Archive | October, 2012

Hurricane Stories (Mine and Yours and Ours)

31 Oct

NYC Subway System flooded from Hurricane Sandy

September of my junior of high school—back in 2008—a Category 4 Hurricane, Ike, hammered the Gulf Coast. In Houston, oaks and pines cracked at their spines, falling on houses, cars, and power lines. Gray water rose high in the streets-turned-canals. Power lines hung limp, like forgotten party streamers, from their crooked poles.

The whole city shut down. My neighborhood lost power for two weeks.

At first, it felt like an adventure. The air was cool from the storm, and we opened all the windows to let in the breeze. Dad pulled out his old camping gear from the garage, and we used his small cook stove to heat up soup and boxed mac and cheese for our meals. We even had two large tanks of water in our attic, leftover supplies from the days when my Dad had prepared for the end of the world at Y2K.

The first night after the storm had died, Dad and I took our dog out on a walk through the dark streets. Wet leaves coated the sidewalks and splintered branches littered the ground. All of the houses were dark, and the neighbors had moved their cars into the garages. What can I say but it felt post-apocalyptic?

For the first time in a long time—with all of Houston’s many lights blotted out—we could see the star scape overhead. The moon drenched the houses in silver light. It was marvelous (though incredibly stupid and dangerous, now that I look back on it, with all those downed power lines, still static and alive).

Then reality set in. The city grew hot and the mosquitos bred in the water. We had no fresh laundry, no way to bathe ourselves, and nothing to do but tell stories, read books, and slowly surrender our minds to the inevitability of cabin fever.

What I remember most is not having a news channel, and getting information by word of mouth from neighbor to neighbor, from my grandfather, too—who is not a reliable source.

But those were the days before Twitter, the days before Instagram.

Now, with Hurricane Sandy, the power of social media has proved itself once again. I can only tell you in words, not pictures, what the streets looked like during Hurricane Ike. Who knows where the hard copy prints of photos have gone. If they’re not on my computer, they might as well not exist.

These days, though, the world has changed. Social media has stepped in to cover every part of the Hurricane. Our generation is that of the citizen journalist, and more than that—the citizen storytellers.

Fake picture of a scuba diver in the NYC Subway System

A whole new blog—Instacane—has been organized to collect the pictures of Sandy uploaded by the popular picture app, Instagram. That’s a new form of journalism. Flooded parking lots lined with the iconic NYC yellow taxi cabs, now underwater. The subway system, filled with green water, like a morphed image from Titanic, and the cars bobbing up from the depths of an underground parking garage. It’s another world up East, and the Twitter/Instagram generation is doing its part to document the damage.

Along with the journalism, though, there’s been quite a storm of story telling, too. Fake photos have flooded the web. Sharks swimming through the streets of Puerto Rico, purple swirling storm clouds around the Statue of Liberty, a scuba diver swimming through the flooded subway system—these fakes have heightened the stakes of the storm, and after all, isn’t that fair, too?

I think of Tim O’Brien’s book, The Things They Carried, and the story “How to Tell a True War Story.” According to O’Brien, sometimes a story has to be exaggerated or changed to get to the real heart of the capital-t Truth. Truth is emotional truth, not just a statement of facts. The picture of the swamped McDonalds (originally an art installation) demonstrates that feeling of an American normalcy dominated by uncontrollable and frightening forces.

The new social media have allowed us to enter a world where we can share our most painful, frightened moments—our vulnerability—with the rest of the world. It allows us, more importantly, to take comfort from that shared vulnerability. We are, all of us, in this world together.

Whether it’s Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans six years ago, Hurricane Ike in Houston four years ago, or Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey today­—global weather patterns have grown more erratic—and who knows who it will be tomorrow.

The least we can do is continue sharing what we have: our knowledge and our stories.  Whether that means taking a picture of the flooded parking garage across the street, or photoshopping an ocean predator swimming beside a car, it’s all ultimately achieving the same goal. We are telling stories, and we are (hopefully) eliciting change.

