Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Shakespeare and soft suicidality: A Thanksgiving meditation

Ask any lay person to recite a Shakespearean soliloquy, and I'd wager eight out of ten people would start with "To be or not to be." That speech is to Shakespearean literature what the opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth are to classical music. It's strange, perhaps, that one of the best known and most cherished passages in the English language is an extended meditation on suicide, one that takes a fairly agnostic position on the subject--it'd be nice to try, but the risks seem kind of high. Personally, there are only three Shakespeare passages I can quote more than a few lines of without looking at the script: 1) To be or not to be; 2) "Out, out brief candle," from Macbeth; and 3) The "seven ages of man," from As You Like it.

Curiosity about death and suicide pervades the first of these three soliloquies; the second one from Macbeth is imbued with a nihilism that welcomes a coming death. The third, after a number of comical references, ends with terrible force by describing the end of human existence: "sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans...everything."

Shakespeare scholars warn us not to read any character's words as the real thoughts of Shakespeare. The term "negative capability" comes from Keats' reading of Shakespeare. It means, among other things, Shakespeare's ability to lose himself in his characters, so it's impossible to tell where the author's real sympathies lie. But even if those passages in Shakespeare that talk about suicide or question the meaning of life aren't meant to be met with full acceptance, it's hard to deny that these passages are among the ones that hit us in the face the hardest when reading Shakespeare. They're the ones that knock us down with their truth. When people comment today with amazement at how someone writing more than 400 years ago understood people so well, I imagine they are thinking of passages like this.

"Soft suicidality"; How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world.

I'm not suicidal. (Really, Karen--you don't have to worry!) I just don't enjoy life that much, and often find it nearly beyond my ability to manage, in spite of my good fortune. I realize I have it very, very good compared to most humans born into the world today and throughout history. I ought to be enjoying myself more. It's an affront, perhaps, to the fates to not enjoy my good fortune more than I do. If it makes you feel any better, my own guilt about the fact that I don't enjoy my good fortune more is itself one of the things that robs me of my joy. But I think life ought to offer more than just relative gratefulness, more than simply realizing that I'm not a sex slave or a Murle child in South Sudan or a North Korean prisoner of conscience. Life ought to be something to be grateful for in absolute terms.

My good fortune does not mean the world is good

I know better than anyone the good hand I was dealt. I have great parents. I have a really nice family. Everyone around me, outside the province of Mrs. Heretic's teeth, has wonderful health. I'm in the upper-middle-class in income, even if I manage to find new and inventive ways to squander that income.

And just because I haven't faced the worst this world has to offer doesn't mean I don't understand how horrible it can be and the fate I've been lucky to avoid. I have what you might call a long and intimate second-hand knowledge of just how horrifying the game can get for some people.

But telling me to be thankful because the really awful things didn't happen to me personally seems like some strange cousin of Stockholm Syndrome. To whom should I be thankful? To the God/Universe/Fate that allows some children to be born into slavery but not me personally? The fact that it happens at all should make us question to goodness of things. Falling to my knees to give thanks that things aren't as bad for me personally as they could be is what happens in the Book of Job. God terrifies Job, rather than giving an answer as to why the wicked suffer, and eventually, Job is frightened into stopping his questions. Might makes right.

I'll eat your pumpkin pie, just quit telling me to be thankful

There's another element to it. Telling me that I've got it better than most people is like the teacher who calls on you to give an answer, but right before you give your answer, the teacher says, "This is an easy one." Suddenly, all your confidence melts away. You can't win now. If you get it right, it was an easy one. If you miss it, you're a total moron. This is one reason why I get so annoyed with those people in my social media who keep posting that video with the condescending description, "for the people who still don't understand white privilege." It's not that I don't understand it. It's an easy idea. And it's not that I don't think it exists. It's that it's really not a helpful idea to me. All it makes me feel like is that my life is the "easy question," and if I do well, I was supposed to, and if I mess up, I'm double the screw-up anyone else is. In this sense, my blessings are...well, not curses, but less blessed, anyhow. I hate being told my life is an easy question, because the answer sure doesn't seem to be coming easy to me. EVEN THOUGH YES, BEING WHITE, MALE, AND STRAIGHT DOES MAKE IT EASIER. It's still hard for me. Just because others are doing advanced differential calculus doesn't mean I find algebra easy.

