Tuesday, October 17, 2017

E-book is out

If $17 was too much for a paperback, but you've just been dying to get my book to see if I can actually write anything worth reading (because this blog sure doesn't fit the bill), you can now get the much cheaper $8 e-book version.

I've just committed to buying books at a local book store if I can, but I really don't know another way to get an e-book than Amazon/Kindle. Here's the link for the Kindle version:


Thanks to the folks who already got the high-priced paperback, and huge thanks to the people who have wanted to talk to me about it. I wrote the book for the same reason I write anything: to say things I think people will find worth reading, and, hopefully, talking about.

Thanks to everyone who ever checks out this blog.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Reading the tea leaves of rejection

When I first started this blog, I wrote a lot about the sordid guts of getting rejections. I didn't do it to be morose, exactly. I wanted to accurately reflect both what one encounters and what one thinks while trying to publish stories. There is something reassuring to knowing that you aren't the only one getting tons of no answers, wondering if you were close, wondering why the stories that did get picked are better than yours, wondering if you will ever get anywhere with it and if it all makes any sense.

About a decade a go, another writer who was going through the same issues started a blog called Literary Rejections on Display. It had quite a following for a while. I'm not sure if its popularity ebbed because nowadays, people seem to prefer to watch people on YouTube talk into a camera rather than read a blog, or because she actually finally did break through and get a few books published. When I started my own tour of rejections, though, it was a great help to me to go back through her litany of rejections.

It was especially helpful that she posted a lot of the actual rejections she got. Commenters chipped in, too, which meant you got to start to form a sense of whether the rejection letter you got really was encouraging or if that's just what they send to all the writers.

The options when it's a no

Most journals just send a pretty unambiguous no, something like "Thanks for sending to ___, but unfortunately, this story isn't for us right now. Best of luck placing it elsewhere."

Sometimes, though, you'll get a note that says something like, "Although we are not publishing this story, we admired your writing, and would like to see more of it." There are two options here: either it's sincere, or it's letting you down easy. Why let you down easy? I guess to get you to keep submitting. This is especially possible if it's a journal that charges enough from its reading fees to make money off of them.

But for most journals that are either free to submit to or only charge a few dollars, why would they lie? I assume this is a second kind of form rejection letter. The journal probably has three choices. Door number one is to accept. Door number two is to reject. Door number three is for the good-but-not-good-enough, who get a consolation prize of the more encouraging rejection letter.

I assume that when a journal that isn't charging a lot for submissions tells you they want to see more of your work, they mean it. Nobody wants to read through crap. If they see something that's almost there, they'd rather get more of that in the future. I assume they only want to encourage writing of the kind they'd like to see again. But it's so hard to be sure.

A lot of writers suggest that you just look at whether it's a yes or a no and forget the rest. There is nothing to be gained by considering how long it took to get a decision or what they said after the no. But with some journals in particular, the kinds where to get in would really be a big breakthrough, I can't help it.

Which brings me to the past two weeks

I've had either one, two, or three of these kinds of rejections in the past two weeks, depending on how you count them.

#1: Although this piece isn't going to be a go for ____, we like your writing and would welcome the chance to see more from you.

#2: While we enjoyed 'Story X,' we didn't quite feel the ending wrapped up in a satisfying way. We appreciate your interest in NR, and hope you keep us in mind for future submissions--we'd love to see more.

#3: Unfortunately this particular piece was not a right fit for ____, but we were very impressed by your writing. We hope that you will feel encouraged by this short note and send us something else.

I could take any of those to be the kind of response you'd get if the editors thought they'd just seen a story worth at least a moment's thought. #1 might just be what they send everyone, since it's not terribly effusive, but again, why would they encourage more stories they will just reject? #2 suggests that they at least read to the end, which is actually a very good sign. #3 is the real one I wonder about. #3 was a journal that would have been a very big deal to get in. But they also tend to be a bit aggressive with offering extras, like writing seminars. So maybe my hope is important to them. It's very hard to know. I just know that I sent out a lot of work to some very hard-to-crack journals out there, and I'm likely to keep getting more rejections in the next few weeks, which means I'm likely to keep trying to read tea leaves to know if there's more to the no than just a no.

I can't imagine I'm the only one like this, which is why I'm sharing it. If you are reading this and thinking that you can't stop wondering what your "no" means, that means you're like everyone else.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Gallimaufry of observations

Nothing big enough for a full post here, but a few half-thoughts.

1. Amazon apparently enforces its terms of service for comments on books

I had never really thought Amazon had tough rules for its comments. Based on past history like the three-wolf shirt comments thread, I kind of thought the comments could be a place to throw some absurdist commentary. I left a comment on my own book that gave it five stars, but also said the book was terrible. I was kind of proud of it. After over two months, Amazon I guess noticed that it was me, and removed it. They also did not allow a post from my mother, although I'm not sure how they knew it was her. It's not really a big deal to me. It's apparent that barring something unforeseen, this isn't going to become a huge seller, and a few comments one way or the other aren't going to change that. But it does seem like an unlikely to be really followed policy. The FAQ tells us that Amazon doesn't "allow individuals who share a household with the author or close friends to write Customer Reviews for that author’s book." I'd guess that the vast majority of people who actually write reviews on Amazon of smaller press books have some kind of relationship with the author.

2. I had a reading the other day, and I had a wonderful time

The publishing company, Washington Writers' Publishing House, is just fantastic. It's made up entirely of past winners, and many of them came out, got a book, heard me read, asked questions, listened to me talk about writing the book, and generally made it a great day. A few friends actually gave up football just to come hear me read a story they've already been hounded into buying. Made me feel like a real author. I could do that every day.

I rock a pencil and pen in my shirt pocket nearly all the time. It's kind of my thing.

It was also kind of encouraging to be at a book store that looks like it's going to stay open for a while. I'm thinking I'm going to start buying my books from here, if I can. They support the local writing scene and they provide some sort of alternative to Amazon, so if it's a few dollars more, it's worth it.

3. It's fall, so that means the rejections are coming in

I shot for the moon with nearly all my submissions this fall. I feel like after the book, I'm writing better work, but I also feel like I need to move forward in terms of the level of respect of the journals I'm appearing in. That means the job of getting published--which is hard enough in any journal--got a lot tougher. I've already had seven rejection of the work I turned in last month. Two seemed encouraging, which I guess ought to make me feel good.

I have to say, a lot of the fancy journals are really on point with handling submissions. They are making decisions quickly, much quicker than my journal is usually able to do. I think that's because many of them are either tied to schools or can otherwise command large numbers of slaves intern readers interested in getting in on the ground floor of publishing.

4. I paid $45 to have an agent proof read my query letter for my novel. 

I'm not sure yet if the final product is great, but I can't complain about the level of effort from the agent. For $45, I got three rounds of edits, which were not in any way half-assed. I'll start sending out more query letters next week after the last round of edits is done, and I'll report back on whether the next 25 letters got any better response than the first 25.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Washington Independent Review of Books reviews my collection of short stories

Let my friend Chris know that I actually did manage to do one thing right as a self-promoter of my book: I got a review from Washington Independent Review of Books.

I didn't know for sure that they were going to review it. (In fact, it's been up for three days and I just now saw it.) I sent them two books, because the folks at my publisher, Washington Writers' Publishing House, suggested it. A woman on the WWPH staff knew someone at WIRB, but when I sent them the books to review, I forgot to include my email address, because I am a moron. So I never heard from them. I also saw on Amazon that there was a used copy of my book for sale at the Goodwill right by the WIRB, so I wondered if they just dumped it. But it looks like they did a real service to a local writer and used one copy to get it reviewed.

They don't normally review a whole lot of books from small presses like mine. I believe this was a solid they did me because I'm local. That's darn nice of them.

It's especially gratifying to see this now, because I'm in the middle of doing my own literary good citizenship right now. I'm doing a review of a book someone asked me to do. Turns out, it's a much harder assignment than I thought it would be. The American Review of Books actually wants a short academic paper. I haven't written anything like that in years. I'm not sure I'm up for it, but it's my job to do this, and I know if I were the author, I'd want me to put some effort into it. So I'm struggling through it. Nice to see karma paying me back for it ahead of time.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Why you might want to stand for the national anthem even if you think you don't

Here are some things this post is NOT saying:

-You must stand for the national anthem. It astounds me that a president who was elected by the American impulse not to be told how to act summarily ignored that impulse.
-If you do not stand for the national anthem, you are less American, less patriotic, or love your country less than those who do stand.
-The national anthem or the flag are inherently sacred, apart from the meaning we choose to give them.
-Forced acts of patriotism are meaningful.
-The underlying argument that sparked the protest is not a very valid point to make, or not critical to the health of the country. On both an emotional level--the kind that comes about from watching videos of young black people get killed in what certainly looks like an unjust manner--and a cognitive level, when one looks at statistics about young men of color in America, it appears the American dream is not offered equally to young people of color. 

