Tag Archives: writing

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.

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Read “Birnam Wood” by T. Coraghessan Boyle

21 Sep

Vestal, New YorkMy aunt learned to read tarot cards in college as a party trick. Now, every New Years when she comes to visit, she’ll pull out her stack of cards from their purple velvet pouch, shuffle them between her long-nailed fingers, and lay them out in a Celtic Cross spread across the floor in front of us. The penultimate card, the last to be revealed before the outcome, is the card that dictates the inquirer’s Hopes and Fears. Even though the Final Outcome card may allow you to “know” what will occur in the next year, or semester, or month of your life, when it comes down to the actual living, the outcome isn’t the focus. What matters instead are the hopes and fears. Those emotions are the way you will live your day to day life, and those are the emotions that give the outcome meaning.

Sorry to go off on a tarot tangent. And sorry if you think they’re bizarre. They are, it’s true, but I write of tarot cards because they seem to work well with this week’s story, which has reverberations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

T. Coraghessan Boyle’s “Birnam Wood,” published in The New Yorker in August (available online here) is the story of a young couple struggling to live in upstate New York in the 70s. The summer has ended, winter is setting on, and meanwhile Keith and Nora are struggling to pay the bills for a cold, leaking shack. Resentment brews (bubble, bubble, toil and trouble) and miraculously, they are offered an out: a chance to house-sit in a beautiful mansion in Birnam Wood, which includes its own pool table and a private lake. To convince the elderly couple that they are responsible young adults, Keith and Nora pretend they are married. So begins the domestic experiment, both of them hoping the resentment they felt over the fall will fade, both imagining what it might be like to really own this home, to really belong to each other.

In the past, Boyle has been deemed a maximalist, a writer with melodramatic tendencies and a flare for the bizarre that he sometimes includes to the detriment of his stories. Personally, I love the Boyle that busts with raw humor and dark absurdity. If you have a New Yorker subscription, you can read the archive: the man has written a story called “Thirteen-Hundred Rats,” (it’s ridiculously morbid and strange) and his use of the fantastic in the story “Los Gigantes” still works within a complicated, thought-provoking piece.

But “Birnam Wood” operates on a subtler plain, and the paring back of the bizarre allows us to really focus on what matters in this story: the splintering cracks in Keith and Nora’s relationship.

After they move in to the mansion, things are good for awhile. The tension dissipates, and they try to experience the last days of summer:

“Whenever we could, we went out in the rowboat, and though we never acknowledged it, I suppose we were both thinking the same thing—that we’d better take advantage of it while we could, because each day of the sun might be the last.”

(A metaphor, of course, for the way Keith and Nora cling to the last days of their own relationship.)

The story blows up emotionally (in a good way) after Steve from the bar arrives at the house, and Nora understands what Steve and Keith have talked about in the bar. It’s a terrific, forceful moment in the story, and what follows after is really just Keith coming to terms with all he has lost.

He wanders out across the frozen lake, where he sees into the bedroom of a house, where a man and woman lie side by side, reading before they go to bed, and the narrator sits there, in the icy dark, and watches them until the light goes out.

The scene mirrors an earlier moment in the story, when Keith falls asleep to Nora reading in her separate bed across the room from him:

“…when I switched off my lamp and turned to the wall the last image fading in my brain was of the steady bright nimbus of Nora’s light and her face shining their above the book.”

In both scenes, Keith is closeted in his personal darkness: there is Nora, and there are the people in their beds, two images of celestial domesticity—the kind of happy, secure life that Keith craves. In the first scene, he turns away from the light—just as he will turn away from Nora, and at the end, he cannot help but stare into the house, into the light that he’s lost now, forever.

Our Hopes and Fears are strange forces. They lead us in all sorts of zigzagging directions, and as we follow behind, tugged and pulled from one place to another—a giant mansion, a frozen lake—it’s hard to say what that 10th card will mean to us, when it arrives.

English: T.C. Boyle at the powerHouse Arena, D...

Author T.Coraghessan Boyle

The New Yorker interviewed the author about “Birnam Wood.” You can find the Q & A is here.

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

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?

I Sent Out 126 Rejection Letters Today

3 Jul

Believe me, it wasn’t easy. I plowed through only one-and-a-half of three stacks of submissions, logging out short stories, essays, and poetry. As I worked, I read through cover letters, paged through submissions,and scanned through the editors’ comments, thinking: dang, how hard is it?

The answer: really hard.

Writer's Block 1I read submissions by writers from the Iowa Workshop, from professors at Emory and Harvard, from multiple graduates of Princeton, Yale, and all the other Ivies. There were writers who had been published in The New Yorker and The New York Times, writers whose stories had been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories or had won Pushcart Prizes—lists of accolades and accomplishments that baffled me.

There were writers who had no formal training, but had excellent stories; writers who had formal training, but wrote as if they were in high school. There were teen-age writers, writers in their 70s just starting out, even a writer who had sent his hand-written submission from a criminal insane asylum.

At the end of the day, I was weary of those yellow slips. I’ve just started sending out my own stories, and though I know the road to success is paved with rejection slips, I worry about the future. How many writers kept trying, when they should have given up? Worse still, how many writers gave up, when they could have been great if they’d only kept submitting?

I went back to those cover letters: all those writers who had won incredible awards, who had been published in so many other prestigious magazines and reviews. They were succeeding, even though I was sending them each a rejection letter.

A rejection from one magazine, for one story, doesn’t mean a writer is untalented. Rejections from multiple magazines for multiple stories doesn’t mean a writer should give up, either. Just like lovers, some writers and magazines fit each other, while others do not.

Beyond that, though, all writers can improve their work and thereby increase their odds. The best way to do so is to continue writing, continue revising, and continue submitting.

If we’re lucky, we may even get a hand-written rejection note from a wise editor: for my green soul, that would be gold.

Until then, all we can do is keep on keepin’ on.

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?