Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Man Who Wrote Too Much

Pardon the week-long hiatus--we're both, lord help us, writing. Today, though, I finally threw in the towel and decided to print out a fresh draft of my novel for Rhian to read. Every time, I think this is the one she's going to race through in a day, then say, "It's perfect, send it off." And every time I'm wrong. (She is responsible for the removal of an embarrassingly ill-fitting element from Castle.) In any event, even if it sucks, it's nice to have it out of my hands, if only for a week.

This is the tenth novel I have actually written, counting the ones that didn't get published, and I'm beginning to wonder maybe if I'm writing too fast. This is a fault I have always felt free to find in other writers, but haven't really ever taken seriously the notion that it's one of mine, as well. In general I produce a (so far) publishable one every two years, and have done a couple even faster than that.

And usually I'm satisfied with the results, more or less. But last night I was reading this new Lorrie Moore. I like it, and I have always looked up to Moore as kind of a hero. But above and beyond that, the book has a particular quality my work lacks--it feels carefully composed, worked over. It's written...exquisitely. It feels like somebody's first novel in ten years.

Of course, there's something to be said about a book that feels unburdened, that you can read quickly, that skates along in an uninterrupted progression of thoughts. This is what I tell myself I'm writing. That my stuff is qualitatively different because of my pace, and this is a neither good nor bad thing.

But then again, think of the popular writers who publish a lot. T. C. Boyle. Joyce Carol Oates. Even if you really dig them (and there is a lot to like about these writers), admit it--you sometimes think they publish too much. You kind of wish they would calm the hell down and go into hiding for ten years. There's a slight taint to the respect we have for them, because of their output. It's not even necessarily about quality--even if they published the same damned books, unchanged from the versions we know, and just spaced them out to every five years, we would probably convince ourselves that these books are better, because they appear to be the result of years and years of effort.

That's not the main thing, though--the prose is the main thing. And while I don't want to emulate Lorrie Moore, I am thinking that the next book I write will be much shorter and much more finely wrought. (I think I already know what it is, a novel I've been wanting to write for nearly a decade, ever since a graduate student suggested it to me after reading a little metafiction I published in a local newspaper.) And if I know what's good for me, when I'm finished, I'll wait ten years before putting it in the mail.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Vexing Case of Murzban Shroff

Indian fiction writer and longtime friend of this blog, Murzban Shroff, has for some time now been entangled in a maddening free speech case in his home country:

Use of the word ‘ghati’ in his book Breathless in Bombay has landed first-time author Murzban Shroff in trouble, with an activist claiming that it “lowers the reputation and image of Maharashtrians in the eyes of non-Maharashtrians”.

While 47-year-old Shroff, a Mumbai-born Parsi, maintains that the term is not aimed against any community, activist Vijay Mudras wants the government to seize all copies of the book, which he feels is a serious threat to communal harmony.

More coverage of the case can be found here.

Though this kind of thing is much more a problem in India than it is for writers here in the US, we have seen the phenomenon before--an apparent unwillingness among some people to comprehend the difference between portrayal and advocacy. All Murzban is doing here, of course, is trying to show life as it is actually lived, and it is this, not some imaginary threat of "communal disharmony," that bothers his critics.

We American writers tend to take our free speech for granted, and it's shocking when someone we know is actually threatened with prison time for telling it like it is. You might want to let him know he's got your support.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Significant Objects

I was approached last week by the web-based literary/conceptual-art project Significant Objects to write a short story inspired by this item--a ceramic choirboy figurine. I am not one to shy away from a wacky project, so here's the result, one long sentence about a mother, a boy, another boy, and a choirboy.

The gimmick here isn't just the object and the story, but that the object is actually for sale on eBay. All proceeds evidently me. So if you want me to have a nice lunch in a week or so, put in a bid.

My personal enrichment aside, I must say that I think this is a great idea, and wish more editors would toss us writers a bone like this more often. There is nothing to get the creative juices flowing like arbitrary restrictions arriving unexpectedly in one's email inbox. It's a testament to the desire among writers for such schemes that the list of participants on the S.O. site is quite long, and features a number of writers who are a lot famouser than I am, and could probably make more lucrative use of their time.