But Thanksgiving as we tend to practice it asks us to reflect on these very advantages we privileged folk have. You might as well have a holiday called "All the Reasons you Ought to be Doing Better Than You Are Day."

Taking time to realize that we've got it pretty good--and most people in America are probably in this category--might help us to keep from catastrophizing our problems. It might be good for our mental health and happiness to some extent. Realizing that the latest unexpected expense setting me back isn't a calamity on the level of civil war or famine can help keep me from dwelling too much on it. So to the extent that "Thanksgiving" is calling for an attitude of balance, fine.

It is DEFINITELY important to say thank you to the people in our lives who make it better, both for our own good and also out of just plain politeness.

But I am tired of being told to make generalized, omni-directional thankfulness a perpetual attitude.

Life is hard. If it's not hard for you, I'd guess you don't think about it too much. Good for you. If that's true, feel free to ooze all the thankfulness you want. But the ubiquity of sentiments like those of Hamlet or Macbeth seem to me like a pretty good indication that it has always been recognized that life is a struggle, a struggle so trying it's not entirely clear that it's worth the trouble.

When I eat too much good food this year, surrounded by the people who keep me on the affirmative side of life being just good enough to keep going, I'll count myself incredibly lucky. But lucky doesn't mean thankful. 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

On writing drunk

The subject of writing drunk--namely, whether it's a good idea for a writer--is one that pops up now and again on writing sites. Some really believe it helps with the creative process by freeing the mind of inhibitions and getting the brain to open up to new possibilities. Some think the benefits are imagined, and that in any event, drinking past a certain point will make your writing so incoherent, any benefits you've gained from freeing your mind will be offset by the nonsense of your prose when looked at in the cold light of the next day.

One common means of trying to marry the mental liberation of alcohol with the benefits of clear-mindedness is the old aphorism, often credited to Hemingway, of "write drunk, edit sober." That is, use alcohol as an aid to opening up creativity while slapping down that first draft, but then look at it later with a more critical eye, smoothing out the roughness left by your free-thinking drunkard. (At least one writing advice blogger tried this for a week.)

Just from a basic smell test perspective, this idea does make some sense. A lot of writers advise not censoring yourself too much during the first draft. Burroway's textbook on writing emphasizes the importance of "shitty first drafts," without which the stunning eleventh draft would never be possible. Just get it out there on the page. You can fix shit, but you can't fix nothing.

My writing relationship with alcohol

I do drink while writing sometimes. I don't drink much--maybe once a week--so it's easy for me to get a rapid buzz going. I don't so much drink because I feel it helps me write as I drink because I tend to write a lot on the weekends, and that's when I also like to drink. I don't want to write and then drink, because by the time I'm done writing, it's a little late to get my drink on, so I tend to just multi-task and do both at once.

I can't say whether alcohol helps with creativity. It's a little hard to tell, because I can't isolate alcohol enough to make it a controlled variable. There are some nights where Mrs. Heretic and the kids are happily doing their own thing, I have several hours of uninterrupted writing, and I get a lot done. If I happened to have been drinking during that time, I might credit it to the alcohol when in fact, it was more just the peace and quiet. Since I write around work and fatherhood, I sometimes get up in the wee hours of the morning to write before anyone else is up, and that can oftentimes be as productive as drinking and writing in the late hours on the weekend.

I don't think the alcohol makes me a better writer. But, it does probably have one very profound effect on me while I'm writing. The most frequent reason I stop writing before getting done what I'd wanted to is self-doubt. "This is shit, I'm wasting my time, writing is stupid and so am I." That's probably how about one in three writing sessions ends for me. But I'm invariably a happy drunk. It helps me get past my own self-loathing long enough to get something onto the page.