I've been surprised how divisive the issue of standing for the national anthem before football games has been. Trump baited us, of course, but having taken the bait, I'm surprised how viciously we're willing to fight each other over it. As these arguments go round after round, they sometimes stray into offshoots of the main argument. It's one of those offshoots I want to address. Eventually, if you argue this long enough, you'll get into territory where you're addressing propositions like "Is it just a song?" and "Is it just a piece of cloth?" That is, is there anything intrinsically meaningful about standing for the national anthem?

What would the meaning be?

Although a lot of people are conflating standing for the national anthem with respect for members of the armed services, past and present, I'm only aware of one explicit meaning given to the ritual at sports events. When we are asked to rise (and I'd say we are asked, not ordered: the PA announcer always says "please rise"), it's "to honor America." That's a pretty amorphous objective, one that each person who stands is going to interpret in their own way. When I stand--and I always have--I can't think that I've ever felt much of anything in the way of patriotic sentiment. I don't tend to find a whole lot of meaning in ceremonies. But I can see that it matters to some people around me. The ceremony they care about loses meaning for them, though, if everybody does not participate. It requires my outward observance. So I give it, in order for them to enjoy a ceremony that matters to them.

This may seem like I'm saying it doesn't mean anything at all to me, but in a sense, its meaning to me has a lot to do with life in a democracy. I'd be fine without a national anthem prior to sporting events, but it seems to matter to a majority of the community, so I participate to a limited extent. By standing, I'm saying that what other people want sometimes is more important than what I want personally. It may not really be a great song. It might be some rather pedestrian, 19th-Century bombast about a battle with a racist third verse we thankfully never sing. We might have a history as a nation that was just as long without it as our national anthem as we've had with it. Everything about the custom might be arbitrarily chosen and a complete accident of history. But it's an accident we've been living with for a while, and it's an accident that my neighbors seem to care about, so I'll participate.

Not everything is meaningful

I don't feel this way about every ritual. For years after 9/11, baseball stadiums were in the habit of pulling out a second patriotic act. In the 7th inning, where "Take me Out to the Ballgame" used to go, they started doing "God Bless America." And they were actually acting like we were supposed to stand for that, too. I remember getting in an argument with the person next to me at a Washington Nationals game one year when I didn't stand for it. I claimed it was because to stand for a song other than the national anthem was disrespectful to the national anthem, like saluting a state flag would be disrespectful to the national ensign. In reality, though, I was just annoyed by what felt like too much community patriotic display in one night. The 7th inning already had a great American tradition attached to it, I thought, and I didn't want to see it replaced because in our post-9/11 world, we were all falling over each other to show how much we loved America.

As a teenager, my high school suddenly re-implemented the Pledge of Allegiance soon after Desert Storm began, after years of not observing it. I found this troubling, like we were being told to get on board with the war. Not that I necessarily objected to the war, but I did object to being told not to object to it. So I stood for the Pledge, but I didn't recite it. I don't think anyone noticed, or if they did, nobody cared. But I just couldn't see myself going along with a group ceremony then. I didn't think the claims of the community to my participation were stronger than my personal conscience.

But maybe we need a few ceremonies we all agree on

I'm a snarky pain in the ass a lot of the time. When group organizers are trying to get some community activity going, I am usually the one crapping all over their efforts. In the Marine Corps, I sang the wrong words to cadences while we ran. Or I wouldn't sing them at all, and claim I had a religious objection to some of the baudier lyrics. I've uttered thousands of really great jokes under my breath. As a child, when my poor parents were trying to establish traditions for us, I worked against anything I found too solemn. I ignore 95% of all work functions outside of work.

Partly, this is just a reflection of my own personal predilection toward autonomy. And this predilection is probably healthy for the community, provided it isn't too prevalent or too pronounced. Too much community spirit can lead to totalitarian communities. It's a good thing to have a couple of wise asses in the group to keep the group from taking itself too seriously.

But there is also a danger in a community being too atomized, too focused on the individual. What would a school be without those PTA parents I find so hard to talk to? What would the Marine Corps be without those obnoxious Sergeants acting like we really belonged together? A few years ago, I coached my son's baseball team. It was a disaster for a while, because I wanted to be the wise-ass at the back undermining my own leadership. It took me a few weeks to realize that I had to be the chipper, annoying presence who made the whole thing stick together, or there would be no thing for people to make fun of.

Just because I make fun of something doesn't mean I don't love it. I keep my country at a safe emotional distance, but I also love it. I don't want it to dissolve. I want it to be there, so I can go on snarking about its traditions for decades to come.

Standing for he national anthem doesn't have any meaning unless we ascribe meaning to it. The flag is a piece of cloth. But this is the ritual we have. We don't have another one that's more central, more recognized. If we have nothing at all, no ceremony, however flawed, that is a space where we all recognize that we do, in some sense, belong together, then we will not belong together in any sense for long. If the community can make no claims on us at all, then there is no community.

Standing for a bad, 200-year-old song so convoluted the singers often screw up the words is not a great ritual. But it's the closest thing to an all-encompassing, American ritual that we have. At some point, the ones who mistrust community have to give the community some right to trespass our personal space, or the community will not be there. America is a more fragile thing than we imagine.

Words that should have been said by someone other than me

I admire those who kneel. It would have been much, much easier on Colin Kaepernick to just go along with the ritual, not rock the boat, and do what was expected. Those who kneel show a bravery I didn't have in high school to make their objections visible. And the underlying social reality of black Americans is real enough that I understand not feeling like you want to show outward signs of respect for a country that doesn't respect you.

But I don't think anyone who is kneeling wants the community to fall apart entirely. I suspect that many of those who kneel might love America more than many who stand, and it's the fierceness of their love that makes them kneel. But they may not realize the peril the nation is in. When Russian trolls seek to take America down, their easiest target is just to make us fight with each other. And we are starting to make it easy for them.

Former Green Beret-turned-NFL-long-snapper Nate Boyer approached this the right way last year when Kaepernick began his protest. He didn't berate Kaepernick. He said Kaepernick's protest was understandable, and made him sad more than angry. He longed for a time when Kaepernick would WANT to stand for the national anthem again.

These are the words the President should have said, rather than demanding the patriotic observances of free citizens. The paradox of democracy is that it doesn't work if we make you do it, and it doesn't work if we don't all do it without being forced. In that sense, standing for the national anthem does take on some meaning, because its significance arises, like the nation itself, from voluntary participation.

So I'm not saying you must, you should, you ought. I'm saying you might want to.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Editing Roald Dahl

This is going to seem presumptuous as hell, but there's a point to it. Who am I, Writer McNobody, to suggest changes to the great Roald Dahl? Well, that's not exactly what I'm saying. Dahl IS great. I'm not arguing that. And I wouldn't want to change a word that he wrote.

Unless he were trying to get published today.

What I'm saying has more to do with something I suggested a few months ago, something having to do with not having read a lot of modern fiction until very recently. A lot of people who start writing have read a lot of fiction, but a good portion of what we've read is older. We've read a lot of the type of stuff we were assigned in school. I know when I first started writing, I'd read more 19th-Century literature than all other literature put together.

The 19th Century is great. Melville is great. I wouldn't change a word of Moby Dick. But you couldn't write Moby Dick today and get it published. You couldn't write Shakespeare today and get it published. Right or wrong, each generation has certain expectations it has to write to. As much as journals love it when someone turns those expectations on their heads, there are still some things you just can't do. In the 19th Century, journals often paid by the word, which lead to florid sentences. That was part of the expectation of editors and readers. But if you tried to write a story now with a bunch of seven-line sentences, you'd be rejected before the first page was up, unless you were writing something that explicitly channeled the age, such as John Knowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman.

Same goes for the early-to-mid 20th Century. There are things writers from that age did that tend to have a low reputation among editors nowadays. You can argue with me that this is stupid, that the currently approved lit-fic conventions are terrible and banal and lead to literature that all sounds the same. You can argue that, but if you stick to your guns and write like O. Henry or Roald Dahl or Dash Hammett or Ring Lardner because that's what you read in your teens or whenever your introduction to great literature came, you're probably facing an uphill slog getting your short stories published. So fight me if you want. I'm just the messenger here of what editors are looking for.

Two things to avoid

I just read Dahl's "Lamb to the Slaughter" this week, because my son was assigned it for his English class. Two things stand out about it that, as much as I enjoy them in Dahl, I would advise writers to avoid now if they want to get published in a good literary journal.