But it's hard to imagine a more pleasurable use for it. Here's to random literary stunts.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Poem About Chickens

I'm sure it's illegal for me to publish the whole poem here, even if Andrew Sullivan did so on his blog. But Andrew Sullivan writes for The Atlantic, where this was originally published, so he probably has special dispensation. In any event, I'll just link to the rest of it. It's a great poem, because it really gets at the pathos of chickens. It's easy to be flippant or cute about them -- there are so many cliches. But there is something essentially tragic about chickens. I found the last half of the poem to be especially moving.

But while you're over there on the Atlantic site, don't get roped into reading the ridiculous essay by a certain "drink-soaked former Trotskyist popinjay" on why Jon Stewart isn't funny. You might enjoy the thing about the Erie Canal by Ithacan Rachel Dickinson, with great pics.

Hens, by Henri Cole

It’s good for the ego, when I call and they come
running, squawking and clucking, because it’s feedtime,
and once again I can’t resist picking up little Lazarus,
an orange-and-white pullet I adore. “Yes, yes, everything will be
okay,” I say to her glaring mongrel face...

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Importance and Unimportance of Plot

I stole the title from somewhere, probably one of the 10,000 how-to books I've read, and surely we've posted on this very same topic before. Old subject! But I've been thinking about it again, having just read, back to back, Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist and Lorrie Moore's The Gate at the Stairs. In Baker's novel -- which I really, really liked -- almost nothing happens. But so what? "Stuff happening" is not the point. It's about a character who tells us about his life and pet subjects (poetry, mostly). I love the way Baker sees things, and I love his language and humor. And there is movement: mostly just through a mood.

So yeah, after reading that, I was feeling quite indifferent about the whole plot thing. In fact, I started to think: Feh, stuff happening -- who needs it? Books in which nothing happens are the best!

But then I read the new Lorrie Moore. I love her stories, by the way: I think she creates great characters and situations and I like her punnery. But her use of plot is very strange in this new book.

The novel's about a year in the life of a young midwestern woman who gets a job as a nanny for an older couple to help pay for college. That's pretty much the whole story. Several very dramatic things happen... but, strangely, they aren't connected. For instance, here's one plot element: her boyfriend turns out to be other than what she thought. When this happened, I thought: Oh, so this is what the book's about! But no. After it happened, it all went away, and pretty much never came up again.

Isn't that weird? It's very much like life, actually: you're living your life, and things just happen to you. (Like-Life is the title of one of her earlier collections, actually.) In fact... almost* nothing that happens in The Gate at the Stairs is instigated by the protagonist, other than her getting the job in the first place.

You know the old definition of plot: it's not The king dies, then the queen dies, but The king dies, and the queen dies of grief. In a plot, things don't just happen, but they cause other things to happen.

So I guess I'm saying that The Gate at the Stairs doesn't really have a plot, though some extremely dramatic things happen. In that way it's like The Anthologist. But it is also very much unlike The Anthologist, because it doesn't seem comfortable with nothing happening, so it makes things happen, though they don't really have meaning in the larger context. And even the events that seem integral to the book (the nanny bits) don't have much fallout.

Is that so bad? No. I couldn't put the novel down. (For me there are 3 categories of book: Couldn't Put It Down, Couldn't Read It, and Had to Read It For Book Club.) In spite of my quibbles, I would rather read Lorrie Moore than almost anyone. Still, it made me think that like Alice Munro, Chekhov, and lots of other writers, she really is a short story writer at heart. The novel read like a stretched out short story, with two big unrelated events thrown in to beef it up. If I were editing the book, I'd cut out those unrelated things, then totally implicate the narrator in the main story -- as it is, the nanny just witnesses what happens.

But sheesh, no one ever asks me!

* In one case, something happens because she doesn't read an email!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Return of the desk

So here's the desk I wrote Mailman and Happyland sitting at, among other things. It used to live in my little 8x10 writing shed at our old house, with the tiny woodstove sitting on the left and the wall of corkboard on the right, and through the window in front of it I could watch squirrels stealing all the seeds from our bird feeder.

Then I got this job and found myself going to my office at Cornell instead of to the shed. Plus I was between novels and not writing much, and I didn't require a lot of solitude to do the editing stuff I was then busy with, and so for the better part of a year I didn't use the desk at all. Around this time we decided to move, so I went out to the shed to begin cleaning it out. I then discovered that mice had taken up residence in my files and in my typewriter, had shat upon many of my books, torn others of them up for bedding, and completely destroyed pretty much every personal letter I had ever received. They messed up the desk, too--the drawers were filled with seeds. One was so awful I had to punch out the bottom panel and burn it, along with all my ruined papers.

