your-pain bullshit politicians engage in to win votes. Although it’s tempting to suggest this is a new problem, history points to the opposite conclusion.
John Gardner—who wrote plenty of polemics too—sums up the problem well when writing about John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath: An ignorant writer “never understands the dignity and worth of the people [he] has cast as enemies.”
Witness John Steinbeck’s failure in ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ It should have been one of America’s great books. But while Steinbeck knew all there was to know about Okies and the countless sorrows of their move to California to find work, he knew nothing about the California ranchers who employed and exploited them; he had no clue to, or interest in, their reasons for behaving as they did; and the result is that Steinbeck wrote not a great and firm novel but a disappointing melodrama in which complex good is pitted against unmitigated, unbelievable evil.
Disclaimer: Now, personally, I don’t think of Steinbeck’s dustbowl novel as harshly as Gardner does (perhaps one of fiction’s harshest judges). It’s easy to dismiss both Hemingway and Gardner as fascists, too, because they were both cut from a similar kind of inflexible cloth—and both were, ironically, conservative personalities, although “uncompromising” might be a better word for them. Certainly I reject most (if not all) of their social ideas and I find their personal lives reprehensible.
And yet every time I declare some “political truth” as I see it, or I see writers arguing and spewing on Twitter, I can’t help but wonder if they’re right. Writing is always political, and writing must always champion ideas, but discourse can take three forms: (1) political; (2) scholarly; and (3) literary. Writers need humility, empathy, and mindfulness.
The lowest form of discourse, political, relies on simplification and distortion; the highest, literary, should tell the truth about the world-as-it-is, no matter who gets hurt.
There’s room in the world for every kind of writer. There’s no wrong way to write a book. Still, if you want your fiction to be insightful, you can do worse than trying to elevate your prose to the literary level of discourse.
Or, to put it another way, we should aspire to raise the level of discourse for our political debates to that of literature, rather than lowering our literature to the temperature of politics.Read More
Six weeks ago, I broke my collarbone, and, no, it’s not an exciting story. Now, after too many x-rays and trips to the orthopedic surgeon’s office, I’m finally allowed to take off my sling. As injuries go, mine wasn’t serious. A clavicle fracture—even a complete break at the distal end like mine—heals without much doctoring. In the beginning, they told me, I had a 25% chance of surgery, which dropped to 5% after a couple of weeks. Mostly they prescribed a robust regimen of sitting around.
Of course, I couldn’t do that. I had a review outstanding for The Kansas City Star, and several smaller writing projects. I also work as a supervisor at a publishing company, and thanks to America’s healthcare system, I only missed 1 day—wait, actually, if I had missed two, I would have had to take unpaid time, and the company could have fired me without my having any legal recourse. They wouldn’t do that—this is a fair-minded company—but they would have been well within their rights. So I continued to come to work every morning at 7:30 am; I hoped every day that the bone fragments wouldn’t shift when I climbed into my car. Shifting bone fragments mean surgery. My arm still can’t lift anything, I’m sore from so much inaction, and I can’t raise my hands much higher than waist level; however, I’m a hell of a lot more mobile than I was even 2 weeks ago.
Here’s the best part: I can type again. Which means, of course, that I can write. And the lack of writing has been depressing. So I’m well on my way to a full recovery both physically and mentally.
Every story of a broken bone is different. Some people have funny stories, some have tragic stories. If you’ve got the time, post your story in the comments to this blog post, and share your experience of injury, the healing process, and—hopefully—recovery.
I’m looking forward to reading your comments.Read More