Wednesday, March 29, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 25, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

What little influence this blog has, I now lay at the feet of a mom in Ohio

Not long ago, I took a little side trip to kvetch about Meryl Streep's faux-humble acceptance speech. It irked me because it was a failed opportunity to build a real bridge between liberal and conservative America. I found this irritating because I grew up with, work with, and still maintain friendships with a lot of the Christian people who voted for Trump. The big secret about these people is that they aren't all hypocrites. I disagree with them profoundly about abortion and a million other things, but I also deeply respect that so many of them are willing to adopt or otherwise provide love and support to children in the world. They believe every child is born in the image of God, and they live it.

I learned today about the struggles of one of these people. I don't know if she voted for Trump. She's the kind of person who might have. It doesn't matter. She might have voted with Trump over the "A" issue, but she's now very much against one big piece of legislation Trump is threatening members of Congress to get behind: The AHCA. I have her permission to share her story on my blog. I've heard a lot of "human interest" angle stories on the news the last few weeks. Hers is one of the hardest to hear.

These are Trump's people: Bible-believing, military family, hard-working. If anyone thinks these are the people being helped by the AHCA, you're wrong. The AHCA will make all those people that most of us like not to think about extremely palpable. Here's what she wrote on her Facebook page. There are small typos, but I'm keeping it as it is. This is a sweet family with pure hearts who adopted a girl a few years ago, then found out her problems were profound. Here's her story, which is more important than any fictional one I can dream up:



It’s time to share an update about Kiley. I had no desire to share this on FB, but I have no choice now. So please read and take it for what it is. No judgement is needed. The only thing we need right now is PRAYER and for you all to take 30 seconds to tell congress to vote NO tomorrow on the American Health Care Act…and here is more of Kiley’s story to help you understand why this is so important….

I never wanted to share Kiley’s story with the world, but back in 2014 a friend of mine gave me the courage to do so, so I did. How are we supposed to stop the stigma of mental illness if we hide behind it? I wanted everyone to believe our life was just perfect and that Kiley was this perfect little Guatemalan princess that we fought so hard for 3 years to get home! I didn’t want to hear the negatives “you should have walked away like we said…”, or “you should have taken it as a sign not to bring her home when it took that long to get her here!” Yes, these were said to me. Anyway, so I hid behind these walls not telling anyone that Kiley was hospitalized for months and months at a time, that her first suicide attempt was at 8 years old, that she has voices in her head that control her and she cannot get them to go away (and medication is touch and go), that she has bipolar disorder, and I especially didn’t want the world to know that she has Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) – and if you don’t know what that is … look it up! You will understand why I didn’t want to share with the world that my daughter was mentally ill…..and on top of that she struggled to attach to us – not because she didn’t want to but because the beginning of her life when her birth mom abandoned her and left her to die – chose the fate of the rest of her life. But in May 2014 I decided to tear down those walls and share Kiley’s story with our family and friends.

So here Kiley’s story continues: To catch you up, The Hope House was supposed to keep Kiley until she was 18 years old, that changed when the State of Idaho made the Hope House discharge Kiley due to her violence and that they could no longer keep their staff or other children there safe from her. So that was rough because the Hope House wasn’t an insurance battle. It was out of pocket and we didn’t have to worry about Tricare not paying. Tricare did pay for her medication and doctor visits but that is it. Because Dave is active duty military and Kiley is his dependent, BY FEDERAL LAW – Kiley must carry Tricare and she has 100% full coverage insurance. HOWEVER – TRICARE – WILL NOT PAY FOR KILEY BECAUSE SHE HAS REACTIVE ATTACHMENT DISORDER! They refuse and we have battled them, appealed over and over and over and over and over again! Each region has denied! They WILL NOT pay for her treatment other than ACUTE hospitalizations which are 3-5 days long (they must pay for those, they don’t have a choice) but anything longer, they don’t pay and Kiley doesn’t get the help she needs.

