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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.

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.

Read Drunk; Analyze Sober

12 Sep

It’s time to declare the new age of the short story.

It’s time to laud the concise.

It’s time to realize that in this day and age of blogs and online journals and YouTube videos, print media—books and newspapers, especially—are falling behind our modern needs. What is it about these online mediums that we find so compelling?

For one, it’s brevity.

We read fewer books these days, and it’s not that we’re less educated, or less intellectual, or stupider than our forebears. We’re busy. Driving on clogged highways from one place to another, working long hours at the office, shopping for groceries or catching up with the daily updates on the presidential campaign. I’m overwhelmed myself, and as an aspiring writer, it’s my job to read everyday. Yet any time I get the chance to relax, I find myself unwilling to begin a novel when I know that I won’t have time to read it.

Take Richard Ford’s new novel, Canada. After I read a New York Times book review purporting it’s genius (and it is terrific, so far), I downloaded it onto my Kindle and began on the first of 400 or so pages. Then school started, with it a flurry of papers and assignments, and I tried to fit it in where I could. On the elliptical. In the car while driving to class. Shampooing in the shower. Yeah, exactly. It doesn’t work. By the time I’ve cracked open the Kindle again, I have to spend the first ten minutes just trying to reorient myself within the pages. Sorry, but that’s not the literary experience I want.

So how do we adjust to our modern time?

I vote the short story. What better form to occupy the tenuous space between long-form literature and fragment-style online writing? What better form to offer us the rejuvenating experience of one writer’s pure, individual (edited) voice, as compared to the frenetic copy-pasting, quoting, and linking of blogs? What better form to supply a complete literary experience within a compact, tightly packed unit, all the more powerful for its quick, sharp punch?

Yes, I vote the short story. There are so many fantastic works, in so many fantastic styles—not just contemporary authors, but our classic literary heroes, too. Just this month The New Yorker published a Fitzgerald story.

Only a few months back, they published a very different kind of story, “Black Box,” by Jennifer Egan, which was originally published in short bites of prose on Twitter. Egan’s project demonstrated how the fragmented form of internet writing can create a new kind of literary experience. (Though she worked through a very new medium, she did plan out the story for months beforehand with the trusty pen and notebook of writers of old.) Still, the story works well with the form, and it is a chilling, wonderful piece. You can read it online at The New Yorker here if you subscribe.

Esquire holds a summer short fiction contest. The Atlantic has its yearly short fiction edition. Every year, The Best American Short Stories collects the best of the best from the nation’s top literary magazines, and both new and familiar names grace the pages.

Not to mention there are thousands more online from zines to short story data bases to the websites of standard literary magazine, and they’re one of the only things you can find online for free. Yes, some stories are “subscriber only” but have you ever read a novel online for free? Ever? Yeah, me neither.

My goal for this blog in the future, then, is to engage the short story, especially those written by our contemporary authors. How are we defining ourselves, these days? What can our authors tell us about the world we live in, our systems of values, our means of perception?

I don’t want to write a book review for a novel you won’t have time to read. I don’t want you to simply take my word for it, my own personal analysis that could exalt or condemn a book.

What I’d like to offer you is an opportunity not only to read, but to engage. A fireside chat of a sorts, but let’s call it a coffee break, or better yet—a bourbon break. The goal is to enter together into a discussion of the works that affect us (and affect us because we have time to read them).

Here’s what I plan to do: read short stories from a variety of publications, post the links, and discuss. No author wants you to simply move your eyes across the page and afterwards post on Goodreads about your accomplishment. When they construct a story, they desire you to think, and to continue thinking.

A story is a silent conversation that passes from the writer to the reader. You may read about a character with a talking pig, but the situation will hopefully imply a far deeper meaning than what appears on the surface.

My goal is to explore, explicitly, this implicit conversation between the writer and the reader.

So with that, I’ll return to this blog’s title. Write drunk and edit sober, an adjustment of the famous Hemingway quote that I’ve adopted to have a new meaning—to write with the heart and to edit with the mind.

For this project, I propose a similar mantra. How about “Read drunk; analyze sober”? Let’s engage with literature. Let’s get drunk off it, drunk on emotion and the reverie of words and phrases. But then let’s analyze. Let’s look at author Q&A’s. Let’s consider what this literature does for us in our modern time.