1. The "dark and stormy night" beginning. Okay, Dahl's opening here isn't hackish like "it was a dark and stormy night," but it is a cold start onto scene setting: "The room was warm, the curtains were closed, the two table lamps were lit." Now, right after that, we get action, so this might not really be a problem, but I see a lot of stories come in as an editor that go on with scene-setting for a page or more. There was a time when this was a standard way to begin a story. ("A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight...") But nowadays, there is an expectation that right from the jump, you're going to start to establish not only mood and scene, but also character and, if possible, a unique voice. Generally speaking, it's advisable to give an opening line that introduces the people we'll be getting to know. If possible, make it sound like no other opening line ever, so we know that there is also something special about the people we're about to meet. That's expecting a lot, and maybe it does lead to cookie-cutter fiction by making every opening line predictably unpredictable. But that's sort of what's expected. Don't believe me? Here are the opening lines from the first ten short stories in this year's Pushcart Prize anthology:

1) I was once a star on YouTube.
2) Full disclosure up front: I am a gay black man, a proud New Orleanian, thirty years old, five out of the closet, a decade on the down-low before that; bi-dialectical as every educated brother in this city must be, a code-switcher as needed; a poet in my spare time, in my unspare time a poetry teacher devoted to dead French guys and live black ones.
3) My former daughter-in-law is sitting in the next room eating cookies off a plate.
4) Barnes Hollow was actually Jason something, but no one dreamed of calling him that.
5) Afterward, Eva turns her face to the wall and falls asleep immediately, smacking her lips like a newborn.
6) It's the middle of the night and the woman can't sleep.
7) Her parents always said they'd dig their own graves if anything ever happened to their children, so when her sister Claire disappeared on a camping trip in the White Mountains, Elsie kept at eye on things.
8) He lived in a world of grease, and no matter how often he bathed, which was once a day, rigorously--and no shower but a drawn bath--he smelled of carnitas, machaca, and the chopped white onion and soapy cilantro he folded each morning into his pico de gallo.
9) Joan had to look beautiful.
10) When Father Tom comes to a party, people look embarrassed, even the ones who invited him.

As you can see, you don't have to necessarily have fireworks going off. Most of these are actually rather modest starts. But one thing they all have in common is that the people in them are in sentence number one. We eventually will get setting, but that's not where we start. We start with people, normally. I'm sure you can find exceptions. I'm not telling you not to break the rules. I'm telling you what the rules are.

2. The plot twist as the story's raisson d'etre. Plot twists are great. I'm sure a lot of the stories we all grew up loving were built around plot twists. "The Gift of the Magi" comes to mind. (I just re-read that not long ago. It honestly stands up pretty well to the test of time.) But you can't make the plot twist the thing on which your whole story stands. In Dahl's "Lamb to the Slaughter," we get three moments where the plot turns: the man tells his wife some secret, probably that he is leaving her and their unborn child for another woman; she murders him with a frozen lamb leg; and then she feeds the murder weapons to the police who worked with her husband.

Again, I'm not saying Dahl's story is some cheap one-trick thing. It's a strong character study of a woman who puts too much of her own self-worth into how her husband feels about her, a story of a woman treated badly but who finds, suddenly, that she has the emotional reserves necessary to bring about her own resolution. If the story doesn't resonate with us today quite as much as it might have with readers in 1953, that's because we're now used to stories of abused women fighting back. It's like expecting us to be impressed with the special effects from Ben Hur.

But that's not the problem for a modern writer who would try to build a whole story around a plot twist. You can certainly have plot twists, but if we feel that's the whole reason you offered us a story, if that's what was gnawing at you until it spilled out of you into words on the page, then an editor is going to feel you've cheated him, that you didn't really have that much to say. The plot, in modern fiction, is a result of two things: what the author throws at the character, and how the character reacts. If the editor feels that the end result of your story was something you had in mind from the beginning without pausing to get input from your characters, then you're going to get a polite letter thanking your for your story, which isn't quite right for the journal right now.

And so, I offer this simple edit:

In order to make it not feel like Dahl is trying to spring surprise on us as the main draw of his story, and also to make the story open on Mary, rather than the setting, I would simply suggest that he change his opening sentence, if Dahl were alive and unknown today and trying to get his story published. I'd offer these two sentences: "The day Mary Maloney killed her husband with a leg of lamb, she was sitting with equanimity on the couch in front of the curtains, which were closed. The room was warm, and the two table lamps were lit." Now, it no longer seems like Dahl is trying to shock the reader with a plot twist more characteristic of mystery genre fiction than literary fiction. He's fine from there. Mary is still a fully realized character, and interesting for the way she reacts to her whole world being blown up with a few words uttered off camera. 

So there you have it. Open on people and don't make a surprise ending the whole draw of the story. Mock me if you wish for suggesting a legend should change to suit my dull tastes. Just keep some of what I said about those dull tastes in mind if you're trying to get published in a journal of serious fiction.  

Friday, September 29, 2017

As some rough beast slouches toward Bethlehem to be born, Jake blogs about the process of writing fiction

While discussing one of the stories from my book with a friend the other day, my friend said he'd never be able to write a character as awful as the main character from ""Dawn Doesn't Disappoint." It's about a divorced man, starting to fall into the decrepitude of middle age, who takes up with an overweight, simple, but sweet and occasionally bright much younger woman who works for him. He does it because it's easy. He's realized that the relationship isn't good for him and definitely not good for the girl, Dawn, but he can't end it on his own. Instead, like a teenager afraid to tell a girl what he really feels, he decides to try to be a jerk to get her to end it.

I've discovered that the two questions a fiction writer gets asked the most are: 1) How did you come up with this? 2) (Related to the first,) Did this really happen/happen to you?

The reason I'm starting to have a little success, though, is because most of it didn't really happen

In grad school, or really in any writing workshop, you'll get this scenario all the time: guy turns in a story to the group, and the feedback comes back that the story seems to have a random ending, one that doesn't fit the logic of the story. The writer of the story will shake his head, look sorry for everyone offering their misguided advice, and reveal that "that's how it really happened!" The poor saps who didn't care for the story don't realize that the writer has given us TRUTH, because he's relayed it the way something really happened to him.

What the writer has really done is substitute anecdote or memoir where we expected fiction. This is normal; many writers start out by transcribing events in life that stood out to them. It's typical of a writerly temperament. Some aspect of life stands out to you, and you want to memorialize it. But it's not mature fiction writing yet. Fiction isn't real life. It's not real at all, in fact. That's what "fiction" means. Among other things, in fiction, unlike in life, things have to happen for some reason. You, the writer, are creating some order. Hopefully, it's not a heavy-handed order. It's something arising organically from the seeds of your characters and the situations you place them in. But it's still an order.

Stages from writing memoir to writing fiction

It may seem a little cheeky of me to be dispensing fiction writing advice; I've just had one tiny book of short stories published, and a handful of publications from respectable but not top-shelf journals. But I look at it this way: you cannot learn to play basketball from Lebron James. He's too good, and whatever he tries to tell you will only work for him. But you can learn from the guy in your neighborhood who made the high school team. So this advice is for people struggling to figure it out at all, from someone who's just starting to figure it out.

I don't think there's anything especially unique about the way I do things. It's pretty similar to what all-world writer George Saunders said in this video. But precisely because there's nothing flashy about it, it might be a useful road map if you're looking to take your first steps into writing fiction, or if you've tried and gotten nowhere with it.

Phase One: Transcription of events

This is the phase I described above. Something happens to you, or you encounter a person who leaves an impression, and something about that tells you that there's something worth rehashing in what you experienced, some deeper level of reality waiting there if you scratch a little further. So you write the story, keeping pretty much to how it happened. When you're in this phase, you can still develop as a writer just by paying attention to details, picking out details that matter and are interesting, and figuring out how to describe scene and action both clearly yet without killing the reader with details. One advantage to this kind of writing is it solves one of the biggest problems in creating a narrative: deciding where the beginning, middle, and end is.

But it's hard to make pure recitation of events work as fiction. I get a lot of this kind of writing at the journal where I read. I'm not saying I could pick out with 100% accuracy which stories are really fiction and which are close enough to real life to be memoir, but I can sure tell sometimes. One reader often rejects stories with the note "sounds like thinly fictionalized memoir." There really is something about it that stands out.

Phase Two: Change some shit

Perhaps the one piece of advice that helped me the most was a simple one. If you're writing a story and one of the characters is based on you or someone you know, try changing one important fact about that person. If the person is tall, make him short. If he's athletic, make him awkward. If he's attractive, give him warts. You can try for something bigger if you like, such as changing the gender or race or sexual orientation, but it will do at first to just make one profound change. You'll find that if you change one important feature, the whole character will start to change. Taking away something like intelligence or athletic ability can be like writing about Superman with his powers suddenly taken away. In fact, it can really start to drive narrative. You're answering a question about what someone would be like if you changed something about them, and that in itself can become its own story. You may find that by changing one thing, you end up changing more.