I took a long time getting to where I drank at all. My first drink was at 23. The first time I got drunk, I was 27. After that, I would still sometimes go an entire year without drinking any alcohol. I had a weird sort of philosophy. I believed life was shitty, and that it was the responsibility of a serious thinking person to face the full shittiness of life without pain killers. I think I was under the impression that if I dulled my senses at all, I'd end up thinking life was less awful than it is, and I'd see it in a less truthful way. In the last, say, five years or so, however, I've become far more flexible on the subject. I'm just trying to make it to fifty. If a little booze-backed vacation from my problems every now and again helps me get there, I'm no longer going to deny myself that. I'm like a mother who swore off taking an epidural during labor who finally, after two or three kids, gave in and got one. Now I just wonder why it took me so long.

I certainly think that drinking and writing is worth a try. Don't drink so much you're out of it. Try to find that happy buzzed zone and stay there. There is somewhat mixed evidence that moderate alcohol can make you better at foreign languages; there's no reason to think that wouldn't be true of using your native language creatively.

-Composed whilst drinking Weyerbacher's Blithering Idiot; edited the following morning while drinking tea.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Dialect--yeah, I've got no good answers, either

Mark Twain and Uncle Remus are well-known examples of great American literature with a heavy use of dialect, but nowadays, excessive use of dialect is generally frowned upon. It isn't so much that you can't use it, it's that the generally accepted advice on dialect now is to aim for moderation.

Even in a novel that calls out for some use of dialect, like Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railraod, the dialect is very sparse, mostly not going beyond the occasional "ain't." Whitehead partly manages this by getting his main character, Cora, an education before she's too far along in the book. But even before that, the dialogue in the book probably doesn't very closely represent the actual speech patterns of Georgia field slaves in the 19th Century. A few examples:

-Ain't this a nice mansion?
-Mighty fine work. That a little bed in there?
-"Nothing today, Cora? Alice said. "Too early," Cora said.
-"Almost had it," Cora said.

The main technique Whitehead uses to achieve moderation in use of dialect is one common to a lot of modern high fiction: he just avoids using a lot of dialogue at all. The book really doesn't have any of those sections where you get through four pages in about sixty seconds because it's all back-and-forth. Not only is the dialect done sparingly, the dialogue is.

I wonder why fiction has chosen to go this route with both dialect and dialogue. Why are both treated almost with suspicion? One obvious hypothesis is that fiction feels the need to give its audience something different from drama or cinema/video. If you want dialogue, they can do it better, so a fiction writer would be wise to avoid going head-to-head with those media. Instead, better to try to render narrative using techniques only available to those who traffic exclusively in words.

It's funny to me that in this one respect, fiction seems to have tried to distance itself from cinema. When I was in graduate school, instructors often invoked language from film theory to explain ideas in narrative. The concepts of method acting were often used to explain how to determine authentic character choices. One instructor explained scene by talking about where to place the "camera." The fiction how-to books I've read are full of this kind of talk. So why the divergence here? If Hollywood was going to do a slavery-era movie and the actors didn't use dialect, we'd criticize the hell out of it. Being able to deliver a killer accent is considered a mark of a good actor.

I don't have a good answer to either why fiction is avoiding dialogue and dialect, nor to what you, as a writer, need to do to cope with this. In "A Cinnabon at Mondawmin," which is probably the best story I've written yet, I had a main character who was a young black man in Baltimore. If he was going to talk, there was a specific way for him to authentically talk. But I didn't think I, as a white, middle-class man, could really do justice to it. It felt like a literary form of blackface. So I came up with a narrative technique. It was an epistolary story in which the boy was writing in his school journal, but constantly asking his white teacher from the suburbs to "make it sound right" for white people. That allowed me to have echoes of the boy's voice, but mostly write in a way that is more like the way I, Jake Weber, actually talk and write. That worked there, but I can only use that trick once.

It's too bad that good authors are mostly staying away from using heavy dialogue and dialect these days. I see a lot of bad use of dialect as an editor, but that's probably because good writers know that these things are out of fashion and therefore hard to get away with. That means the only people still trying them are hacks. So the use of these things gets caught in a vicious cycle where we think only hacks use them, then hacks do, in fact, exclusively use them, and our prejudices are confirmed even more.