So what does this mean for Kiley and our family: Because TRICARE INSURANCE has refused to pay for Kiley’s treatment and she NEEDS treatment – Kiley had to go into “temporary” custody of children services. They are very much on our side (now, but not at first…it was rough), they are helping Kiley and the rest of our family. They are cooperative and helpful and we are still VERY much involved in her care! This is all solely for the protection of Kiley from herself, to protect Gabby and Elijah, and to get Kiley the treatment she needs now and in the future. This is so Kiley could receive benefits outside of Tricare and which allows her to get the help she needs. This is all court ordered here in the state of Ohio. The sad thing is that this could have all been avoided had her insurance covered her like they should! Now Kiley is eligible for Medicaid which will help with services as well. Let me explain one more thing to leave out any confusion – Kiley could (and has – in Oklahoma) carry Medicaid as a secondary insurance. The problem is: when Tricare denies her treatment, Medicaid CANNOT BY LAW pick up and cover, they can only cover costs once Tricare’s benefits run out. Example: She was in a hospital for 180 days and Tricare only covers 180 consecutive days so that is when Medicaid can pick up so treatment can continue. The problem with Kiley’s situation is that Tricare DENIES first so Medicaid cannot pick up. I just wanted to clarify for anyone who was wondering about this. So, either way, having a secondary insurance on Kiley does not and will not ever help as long as Tricare will not cover her.

Kiley’s situation is FAR from easy right now…. there are so many more complications, but we are thankful for children services and that they can help us get Kiley the help she needs. Kiley was kicked out of this hospital about 45 days ago and because she is in their care while they are desperately searching for a facility that is fitting for Kiley’s needs. Kiley is still at this place because she can be there with a 1:1 staff with her 24/7 to keep her safe (children services is paying out of pocket for that). This hospital has accepted the 1:1 pay which is a blessing because originally they were going to transfer her to the juvenile detention center once her 30 days was up. She hadn’t even committed a crime! It is hard enough to find someone who will take a child with RAD but then you add that she is cognitively delayed with a low IQ and it’s nearly impossible….then you add in her violence. She has been turned down by everyone so far in and out of the state of Ohio. This hospital she is at is not where she needs to be right now….it’s not safe for her – even while she is on a 1:1 she is not doing well. She needs the PROPER treatment!

WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN AND WHY AM I TELLING YOU THIS? I am telling you this because I need you all to stop and pray about this AMERICAN HEALTH CARE ACT! Right now, it is already battle enough dealing with insurance companies and mental health, but this is just going to make it so much worse. The AHCA will have a harmful impact on those with mental health issues (and also those with substance abuse disorders as well – and with this heroin epidemic that is going on right now, this is NOT the time to leave these people without the ability to get help!)

Here are a few quotes from Linda Rosenberg. She is the president and CEO of the council, which represents mental health centers, addiction treatment organizations and hospitals. "The American Health Care Act (AHCA) as written would devastate Americans' mental health and addiction coverage and care" ..."They'll be in the streets. They will be homeless. They'll be picked up and put in our jails because they'll trespass or jump a turnstile if they're in a city”
"They'll try to live with any relative they can find. They'll be in shelters. They'll be in ER rooms in hospitals. And they will die."
THIS IS MY DAUGHTER! This is Kiley, this is the child and children of several of my friends, this is YOUR child because YOUR children become at risk when the mentally ill are on the streets. This our world…. PLEASE stop and pray for it!!!!!!!!!!! And please, if you agree with what I am saying, take the 30 seconds it takes and fill out this link and tell Congress to vote NO tomorrow!!!!!




That's a real story from the part of America that made Donald Trump president. Mental illness is real. If you don't step over mentally ill people every day of your life as they panhandle and mumble to themselves in the street, it's because they're on government programs. It's worth the money.

I've got nothing to add to that, except to say this is why I so often question myself for what seems to be a diletantish waste of time writing stories. I should be focused completely on making money so I can help people like her.
 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Does a lack of publications hurt your chances of getting a story accepted? The take of one literary journal reader

If you're out there slinging stories and you're new to the game, a reasonable doubt in your mind might be whether literary journals will even give you the time of day. Even though every great writer was once published by somebody for the first time, you've got to imagine that it's easier to get in if you've got a resume, right?

Madison Square Garden and Jimmy's Comedy and Ribs

There are thousands of English language literary journals you might consider submitting your work to. Some are the literary equivalent of a local bar for a comedian. They're just a place to get an audience, try out some stuff, and see if you're any good. That doesn't mean the people who perform there are terrible; some are actually very talented and headed somewhere. The manager isn't going to let just anyone into his joint (unless it's open mike night, in which case everyone probably sucks). You've got to at least get past some kind of elementary gatekeeper. Having done that, you then have a chance to hone your skills as a comedian and work your way up to bigger and better venues.