Twitter Fiction: “Shrapnel”

24 Oct

This week I’m posting my first ever fiction story to appear on this blog. It also happens to be the first short story that I have ever written to fit the  140-character Twitter format.

My inspiration for this form comes from Jennifer Egan’s short story “Black Box,” originally published on Twitter and then in The New Yorker.

Voila. Hope you enjoy.

Glo-Buddha

Shrapnel

The day before my grandfather’s entire platoon was wiped out—all except for him—they spent the afternoon digging trenches in a Korean graveyard.

A man from a nearby village had begged them to stop. It was bad luck, he told them. No good would come of it. They would be cursed.

But the Chinese were on the other side of the hill. It was war. They did what they had to do, and my grandfather was the Lieutenant.

He told them to keep digging.

In all likelihood, they unearthed bodies as they dug. Yellowed bones, human hair. But my grandfather didn’t talk to us about those things.

He was a storyteller. He told us instead of another discovery: a jade Buddha, sea green and the size of his hand.

When the Korean man from the village saw it, he started crying.

Who knows how long the Buddha lived there, under the earth—centuries? My grandfather was the Lieutenant. He put it in his knapsack.

A souvenir.

That night the men used the grave stones for washboards. They ate from their mess kits, joked about home—how they’d never eat rice again.

A private in my grandfather’s unit, Eddie from Kentucky, stayed up one night to finish a book. Get some sleep, the guys told him.

It was a damn good book, though, and he’d wanted to finish it. Eddie read the last chapters by the beam of his military-issue flashlight.

The next morning, the Americans were overrun. Bullets strafed the air. Smoke rose in plumes, then clung to the ground in low, dark clouds.

A bullet slid through Eddie’s chest and pierced his lung. He died choking for breath, unable to speak.

But he finished it, my grandfather said. What was the book? I asked. The Call of the Wild, my grandfather said.

The rest of my grandfather’s unit died around him.

My grandfather was lucky. He heard the grenade as it dropped over the wall of the trench, as it danced down the concrete steps.

One, two—and he lunged sideways—three.

When I was young I ran my finger across the scars, over the jagged shrapnel that racked his body and crawled like spiders under his skin.

By the time he died—62 of cancer—he’d had 12 operations. At 58, the metal still wriggled inside his leg, searching out an artery.

After the war, my grandfather came home and went back to college. He met my grandmother, they married, and life happened.

They had three girls. One, two—and a gap of six years—three.

My grandmother still tells the stories my grandfather told her about the war, about his childhood.

I try to pay attention to how they warp and bend over time. How her memory matches up against mine, against my aunts’, against my mother’s.

Who’s to say who’s right?

Memory works like shrapnel. Long after a callus has grown over a wound, memory still cuts inside you. Drawing up new pain or lying dormant—for a time.

Often, my mind goes back to that jade Buddha. My grandmother says it was stolen from my grandfather on his way home from war.

And yet I can’t believe this.

Did I not see it as a child? That soft, green belly, that laughing mouth? Winking at me from some high shelf, or the back of a dark cabinet?

The last few days he was in the hospital, he hallucinated that he was back in Korea.

I was only six at the time, but still. Hadn’t I seen the Buddha, clenched in the grip of his sweating hand?

Begging for one last miracle, all the while still crouched in the trenches, the ping of the grenade hitting against the concrete steps.

One, two—yes, hadn’t I seen it then?—three.

The Case for Lilac Prose

17 Oct

Dear literature lovers, have you grown sick of simple sentences?

Lilacs at the 2007 Lilac Celebration at the RBCDeadened to the doldrums of dry, dusty prose?

Benumbed by the banal?

You’re not alone.

I, and at least one other guy, agree with you.

And after all, don’t we have a right to be upset?

These days American literature has taken on the drab and isolating austerity of an Edward Hopper painting. Once bold and fresh, the pared-back writing style of literary greats like Hemingway and Carver has grown limp and weary—flaccid as a neglected houseplant in the fits of winter.