What works for character will also work for plot. If you're retelling a story that happened to you, change one thing about how it went down. The girl didn't go to prom with you. Or she did. By shifting yourself just the slightest bit from the "real" story, you suddenly free yourself to make the story whatever you want it. There's no reason to let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Phase Three: Start with what's made-up, and add some reality to it

This next phase is sort of the flip side of phase two. Instead of starting with a real person or story and adding fiction, you start with fiction and add some reality. This is where a lot of what I write now is. I start with a daydream or an image or a rough notion in my head. As I start trying to draft some of it, I will pull things from my life into it in order to give the story some bones. But I kind of throw them in wherever. I put words that my real-life hyper-masculine friend would have said in the mouth of the fictional gal pal of my female lead. I pull a story from dating Mrs. Heretic 17 years ago and transplant it into the foreign land of some story about a funeral home director from Akron.

One of the great things I find about writing like this is that one of those "phase one" stories I tried a long time ago suddenly finds a place where it makes sense as part of another story. I find that the instinct to think that a story existed there was right, it was just that that vignette really belonged within a larger fictional cosmos.

Phase Four: Make it all up

I haven't done this yet. I haven't written a period piece in which nothing is familiar to me and the characters are entirely made up and don't in any way resemble anyone I know. Some people would have you believe that until you ascend to this plane, you aren't writing at the highest level. I'm not sure I agree. Melville continued to mine the same autobiographical material for stories throughout his life. I can't think of a Vonnegut story that doesn't end up at some point back in some place he lived in--upstate New York or Indiana. Vonnegut actually recycled characters over and over. There's nothing wrong with this. Even if you're writing something completely out of your imagination, that imagination is still colored by your experiences. You can't escape yourself, and many of the best writers in history have done great work by not really trying to hide this fact.

Putting it together

Commenter Badibanga may critique me here for being formulaic and narrow about how I approach story writing,  but I promise the way I write feels fairly natural to me. After I've done whatever level of fusion of real life and dream sequence I needed to in order to put a story together, I look at it. I imagine what I do at this point is similar to what an artist does. The story probably doesn't look like I thought it would when I started writing, but that's okay. I look at it for what it is now as a rough draft, and see what stands out to me about it. Are there parts that made sense with the original plan that don't make sense now? Are there things that need to go in now to make the most of what's good about the story as it actually happened? What images have emerged as a result of throwing things into the story that I can now capitalize on? The rough draft becomes a launching pad from which to set out again--hopefully, with less imaginative heavy lifting to do from here on, but still with surprises to come as I continue to rework the clay.

A word about outlines

One point from that George Saunders video I somewhat disagree with is this, which I regard as perhaps a bit of overstatement: "...a bad story is where you know what the story is, and you're sure of it, and you go there with your intentionality fixed in place." Saunders compares this to going out on a date with someone who has notecards in his hands about when to compliment his date and when to tell which anecdote. He says it makes the story seem insincere, like it's talking down to its reader. A real story, a "non-bullshit" story, is one where the author goes into writing it without preconceived notions of where it should go.

This is a common notion in modern fiction theory. Because of it, it's typical to hear advice that you shouldn't use outlines going into a story. I don't think this is necessarily true. Saunders says he sometimes goes into a story with just the smallest idea of something around which he is basing his work. But I don't think that means that if you have a fairly detailed idea where you're going, that means your story is not authentic. Indeed, with some stories, such as Game of Thrones, it's hard for me to imagine writing them without plotting out a lot of it in outline/sketch/map format first. You don't need to feel like a story that comes to you in more pieces from the get-go is not artistically valid. You DO need to remain open to whether all your choices in the planning stage continue to make sense as you write. You DO need to fully incarnate people in your story, even if those people were just someone you originally drummed up to fulfill a role in your plot.

Anyhow, that's my advice, from one advanced beginner to beginners. Whenever I think of process, I think of what Arnold Palmer allegedly said about a good golf swing. A good swing is whatever makes the ball go where it's supposed to. Try this if you want. If it gets you near the hole, great. If it doesn't, try something else. Just don't stress too much over whether your stories are working out. Stories can teach us rich things about life, but they're also meant for fun, much like golf. Which is to say, there are a lot of things going on in the world that might be more important. 

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Yeah, you keep cracking wise...

The New York Times followed the U.S. media's long tradition the other day of treating North Korea dismissively. In this case, it was yucking it up over the use of the word "dotard," claiming people everywhere were scrambling to find out what the word meant. The implications of this laughter are that North Korea uses antiquated words, and is therefore easy to deride and take lightly. They can't even use normal words, who can take them seriously?

Of course, neither Kim Jong Un nor his ghostwriter said "dotard." The word shows up twice in the English version:

Action is the best option in treating the dotard who, hard of hearing, is uttering only what he wants to say.


I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire.

The Korean, for those able to play along, was the following:

말귀를 알아듣지 못하고 제할소리만 하는 늙다리에게는 행동으로 보여주는것이 최선이다.


미국의 늙다리미치광이를 반드시,반드시 불로 다스릴것이다.

I don't really object to the translations. The statement clearly wanted to achieve hyperbole, and there's no way to soften that and give a true translation. The word 늙다리, translated as "dotard" doesn't really have a better translation. Other ones might have been equally good, though: old coot, buzzard, dinosaur, etc. It's an old person whose age has weakened his/her faculties. (Did that many people really have to look up the meaning of "dotard" in English? That was surprising to me.)

It's not that unusual a word in Korean, though. It can be used about anything old. An old animal that's past its prime can be a 늙다리.  I think most adult Koreans would know what the word means, unlike (much to my surprise) most Americans with the word "dotard." It isn't, in other words, a particularly strange thing to say in Korean. On the scale of KCNA pronouncements, it's actually kind of normal.

I wouldn't  begrudge folks having a laugh over such a pedantic point, except that it seems like the U.S. media has only one note with North Korea, which is to make fun of everything it does or says. It's all just a big joke, all the time. Well, it's not a joke to North Korea. It's an existential matter for them. Nobody there is laughing.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Resentment as a motivator

I've read a lot of articles over the years about how athletes used the resentment they felt from a perceived snub as a motivator to achieve greatness. Warriors basketball player Draymond Green remembers all 34 players taken in front of him in the 2012 draft. Michael Jordan's Hall of Fame induction speech was sort of a litany of all the wrongs done to him. A lot of players get traded and use that as proof that the team that got rid of them never saw the value that was there, and they become all-stars the following year.

I can see how convincing yourself that the world is against you and you need to pay them back is a good way to get the most out of your off-season workouts. But it's obviously false motivation. No team intentionally throws away talent. It's just hard to evaluate. If they had known how good someone would be, they'd have taken that person. But until the moment talent shows itself, it's extremely difficult to judge.

Some people have suggested using resentment as a motivation for writing. One day, I'll have a Pulitzer or a best-seller, and then I can laugh at everyone who missed their chance at me. When I found out I was getting a book published, people suggested I throw it in the face of others. I just don't feel that way. For one thing, after facing so much rejection, whenever I get the least bit of acceptance, I feel nothing but grateful. Secondly, I know that nobody is rejecting me because it's personal. It's just hard to decide what's good enough to publish.

But mostly, does it make any sense to write from resentment? The best writing I've ever read, your Shakespeare or Melville or Vonnegut or Cervantes, can often have a caustic, derisive sense of its subjects, but it's also infused with love for the same fools it's deriding. You cannot write about humanity while full of hate. That's like being told as a young man that you'll never achieve your dream of becoming a missionary, then motivating yourself through Bible college by telling yourself I'll show these assholes. I'm going to show these fucking starving people the love of Christ like a motherfucker. Some means annul the hoped-for ends just by invoking them. 

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

A big honor from a blog I admire

For a few years, I've been trading comments with Karen Carlson, whose blog "A Just Recompense" discusses, year after year, every story from the anthologies Best American Short Stories and the Pushcart Anthology. I've complained before that literature has almost no community. We read that BASS and Pushcart are influential anthologies, yet if you try to find discussions about stories from them online, it's pretty slim pickings. Compare that to the million YouTube viewers of a Rick and Morty remix that comes out just a few days after the latest episode. Karen's determination to keep blogging about these stories--in between the many MOOCs she takes to improve herself--gives us one place a writing community can assemble to find other people to whom literature matters and to talk about literature that's worth talking about.

