Monday, April 24, 2017

The Doubt Trilogy, Episode Three: It took me a long time to make this crappy graph to explain my feelings

I have terrible skills. I've been trying for over a week now to make a simple graph using some tool in the Microsoft Office toolbox, and I keep failing. This graph does a pretty good job of explaining my limitations in life. I've finally opted for just drawing the damn thing and taking a picture of it. Here it is:

Behold my mad skills





This is more or less a self-explanatory graph. When comparing performance across an array of standardized tests to actual intellectual ability, the deltas in actual intellectual ability of the majority of the population can be charted in fashion that shows steady growth from one end to the other. Only the extreme outliers defy this linear growth. No amount of effort can turn a mortal into a genius, and no amount of slacking can turn you into a genuinely mentally handicapped person. At the two extreme ends, people are born that way.

Yes, I realize standard tests are flawed, and there are all kinds of intellectual abilities that tests may miss. Let's pretend those issues don't exist for the purpose of this discussion. 

One important thing to note is that the difference in real intellectual chops between someone at 98 and someone at 95 on the X axis is probably a bigger difference than that between someone at 90 and someone at 65. We normal folk are pretty much all alike, and our differences are in scale, not in kind.

As you can see, I tend to score in the low-to-maybe-mid 90s, percentile-wise, on almost every standardized test I take. I once got it into the high 90s on one part of the GRE, but otherwise, I'm very reliably in the very-good-but-not-genius realm.

I used to think I could get into the exponential growth part of the graph with hard work

For a long time, I was very angry with the way television shows portrayed very intelligent people, like Gregory House or Bones or everyone from Big Bang Theory. The portrayal was always that very smart people: 1) Just are that way, and 2) Are all weird. My belief was that usually, very intelligent people are just normal people who worked hard at something. Furthermore, I didn't believe highly intelligent people were normally good at everything--only at the things they'd disciplined themselves to be good at.

I have begun to accept that this understanding of intelligent people as ordinary people who worked hard really only applies to people like me. There is a whole class of people out there who really just are in a class I will never get to, no matter how hard I work. I've gone about as far as hard work can take me already.

The frustrating thing is that I've worked hard enough to appreciate the work of the people above me, but never can work hard enough to be one of them. This is a special kind of hell, and probably what led the writer of Ecclesiastes to proclaim that with much wisdom comes much sorrow. He must have been a low-90s guy, too.

I remember I once wrote a poem vowing to keep working until I'd become a luminary. The poem I wrote took an epigraph from Luis Cajas Silva's "El Contador de las Estrellas" (The Counter of Stars). Cajas' poem features the image of a young boy counting stars: one, two, three, four. Of course, you can't count them all. But in my poem that riffed off Cajas, I vowed I would keep counting as though I believed I really could count them all. It was like Yossarian rowing to Switzerland. No matter how absurd, I was committed to it.

For some reason, I saw writing as the most important cluster of stars to count

Writing for me was the best yard stick to measure of how many stars I'd counted. Maybe because it was hard, or because it required knowledge of many subject to do well. So I put a lot of effort into it, when maybe I'd have ended up a lot happier and in a better place in life if I'd just put that level of effort into becoming a programmer or an engineer or an HVAC technician. 

I don't think it's in me to be a great writer. Not truly great. I'm good, maybe very good with some of the best stuff I've written. But I'm not great. If you set out to be a great engineer and only turn out to be good, there is still a nice living to be made. There's only room in fiction for about nine people to make a living doing it. More important to me than making money out of it, there just aren't a lot of writers who get read, who have any influence.

While working as a fiction reader for a journal that pays only $40 for published stories, I just can't get over how many good writers there are in the world. I've never felt as superfluous as I have in the last six months. And I feel superfluous a lot. I work for an organization so big, it takes me 15 minutes to walk in from the parking lot.

So there you have it: my trilogy of reasons to feel like focusing so much on writing is a huge waste of time, even though I've just finally had a tiny bit of forward momentum with it.

When I was young, I felt it was important to try for what I really wanted to do, even if the odds of failing and the consequences of failing were so severe. It's normal, I guess, for young people to dream big. Now, I'm older and a little bit tired. I worry about money all the time. It's not uncommon for me to wish my younger self had helped out my older self by throwing effort after something a little more practical.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Doubt Trilogy, Episode Two: Literary Erectile Dysfunction

Pop quiz, hotshot.  I’m supposed to be doing my homework, but you find me upstairs reading a Playdude.  What do you do?  What do you do?” – Bart Simpson 

“I make you read every article in that magazine, including Norman Mailer’s latest claptrap about his waning libido.” – Shary Bobbins 

I have a pretty simple way of deciding when I've got a real story I need to write and when I've just got an idea I should let lie. A real story has the urgency of a sexual impulse: you're going to do what needs to get done in order to write the story, and nothing's going to get in your way. Think of horny teenagers, and all the obstacles they have in their way to fulfilling their sexual desires: no private room, sometimes no car, curfews, parents checking up on them. They seem to overcome these issues without any great problem, because they want to have sex more than they want to anything.