This Wednesday, The New York Times published another installment of Draft, a series of essays that hone in on the “art and craft of writing.” In this week’s selection, “A Short Defense of Literary Excess,” the 24-year old British author Ben Masters (who’s pretty cute for the literary type, in case you wanted to know) wrote about his love for writers who revel in the musicality of a poetic sentence and the long hours of tinkering that can occur in the process of perfecting the rhythm and diction of phrasing.

In the article, Masters describes a few of the great baroque stylists: Vladimir Nabokov, Saul Bellow, Virginia Woolf, David Foster Wallace, and others. For Masters, these authors open the doors to the house of literature, allowing it to breathe and expand.

Writes Masters, “Excess serves very different functions for each of [the authors], whether as an expression of wonder, adaptability, individuality, free will; or as a means of self-fashioning; even as a survival tactic. But whatever it embodies or performs, the sentence in their hands is expansive rather than constrictive.”

So what do you think of this Masters?

Is he pretentious?

Does he waggle his roseate pinky finger as he sips from his china tea cup? Who knows. But I don’t think so. I think I agree with him.

American prose has become unplayful and stiff, like a collared shirt flattened and then doused with too much starch. After all, when was the last time we frontier-forgers won a Nobel? Not since 1993, with Toni Morrison’s gorgeous, sometimes surrealist prose.

Just as this article came out, I was in the middle of reading The Street of Crocodiles, a book by a Polish author, Bruno Schulz, who was Poland’s preeminent writer in the years between World War I and World War II. Schulz, a Jew, was shot in the head by a Nazi in World War II, and we only have his slim oeuvre of fantastical stories and eery drawings to let us know how much we’ve missed by that loss.

Cover of "The Street of Crocodiles (Class...

Take these two sentences, the very first from The Street of Crocodiles.

“In July my father went to take the waters and left me, with my mother and elder brother, a prey to the blinding white heat of the summer days. Dizzy with light, we dipped into that enormous book of holidays, its pages blazing with sunshine and scented with the sweet melting pulp of golden pears.”

When was the last time you read something so gorgeous, so wonderfully unexpected and vivid?

Schulz’s book, The Street of Crocodiles, is a collection of short stories that act as a kind of fantastical memoir of his own childhood and the growing mania of his father. Just as his father becomes obsessed with the cockroaches that steal around the house, the exotic birds he raises in the attic, and the inanimate objects he infuses with lungs and breath and evil intentions, Schulz’s narrator uses madness’s close cousin—the fantastic—to describe this childhood from the perspective of a man looking back on his youth through the lens of that same vivid, childish imagination.

Just read how he describes the boredom of being cooped up in winter: “The days hardened with cold and boredom like last year’s loaves of bread. One began to cut them with blunt knives without appetite, with a lazy indifference.”

Translate that into popularized prose and you might get something like: “The winter was cold and he was bored. He looked for something to do. He went into town and walked around the stores.”

Yikes, no!

John Wood, a writer and literary critic, writes in his book How Fiction Works why language is such a tricky thing. The medium too easily lends itself to the common. For Wood, the trouble with writing arises “because language is the ordinary medium of daily communication—unlike music or paint.”

How, then, to create art?

For some, the answer may be found in creating poetry from prose, thereby elevating the way we communicate to a higher plane.

But really, that’s not an answer, because just think of all the writers who have attempted excess in prose and instead been sucked down inside the quagmires of their own pretensions.

The best authors are those who can alternate between the high intricacy of the ornate and the dry marrow of the simplistic to create dynamic, destabilizing prose that truly captures the way humans think, act, and dream their worlds.

What do you call a mix of purple prose and bland, Puritanical austerity?

I, for one, call it Lilac Prose, and I think you should, too.

The Power of Imagination Against Oppression

10 Oct

Why do we read literature?

No, really, why?

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Good literature goes beyond entertainment—it reaches down into the core of us and jerks us back into the heart of the world, into the heart of humanity, into the whirling depths of the human soul.

That is what we need to remember.

Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, came to speak at Vanderbilt today, and I had the chance to attend a student-led conversation with her this afternoon.