Some literary journals are like Jimmy's Comedy and Ribs: they're a little easier to get into. Some are like Madison Square Garden: it doesn't matter how funny you are, nobody is going to book you there until you've laid down a track record. The New Yorker is sort of like Madison Square Garden. They will warn you before you submit that it's no place for beginners. (SIDEBAR: Will Mackin's "Kattekoppen" was published in The New Yorker in 2013, then included in that year's Best American Short Stories anthology. It was his first published story. It was a great story, but I'm still wondering how he even got the folks at the magazine to read it. Maybe his was a case of some kind of writing program getting him an in? If so, then there's your reason to drop big coin on a writing program.)

I work for a place that's more like Jimmy's Comedy and Ribs. That doesn't mean I look down on it. I'm proud of the journal and the work we publish. I only mean that if you have never been published, you have a prayer of being published with us. It's still not easy. Jimmy's not going to let some dope on stage on his busiest night of the week. We're not going to embarrass ourselves by putting crap out. But we're a good place to try.

Most of the people we publish have published somewhere else first. There are easier places to break in than us. (Maybe we're more like the Comedy Shack in downtown Arbutus than Jimmy's Ribs. Even though no real celebrities perform there, it's a step up from Jimmy's. You could start with us, but most people need to work elsewhere to get better first.)

The truth about big resumes at small journals

We, the readers who go through the slush piles, get writer biographical statements with the stories, and we can choose to either read them or ignore them before we read the story itself. I usually glance at the bio, because if it's written in a dopey way, it can help me get a head start on rejecting a story. That is to say, a biography can probably hurt you more than it helps you. I prefer folks who keep theirs simple. "Jake Weber is a translator living in Maryland. He has been published in Penthouse Letters, Swank, and is featured in your mom's diary."

But even a terrible bio doesn't really sway me much one way or the other. I've forgotten it, for the most, part two sentences into the story. Its influence is probably pretty small. The most influential factor in a bio for me, actually, might be whether the person is local. We're named for the city we are produced in, so it makes sense to publish people from the area. However, quality still matters, which means we branch out to get the best. We publish people from all over, including other countries. 

Anyhow, about those flashy resumes. I've read stories from writers who've been published in impressive journals: Glimmertrain, Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, etc. Many have had novels that sold reasonably well. One writer the other day had been interviewed for one of her books by Terri Gross.

But you know what I've noticed about those people? They're not giving us their best work. I've heard that sometimes big-time comedians will play some small local joint just to try out a new bit, see what kind of reaction new material might get. That way, if it sucks, they don't blow it in front of a huge crowd. I feel like those writers are treating us that way. It's sort of disrespectful. They're giving us some garbage they tried out and didn't really know what to do with, so they figure they'll throw it to us with their resumes and maybe we'll take it.

Well, we don't. It's not just me with a chip on my shoulder toward people who've had more success than me, either. None of the readers go for that.

So here's what I'm getting at. Your list of publications probably doesn't matter one-tenth as much as the story your write until you get to a very advanced level of the game. Having no publications is a very small hindrance to you if you turn in something compelling. It might even be a lure: Hey! We found this guy! I'm not saying it hurts to have publications. It might get a reader to stick with you through a shaky beginning, because he trusts that somebody with your bona fides is going somewhere with it.

But of the many, many reasons to feel doubt, your lack of publications when you go to turn in a story shouldn't be among them.  

Thursday, March 16, 2017

On "writing what you know"

"Write what you know" is one of those phrases that, depending on which circles you utter it in, can cause nods, shrugs, or mouth-frothed invective. There is a group of writers for whom it is nearly a trigger phrase, and if you utter it in what seems earnest, you will be hit with a counter-spell spoken with the force of a Huxleyan hypnopaedic suggestion, a la Brave New World. The counter-punch will go something like this: "Write not what you know, but what you can imagine."

The testy writers have a point. If we all stuck to only writing about things in which we had a certain level of expertise, most of us wouldn't have much to write about. Anis Shivani has noted that most writers enter the academy at a young age, after which they all start to have the same experiences: teaching, writing, struggling for tenure. The only common human experiences they have to relate to are the quotidian ones of relationships, break-ups, having children, struggling to make a living in the middle class, parents aging, etc. If someone from this class of writers does want to write about some specific human experience he knows first-hand, he often has to go back to his youth. This leads to a unbalanced percentage of stories written from a child's perspective.