Today, Karen posted about my book. I won't go over what she had to say about it; you can go read that for yourself. What's important to me is that it's given me a chance to talk about things that were once just in my head. Really, this is why I write. Something is burning a hole in me, and the only way to get it out is to put in on paper. Once it's there, I want to find a good reader somewhere to look at it and talk about it with. You can agree or disagree, like it or dislike it, as long as you read it intelligently. Talking about literature is always great, because you're talking about ideas that matter. Talking about literature you wrote is a whole other level, because it's the most important ideas to you, personally.

Getting a book published, even a small, artsy book of short stories read by a small number of people, can be thrilling and also incredibly saddening. There's the exhilaration of knowing that what you wrote will now have semi-permanence, but also the depression when it's over of knowing that life goes on like before.

Getting the chance to talk to people about the book is really the best part of the whole experience. It's an honor that I got to talk to Karen about it, and that she extended the conversation to her readers.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Actually, William Faulkner, I think about your daughter a lot

I was sick some this week, sick enough that I got tired of being side-eyed by the germ-adverse at work and stayed home some. That gave me a chance to catch up on a lot of writing work that I intended to do over the summer but never got to. A lot of it was administrative, submitting stories all over the place. September and October are the months more journals are open than any other, so I've got to make hay. I've submitted 20 so far, and I'm going for another 20 by next week (not that I've written 40 stories: we're talking about 6 stories submitted to 40 or so places). I'm also still plugging away at getting my novel query letter out to the magic 50 agents--that number somehow being the underground wisdom for how many you should write before you begin to think something is wrong with your novel.

I also did a little actual writing, finishing a story that's been taunting me since I started it on Memorial Day. I think it finally came together, although there were times I really wondered if I knew what I was even doing there.

My original plan was to have a busy September, get a ton of queries and submissions out there, and then shutter things up for a while with writing, to return to it after an undetermined time. I have been feeling like I both: A) need a break, and B) ought to do some other things, like pay attention to my son's homework or Mrs. Heretic's school year-induced fatigue (she has something like 120 students this year). I also am always aware of the need to retrain myself for work, mainly on Information Technology types of subjects. Probably wouldn't hurt to do some re-training in the languages I translate, either. This would all be self-training, but it still has an opportunity cost of time and energy. I'd need to give up some things, and nothing sucks up my time like writing.

There's that famous story, which apparently is not apocryphal, about William Faulkner, where his daughter asked him to please not get drunk during her birthday party. Faulkner replied, "Nobody remembers Shakespeare's children." Meaning, I guess, I'm a world treasure, and your suffering is nothing compared to the value of the art I produce. I told that story to a non-writer friend of mine one. He went pale and said, "That's terrible." I agree.

I said in my twenties that I'd gladly give up family for writing. I didn't have kids then. Pretty much from the moment Mrs. Heretic was pregnant, I have disavowed that stance I once held. A person is real, a story is not. A story might make the lives of people who read it better, it might not. But investing in a human being always means something. Especially a person I'm uniquely responsible for.

 After I get all this work done, I'll be at another cross-roads. I've published a book. I could call it a day, say I did all that a part-time writer could realistically hope to accomplish, and move on. Or I could keep hammering away. I know a lot of writers insist they write because they have to. Sometimes, I feel that way. I do feel compulsion, but I think it's also a compulsion I could control if I felt it were necessary. Is it necessary?

The "if I won the lottery" question

If I won the lottery, I wouldn't sit around and write, I don't think. I knew what I'd do with the money about six years ago, when I visited Mrs. Heretic's then-school in Baltimore and saw an entire run of about eight row houses, all vacant. If I won the lottery, I'd buy a bunch of vacants like those, rehab them, and set up some type of recreational facility within them, with rock climbing, indoor paintball, etc. There'd be some room somewhere for homework mentoring. Just a place for kids to do something other than get into trouble. Like the Boys' Club, only with stuff I like to do, not boxing.  Hopefully, it could provide a few jobs, too.

There are all kinds of problems with this dream. First, I'm an idiot at real-world stuff, and likely to lose all my money in a year doing this. Secondly, as I've discovered, when you try to help people with a lot of problems, you end up with a lot of problems. It's not a romantic world where you are adored as a white savior. It's hard work. I'm not sure I'm equipped for it sometimes. People with years of training in handling this stuff burn out. I'm likely to, also.

But let's just say that Baby Haysoos came to me in a vision and gave me a choice. Either I can write a novel that will gain recognition and become part of important cultural discussions, or I can have a non-profit that I will somehow manage to run successfully and it will have a tangible benefit to dozens or hundreds of lives. How should I answer that question? If I'm not a monster, I have to pick door #2, don't I?

Of course, I don't have a Baby Haysoos crystal ball. All my decisions are based on guesswork. Maybe writing will never lead me anywhere beyond where I am. Maybe it will lead me to a best-seller, and I'll sell the movie rights and use it to buy my row houses and start my non-profit. Maybe if I put writing away, I'll succeed more at work and get paid more. Money is always useful for helping people. Or, maybe I give up something I love doing and it gets me nowhere.

My guesses about what I should do change almost every day. The important thing to me is that when life asks me to not get drunk today, metaphorically speaking, for the sake of someone else, would I be willing to put the bottle down?

Monday, September 11, 2017

At last, my Swedish fans are satisfied

Googling my book to see if it's been reviewed by anyone I sent it to yet, I saw...this:

I'm guessing that 164 krona for the book, and that the language is therefore Swedish. I...am...confused. I mean, I guess they just link into some database, and if someone for some reason ordered one, they'd just order one themselves. It's not the same as a bookstore in Stockholm stocking an artsy book of short stories from a small American press, which would involve some sort of opportunity cost. But still, it's a weird place to find oneself. I already had a friend in Australia buy a copy, making me an international phenomenon. Dare I hope someone in Sweden will make me happening on three continents? No, I don't dare. That's stupid.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

My roller coaster goes up

I apologize if any of my posts, such as the last one I wrote, come across as entitled or pouty. I've committed to blogging about the struggle to find my way as an unknown writer of what I hope is serious fiction. That's going to involve some dark nights of the soul. So I don't shy away from writing about them, because to do so would be dishonest.

I was looking up some information about the Pushcart awards yesterday when I stumbled onto this article. It's an "open letter" from some guy who advises writers not to list Pushcart nominations in their biographies.  I thought it was ultra-fastidious and ridiculous. He argues that because a Pushcart nomination is common to thousands of writers, it's meaningless. This strikes me as nonsense. In the first place, as I've said before, your credits really aren't that important. They might get you a more sympathetic reading, by which I mean if I don't like something, I might give it a page longer than I normally would if you have a top-shelf credit to your name. But 95% of my decision comes just from the story there. I usually don't even look at the bio before I start reading the story.

To me, a Pushcart nomination means someone not only published your story, but thought it was one of the better ones they published that year. It's not a huge deal, but it's certainly not a negative.

One commenter really nailed it. Here's an edited version of what he wrote:

Publishing a story anywhere is goddamned hard enough. You... should tout that journal and then go around and brag the hellz about it because here’s the deal:
No one flippin’ cares anyway.

Not your writer friends. Not your mom. Not your priest. Shit. Even if you get a notable publication in a place high up on Perpetual Folly’s Pushcart nomination list... find someone who gives a shit. ...

You know who does care. The damn editor who accepted your piece in the first place. Listen to him or her, strangle-hug him or her, and bragz the flying F out of their zine because the chances of you convincing another schmuck to like your crap is a million to one. Literally. There are a million lit journals and you happened to find the one journal that liked your stupid story. And you’d turn your nose up at that?.. Who the hell are you?

Unless you’re one of five writers in America (and I suppose Canada and maybe a few other quasi-American speaking countries) who can expect a call from the New Yorker, you should just assume your story is shit and it won’t be read by anyone. So, writers-who-turn-their-noses-up-at-the-only-lit-ragz-they’ll-ever-get-published-in, I bid thee thus: Play with the first damn dog who sniffs your butt. Then yip your nutz off.
100% of the world doesn’t care where or how you were published and the infitesimally small percentage who does care knows how flippin’ hard it is to get someone to, first, read your work and , .B., get someone to actually like it.

Be one of the 60,000. Print out your Glimmertrain finalist certificate and paste it to the back window of your car. Goddamnit. Make a bumper sticker that says “I’m a published Hint Fiction author.” And tell all your cousins that you placed a poem at poetry.com and you have the 1996 anthology to prove it.
You’re writers, you bitches. Everyone hates you and no one cares.