Now imagine, that your are in your forties and your house is being fumigated. So you, your spouse and your kids are temporarily living in your parents' home. And one or the other comes knocking on your door every 15 minutes. How in the mood would you feel? You're 45. You've got work tomorrow. You going to overcome the obstacles, do what it takes to accomplish the objective? Imagine 16-year-old using these excuses to pass up a night in the same room and the chances to have sex it would afford.

Age just seems to take the urgency out of it. I mean, you can still perform, but it's not the same thing. It can wait while you take care of other things.

That's what writing has started to feel like. It's not that I've become unable to write at all (that never happens to me, baby, I swear!), but the obstacles in the way seem a lot more formidable than they did even just a couple of years ago. If I had a story that came to mind back then, I was agitated until I got a complete rough draft done. Two days later, I'd be touchy to be around until I felt I'd made it look more like a complete draft. I needed to be moving forward. I just don't feel that way now. I've had the same character note sitting on my notepad for a month, and I just wrote a page of a rough draft today.

The book that's coming out has something to do with it. I've been editing and re-editing the same stories, and that's not the most joyous or purely artistic part of the writing process. So many I'm just drained from overwork.

But this lethargy coincides with a physical and mental deterioration I've felt speed up in the last few years. I work out as much as I ever did, but I'm about 10% weaker now than I was at this time two years ago. Mentally, I'm starting to have a very hard time remembering words or people's names that I've known for a long time. Not with every sentence, but with a few sentences a day. I have to re-route the word or name I'm looking for by using associative clues until some synapse in my brain is able to route the thing I'm looking for. None of this is enough to keep me from writing, but it's clear I'm past my prime. I really wish I'd figured out some of the basics earlier in life, when I still had the mental vigor to put it to use.

I wonder how worth it the struggle is to try to keep moving forward developing as a writer when I can feel myself diminishing in so many ways. Some writers extended their writing careers by waxing philosophical about the passing of youth, but they'd already established themselves with more energetic stuff when they were younger. I still need to get my best stuff out, but to do so means keeping up with a more insatiable mistress than I might be capable of.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Doubt Trilogy, Episode One: What good is an artsy story?

Self-doubt so deep, it's going to need some sequels...

I read a really great short story a couple of weeks ago, so of course I've kind of been feeling like shit since then. The story was "The Devil's Triangle" by Emma Duffy-Comparone. Karen Carlson, who just keeps doing her thing at A Just Recompense, was nice enough to point at that Duffy-Comparone is also the writer of "The Zen Thing," which, like "Triangle," won a Pushcart Prize. I thought both were great stories.

I don't feel shitty because she's far more successful than me. That's true of zillions of writers. It's complicated. I'll try to unpack it. I tried to get all the overlapping zones of uneasiness I'm feeling into one post, but it was impossible. Let's start with one more or less consistent thought.

It's good in a way I can't be good...

She has a knack for punchy and imaginative metaphorical language. I can go to almost any page to find an example:

"Claire's guinea pig, Pam, sat on chicken wire, breathing rapidly. Mika had taken her when she moved out of the apartment. Now the animal was barely recognizable, polka-dotted with scarlet sores like sucked cough drops, her nails brown and corkscrewing into her feet, her left eye oozed shut, the right cloudy as if rinsed with half-and-half."

...but that's not the problem

I just don't write like that. Which is fine, everyone writes to their strengths. A lot of writers I admire don't write like that. But I guess I've lately felt shamed into thinking I should want to write like that. A friend recently sent me this interview by David Vann, in which Vann praised "the quiet and beautiful books, Latinate in style, not violent, slow-paced..." The literary equivalent of Manchester by the Sea, let's say. Sometimes, I feel like that kind of writing is the only "serious" writing. Or at least the only writing that is taken seriously.

but what's the point of that kind of narrative?