Nafisi’s book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, is the memoir that describes her experiences as a professor of literature under the rule of the Islamic Republic of Iran. After the revolution of 1978, Iran became a place where religion was a forced act of state rather than a personal, spiritual belief. Reacting to these changes—the enforcement of the veil and the brutality of the Taliban—Nafisi used literature, from Nabakov’s Lolita to The Great Gatsby and Huckleberry Finn, to help herself and her female students understand their situations and deal with their own personal traumas.

At the beginning of the conversation, she took out a manila folder of old family pictures and passed them around the conference room. There was her grandmother as a young woman, and there was her mother, and there she was, too. All of them with full lips and black arched eyebrows, none of them wearing the veil except for the grandmother—who thought of it as a personal choice, and was appalled when the government enforced it on all women.

“Imagine,” Nafisi told us, “if suddenly the United States enforced Babtism— a single denomination of a religion—on an entire country, and told you that you—no matter who you were—had to wear a cross around your neck.”

Imagination—it’s a powerful thing. As Nafisi told us today, imagination is what allows us to have empathy. Imagination is what banishes blindness and unwavering ideology. Imagination is the thing that threatens dictatorship and frightens oppression.

And great literature—Lolita, Gatsby, Pride & Prejudice, Huck Finn, and the rest—is the door that allows us to tap into that imagination and those greater human truths.

“That, of course, is what great works of imagination do for us: They make us a little restless, destabilize us, question our preconceived notions and formulas.” – Azar Nafisi

Azar Nafisi autographs her book

I loved Nafisi’s analysis of the way stories work—the chambers that they open inside us, the thoughts they stir to the surface, the questions they cause us to ask of authority—and specifically of ideological authority.

The past few weeks I’ve been following a blog, Reading the Short Story, by a retired literature professor named Charles E. May. His blog is rather technical, and not altogether engaging unless you are interested in the components of the short story.  I read May’s blog because I am interested in the techniques of story, and how these techniques can be applied to my own fiction.

In one of his more interesting posts, though, May writes about C.S. Lewis’ distinction between “good” art and “bad” art, and this distinction is at the heart of what Nafisi differentiates as the narrative of the state vs. the goal of literature.

May writes, “Bad art may be “liked,” but it never “startles, prostrates, and takes captive,” says Lewis. “The patrons of sentimental poetry, bad novels, bad pictures, and merely catchy tunes are usually enjoying precisely what is there.  And their enjoyment, as I have argued, is not in any way comparable to the enjoyment that other people derive from good art.”

an imagining - photo of the day for May 13th, 2010Good literature—the literature Nafisi read in Iran—allows for complexity.

Too often these days, we’re polarized, shuttled into different “types” of people and frozen into these limited, suffocating identities. White vs. Black, Republican vs. Democrat, Christian vs. Muslim.

In an essay on the illuminating powers of imagination, Nafisi wrote that, “… a culture that has lost its poetry and its soul is a culture that faces death. And death does not always come in the image of totalitarian rulers who belong to distant countries; it lives among us, in different guises, not as enemy but as friend.” –

Good fiction, then, is our escape—an escape route that leads us back into the wonderfully twisted, amorphous human heart.

Where else do we find the ambiguity we so desperately need? The complexity we shy away from, but deep down—so desperately desire?

Strutting Across the Author Platform

9 Oct

This is a big one everybody. Get ready. Don your chunky yellow hard hat and your white paper mouth masks and the oversized plastic goggles that make the rounds of your eyes expand to the size of fish bowls. You ready?  You good? Because this is explosive.

Drumroll, everyone…

I JUST PUBLISHED MY NOVEL!!!!!!!!!!!! TELL YOUR AUNT AND YOUR UNCLE AND YOUR COUSIN AND YOUR NEIGHBOR AND YOUR NEIGHBOR’S DOG AND YOUR NEIGHBOR’S DOG’S ALTER-EGO TO GO OUT AND BUY MY BOOK!!!!!