Normally, the comments section anywhere on the Internet is a source of despair. But strangely, although this comment doesn't really offer much hope that anyone will ever notice what I do, I find that somehow hopeful. It was very hard to get my book published. It's an accomplishment. If nearly everyone now ignores it, that kind of just means I'm doing it right. 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

My book drops tomorrow, and I feel a little lost

There have been two sides of me writing for the last few years. One knows I'll never make money off this, and does it because there is something burning inside me that has to come out. So he writes because he has to. To this person, writing is its own reward and its own curse.

There is another side of me, though, that I can't quite get to hush. It dreams of somehow, miraculously, in spite of all the facts about publishing these days and how unrealistic it is to dream of ever making real money at this, somehow turning writing into what I do for a living. Part of that is just that I want to leave my current job. I don't hate my job. I probably have it better than most working people in America. It's just not always a great fit for my personality. I feel a lot of anxiety, mostly because I'm afraid of what happens if I fuck it up.

95% of the time, I manage to squelch the voice that would beguile me into thinking of making a living out of writing literary fiction. But 5% of the time, that voice breaks through, makes me dream unrealistic dreams, and then I'm all the more crushed when reality inevitably settles on me again.

For the last few years, I've been using writing as the thing that makes my day job bearable, the thing that shows I'm not just what I do at work. But writing also keeps me from doing what I sometimes think I ought to do--get another bachelor's degree in something other than English and find another career in life. I'd have to give up writing for a while to pursue a new field that would allow me to do something new with my life. But writing is also kind of what sustains me in the here and now. Which is why I sometimes fall into the foolish trap of dreaming of making a living off writing.

I didn't expect my book of artsy short stories to sell a ton of copies. But right now, I'm a little bit humiliated--I don't know another word strong enough for it--by the lack of sales. For Chrissakes, I know a lot of people, even though I'm a heavy introvert. But unless Amazon's sales tracker is very, very wrong, almost none of those people I know bought a book, in spite of my uncharacteristic, unpleasant self-promotion of it on Facebook and in person. And nobody who doesn't know me has bought one yet. I refused to give up and self-publish all those years, but there are plenty of self-published books outselling me by a wide margin.

At least one of my brothers hasn't bought the book or said anything to me about it. Lots of friends seem to have not realized that this was a big deal to me, and I really needed them to step up, buy a book and maybe write a review. I don't get paid for them buying a book--not unless 1,000 copies sell, at which point I start to get a share of the sales. It's not about money. It's about legitimizing what I do so it feels like a real thing.  It's about making a strong showing with this book so I have a chance of selling the novel that is my real goal here.

I worked hard for years to get a book published. Tomorrow is the official drop day, and all I'm thinking of right now is how I want to put this whole stupid midlife crisis writing phase behind me and do something practical with my life. People seem to need HVAC repair more than they need artsy stories about death, poverty, and male identity.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Is Andy Dwyer an indictment of fiction?

Since I've been on the subject of how fiction might not be good for you of late, I thought I'd follow up with a little deeper probing of one of the ideas supporting that thesis: fiction makes us accept things we would never accept outside of fiction. Here, I'd like to consider the proposition that it encourages us to accept ignorance as a morally acceptable condition.

I said "morally acceptable," which is something not often considered when discussing intelligence in a human being. But I rather accept Lionel Trilling's contention that in a democracy, there is a moral obligation to be intelligent. One cannot control many factors that contribute to intelligence, of course, but one can read and struggle to become as intelligent as possible, given one's constraints.

But fiction--and here I'm going to throw in movies, literature, plays, and TV, since fiction in all of them operate off similar psychological principles--often encourages us to love stupid people. Carl Sagan was chagrined when Dumb and Dumber became the number one movie in America in 1994, but if he had lived into today, he'd have countless more examples to shake his head at.

Let's consider Andy Dwyer from Parks and Recreation. If you're not familiar with the show, this montage ought to give you a pretty good idea:

Even if you don't know the show, you probably know Andy, because "Andy" has been done to death in the last 20 years in American TV. I didn't even own a TV for five years once, but without trying, I can come up with: Phoebe from Friends, Kramer from Seinfeld, Peter Griffin and a few others from Family Guy, Homer Simpson from The Simpsons, half the town of South Park, Coach and his replacement Woody from Cheers, Luke Dunphy from Modern Family, Rose from Golden Girls, Malorie from Family Ties, and that's just what I can do without Googling.

Although the rise of the "goofball-hero" has been a characteristic of American TV of the last 25 years, it does have antecedents in literature. I'm not talking about characters who are dumb and evil, but characters who are dumb and also meant to earn the sympathies of the audience. Don Quixote leaps to mind. Although Cervantes himself apparently meant for Quixote to be much more scorned than he has ended up being, many readers throughout history have sympathized with the eponymous hero, with some interpretations such as the musical Man of La Mancha actually romanticizing him. Lenny from Mice and Men is another stupid character we are meant to root for, although Lenny appears to honestly not be able to help it, unlike many modern American goofball-heroes.

Characteristics of the goofball-hero

The goofball-hero makes claims on our sympathies because while he may not be bright in a traditional, bookish sense, he's a "good guy." He'd never scheme against you, in large part because he is incapable. He cannot even conceive of guile, or if he tries, it fails so badly, one doesn't hold it against him, because the attempt is so pathetic. In this sense, our attachment to the goofball-hero is much like our attachment to dogs.

The goofball-hero also often has a certain mystique of wisdom attached to his or her persona. Nine of ten statements the GH makes are meant to get a laugh because of how simple, foolish, or mistaken those statements are, but then every so often, the GH says something profound. This wisdom is assumed to be the product of a life unencumbered by all those book lernin' thoughts that weigh us down. By sacrificing traditional intelligence, the GH obtains an esoteric wisdom not available to the rest of us.

This was a device the writers of Friends resorted to often. The entirety of Chauncey Gardiner's character in Being There is built around the delivery of unintentionally thought-provoking aphorisms.

Not that there's anything especially wrong about it...

We all know people in life who just aren't that bright, but have good hearts and mean well. Even if everyone in America committed themselves tomorrow to bettering their minds, exactly 49% of the population would always be of below average intelligence, and not all of that 49% would be bad people. We'd want them on our sides in a tough spot, and indeed such people often are, maybe even more so than the smarties in our lives, because their brains don't give them reasons not to be there for us at a personal cost to them. I'm not talking about people with genuine developmental issues. I'm talking about people who just were never interested in school, people who don't read now, whose minds are both stubbornly made up in some ways and yet dangerously pliable in others.

One use of fiction is to make us see things through other perspectives, and it's certainly possible to see things from the perspective of the GH and appreciate that there is value in the life of a person who is not traditionally intelligent. On the other hand, if becoming intelligent is, indeed, a moral obligation, then the willful failure to do so must be immoral in some sense. But the entire thrust of the GH's depiction for the last several decades has been to ignore the immoral aspect of a lack of intelligence.

But there's definitely something wrong with the flip side of it...

Nowhere is this more easily seen than when we get a depiction of someone supposedly intelligent. The Big Bang Theory has been presenting intelligent people as hopelessly socially inept for over a decade now. Even while they are the protagonists, they are still the butt of the show's own jokes. Intelligence is seen as a condition one is born with, and it comes with a major downside one also cannot do anything about. It's the flipside of the GH: the GH also really can't do anything about the way he is, but there is also an upside to being born that way. Indeed, in Jonathan Franzen's novels, being born with advantages that lead to a developed intellect is almost certain to lead to crippling personality disorders.

All of this demonstrates the most radical kind of democratic view of things, in which nobody can really be critiqued, because we all just are the way we are. If nobody can be critiqued, nobody can be praised, either. This ends up with a worldview that skews slightly in the anti-intellectual direction, because the presence of someone who has become intelligent by his own bootstraps is an indictment of everyone who hasn't. So we have to mock the intelligent as pretentious and self-important.

This is actually as old as the very first American literature. The jock, Bram Bones, gets the better of the stuck-up prig school master Ichabod Crane, who wanted something in life above his station. So the jock pulls a practical joke on the nerd and chases him off, leaving room for the more likeable genes to be passed on. It's an archetype deeply ingrained in our cultural psyche.

This isn't necessarily an indictment of literature, but it's close

Of course, if literature can get us to accept one worldview, it can get us to accept another. There is nothing preventing me from using a story that demonstrates that being smarter really is better than remaining ignorant. But that's a hard sell. Buffoons do much better with audiences than smart people do. Using a fool to get around the prejudices of the audience and communicate some truth is a tried and true technique in Shakespeare, although Shakespeare's fool was never unintelligent, only iconoclastic. There is nothing especially wrong with tricking the audience by holding up a fool to laugh at, and then using those good feelings toward the fool to get the audience to accept a truth it would have resisted from someone else. But in the process, we seem to have come to love truly foolish types of fools, far more than might be good for us.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

I can't give you science, but I can give you Kurt Vonnegut

Sometime in the long-ago of this blog, I wrote about finding Peter Thorpe's Why Literature is Bad for You in the library at University of Illinois at Chicago and being fairly blown way by it. It made some fairly cogent arguments for why reading novels--the very thing we treat like they were vegetables for the brain--are actually not good for you. My only disappointment was that there weren't actually all that many arguments from logic, and none from real research. A fair amount of it came down to anecdotal evidence based on what a bunch of jackasses the professors he worked with who spent all their time with literature were. Still, it was kind of compelling based on my own experience, and I wanted more.