I liked Manchester by the Sea. I really did. Okay, not for like the first hour. But eventually, I liked it. It was "quiet and beautiful," to use Vann's phrase. It was also very "slow-paced." The subdued tones, the attention to small things, made the few outbreaks of raw emotion far more poignant when they broke out. I'll admit, I found that scene, when Lee and Randi finally try to talk about the loss of their children, extremely moving. There were two characters I found very believable for the way they tried with so much earnestness to say the unspeakable to one another, and it's hurting them that they can't find the words, so they strain harder to get the words out, but they just can't.

Duffy-Comparone's story had a similar emotional approach and outcome. It is the story of triplets, but one is gone and, by now, beyond just "presumed" dead. The other two, who are now just "twins," are trying, each in their own failed ways, to move on. After pages and pages of slowness, of cloudy-brained wandering through a landscape of sharp details, we get an explosion in the last few pages. The ending, when they both seem to have hit their rock bottom and appear ready to maybe eventually take some baby steps toward moving on, is probably close to how the actual getting over something like that would be. So maybe the reader has experienced vicarious loss and redemption on a microcosmic scale by reading it.

But what has all this emotion accomplished? St. Augustine mistrusted poetry for causing these very same kinds of vicarious emotions:"forgetting my own wanderings, and to weep for the death of Dido, who slew herself for love, while I looked with dry eyes on my own most unhappy death, wandering far from Thee, O God, my life. For what is so pitiful as an unhappy wretch who pities not himself, who has tears for the death of Dido, because she loved Aeneas, but none of his own death, because he loves not Thee?" 

To put it in a more secular way, what good does it do for me to feel emotion over a story if it doesn't result in a change in my way of living in the world? Or, barring that, at least a significant change in my thinking? Proponents of literature like to say that literature (and stories in any form) make us see life more sympathetically by living it through the perspective of another. Fine, I suppose Manchester and "The Devil's Triangle" did that. Moreover, maybe by experiencing the pain of another person whose life we can view with a blend of both emotion and objectivity, we can learn to better process our own pain. 

Those seem like nice things, but they can't be enough to give literature the honored place in world culture it has had for thousands of years. 

An example I can actually think of where fiction might have made me a better person

Here's an example of a story that changed my life: I was about to leave Chicago to come to Maryland and start my job after graduate school. I saw Monster, which is based on a true story, but parts of it were obviously imagined. Aileen Wuornos just has bad damn luck. Most of the world shits on her. A few people are kind to her, but their kindness is not enough or not timely enough to make a difference. The movie doesn't really excuse Wuornos for becoming a serial killer, but it does make one wonder how things would have turned out for her if she had received a little more kindness when it might have still done some good. The last murder she commits is of a man who picks her up and, when she offers to have sex with him, says he'd rather offer her a meal and a place to stay. He and his wife have a room, he says. But it's too late for her. 

I left that movie wondering what difference it would have made if he'd been there ten years earlier. So I decided I would try to make enough money that I would have a spare room in my house to give to someone who needed it. 

I don't think that's the point of most current fiction

That's a pragmatic outcome of fiction. But I don't think that's the outcome most contemporary fiction is going for. A story is considered successful if it merely creates a simulacra of real emotion in the reader/viewer. It is, to use the phrase from Anis Shivani I've already quoted a few times, "cheap counseling for a bereaved bourgeoisie." 

Contemporary fiction often seems not to be offering anything to say about the nature of suffering its characters go through. It's trying to be, itself, a way to experience and overcome suffering. It's not a means to express something, it's the ends. The words and images and internal emotional logic of the fiction are a world unto themselves. The idea isn't to say something true about the world, to hold up a mirror to society. It's to become its own world. A story has succeeded when it becomes itself.

 Meanwhile, in the real world...

 One of my first workshop heretic moments came in 2003, when I openly wondered in class about what the point of writing the kind of poems and stories we were trying to write was. One poet got very angry with me. How could I say there was no point to writing poetry? A woman in Nigeria had just been acquitted of stoning to death for adultery because people wrote about it! I wanted to ask her how many poems she thought the judges had read. More than likely, they read about one document: an order from a government official to let her off. And that official had probably read a threat from a Western ambassador or two. No poems, I'm going to guess.

 I posted a few weeks back about the struggles of a woman I know to get medical care for her daughter, who has a severe medical condition. That post was partly the result of buzzed blogging, but it was also a result of listening to Chris Hayes' interview about his book A Colony in a Nation. He took time to talk about how the proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act would especially hurt mentally ill people. It was non-fiction, and I found it far more moving than any story I can remember reading lately. 

What story could I write that could be as necessary as Bandi's The Accusation, which is fiction but of a pointed political nature, a cry for a people and a finger wagging directly at a dictator?

But this book's coming out...