In conclusion, I don't have a lot of easy fixes if you're writing a story where it just doesn't feel right for the characters to be talking like the cast of Friends. Just know the expectations and be careful, I guess. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

Looks like I'll finally get that Silmarillion TV series

After weeks of rumors, it was confirmed that Amazon is going to create a series that will cover "previously unexplored" stories from the Tolkien legendarium. To me, that means the Silmarillion. A lot of Tolkien fans have been hoping, ever since the success of Game of Thrones, that HBO would take on the series, but this is probably nearly as good. At least Peter Jackson won't be directing it, most likely. I don't hate what Jackson did, really. But part of Tolkien culture had always been the existence of many visions and many interpretations of Middle Earth. That seems to be what Tolkien himself wanted when he said that he originally envisioned that "the cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama." I'd have liked it if a different director had done each LOTR film (and then only one film had been made for The Hobbit).

I'm very interested in how Amazon will end up plotting out the seasons. If I had to do a quick guess, I'd say:

One season: The creation of the world to the rebellion of Feanor
Second Season: Feanor and his brothers in Middle Earth up to the fall of Melkor (this could maybe be two seasons, depending on how much major story lines get spun off themselves).
Third Season: There was a mention in the article of a spin-off. There are a couple of stories that could be a complete separate season, the most obvious being the love story of Beren and Luthien.
Fourth Season: Sauron among the Numenor. There's actually a lot of room to come up with original, non-canonical work here. There's a really long period after the fall of Melkor where Sauron rules a good chunk of Middle Earth.
Fifth Season: Up to the last alliance and the fall of Sauron.

Much like with the movies, I'm just really looking forward to seeing scenes I've loved for a long time as someone else imagined them. Fingolfin battling Morgoth has the potential to bring me to tears. I'd lament that soon, I won't be the only person in the office who knows all the children of Finwe, but where I work, there are so many nerds that I'm already far from the only person who knows this stuff.

Very exciting news.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

WIHPTS: Danielle Evans' "Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain"

It's the return of "Would I have published this story?" which is a game I play where I try to imagine if I'd have voted "yes" on a highly acclaimed short story if it had come in as a random, slush-pile fiction entry at the magazine where I'm an assistant fiction editor.

It's impossible, of course, for me to really know how I'd have voted, since I really do know that this is acclaimed fiction, but I do the best I can.

This isn't really criticism or a review, although my views on the story's merit do tend to come out in the wash as I play the game.

With that out of the way, here we go...

Would I have published it?

I'm 80% sure the answer is yes. 


This is a great story. I'm almost halfway through the 2017 Best American Short Stories anthology, and this is my favorite yet. It's the story of Rena, a woman who travels the world photographing the traumatized, the war-torn, the dying and the destitute. Back at home, she's left a sister in a facility to care for her, because the sister's husband shot her in the head over an imagined affair, leaving her permanently impaired. This leads Rena to conclude that her line of work isn't really that dangerous, because you can get shot in your own home by the kid who grew up next door, the one who used to take out your parents' trash.

In spite of that dire backdrop, the story itself at times is borderline screwball comedy. Rena met a man on her travels once named JT, a man who has been finding reasons to delay marrying the girl back home. It just so happens that girl back home is a pastor's daughter. She's invited Rena to her wedding, although not as a bridesmaid. Dori, the pastor's daughter, has been suspicious of Rena since Rena and JT were stranded in a hotel in West Africa for several days once because of a quarantine. It's not clear why she invited Rena, except possibly as a passive aggressive means to force Rena to watch Dori marry JT and win a contest Rena hasn't been playing.

For wedding colors, Dori picked the whole rainbow. Each of the seven bridesmaids is one of the seven colors in the ROY-G-BIV spectrum (the title of the story, "Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain, is an old mnemonic device for remembering the colors of the spectrum). Rena self-selects black, so as not to steal the show from anyone. Dori is white.

Long story short, Rena bangs one of the groomsmen, but on her way out of the room, she catches JT running away from his wedding. The next day, Dori and Rena drive off together to find the groom after Rena lies and says she knows where to find him. It's a little bit "My Best Friend's Wedding," a little bit "Thelma and Louise."