I haven't found any research on this since. I've seen a few assays into similar theses, like this one that says stories are bad because they're like religion and lie to us, and this one that says literature is bad for us because it addles our brains (kind of similar to Thorpe's argument). But really, it's not something I can find that researchers have looked at seriously. There was this story a few years back about how reading literary fiction improves empathy. But nobody has tried to study whether it makes us so empathetic, we fall for terrible ideas, which was Thorpe's argument.

I don't have any science to offer on the subject. But I have this wonderful passage I came across while re-reading Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions this week:

I had no respect whatsoever for...the novelist. I thought (the novelist) had joined hands with other old-fashioned storytellers to make people believe that life had leading characters, minor characters, significant details, insignificant details, that it had lessons to be learned, tests to be passed, and a beginning a middle, and an end.

As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, and with such abominable results: They were doing their best to live like people invented in story books. This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books.

Why were so many Americans treated by their government as though their lives were as disposable as paper facial tissues? Because that was the way authors customarily treated bit-part players in their made-up tales.

And so on. Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done. If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead. It is hard to adapt to chaos, but it can be done. I am living proof of that: It can be done.

Some of this is similar to Thorpe, only a lot funnier. Obviously, Vonnegut kept writing novels, so he only partly meant what he said here.

I've been writing for a while now, partly, I think, to give myself something to focus on in life so I continue to think life is worth living. But I wonder if I wouldn't take it more for granted that life is worth living if I just hadn't read so many stories to begin with.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Uncertainty is intellectually honest, but it's hard to write about

I was going to try to draw some lame connection between this post and writing in order to keep with my promise to make this mostly a blog about writing, but I might as well face it that this is a post about politics.

I can do a lame tie-in to evangelical Christianity, though

I've written before that nothing probably has as profound an impact on who I am now than the fact that I used to be an evangelical Christian. Over several years, I went from believing something completely and being totally committed to it to being more certain than I am of anything that it wasn't true. That's made me mostly skeptical about everything I've been into since. There's a limit to how into something I can get, because I know at some point, whatever the thing that I'm into is will end up deconstructing itself. Obviously, I'm this way about writing, even though writing was the thing I hit upon as my solution to a mid-life crisis several years ago. But just because I spend a lot of my time writing, reading, or working for a literary magazine doesn't mean I'm sure that it's a good way to spend my time. I'm not totally sure that too much literature isn't bad for you.

I definitely find there are built-in limits to my ability to participate in politics, too. I don't really feel like I fit in with any political community. Around liberals, I feel like a conservative, and around conservatives, I feel like a liberal. Much like when I was in church, I find the best way to be accepted is to not say anything about the doubts I have, or risk being shunned by the doctrinally pure set.

No political comfort zone

I was in favor of same-sex marriages at least a decade before the majority of America was. So a lot of Republicans don't like me. But I also think a cake maker ought to be able to decide what services he does and doesn't provide, and face the judgment of the community for it. So Democrats don't like me.

I think the government should invest on a grand scale in blighted inner cities--massive jobs programs, huge security mobilizations to make make the cities safe, top-to-bottom plans to make life better. If a kid in Baltimore going nowhere walks into an office somewhere and says he wants to turn his life around, there ought to be a thousand things to offer the kid. But I also think corporations should pay lower income taxes, since they generate jobs.

I think that America's prison systems are an ongoing affront to the values we say we believe in. I think kids who grow up in Baltimore grow up in a police state that seems intent on sending them to those prisons. I also think that blaming police for the inner city school-to-prison pipeline is lazy. Because we are too short-sighted to fully commit to improving Baltimore and cities like it, we throw police at them like band aids. Then we wonder why the band-aids sometimes fail us.

I think it's a given that everyone should treat transgendered people with respect, and that every opportunity to do anything in life should be open to them. I give nary a shit about the moral implications of becoming transgendered. I take people at their word when they say being transgendered is an expression of who they really are. At the same time, though, I realize that the notion that male and female might not be the fixed concepts we thought they were represents a radical shift, and it's one that's come upon us suddenly. I can understand skepticism. I can understand that society isn't willing to immediately invest scarce resources to accommodate everything this community wants, like reconfiguring the male-female public restroom system. And I can understand wanting to do an honest intellectual inquiry into what the effects to society might be of such a change coming so fast. 

I could go on, but the point is, on almost every political issue, I'm likely to have views that make nobody happy, or everyone unhappy.

Then came Charlottesville

In one sense, I'm very much in the liberal mainstream when it comes to the past few weeks. I don't understand why there are Confederate monuments (or, more troubling, military bases named for Confederate generals, although nobody seems to be talking about that). I'm happy to see them go.

But since Charlottesville, I've been noticing a trend among friends that I think of as liberal. I'm generally likely to come down in the liberal spectrum on racial issues. I read Ta-nehisi Coates. I have a black daughter. Most of Mrs. Heretic's students are black, and they become like family to us for nine months a year. But I find myself unable to get on board with something that seems to have become a common opinion among my liberal friends, almost overnight. This trend I'm not on board with can be expressed by this cartoon I saw on someone's Facebook feed the other day. It's a graphic representation of Popper's Paradox of Tolerance:

 This is in addition to the many "punch Nazis" posts I've seen.

I must have missed when the liberal consensus went from "hate what you say, but defend your right to say it" to "punch Nazis."

Not in our house

There's been a lot of verbal scrum since Charlottesville about the role Antifa played in the violence. Trump was attacked for saying he thought there was violence on both sides. There are videos that claim to show that one side or the other was mostly responsible for the violence. The LA times did an interesting report that pretty much just slapped down a bunch of brief eye-witness accounts, including far left, far right, and mainstream journalists. I'd say the bulk of evidence makes it look like the neo-Nazis were more aggressive and more organized about being aggressive, but that there probably really was violence on both sides. BuzzFeed reporter Blake Montgomery put it that "Conflict would start much the same as it has at other alt-right rallies: two people, one from each side, screaming, goading each other into throwing the first punch.” That seems to pass the smell test for me.

Nearly a year before Charlottesville, Peter Beinart of the Atlantic did a great piece on the rise of Antifa. He explains that what is troubling is the way that violence is being approved of tacitly by even mainstream people of the left, thus becoming normalized.

Such tactics have elicited substantial support from the mainstream left. When the masked antifa activist was filmed assaulting Spencer on Inauguration Day, another piece in The Nation described his punch as an act of “kinetic beauty.” Slate ran an approving article about a humorous piano ballad that glorified the assault. Twitter was inundated with viral versions of the video set to different songs, prompting the former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau to tweet, “I don’t care how many different songs you set Richard Spencer being punched to, I’ll laugh at every one.”

The same is true for some conservatives, of course, who may not themselves carry shields into parks, but who will chuckle if they see someone they hate enough being attacked. Violence is being winked at on both sides. Our president is guilty of it.

Beinart points out that the real problem with this normalization of violence on both sides is the erosion of "the quality Max Weber considered essential to a functioning state: a monopoly on legitimate violence."

Liberals were incensed that Trump pointed out that there was violence on both sides. Beinart rightly pointed out that Trump is wrong to imply there is a moral equivalency between neo-Nazis and antifa, but that doesn't mean he was technically wrong about there having been violence on both sides. Even if the other side did more of it than "ours" did, it seems to me that the primary job of liberal leaders is to lead liberals. That is, to make sure we aren't the ones responsible for this, that we aren't looking at vigilante solutions to dealing with the people we disagree with. I don't give a shit if we're not mostly to blame; I want us to be blameless. We shouldn't allow the possibility of murkiness to enter the conversation. This is especially important because, as Beinart pointed out, Antifa has sometimes expanded its definition of what constitutes an agent of intolerance to people wearing MAGA hats.

Instead of redefining what our own movement means, instead of setting our own agenda, we are simply criticizing Trump. That's all that liberal philosophy in America amounts to now: we're against Trump. We're so on board with criticizing him, we don't even care who we align with, as long as they are against him, too. We don't even have real leadership right now. We're still looking to Clinton and Obama, who last I checked are both now ex-politicians. There is just nothing at all going on in the Democratic Party to be excited about. I can't seem myself going to that church, so to speak. But there isn't another one for me to go to, either. I'm like one of those people who says he considers himself "spiritual" but just doesn't go to church.