Shivani is probably too hard on writers in the academies. If the people I knew in graduate school were a representative sample, a lot of them weren't in their early-to-mid-twenties. They'd done at least some other things besides go to undergrad and then go straight to graduate school. Joshua Ferris, whom I just talked about at length in my last post, worked in an advertising agency for a few years before going to get his M.F.A. It was enough to help him write a masterpiece. For a fertile imagination, it doesn't take a whole ton of experience for the seeds of a great story to grow.

But what about writing a story for which one has no direct experience? The white, middle-class American woman in her fifties who wants to write about the life of a child soldier in Sierra Leone? My initial reaction is to feel there's nothing wrong with this. If it's impossible to use imagination and human empathy to guess what the existence of another human is like, then what's the point of writing at all? What's the point of learning, or thinking?

My wife is a white woman from a middle-class Ohio background. She should have failed when she started teaching in 99% black Baltimore. But much to my amazement, her preparation for that life in the form of reading a healthy dose of African-American literature prior to starting her teaching career actually was in some form helpful to life teaching real-life African-Americans. Through reading and almost only reading, she was able to become as reasonably prepared as one can become for the alternate universe that is Baltimore City Schools. So imagination of even a totally different cultural framework must be in some sense possible.

But not all dalliances of lay people are equal

Nonetheless, I can still easily come up with examples of writing where I knew the writer was an outsider and I was bothered by a gap in knowledge.

Example One: Writing about the military

Almost every Best American Short Stories anthology or Pushcart anthology for many years now has had at least one story with a military character. Writers seem to be big on post-war characters reflecting back on their experiences. While my own military experience doesn't exactly make me Johnny Fifty-Cal, I know when I'm reading bullshit. Tom Paine's Bagram made it into the heady journal Glimmertrain, in spite of the fact that at one point in the story he accidentally transposed the numbers of the military intelligence unit the main character belonged to (the editors must not have seen it, either). It was pretty obvious to me Paine only knew about that unit from reading about it. His details were those someone would pick out if you'd only read about it. Not the place--a place you can fake well enough from just having researched it--I mean the whole ethos of being in the military. David Ebenbach, who is a member of the Washington Writers' Publishing House (the people about to publish me), whom I've met, whom I like, and whose book of short stories Into the Wilderness I rather like, has one story in it about a mother and daughter who seem to be coping with the death of the father. He seems to have died while on active duty in the military. It's a fine story, but the mother is living in a shack, and I just kept thinking "Every service member has $400,000 in life insurance! What did she do with all that money?"

Example Two: When journalists happen to write about something I know about

Even though most media outlets do have journalists who specialize a little bit (the Asia correspondent, the Science correspondent), they all end up having to cram-study for some stories as they're reporting on them. No media outlet can have reporters who are experts in everything they report on. A journalist's job is to get an explanation from an expert and translate it. But often, when I see reporting on something I happen to know really well, I can see that the journalist didn't quite get it. She has memorized a bunch of facts quickly and is spilling them back out, but didn't quite grasp the context. Sometimes, I know the picture drawn is so cartoonishly out of whack, it's like the person isn't even talking about the same thing I know from long experience. Like, say, if a journalist who didn't know about gyms did a report on one and came away thinking everyone there was a masochist.

I don't really get any schadenfreude out of this. It doesn't fill me with hubris to see journalists miss the point. It fills me with humility as a writer. Maybe I'm not really as able to translate some other culture or sub-culture to the world as I think I am. And not only as a writer--as a translator, too, I feel this sense of duty to be circumspect.

So what's the balance?

I don't know. I do know that I find the whole notion of "appropriation" to be a bullshit idea, one that is unequally applied. In the short story "A Cinnabon at Mondawmin," (in The Potomac Review right now) which I wrote thinking about the experiences of some of my wife's former students, the main character rejects the notion that his white teacher might be appropriating a story from him: "You said that was a fancy word for stealing, and there's nothing I have I wouldn't gladly let someone steal from me. Want my busted hairline I got because my cousin cuts my hair instead of a real barber? Take it. Want my bootleg Marbury shoes I got because I can't afford Jordans? Take them, too!"

If you can raid a culture and pull a good story out of it, have at it. Nobody owns interesting. However, you will be at a disadvantage in trying to tell that story against an equally talented writer who is coming from inside that other culture. In fact, you might be at a disadvantage against someone who isn't even as talented as you. I've written before that I prefer reading science fiction by Carl Sagan to whatever bloated, boring, bullshit it is Andrea Barret writes, even though Barret also writes about science and is a very skilled writer. Sagan, though, was a professional scientist, whereas Barret dropped out of Zoology grad school. It shows in how they approach the subject. Barret sees science as an excuse to rhapsodize about the human condition. Sagan finds science itself enough to gush about.

