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The World Must Be All Fucked Up

24 Jul

“The world must be all fucked up,” he said then, “When men travel first class and literature goes as freight.” – Gabriel García Márquez

Sorry, books, but it was the only way…

And with the packing of the books, you know we’ve come to the end of the Georgia days.

On Writing Bad Fiction

11 Jul

I just wrote a  bad story. A 26-page disaster of a story, to be specific.

Now that I’ve come to the end of it, now that it’s all been punched out—I’ve come to realize that the whole thing is one enormous, colossal piece of crap.

Mardi Gras Day, New Orleans: Krewe of Kosmic D...

Mardi Gras Day, New Orleans

In the story, “Parade,” two couples—four vapid and awful people—wander around Mardi Gras for one debauched weekend, each of them struggling to gain some semblance of power over their respective partner. In the end the whole thing is not even about their trite and tedious power dynamics, but instead about their perception of “reality” vs. the reality of a violent, poverty-stricken post-Katrina New Orleans. The problem is, to reach the didactic and melodramatic conclusion about poverty in New Orleans, the reader has to first follow four idiotic, indulged, ego-maniacal college students for 25 pages—only to realize on the final page that not even the author gives a damn about their petty tiffs. Sounds fun, right? “Parade” was, essentially, the definition of a failed story.

Then again, I needed to write it, and now that it’s out of my system, I’m free to move on to better things. Whenever I look back on a god-awful story, and consider all of the time I wasted on said swampland of prose, I think of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and regain a sense of my former optimism.

Outliers (book)Gladwell argues in Outliers that all of the “greats” of history—Mozart, The Beatles, Bill Gates—have achieved the extraordinary not as much through some innate “genius,” but rather through the old theory of “practice makes perfect.” If a person practices his or her skill intensely and with focus for 10,000 hours, that individual should, by the end of it, be an expert in his or her field. To be fair, Gladwell points out that not all people who make tremendous efforts (10,000 hours of tremendous efforts) meet with success in the end. Environment and circumstance are important, too, but let’s not worry about that for now—let’s worry about what we can change.

Let’s say I worked 30 hours (roughly an hour a page) on “Parade.” With all of those long hours typing in little dark coffee shops, sipping on caramel lattes, I’d still only be 0.3% of the way to reaching the extraordinary, unbelievable genius of literary greats like Joyce, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald.

Ten thousand hours is a lot of time—and maybe that’s a good thing. As a beginning writer, there’s only so much I can possibly achieve at this point—which isn’t a very satisfactory consolation, but a true one. If I want to be a better writer, I can’t waste time getting hung up on one lengthy piece of drivel.

There are so many more stories to write! Thirty hours on one bad story—who cares?

The Good Life, Whatever It Is and Wherever It Happens to Be

10 Jul

Sunset over the water,  from a dock in Key West.

“Let us toast to animal pleasures, to escapism, to rain on the roof and instant coffee, to unemployment insurance and library cards, to absinthe and good-hearted landlords, to music and warm bodies and contraceptives… and to the ‘good life’, whatever it is and wherever it happens to be.”
― Hunter S. Thompson

I spent this past Wednesday through Sunday in Florida, experiencing the “good life,” as best as I have in a while. I’ll write a post about Florida soon—about Hemingway’s house in Key West and the 44 six-toed cats that wander the property; about the five-bar pub crawl where I actually attempted to write drunk, and ended up scrawling indecipherable gibberish in my notebook; about the storm clouds that purpled the sky over the pale sands of Miami Beach; and about watching fireworks burst in clusters of star-flame while walking barefoot in the wet sand on the edge of the ocean.

I’m waxing poetic, so I’ll stop. But it was wonderful—I haven’t been that happy in a while.

Hunter S. Thompson, American Legend

27 Jun

Last weekend while I was in Austin, I met Alan Rinzler, the man who published and worked with Hunter S. Thompson, Toni Morrison, Tom Robbins, and Bob Dylan, among others.

He told me that Hunter S. Thompson was a crazy guy—erratic and a little paranoid, a writer who believed that the editor (in this case Rinzler) was the enemy.

Rinzler also said that Thompson had spent an entire summer in an apartment in Chelsea when he was young, typing out The Great Gatsby just to get a feel for the rhythms of Fitzgerald’s sentences.

It’s odd to read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (or watch this somewhat bizarre interview with Letterman) and think of Thompson in Chelsea, a young guy aspiring to be a writer—just as we aspire to write—and doing so in a way that seems both naive and a little desperate.