Why am I right for this job? The same reason you are. We’re interested minds who wish to engage with story—that wonderful place where an author can craft art out of communication and reveal meaning in a series of contiguous events.

Fresh Meat for Turtles

11 Sep

Koi pond

Koi don’t go for worms, and they’re not suckers for bait, either. People don’t fish koi because they’re bottom feeders—fish who spend their time nibbling algae from green-fuzzed rocks—and the koi wouldn’t be tempted by the likes of a flashing hook with a bit of dangling chum. People don’t noodle koi either, because koi aren’t catfish. Koi are ornamental, fat goldfish—sleek orange and yellow darts of flashing scales—and they live peaceful, dull lives, gliding in slow circles around decorative ponds.

My grandfather, always oblivious to such demoralizing information, decided one day to take my brother and me fishing in the Houston city park. There swam the koi, and there stood us, gazing down at their yellow fins batting the water. Grandad smiled, set up his plastic lawn chair, cracked the tab of a fizzy orange soda, and cast his line into the water.

I was eight years old, my brother was twelve, and all that morning we’d dug up earthworms and stuffed their writhing bodies in rusted soup cans. Now we skewered the skinny, wiggling earthworms on our hook, tossed in our lines, and waited. We waited all afternoon, and still the koi did not bite.

“They must be full,” Grandad said. “Or else they’d bite.”

After a long day at the koi pond, we gave up. Those damn fish weren’t interested, and there was nothing we could do to convince them. Earthworms weren’t for them, and that was that.

As much as I hated those stupid koi for not biting, I learned a good lesson that day: don’t waste your worms on the fish that will never bite.

These days I no longer fish. Instead, I write.

I’ve just started my senior year at Vanderbilt University, where I am a candidate for English Honors in the Creative Writing track. This fall, I’ll draft a thesis for a collection of short stories, and next semester, I’ll write it. Better yet, I’m enrolled in a Graduation Fiction Workshop, which will allow me to interact with people who are just as serious about writing as I am.

What an exciting time, right?

What a terrifying time, too—all around us, people are proclaiming the End: if not of the world, then at least of the book.

“The book is dead!” cries the modern-day Nostradamus.

Yet there is the book, like a plague-victim in a Monty Python film, hopping along, crying out in shrill falsetto, “I’m not dead. I’m getting better!”

And here we are, aspiring writers desiring to write. Sometimes, it feels that what waits ahead is the koi pond: me sitting there, at the water’s edge, attempting to bait my line for fish that aren’t even remotely interested.  All the koi in the world have gone off to watch movies and play video games and record episodes of The Bachelor.

Perhaps this analogy is falling through. Let’s try another.

Summertime, and I’m in my grandfather’s backyard. Blackberries are plump and full in the heat, and the garden is sweet with the smell of figs. A mockingbird sings from the branches of an oak tree.

“Let’s buy a chicken,” Grandad says.

My brother and I are perplexed, but not surprised. My grandfather often surprises us, and besides, it’s hot and we’re bored. So we go with him. We walk to the grocery store, and Grandad buys one whole chicken, still wrapped in its thin plastic sheath.

We follow Grandad back from the store. Instead of making our way back to the house, we trot down a steep, weed-lined hill to the Braes Bayou, a concrete-lined tributary that cuts through my grandfather’s neighborhood. The water is murky and smells faintly of sewage. Green algae floats on the surface of the water. My grandfather unwraps the chicken from the plastic, the tremors from World War II still shaking his hands. The bird is plump, it’s flesh pink and dotted with bumps where its feathers have been plucked.

Grandad takes one step back and swings. The bird makes its final flight through the air, then lands with a giant kerplop in the water. It bobs, settles, and floats. Nothing happens. Then—movement. A turtle head rises to the surface, then another. Suddenly, there are twenty of them, with thin red stripes on the sides of their faces.

“Red-eared gliders,” Grandad explains. “They like chicken.”

The turtles circled, then bit. They tore off chunks of pink bird meat with little jerks of their heads.

Wow,” I said, marveling. “There are so many.”

Grandad nodded, grinning. “There sure are.”

There are some people who will never read—just like there are some koi that will never bite. But then again, why fish, when you can feed?

_Box Turtle eating 5958.JPG.xcf

Paying for Online Book Reviews | Is It Wrong?

28 Aug

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?