I suppose if I had to pick a rule, rather than "write what you know" or "write what you can imagine," I'd choose "write the story you don't have to force." Seriously, when you've got a good story, you know it. That doesn't mean you didn't have to scratch and dig before you found that well--maybe for years. But when you find that well and the water comes pouring out, you know it. If that means you are writing stories over and over about the same kinds of things, fine. Vonnegut is probably my favorite 20th century writer, and he re-used places, characters, and plot points. If you tend to find stories all over the place, fine. If you watch a show about Borneo or read an article about lumberjacks in Yellow Knife and feel inspired, follow it. If it's good, you'll know it.

If the thing doesn't come to life because you just can't imagine a life so alien, you have two choices. Give up, or learn more. When have you learned enough? When the story gets good. Melville didn't need to finish his whole stint on a merchant vessel to be able to write about life at sea. I only worked with Ethiopian and Eritrean migrants for about a year, but that year gave me a lot of stories. You might screw up a few details, and people like me will nitpick when you do, but it probably won't doom the story. You probably don't have to spend a lifetime at whatever it is you want to write about. But you need to find some way--vicarious or in person--to live that life deeply enough to be able to bring some part of it to life.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Cubicleist art: The place of Joshua Ferris's "And Then We Came to the End" in early 21st Century White-Collar Narratives

Pieces of Flair

Prior to Mike Judge's Office Space in 1999, the only movies I can recall that took the office as a setting worthy of a full-length feature were gender-oriented fare like Nine to Five, Mr. Mom, or Working Girl. By 1999, perhaps, the office was no longer terrain to be colonized by women wanting respect or to advance beyond the typing pool. Office Space wasn't about anyone trying to get into the office; it was entirely about how to escape from it. If there were any gender issues in play, they were these: the office is an emasculating environment. The best hope for men, if men ye would be, is to retreat to the honest manliness of blue-collar work.

It's an idealized version of blue-collar work, as anyone who's ever done blue collar work past the age of 30 can tell you, but the movie's influence within the culture it lampooned has been enormous. Nobody who works in any kind of large organization's office goes a month without quoting a line from it or hearing one quoted.

In line with the movie's only half-joking theme that all those aligned with the soul-sucking organization are evil, all of the bosses in Office Space are contemptible people, too. Lundberg is a personification of an otherwise faceless enemy: calculating, uncaring, putting profit above all then enforcing rules that don't even seem to have have a profit motive, only a motive of sucking life out of everyone who works there.

 Enter Steve Carrell

Office Space remained the final word on office life until NBC premiered The Office starting in early 2005. In the beginning, the manager Michael and his loyal subject Dwight are nearly as caricatured as Judge's Lundberg. But the success of the show permitted it to stick around long enough to allow Michael and Dwight to achieve more nuanced characterizations. Michael, we learn, was just a guy who liked being a salesman (and was really good at it), but was forced into management. He doesn't like it, and he's not good at it. But believe it or not, he might be the best choice for it, only because not many people want to be in charge and those that do are often so ambitious, even upper management is wise enough not to trust them. The few characters who seldom, if ever, rise above stereotype are actually in the peanut gallery. Kevin is usually just a fat/bald joke. Kelly Kapoor is almost always just a neurotic, narcissistic mess (and she probably wrote herself that way).

The show will probably always be best remembered for the way it skewered office political correctness by having Michael Scott cluelessly fail to conform. It was uncomfortable to watch at least once an episode, either because Michael was offending some group or because his own life was unraveling in ways he refused to see. It mostly saw office life as painful and pointless, but it did offer some small redemption for some. Jim, who is the most anti-establishment character in the show, always sabotaging Dwight in some way, ends up moving up the corporate ladder. He does so because he's a family man and he needs the gig, but also because he does find something in Dunder Mifflin he cares about.

And then we come to And then We Came to the End

I wonder if Joshua Ferris was freaking out at all while working on his debut novel, And Then We Came to the End. He must have been working on it for some time. Clues from the novel, in which a character named Hank promises for years to write a "short, angry" book about working in advertising, suggest Ferris had been thinking of the novel for a long time, possibly back into the 90s. The book was published on March 1, 2007, meaning he must have finished writing it at least a year ahead of that. This means it's possible he was working on it or finished with it and trying to find a publisher when NBC trotted out The Office. He might have worried that his novel would seem derivative.