I have so much more work to do now that I have a book coming out. I have editing. I have decisions to make about the cover, the credits. I'm supposed to do readings and promote myself and send my book to be reviewed and get people to write blurbs for the back of the book and generally become my own literary pimp. Then, I need to write more so I can follow this up and keep marketing myself.

A friend of mine was once a chess player with a very strong rating. I'm jealous of that, because I like chess and wish I were as good as him. I'm always surprised he stopped playing. I recently asked him why, and he said, "I got to be better than 99% of players with X level of effort. But it would take X^2 level of effort to become better than 99.1% of players. I thought my time would be better spent getting good at something else."

As I think about jumping into the deep end of writing and whether it is a humanly enriching enough activity to justify a much deeper time and energy commitment than I have so far given it. How, for example, will writing allow me to keep that room in my house for someone to use? If writing can't provide something better for the world than that, what I am doing spending my time doing it?       

 






Tuesday, April 11, 2017

A poetic interlude from a reader

I've been stuck on one of my meatier posts for over a week. While I'm sorting that out, here is some fan poetry. It's from an anonymous reader who posts here a lot. He has a knack for nailing the style of a Shakespearean sonnet. I don't know much else about him. He is shrouded in mystery. It wouldn't surprise me if he belonged to one of those esoteric, quasi-facetious secret societies. Anyhow, here is his poem, which he has given me permission to share here. It's untitled, so I guess we'll just call it "Sonnet #1." Actually, I bet he's written more. Let's call it "Sonnet #49."



There was a time when once I wanted -- ‘Twas youth--
To be a writer, known in verse or prose,
It made no difference what genre in truth
Provided fame, renown; so I then chose
 

A graduate program at great expense
To set me right with many sage workshops.
Professors lectured; students mirrored pretense,                                                

While I, as best I could, marked my path’s stops
 

And aimed full might and main at that master’s,                                             
Though empty ‘twere and paltry light in hand,
Nor could it vouchsafe gilt nor fame’s lustre,
And I found pale its shine, no brighter than sand,
 

Once done, and I’d on it means to reflect
And judge with doubts to make me heretic.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The human fallibility of literary journal editors

I'm into month five of my stint at a small-to-mid-sized literary journal. I just met the other readers a few nights ago. I realized that we informally call ourselves "readers," but the journal itself calls us "editors," so I am now, technically, permitted to refer to myself as an "editor." I demand respect now.

I realized something just yesterday as I was taking a few hours to try to help us catch up on the backlog. I have a few informal rules I've adopted without really saying I've adopted them. One is that I vote more leniently when I'm the first person to vote on a story. We generally have a "two no votes and it's out" rule. It seems to me, though, that when someone votes no in the first place, the story is more likely to get a second no and be gone. Maybe this is just because stories that get one no vote probably deserved a second, but I feel like even knowing that a story has been down-voted going in changes the perception of the editor. So I tend to up-vote more when I've gotten there first.

A more troubling tendency

In baseball, it's been known for some time now that umpires unconsciously shade their decision-making on calling balls and strikes. Among the biases: umpires are more likely to call a pitch a strike on a 3-0 count, less likely to call a strike on a batter with two strikes, and will sometimes show a "one-for-them, one-for-the-other-guys" tendency on close pitches.

Similar to the last of these biases, I've noticed that if I just upvoted a story, I am biased against upvoting the one right after it. Maybe I don't want to appear to the other editors like I'm too easy. Maybe I just think it's unlikely that lightning will strike twice in a row. Yesterday, I had two stories back-to-back and I wanted to give both an upvote. But I hesitated to do that, because it felt--on some completely bogus subjective level that I made up--to discredit me.

The moral is to take it easy on yourself when you get rejected

Umpires are slowly improving their biases with the help of highly accurate measurements of balls and strikes. (Many people, myself included, think Major League Baseball should just use the computer to call balls and strikes and take the human element out altogether.) Human literary editors may or may not be aware of their own biases. But we're humans, so we're full of them, including ones we might not be aware of. There is no computer-generated system we can use to show us where we're wrong.

Rejection is possibly the most common subject I come back to on this blog, and there's a reason. Since I found out I have a book coming out, I've had half a dozen rejections. They hurt nearly as much as they did three years ago. I don't know why it hurts, when I'm now watching the sausage get made and realize even more how imperfect decisions are. It just does.

Every writing blog or book of writing advice will tell you not to take rejection hard. It's cheap advice, but it's very hard advice to accept. "There was never yet philosopher that could endure the toothache patiently," Leonato put it in Much Ado About Nothing. Knowing something is so doesn't make it easy to accept it emotionally, especially when you've put so much work into writing something and get only an impersonal "no."