I COULDN’T BE HAPPIER AND I CAN’T EXPRESS IT IN ANY OTHER WAY BESIDES ALL CAPS BECAUSE EVEN IF I’M A WRITER YOU GOTTA GIVE ME A BREAK, CAUSE THAT’S WHAT THIS BOOK DESERVES AND EVEN IF YOU DON’T KNOW ME, YOU SHOULD KNOW THAT MY BOOK IS FANTASTIC AND YOU NEED TO BUY IT BECAUSE IT WILL ONLY BE A BESTSELLER IF YOU GO OUT AND BUY IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Alright, now that I’ve got that out of my system, it’s time for a confession.

I don’t have a novel published. I don’t even have a novel written.

And I don’t want your neighbor’s dog to go prancing about the bookstore in her cat costume, hissing and spitting through her snout when she realizes that her wild-goose chase has been journeyed in vain.

What I would like to talk about is the big trend in book publishing, the author platform.

First off all, what is the author platform?

Michael Hyatt, the guy who literally wrote a book about the subject—Platform: How to Get Noticed in a Noisy World—puts it like this:

“Very simply, a platform is the thing you have to stand on to get heard. It’s your stage. But unlike a stage in the theater, today’s platform is built of people. Contacts. Connections. Followers.”

How did we get to this place?

Just yesterday, it seems, J.D. Salinger was holing up in his house, escaping the glaring eye of public scrutiny—and now we have that hideous, terrifying thing, that new buzzword tossed about by all the big publishers, the unwelcome and hard to obtain entrance pass that will allow us to enter the gates of the publishing world—you guessed it, the author platform.

As if us literary types were performers, too!

But does this Hyatt guy have a point?

Say you’ve just finished typing out the last of twenty revisions on your novel. You’ve sent out pleading query letters with the first few chapters, and agents say they like your work, but they have hesitations. Who would buy this book? It doesn’t have a market.

Perhaps you slouch over to your computer in despair, plant your face in front of the screen, and begin the mindless, soul-consuming scroll through past acquaintances on Facebook.

A story pops up on your news feed—a blog post by a boy you knew way back when you were getting your MFA. So many years since then, and yet a bowl of Cheerios still remains your cost-effective nightly sustenance.

You’re bored, so you click on the post. You’re redirected to the MFA guy’s blog, where he’s busy telling people how to get their books published, how to develop their author platforms, how to market their work.

Author platform, you think. Pshhh. Any real writer wouldn’t fritter away their time on social media. The fact that you, yourself, are on Facebook at this moment does not cross your mind.

But wait, what’s this? Oh shit of shits—this guy has already published three novels, and with big New York publishers, too. When you were in the MFA program together, he was that kid who wrote all those stories about talking dogs with alter egos that purred like cats. And now—this?

The twerp divulges his secret. He started blogging years ago, and now he has 10,000 followers. You do a little more investigation, and discover that his Twitter account, SecretlyADog, has fifteen thousand followers.

Despite your previous doubts about his descriptions of species-confused talking animals, a realization begins to prickle at the corner of your brain…and now you remember…the internet is a vast and ever-changing sea of glutinous, twitching eyes.

Authors have become public personas, super stars, and even the dead ones have a following. Check out Facebook, and you’ll be amazed. The author page of Ernest Hemingway has 356, 806 likes; Fitzgerald has 102, 293. These numbers aren’t much compared to the likes of Lady Gaga, who has an astonishing (and perhaps appalling) 43, 246, 576 likes, but hey, we authors will take what we can get.

More and more these days, if you want to be published, you have to have a fan base. Think of Julie Powell, whose blog became a book, and then the movie Julie & Julia. Think of Ree Drummond, whose cooking blog, The Pioneer Woman, sparked her very own line of printed, bound cookbooks.

With the help of the internet, publishing has become a grassroots endeavor and reshaped the traditional mindset of publishers. It’s no longer simply a process of write, publish, promote—instead, all three have blended together through the world of blogging, Twitter, and social media.

What you should not do is write a book, get a publisher, and then quickly start a blog for the sole purpose of shamelessly promoting your latest creative endeavor.

What you should do is pick something you love, something your passionate about, and share as much of that passion as you can with the world. If you’re good, and if you care enough, you might get a following—and maybe, just maybe, your book will sprout wings, or perhaps a hundred sets of centipede legs, but hey, that will be a start.