Like the NBC show, it's based on a large ensemble of characters, fleshed out to varying levels of specificity. To some extent, though, the vast majority of characters are never quite fully made into individuals at all, a result of the novel's most salient characteristic: the first-person plural narrator.

This narrative device ran the risk of feeling gimmicky, but I'd agree with this review and the majority of reviewers who felt it worked well:

About that “we”: Ferris writes the novel in the first-person plural — the snarky, gossipy, anxious employees of the agency compose the collective narrator. This exotic trick play of a device often made the narrative of Jeffrey Eugenides’s “Virgin Suicides” feel anesthetized and distanced. But the collective voice is fitting for corporate employees, trained to work in teams, their groupthink honed in a million meetings, and the effect is chilling when the layoffs begin and the collective narrator is literally diminished.

In fact, it's an essential device to developing one of the key themes, which is also the big innovation Ferris brings to the 21st Century office dramedy. Because Ferris is after much bigger game than just skewering corporate culture. As Geoffery Wolff put it, the thematic heart of the novel is answering one of the oldest questions in art: "what part of a human being might outstay his visit on Earth?"

Ferris's answer is counter-intuitive to the wisdom of other office-parodying fiction. Immortality doesn't come, as most people assert, from treating work as an evil to be endured with ill will in order to take care of more important priorities outside of work, like family and personal interests. It comes from doing work well, from admitting the central position it holds in our lives and committing to it with a whole heart.

The two who stand apart

The two most sympathetic characters in the novel are the boss and the assistant. Lynn Mason and Joe Pope are nothing like Michael and Dwight. Lynn is respected, feared, occasionally somewhat liked, but definitely not one of the "we" of the collective conscience of the narrator. Halfway through the book, there is a crucial breakaway from the main narrative--the only part until the very end that takes place outside the office. Lynn, who is battling breast cancer but keeping her struggle to herself (although everyone in the office knows), gets a large chapter all to herself. There is no "we." There is just Lynn.

Lynn is struggling to figure out the most appropriate way to spend her last evening before going in for exploratory surgery, when her whole life will change. She tries one wrong idea after another (reminiscent of Ferris's incredible short story "The Breeze" from The New Yorker in 2013). Unlike the characters in that story though, who never do get it right and end up settling for going to the movies, Lynn does eventually find the right thing to do. She goes to the office to get her company ready for two big pitches coming up. It doesn't matter if we think it's right; it feels right to Lynn, which is why she gets to stand apart in her own narrative.

Joe Pope makes a virtue of his apartness from the group. He denies that be thinks he is really better than anyone in any way, although his stoicism in the face of somebody writing "FAG" in large print on his office would suggest he was better. He explains his real virtue, instead, almost in terms that make it sound like a vice: "That's what I'm guilty of, Genevieve. Believing I'm better than the group. There is no word for me. Someone better, smarter, more humane than any group." Indeed, Joe's apartness from the group is what gives him the moral clarity to shame the office for the way it is gawking at Janine Gorjanc as she grieves the shocking, violent death of her child.

Tom is a co-worker, part of the Greek chorus of voices in the collective "we" until he becomes one of the first to be cut during the economic downturn. He quotes Emerson and seems to have a noble soul in spite of his hot temper. He is the one, it turns out, who wrote "FAG" on Joe's office. If there were to be a character in the novel who stood against the cold soul of capitalism, it would be Tom. But Tom ultimately (after a comic episode where the shooting spree he goes on that we knew was coming turns out to be just a paint ball gun) recognizes Joe's superiority:
"I thought I was the one living right...I was the one saying fuck you to the miseries of office life. Nobody could resist conforming in the corporate setting, but I managed it. Making it a point every day to show how different I was from everybody else. Then I saw you sitting side by side with the word FAG on the wall--working--at peace--and I knew--you were the one."

  "Advertising isn't your thing...it doesn't make you happy"

The group voice of working stiffs in Ferris's novel sense that Lynn and Joe are better because they find fulfillment in exactly what they spend most of their time doing. The worker drones are constantly conflicted by the realization that they both do and do not care about their work: "We were delighted to have jobs. We bitched about them constantly." Or, "a good deal of our self-esteem was predicated on the belief that we were good marketers."