What might have kept me from voting yes

Three things:

1) As everyone who knows me is aware, I tend to get triggered by depictions of evangelicals, because I almost always think they're wrong. Dori starts off looking like she's going to be a cut-out of an evangelical, or the author's second-hand imaginings of what an evangelical might be like. Dori ends up as much more than that, but I'd have had to get far enough to find that out.

2) The opening lines. By the end, I was okay with how it started, but when I first read them, I wasn't sure. "Two by two the animals boarded, and then all the rest of them in the world died, but no one ever tells the story that way." Well, actually, a lot of people tell the story that way. It's not a new objection to the story of Noah's Ark.

3) There are a few passages early on that seem to break third-person limited. For example: "Rena is not a bridesmaid but has been dragged along for the festivities thanks to the aggressive hospitality of the bridal party." That's nearly an analysis coming from outside Rena (so is the opening paragraph). Or again, describing how Rena met JT: "When they met, most of what they had in common was that they were Americans, but far away from home, that could be enough." That evaluation "that could be enough" sounds like an omniscient narrator, not Rena. But this kind of thing soon dissipates, and I'm pretty sure I'd have kept reading through it.


If I'm right that I would have persevered, I'd have been so glad I did stick with it. The ending of this thing really knocked my socks off. I'd been kind of disappointed in this year's anthology up to that point, but this one was one of those stories I read stories for.

Still, it's a little troubling to me that I'm not sure. When I first started editing, it was a little bit comforting to me as a writer to see how many good stories come in. It made me feel like when I was getting rejections, it wasn't that what I wrote wasn't good. It was just that there was a ton of good competition. Over time, I started feeling like that was no longer such a consolation. I started to feel the weight of the number of other good writers, and feel like I was trying to push into a glutted market.

Lately, I've been starting to feel discomfort as an editor, not just as a writer. The quantity of good writing has overwhelmed me, and I'm getting to a point where I just can't give stories the attention needed to tell which of the many good ones is the best. New stories keep coming in every day from earnest people giving us their best shot, and I'm still trying to get through the slush pile from three months ago. I do my best. I really do. But would I have seen this great story for what it was? Would I have been the reader this story deserved?

Like it or not, I've become a gatekeeper of sorts. That's a big responsibility. I'm not sure I'm living up to it.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

What it means when your story is in Submittable a long time

This is a subject that a lot of blogs on writing have covered. Does it mean anything if your story is in Submittable for a long time before it gets rejected? Specifically, does that mean that the editors thought it over a long time before sending the rejection? If you're waiting on a notice and it's been in there a while, do you have a better chance of acceptance, because the editors are spending time mulling it over?

Generally, I'm going to agree with the community consensus on this and say that you shouldn't make too much out of the length of time something is in the system before you get a notice. But I will differ and suggest that it might tell you something, but only in specific circumstances.

The basics

Submittable is the system by which about 85% or so of literary journals accept submissions. I assume you know that, or you wouldn't be reading my blog, but you never know. Maybe you just like to check in from time to time to see if I've posted any new photos of myself that show the progress of my baldness.

When you submit a story, Submittable gives you a status of "received." Some time later--could be five minutes, could be a year--you'll see the status change from "received" to "in progress." "In progress" means that somebody has opened your story or assigned it. (You can assign a story without opening it.) Clifford Garstang's excellent blog suggests that merely opening a story does not change its status. That's technically correct, but a little misleading. Kelly Davio, guest blogging for Submittable, so I take it as authoritative, tells us that the only time a story can be opened without it changing status is if the reader closes the browser without first voting, assigning, or going back to the main screen. I do this sometimes, but not often. Say, 9 out of 10 times, when I open something, it's going to end up changing the status to "in progress."

So let's take that as the norm. You submit a story. How long it takes for it to go from received to in progress depends on the administrative structure of the magazine.

Types of literary journal staff structures

Structure One: Well heeled journal with lots of intern slaves. This type of magazine probably assigns your story very early on, because they have a specific person to assign it to. How long it takes for someone to read it and vote on it from there is anyone's guess, and you won't know when it happens. So unfortunately, with the heavy hitters, you won't have any idea based on time what's going on. Most likely, it'll be a while. The good news is that a lot of the stronger journals will give you an "encouraging rejection" if they liked what you wrote and just didn't have room for it.