As Thompson later wrote, “Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men’s reality.”

Now Thompson, a man more legend than most, has joined Fitzgerald in the ranks of the great, illusory heroes of American literature.

Which makes me ask one important question of myself: where in the hell did I put my copy of The Great Gatsby?

Quote

The Poetry of Solitude

25 Jun

“Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous — to poetry.”

– Thomas Mann

When in doubt, tea is always a good companion.

Richard Ford’s Canada

20 Jun

“It’s interesting to leave a place, interesting even to think about it. Leaving reminds us of what we can part with and what we can’t, then offers us something new to look forward to, to dream about.” – Richard Ford

Richard Ford’s latest book Canada has received fantastic reviews, and I’m excited to put it on my book list. According to The New York Times Book Review, it is “a mesmerizing story driven by authentic and fully realized characters, and a prose style so accomplished it is tempting to read each sentence two or three times before being pulled to the next.”

I’ve only read his short story collection, Rock Springs, but it was fantastic.

Here’s my tribute to Rock Springs, his collection of short stories.

I Learn By Going Where I Have to Go

20 Jun

I’ve been reading poetry lately, and it’s soaked into me, like sunlight into skin: there’s a rhythm, real or imagined, that falls into the body, a measure of breaths, thoughts, steps.

Today I wake with Roethke in my head: “I wake to sleep and take my waking slow.”

A villanelle is a wondrous thing. Only two rhyme sounds, and they stay with you. Refrains repeat themselves within the poem, then within your head.

My favorite villanelle: Roethke’s “The Waking.” Every time I return to it, or it returns to me, something shifts. The lines are reborn, and we meet again, strangers who knew each other long ago, but had forgotten.

“I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.”

This morning I slide to the kitchen in socks. Brew coffee, microwave oatmeal. Swirl congealed oats around the bowl, rest my chin on the rim of the coffee mug. Steam rises, warming my face.

I pack a backpack with books, a water bottle, and sandwiches.

I want a good walk—a few hours of outdoors, a space of time to be alone but not feel lonely. Three miles down the road, there’s such a place to amble: a 300-acre sweep of hills, gardens, and hiking trails that border the Middle Oconee River.

“I learn by going where I have to go.”          

I start on a trail that loops down to the river. The fractured trunk of a Red Oak rises from the ground, its splintered bust like a wooden stalagmite. I reach for the camera, but find that I’ve left it at home.

“We think by feeling. What is there to know?


I hear my being dance from ear to ear.


I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.”

The river is quiet. A broken tree cuts through the water, its trunk cracked and fallen, and its branches comb the current. I make a sketch—outlining frail leaves, the curve of the river, and the break in the trunk. I use a thick ballpoint pen—not great for sketching, but good enough. I finish the drawing and walk on.

The trail diverges from the river and winds through the hills, the path carved out from the woods. Creek water sings over black stones and amber minnows dart in shallow, vernal pools. A dragonfly with black wings and an emerald body hovers over a leaf.

“Of those so close beside me, which are you?


God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,


And learn by going where I have to go.”

The canopy stencils sunlight onto the trunks of trees, across the dry, tattered ground. A white mushroom with a roseate cap lies trampled on the path.

“Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?

The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;


I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.”

A philosopher-vandal has walked these paths before me, lettering the wooden planks of footbridges with a sharpie. Each bridge holds a message, and I read them as I walk:

“Do more good.” “Be mindful.” “Do you have more than you need?” “How much does your life weigh?” The planks echo under my shoes.

I enter a valley, lush with tall, leafy plants, and see a young buck, a doe, and a fawn traipse through the growth. A giant bee, thick as my thumb, lands on my forearm. I don’t flick it off, afraid it will return, vengeful, and sting. I carry it across the valley, its bright body gleaming on my skin.

“Great Nature has another thing to do


To you and me, so take the lively air,


And, lovely, learn by going where to go.”

As the valley meets the woods, I meet a man with fuzzy hair tied back in a ponytail. I ask him what to do about the bee, if it will sting me. He leans over, studying it, and it flies away. He says it’s not a bee, but an imitator. More of a beetle, really. I’m not sure if I believe him. Thanks, I say, I was terrified.

“This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.


What falls away is always. And is near.
”

The trail finishes out in the parking lot. I get in my car, go home, take a shower, nap. Later I walk to the grocery to buy yogurt. I read a short story on my porch, go to a coffee shop to write. I talk to Amir, a grad student, about Atlanta. I walk home, sit, post this. It is late.

“I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.


I learn by going where I have to go.