Ferris's major revelation that sets him apart from other contemporary office fiction is that he does not see people who love their work as pathetic. He sees anyone who is doing something they do not love as more pathetic. This does not mean that we all have to love the jobs we are forced to work sometimes. It does mean that we ought to keep asking ourselves what, if not the work we are in, would truly make us happy, would make use feel that if we were to die, we'd hope it would be while at our work (as the writer Hank says to the groans of his co-workers).

Hank set out to write a book that attacked corporate America, but he ended up with a gentler, wiser story:
"I based a character on Lynn, and I made that character into a tyrant. I did it on principle, because anyone who was a boss in that book had to be a tyrant. Anyone who believed in the merits of capitalism, and soul-destroying corporations, and work work work--all that--naturally that person wasn't deserving of any sympathy. But when I decided to retire that book, thank god, and write something different, I knew she was sick, so I went to see her..And it turned out she was very open to talking with me, not only about her sickness, but also her personal life, a lot of other things."
None of this is to say that captains of industry are better people than the rest of us, but it does suggest that the boss isn't simply an object of derision, as in Office Space and a good part of The Office.

We working class cubicle-dwellers, meanwhile, can also find nobility, perhaps even a touch of immortality, if our suffering through the office life we don't like serves a purpose for which we do care very much. This is why the office mates need to know that Hank is writing his novel, that Don Blattner is working on his screenplay.

Neither Joe Pope nor Lynn have a family. There is a price they pay for their single-mindedness. Emerson's friend Thoreau never had a family either when he was hanging out in the woods, being independent. There is more than one kind of reality we can admire. And Then we Came to the End's epiphany is, as a New York Times review put it, "a ridiculous sentiment, counter to every carpe diem truism — who ever died wishing they had worked more hours? It is also perfectly understandable and beautifully expressed." 

Brief aside about the humor

Nearly every reviewer of the book found it very funny, but this is an area where I feel Ferris was hurt by others beating him to the punch. I didn't find much of the book humorous. There is a recurring gag, for example, where all the employees are paranoid of Marcia the office manager's list of serial numbers on the chairs. So chairs keep getting shuffled around so that employees do not get fired for having taken over the chairs of laid-off co-workers. It's in there a lot, but it felt to me like a weak echo of funnier material. But this might have just been bad timing for Ferris. 

And now we come to the end of this post by briefly considering Mad Men

At least Ferris was lucky enough to beat the premiere of Mad Men by a few months. Although set in the late 50s and 60s, the show is a mirror on the present by way of showing us how we got where we are. It shares a dark sensibility with Ferris's novel, as well as a portrayal of the nobility of those at the top, however very flawed they may be. 

The overriding theme of Mad Men to me always seemed to have something to do with identity, namely the identity of America though Don Draper, who is a rascal and a liar, but so goddamned handsome and talented everyone loves him anyway, much like the world is exasperated by America but still can't get enough of what we are selling. Draper's semi-salvation at the end is to turn from the things he sells to define him and to look inward, suggesting that America, also, took something of an introspective turn as Vietnam was ending. 

Mad Men is set, like We Came to the End, in an advertising agency. Everyone in "creative," a word one of Ferris's characters says is "the dumbest thing he's ever heard" as it applies to advertising, is genuinely interested in figuring out the best way to sell crap. It's much more a matter of loving being given a problem and coming up with a way to solve it than it is a belief that what anyone does is really important. 

Office Space gave us a Kafkaesque corporation whose bosses were worthy only of disdain. The Office gave us bosses who were just lovable rubes like the rest of us, neither noble nor loathsome, just funny. Then We Came to the End and Mad Men have a more enduring, deeper burning sort of portrait of the captains of the engines of capitalism. They are, like the version of the world they are selling, both captivating and deplorable, compelling and revolting. They are the heads hanging heavy as they wear the crown. They are the missionaries of Western culture bringing both enlightenment and the sword. But whatever we ultimately feel about them, it is their names we remember when they are gone.


 





 

Friday, March 10, 2017

For me, this is pretty big news

I'm getting a book published. There is a ton of work to do between now and the book coming out in the fall, but I've signed a contract, and if a certain president can just keep the world from thermonuclear war between now and then, I'll have fulfilled a big dream. I'll post plenty between now and then about elements of the process of publishing a book, but for now, I just wanted to get out this little bit of encouragement. No matter how discouraged you are, you are not more discouraged than I was a few years ago. I've quit writing more times than I've published stories. But here I am.