Structure Two: Ordered, but small. This is a magazine where everyone knows the drill and the machine is well oiled, but there aren't a ton of student interns to command. Often, there is one editor for fiction, one for poetry, one for non-fiction, and that editor does everything in that genre. Here it's a total crap shoot. It's up to how that editor likes to do things. She might open it up, read a page, then put it aside if it looks like it's something she'll need to give time to later. I do this sometimes as an editor. Some nights, I am just going through the slush looking for bad stories I can get rid of easily. If I find something decent, I leave it for later. Or the editor might never touch the story until she's ready to read it for real. In this case, you're likely to go from "received" to "in progress" to accepted/rejected in a very short amount of time. There's no committee to talk to. It's just one person, and she reads and makes a decision. In other words, there's not much you can tell from this.

The exception might be if the editor reads the story and isn't sure. If you submit to a magazine like this, and you're in "received mode" for a long time and THEN you go to "in progress" and sit for a long time, it MIGHT mean something. That could be a sign that after someone finally read it, they had to think about it for a while.

Structure Three: Controlled anarchy. There are several editors for each genre, and nobody is really telling anyone what to do. All the editors are free to go in and read what they can, when they can. This is the model on the journal I work with, and I suspect it might common for journals where the inbox is too big for one person but the staff is still all volunteer.

This is the structure where I think your story sitting in "in progress" mode for a long time is most likely to mean something. This is especially true if it took a long time to go from "received" to "in progress."

We like to have two editors vote no before we reject a story. This isn't always possible, but it's how we like to operate. Very often, once a story gets one vote, someone else jumps on it so we can close the loop. If we don't like the story, it often will go from "in progress" to rejection in days.

So if your story waits a while to get opened, then gets opened, then sits around a long time (say a month), I'd say that with this type of journal, there's maybe a 60-70% chance that it means people were divided on the story. There are other things that might be going on--sometimes, anarchy means that people just aren't paying attention, and a story that needs to be finished up just gets ignored. But I think the odds are that if your story didn't get assigned soon after coming in, and when it finally does get opened it sits for a while, it probably means something. But only for structure three. It could mean that for structure two, also, but it's harder to tell. With just one person, they could have any kind of system.

How do you know what type of magazine you've submitted to? Well, you don't, unless you know someone who works there. But you might be able to form guesses if you submit to the same place several times and start to notice trends.

I really think all journals ought to do a good job of differentiating between rejections. If a story made an editor or editors think before tossing it, they ought to send a different kind of rejection. It ought to be clear that the "encouraging" rejection actually means "we read your story and liked it more than we like most stories we get." That's the easiest way to tell what a journal thought. Well, that, and actually getting accepted.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Heretic recommends: Tahoma Review's "fiction with feedback"

I spent $7 a few weeks ago to submit a story to the Tahoma Review. Normally, it doesn't cost that, but for the $7, they promise to give you some feedback. I got my feedback this week, and it was well worth the money. It wasn't exhaustive, but I wouldn't expect it for that price. Rather, they gave a two paragraph response as to why they didn't accept it.

Sure, I've been pretty negative on getting feedback, but I found this useful enough for what it was. Turns out, the reason they rejected it had a lot to do with the same flaw I saw in the story. It was a flaw I'd tried to iron out in later versions, but they didn't feel I'd quite attended to the issues. That doesn't mean, of course, that they're right. But right and wrong isn't really what you're after with something like this. You want to know the impressions someone had. It's like when I do a "Would I Have Published This Story" bit. I'm not saying I'm right or wrong, I'm saying this is how I think I'd have voted on a story and why. It's not criticism, it's just pulling back the curtain on what the gut reaction of a reader was.

I'd say that $7 was pretty good money, then. I've gotten less for a lot more money other places. The takeaway for me was that I might not have a story there right now. I'll probably pull that one and let it sit. Sometimes, at a later date, I get an idea for how to rework something, and then the original story becomes something new and better. I'm hoping that happens here.