But maybe if you hear a truth enough times, you do start to internalize it, even if you don't want to. I am hereby adding by one to the number of times you've heard it, getting you that much closer to whatever that magic number is.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A point that may seem obvious, but someone should have said to me a long time ago

One thing that really held me back in my graduate hybrid writing/literature program was the fact that I'd barely read any modern literature. I'd guess a lot of literature students are in this boat. You know the drill: you take an "English Literature, 1688-Present" class, and after the three snow days, you only make it to 1875.

Add to this that I'd somewhere picked up the notion that anything new was trash. I don't know how exactly I developed this prejudice, but there were definitely enough subtle hints from people who were intellectually influential to me along these lines that it's not a surprise I picked it up.

Even if you take the stance that everything since the 19th century is garbage, if you want to be a writer now, you have to read modern literature. To have only read those who've come up against the big questions using a different diction than you is just foolishness. If only to avoid repeating what other contemporaries have done in trying to translate the old questions into a modern idiom, you need to be aware of what's happened in the last 100, and especially the last 20 years.

I'm still horribly under-read for a writer. I could read another 100 of the best novels of the past 100 years and still not be very immersed. I have to fix this if I want to go further with writing.

So I simply call the prejudice to your attention, in case it is subtly or not-so-subtly in your mind as well. Like most prejudices, it will do you no good. Of course you have to go back in time to get a foundation in where modern literature comes from. But a foundation does you no good if you don't ever get past the second floor.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Problems I'd have been happy to have three years ago: What the &$&# do I call my book?

The reader I always had in mind for this blog was someone like me: struggling to get stuff published, wondering if what you write is any good, deciding whether to keep struggling on or just give up. If that's you, then I hope this post isn't throwing my happiness in your face, like Facebook posts about some vacation you can't afford. It shouldn't feel like that: I'm one of the eleven thousand people this year publishing a book of short stories from a small press. If I'm insanely lucky, I'll sell 1,000 copies. So it's not like I just hit it big, commercially speaking, and can soon quit my day job and go live in fabulous Martinsburg, West Virginia.

Still, I've got a book coming out, which is a huge step in the right direction. Even if I sell only one copy each to my mom and my dad, I'll have a physical thing that shows that I did something. (There will also by virtual things out there in the form of an e-book version.)

There are a lot of decisions I have to make before the book comes out. The first one has to do with the title. It's a big joke in writing that publishers hate short story collections; they can't sell them. They're a little happier with it if the stories "go together" in some way--if they're all about selling drugs, or teenage angst, say. Mine really don't go together. Four are stories inspired by Ethiopian or Eritrean refugees. The rest are all over the place.

One typical strategy is to pick one of the stories in the collection, one you think is strong, and name the whole collection after that. That's what I did when I turned the collection in to the judges. I called it "Dogs and Days Don't Wait to be Called," which is a Tigrinya proverb I'm really fond of, and also the name of the last story in the collection. That was the name the judges used in the announcement.

I'm not tied to it, of course. We have plenty of time before the book comes out to decide, and a long editing process ahead of us. But what would I change it to?

Most of the judges, while all telling me how much they loved the book and that it was a unanimous choice, said they're weren't so crazy about the title. The problem, they said, was that they kept forgetting it.

In an earlier version of the manuscript, which I submitted to various places and lost, I had more stories in the collection that could be considered "bro lit." So I called the collection "Man Problems," even though none of the individual stories was called that.

There really isn't one unifying theme or idea behind these stories. So I don't think that strategy will work. I'm probably going to have to go with just naming it after one of the stories within the collection. I like the one that's there now, but the judges (who are also the editors, some of them with some impressive credentials) have advised against it. I don't really like any of the other stories as a name for the whole book. Somebody suggested "The Strongest I've Ever Been," the name of another story, but while I like it for that story, I feel like a book named that sounds like a self-help book.

It won't really make much difference for sales, by my estimation. The marketing choices for this are probably going to be inconsequential to sales. Even a sales difference of 25% overall between the right name and the wrong one might be 100 only books. At the magazine where I'm a reader, I see story titles I think are terrible come in all the time. I still read them. I figure if the story's good, it's easy to change a title.

So it's not the marketing that's making me think about the decision so much as what my choices say about me. The consideration of following my own instinct versus listening to professional advice seems to be perennial. I want to stick with my original title. But I'm finally getting a book published. Is my first act after that going to be to ignore the people who made it happen? They said it's up to me. I'll probably wait to the last minute and then flip a coin.