Here's the publisher's Facebook announcement. Yes, I know that my only two author pictures to date are two lame ones Mrs. Heretic took in front of a tree. I'll get a real, professional one done for the book: 


Saturday, March 4, 2017

The reason you overrate your own writing, and why that might be okay

A few years ago, when I started getting serious about writing fiction, I was genuinely flummoxed by what I thought I saw in literary journals: stories lauded as examples of how to do it right that I thought weren't any better--and maybe worse--than what I was turning in and seeing get rejected. More than three years into my rebooted attempt at writing, I can see that a lot of what I wrote in 2013 wasn't as good as I thought it was. This is a trap that most of us fall into, one that all the writing how-to books warn us of. It's hard for us to see where we suck.

Part of this is rooted in human nature. It was noted at least 2,000 years ago, when a moral leader advised his followers to take the log from their own eye before they worried about the speck in the eye of another. We are all much better at finding fault in others than in ourselves. We are critical and willing to blame that fault in others on defects of character while finding mitigating factors for our own weaknesses. It's very, very hard to overcome vanity, to practice the necessary self-critique (or listen to the valid critiques of others) needed to get better. Having this ability to be tough on oneself is the mark of a professional.

But not all critique is good, and not all vanity is bad

But that's not really what makes it so hard to develop as a writer. What makes it hard is that real development comes from knowing when to listen to critique and when to stick to your guns. You have to learn when someone is telling you something you just don't want to hear and when someone is telling you something you shouldn't hear.

Here's the real hell of trying to figure out writing: almost every great work comes about, at least in some part, by some writer telling everyone else to pound sand and going with her gut. But a lot of bad writing also comes from someone who refused to listen. The difference between a brilliant maverick and a stubborn hack might not always be that great.

And here's what really throws off your sensors with your own work

"If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it."
-Toni Morrison 

Yes, we all have to fight vanity. But there's something more fundamental at work. I write some stories about Ethiopian and Eritrean migrants because it's what moves me. I was inspired by my experience in the Marine Corps during a time when there weren't a whole lot of wars going on to write a story about a former Marine who feels like his manhood is invalidated by his own lack of a war record.

I wrote these stories because they came to me and I'd never read anything like them. I started thinking about the stories and thought, "I'd like to read that." So I wrote it.

One literary journal editor told a story about hopeful writer who'd been rejected by the journal over and over. Finally, the writer threw a fit and launched into an invective about how he couldn't believe the journal continued publishing the crap they put out and rejecting his work. The editor rightly wondered why the writer wanted to be published in the journal if he thought it was so full of crap.

I actually identify a little bit with the petulant would-be writer, though. Not that I think it makes any sense to be burning bridges yelling at editors. Editors aren't making money doing what they do. They don't derive joy from rejecting work. But I can understand the feeling that your story somehow seems to have a validity that nothing else you read holds. That's why you wanted to tell the story.

You're not overlooking the faults in your writing because you really think your writing is flawless. It's because with all those flaws, your story is still about something you connect with deeply. It's the story you have always wished someone would write, and so you wrote it--even if you didn't write it that well. It's going to seem to you to be better than it is just because it's the story you wanted to hear.

The kind of help we need as writers

The help we need, then, isn't the help that questions the validity of the stories we imagine. If we're wrong about what kinds of stories are worth telling, then we might as well quit writing altogether. Advice like "I just don't find a story of a homeless illegal immigrant compelling" is useless advice. You need help from someone who believes in your story, but just wants to help you tell it.

That can still mean massive revisions, even total gutting. When it becomes evident that this is necessary, I think my initial repulsion to the idea isn't vanity. It's more like when I realize that I've screwed up the assembly of some piece of Ikea furniture three hours into the project. I just can't deal with having to redo it.

When that happens, try sitting down on the backwards chair you've just put together for a minute and having a beer. You're allowed to be pissed. You just blew a whole Saturday on that. If it makes you feel better, take a sledgehammer to that chair, go back to Ikea, buy the exact same one, and put it together right some other time. Let it be a message to all the other Ikea furniture not to fuck with you.

The guy you need helping you is the one who will help you understand the instruction manual for the chair, not the guy who is going to tell you furniture from Ikea is tacky and cheap and a terrible idea.

Over time, if you never, ever manage to put anything together right, maybe it's time to accept that you are not meant to assemble Ikea furniture. But that takes a while to judge correctly. And it doesn't mean there is anything wrong with the idea of your chair in the first place--just that you might need to figure out a different way to see your dream of a chair come to life.