Okay, I will make a quick lame tie to writing

If there is a link between my writing and my lack of a political home, it's this: when I see so many people feeling so certain they know the answers they're willing to torch the opposition, and I compare it with my own uncertainty, I feel like there must be something wrong with me. Maybe I'm the one who doesn't get it. Maybe feeling unwarranted self-confidence is the only way to be happy in the world, and that's why so few people seem interested in stories about characters who feel genuine confusion. Lately, when I go to write a story, I just scrap it, because I assume at some point that I must just not get it.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Having conversations about my own book

One of the reasons I made the financially disastrous decision to go to graduate school was just the anticipation of how enjoyable it would be to talk about books with other people who also loved them. It partially lived up to that hype, although I'd say the best conversations I've had about stories have been outside of graduate school. In any event, a deep talk about a story and how it changes the interpretation of what life means is one of life's greatest pleasures.

I've been sort of uninterested in my own book since it came out on Amazon in July. There are a couple of reasons why: I've found typos and other little errata in the book since that are embarrassing (even though I knew there would be mistakes). I decided I was going to forego paying for a review, and instead hope that I could convince a few reviewers to talk about the book for free, but I think I've failed, and I'm going to end up with not one single review from an independent book review site. Which is just part of the learning process for me, but is still kind of a disappointment.

Even though I wrote many times prior to the book coming out that I knew I'd be lucky if 200 copies were sold, it's still been disappointing to see how few copies have sold. I guess partly that's a blow to my ego. It makes me feel like my big moment of finally getting a book published is deeply invalidated by it mostly only selling to people who know me. (It hasn't helped that I've failed at doing the publicity things I needed to do, like get a review. Also, even the publisher has had issues: they can't find the guy who does the website, and so the web page hasn't been updated in ages. So what publicity I would have had from them has been null.)

Beyond ego, though, there's a personal reason I'm so disappointed by low sales. I like talking about books, and the thought of talking about the stories that meant so much to me I went to the trouble of writing them down is really why I started writing in the first place.

I have, it so happens, had a couple of conversations about the stories in the book. They were with my brother and my friend, so this wasn't that magical moment of hearing from a stranger in Duluth about how I'd touched their life and blown their mind. But both conversations still lived up to the hype I'd built up.

It helps that my brother and my friend are really good readers. My older brother is a lawyer; my friend is a recent Harvard graduate. They asked good questions, they saw things I didn't see, they got what I was going for in places.

My friend said he felt like many of the characters were resigned to their fate at the ends of the stories. I felt like if anything bound the stories together, it was that every main character found a way to snatch some kind of agency from fate, which is the opposite of being resigned. So we talked about that for a while. It didn't matter that we saw things differently; it was thrilling just to be talking about people who had only existed inside my head at one point in time. And at some point in the conversation, the feeling of how remarkable it was that these were my stories we were talking about just about knocked me over.

I'm likely to still feel a fair amount of disappointment about the book in the next few months. Again, this is going to happen no matter how much I've steeled myself for disappointment. But man, these little moments really do kind of make me think that writing isn't a total waste of time.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The best answer I have to give to the question I raised myself

I realize that much of this blog has been taken up in its three-year history by me trying to answer the very tiresome "why write?" question. It's not lost on me how tiresome this line of questioning is. Honestly, though, I don't indulge in it over and over to be theatrical. It's an honest, ongoing internal debate I have going with myself. I share my thoughts out loud just in case it resonates with another writer out there.

To question, to be as specific as possible, can be put in three parts:

1) What benefit do I hope to obtain or bring to others through writing stories meant to be published in books or literary magazines?
2) How likely is it I will see this benefit realized?
3) Are there other activities which, if I put equal time and effort into them, have a better product of  <benefit X possibility of achievement>?

To recap, a week ago, I was wondering about the relevancy question. If part of the benefit I seek to bring is to share some sort of wisdom I think I might have to impart, what good is it to share it in a format that is mostly ignored in the modern world? Does it seem ethical to write stories that examine the minutiae of romantic relationships or the psyche of first-world folks struggling to figure it all out when the news sometimes really makes me worry if we aren't near our Great Filter event.

This is, of course, just one aspect of the "why write fiction" question. But it's the one that's been on my mind lately, so here's what I've come up with in the last week to answer it.

Answer #1: You've got to do what you're good at

I read an article not too long ago by Bojack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg saying that he intended to take the show in a more political direction in order to adapt to the new reality: 

“I think BoJack is definitely very much about kind of the burdens of being comfortable,” Bob-Waksberg told Indiewire. “I don’t know if those are the kinds of stories we’re going to be as interested in moving forward. I know I’m certainly less interested in exploring the small hypocrisies of rich liberals. 

“I’m not in the mood to poke fun at those kinds of people when there are real, real problems that we need to talk about.”

I understand where he's coming from, but at the same time, I couldn't help but be disappointed reading this. I get plenty of commentary on Trump from plenty of places. Not saying the creator of this brilliant show couldn't do it better (sorry, Karen--I know you're not a huge fan of this show), but why would he? That's like saying that because vegetables are the most important food to eat, you're going to stop making pizza. And Bojack is really, really good pizza.

If I feel this way about someone else's stories, I ought to give myself the same slack.

Answer #2: Soccer team theory

If everyone goes after the ball, you just have a mess of people in a big mass kicking each other in the shins. It's not an original metaphor, but it serves: here, of course, the ball is whatever the political issue of the day is. Yes, right now, everyone is gathered around the ball of whatever Trump said last night or what happened last weekend at some rally. But eventually, people will want to know about something else, and when that happens, you need to be in position.

Writing stories in this day and age might be like being a wing way off in the distance. I might only get in on a play or two. But it's better to do well on that play or two that are in my wheelhouse than to play the whole game at a position I'm not suited to.

Answer #3: The world hasn't always been like this

It's important for someone out there to have a sense of history. The news seems to only remember the last 72 hours, and this ends up having an affect on all of us. We have to keep some sense of where today's events lie on the long timeline of history. Writing stories that inherently take some time to write helps with this. In an intellectual fast-food world, it's important for people to eat slow cooking once in a while.

Answer #4: Politics isn't the most important thing in the world

We're all born into a weird world trying to make sense of absurdity. It's important to keep life going, so politics isn't something we can ignore, but honestly, if it takes up your whole life, I'm not sure that's a life that's much worth living.

There was a time when devout Christians in America mostly kept out of politics, believing that they were supposed to be in but not of the world. The fact that so many of us are now in on the left and the right with so much fervor is directly related to the increasing view on both sides of politics as continual confrontation. We could all stand to be reminded that the outcome of an election is not the most important thing in our lives. If that sounds like privilege talking, so be it. I don't think things will improve by revoking my own privilege to regard other things as more interesting and life-affirming than they really are. I think things get better by sharing that privilege. 

So that's what I've come up with. It's not a knockout answer, but it'll serve. Of course, there are many other reasons to wonder if writing stories is worth it than just relevancy. Money is one that I've been thinking of lately. This hobby takes more money than it gives, and maybe I ought to be doing something with my spare time to advance my family's position. But that's a post for another time.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The "R" word

With so much that's truly troubling going on in the world, a fiction writer wonders whether fiction is relevant. The news changes day-to-day, but stories take weeks or months to write, then weeks or months more to be published. A novel can take years to write and years to get to the finish line. By contrast, South Park, a show which takes hundreds of people to produce, managed to get an episode about the Trump election out about a week after it happened.

I realize that writing isn't an either-or thing. I can write stories and take a break now and then to write about events of the day, sometimes on this blog. I've done that now and again, although I try not to give into temptation too often to take on subjects other than writing.

The news is a mix of impending war and a president who won't take the political slam dunk of just saying neo-Nazis are bad. (Or he will say it, but add that there are lots of other bad people, too.) What the fuck is the point of the story I'm trying to write about the girl who falls in love with a performer at a Renaissance festival?

This is a question I've answered for myself before. But that answer sometimes seems kind of weak when compared to the urgencies of the time. Yes, there will always be news headlines that scream to take our attention away, and if we always paid heed to them, nobody would ever create art. But in a world where information moves so fast, it just feels like fiction writing is a slow answer. If my novel were picked up for publication today, even the next season of Rick and Morty would probably make it out before the book did.

There are responses to this, of course. Fiction can focus on that which is timeless, which would fill a niche in a world that is always thinking only of the last 24 hours. But it's hard for me to see that fiction is doing this effectively. Here's a tough question for those who would defend the relevance of fiction: when is the last time you can think of that a short story or novel figured prominently in public discourse?