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The Reluctant Read

28 Nov

Have you ever read a book you were certain you would despise?

Someone forced it on you, for one reason or another—the teacher of a college class or a kindly but pushy relative—and every ounce of you resisted. You took the loathsome lump of a novel in your hands and a frown unfolded from every crook in your body. Your mouth turned down at the sides, your shoulders slumped, your stomach boiled with an unpleasant acid, and you turned to page one.

Stupid, you thought. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Trite. Dull. Idiotic.

But, if you were lucky, something else started to happen. That relative of yours, who’s actually very intelligent aside from his prescriptions for your life and your reading habits, maybe have given you something good. You squinted your eyes at the page. The acid in your stomach slowly subsided, then transformed. Your dull aching dread became something light—a nervous, floating excitement—and suddenly, beautifully, you were hooked.

Watch out. A book like that can be dangerous. Afterward, you might find yourself irrevocably altered. You might return to that book, year after year, and find it like a lover you can’t quite bleach from your heart.

This week, I finally sat down to read Maile Meloy’s Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, grimacing even as I flipped past praise from The New York Times and one of my favorite and most respected authors, Richard Ford.

Cover of "Both Ways Is the Only Way I Wan...

The truth is, my reluctance to this particular work was born from my own embarrassment. Last year Ms. Meloy came to read at Vanderbilt, and though I enjoyed the reading, I was having a fit of awkward. It comes on sometimes, despite my best intentions at nonchalance, and there I was, fidgeting and unable to speak, when after she sat in the hallway outside the reading room, selling and signing copies of her book behind her plastic foldout chair. The book was around $15—a price I didn’t feel like paying at the time—and there I was in front of her, feeling the money drawn from my hands, and gasping out stupidly that I loved Montana, too! She signed it “For Liz, a fellow Big Sky fan,” and I left feeling outraged at my own jellyfish spine, convinced I would never read her book, more out of principle than anything else.

Over the next few months, I glowered at the book on my shelf. I felt upset when The New Yorker published her story “The Proxy Marriage” in May, and even more upset when I actually enjoyed it. When another story of hers, “Demeter,” was published in The New Yorker two weeks ago, I decided to bring Both Ways home for Thanksgiving break—not to read it, but to pass it off to someone else, so I wouldn’t have to look at it anymore. The book was abandoned to a countertop, and then my cousin—also a writer and reader—picked it up.

“I don’t know about that one,” I said, eyeing it narrowly as she flipped through the first pages. “Don’t blame me if it’s bad.”

But soon she had finished the first story, and over the course of the day, juggling her 6-month-old on her arm, my cousin continued with Meloy’s book. At 11 p.m., she was still reading. All I can say is that I was confused. When I went to bed around midnight, my cousin stayed up with the book.

The next morning I asked her how it went. Guess what? She’d loved it.

So I began to reconsider. After all, it was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. After all, my revulsion at the read was petty, idiotic, and nonsensical.

“You’ve got to read it,” my cousin said. “Really.”

“Okay, okay,” I said.

I packed it in my bag, drank a glass of wine as I waited in the airport, and flipped through the pages to the first story. Then I read the second story, the third, and the rest of the book over the next week.

Oh my Lord, was it good.

As George R.R. Martin once said, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

For me, good fiction occurs when you are shocked into the consciousness of a fully realized character, in a fully realized situation. Good fiction opens us up to new identities. What’s so wonderful about Meloy’s Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It is that it allows the reader not just to have new experiences, but also to return to something recognizable—to encounter a long lost feeling—really a kind of subconscious tone of experience that’s been buried deep or glossed over by its banal surface. Her stories strike deep emotional notes subtly, gracefully, and with almost no visible artifice. It’s astounding.

As Curtis Sittenfeld put it in his review of Meloy’s collection, “They are people who act irrationally, against their own best interests — by betraying those they care about, making embarrassing romantic overtures and knowingly setting in motion situations they’d rather avoid — and Meloy’s prose is so clear, calm and intelligent that their behavior becomes eminently understandable.”

He goes on to say that her characters act with “a kind of banal, daily desperation”—perhaps that’s the feeling I recognized in myself, when reading her prose.

Every page I turned I heard myself apologizing to Meloy in my head—I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry—how could I have dismissed her, this?

At the same time, though, I’m happy with how things turned out. If you’ve hardened your heart to a book, and the prose stills find a way to maneuver through that tough casing, you know you’ve come across something great, something beautiful, that will be a part of you for a long time. Maybe forever.

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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.

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.

The Roadkill Cure to Writer’s Block

11 Aug

“If the artist starts evaluating himself, it’s an enormous block, isn’t it?” – Philip Guston, painter

Before you go on a tangent today, criticizing your writing (as well as your personality, your life, and the dog with scruffy ears you got at the pound), consider taking a walk.

Instead of spending the better part of the afternoon in a whirlpool of self-doubt, you might find this: a flattened raccoon on the edge of a two-lane highway.

ImageThen you might think, what if I were the type of person who took a raccoon home for dinner? Or better yet, what if I were a taxidermist who specialized in roadkill finds? At this point, you might begin to consider what being a roadkill-taxidermist would mean for you, if that were your life calling.  Perhaps you’d take your stuffed roadkill to taxidermy conferences. Maybe you’d explain how you keep some parts of the animal flattened and ragged and bloody because you don’t want to create stuffed, inauthentic “life” from death by 18-wheeler. Maybe you want your viewers to focus on the momento mori of these unfortunate critters. And God knows if you were a roadkill taxidermist you would certainly talk to those dead squirrels, opossums, and armadillos.  Who knows, they might talk back.

And just like that, you’ve forgotten about the worm of self-doubt, and instead you’re sitting down at your computer to write about deranged taxidermists and their disemboweled, talking raccoons. Sure, no one might ever read your story, but what does it matter?

You’ve just made friends with a taxidermist and all of his flattened rodent friends, and sometimes, that’s just enough.

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.