After we moved, I stored it in the basement, where it grew a thin layer of mildew. More mice moved into it. It sat there for more than two years.

Then, this past Thursday, I hauled it out into the light, washed the entire thing with bleach-soaked rags, let it dry, then rubbed it all over with Orange Glo. I did the same to my old office chair, and moved them both into our back room. Then I went to Target and bought a lamp.

I feel as though a great sin has been atoned for. I should never have let it get to that state! Right now my novel manuscript is sitting on it, waiting to be read--I will start on that tomorrow. I'm hoping the desk still has a bit of mojo in it, and if so, will forgive me for what I put it through.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Generative Power of Dreams

Rhian had a dream the other night in which some familiar landmarks--our henhouse and chicken run--had been transformed. Instead of the hardware cloth, plywood, and pressure-treated lumber (sorry, water table) the run is really made of, Rhian's brain had reconfigured it with chain-link fencing and a metal-frame door.

This led to a conversation--why on earth would her mind create this fence at all, let alone in the vivid, fully-imagined detail it appeared to her? The chicken run is a very, very familiar thing to her--she sees it many times each day, and could easily describe its every particular from memory. There's no clear reason for the mind to abandon the familiar and replace it with the vivid and new.

I was reminded of a conversation I was having with a student last week, about dialogue in fiction. All of the characters in her story sounded the same--she needed to listen more carefully to the way people really talk. The fact is, I told her, most conversation is designed to impart information, not personality. Any nonstandard filigrees or strange patterns of speech are disadvantageous to the conveyance of content, and our minds tend to ignore them.

But in fiction, all we care about is who people are, and what they like. So the part of the mind that ignores detail must be turned off, and the part of the mind that creates it must be turned on. It's the same part of the mind, I think, that makes completely new things where the familiar should be. The challenge of writing good fiction is to keep this part of the mind switched on even while awake.

I'm teaching a favorite story of mine this week, Kelly Link's "Stone Animals." (This is for a new class--the undergraduate version of my "Weird Stories" course from last year.) This story works with the logic of a dream--Link's mind, when she wrote it, was likely on an associative tear. It's the perfect example of a writer dreaming while awake, packed as it is with creepy nonsequiturs that somehow seem just right. It isn't the strangeness that's so striking--anybody can be selfconsciously weird. It's the just-rightness that's the trick, and it's the kind of thing that most of us have to be in some kind of trance to accomplish, the dream state that creates memorable fiction. Would that I were able to enter into it more often...

Note: this is our 600th post. Yowza. Image above, BTW, is by Gregory Crewdson.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Writing and Running

I recently read Haruki Murakami's memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running and found it pretty interesting, though I don't know if I'd recommend it to anyone who isn't a writer and a runner or a huge Murakami fan. He doesn't have a lot of insight into either running or writing; mostly he just says, to paraphrase: "I write because I'm good at it and I like doing it. And I run because I'm good at it too. I just started one day, and here I am, twenty years later, and it's been great." Then there's a lot of geeky detail about his writing schedule, his running schedule, his marathons, etc.

The book interested me because I've put a lot of thought into the connections between writing and running--they've always felt connected to me. I started running when I was ten, around the time I started writing. And I go through similar long periods of slackdom with both, often at the same time -- I can probably blame these slack periods for the fact that, considering how long I've been at them, I'm still -- embarassingly -- pretty much a beginner at both. They both require a not so easy-to-maintain combination of mental toughness and faith that the activity is really worthwhile, even though, minute by minute, very little gets accomplished. They're both solitary and don't depend on other people. And they both feel much better when they're over.

Plus, a lot of writers I know also run or, in the case of the wonky-kneed (JRL), walk. Joyce Carol Oates reportedly runs 6 miles every morning -- as prolific in her running as her writing. Just this morning I was reading an article about hydration during running, and there was a quote from a woman I happen to know, and who happens to be a novelist (and who sometimes looks at this blog -- are you there, KL?). I had no idea she runs, but I'm not surprised.

There are obvious, practical reasons writers might run: it's cheap, it counteracts all that sitting, it's outdoors. But I feel like there are deeper, more mystical reasons, maybe something to do its linearity, the way your eye moves past words on a page just like it moves past trees and weeds and telephone poles. Maybe it has to do with sustained attention. Or rhythm.

What do you think -- will doing a lot of one lead to a person doing a lot of the other? I, for one, hope so.