Monday, March 29, 2010

Bill Evans on creativity and simplicity

Interesting bit of video here--an interview with jazz piano legend Bill Evans that addresses the notions of simplicity and straightforwardness I have been thinking about lately. I've been obsessed with spare prose, and with the perils of overwriting. But of course some writers are very good at working in a dense, complicated mode--are they overwriting?

No, they're not--they are working efficiently within a framework where they know they can achieve clarity. Evans illustrates this on the piano--he demonstrates the "overwritten" version of a complex passage. A pretty neat illustration!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

How to say no

I'm back at the computer after a solid week and a half of work judging a fiction contest. It's great to be able to give people the good news that they have won something (though in this case it won't be me doing that). But as always when I do this kind of thing I think a lot about the people who will come away empty-handed. We have all been those people, of course--we are those people every day. Any serious writer learns quickly to accept rejection, and stops taking it personally. But it certainly helps to be rejected respectfully, and you'd be surprised how few times this has happened to me.

I'm not talking about litmag rejections, which are, by their very nature, rather impersonal--I'm talking about rejections by people you know and have worked with--people with whom you have developed a professional relationship. It's a mistake to assume these people will publish you just because they like you and you like them, and the best relationships contain a strong element of critical give-and-take. But I think it's reasonable to expect to be turned down bravely, directly, and straightforwardly.

Of the book editors I've worked with, only one cut me loose like a pro--he called and apologized for not being able to accept the book (that book was Mailman, and it was the marketing department who said no--presciently, it turned out!), and I still respect him for it. One editor at a national magazine whom I have worked with has occasion to reject me now and then, and always does so gracefully, in a way that makes me like her all the more. Another favorite magazine editor, now at a book publisher, always used to bypass my agent, emailing me directly with his reasons for not saying yes.

But when I'm in a foul mood, I still gnash my teeth over the shitty dumpings of my literary life. Most of them consist of long relationships terminated through a proxy, with nary an email of explanation and no further contact after. There was one contact who spent an entire day talking me into not dumping her, only to send an email dumping me first thing the next morning. And there are editors who ran me through several rounds of on-spec revising before deciding the work was not for them. One editor called me a creep and a hanger-on for wanting an answer on the book I'd sent him, exclusively, nine months before.

I understand where these people were coming from--nobody likes saying no, especially to a friend. But I don't think most people realize that it actually feels good to be rejected like a pro--not as good as getting accepted, of course, but pretty good nonetheless. "I take you seriously," these rejections are saying. "Which is why I want better things from you." A good rejection flatters the writer's sense of himself--it is a validation of his ambition.

Of course it isn't easy being a literary gatekeeper, especially in this publishing climate. And most editors have to do a lot of rejecting, often of things they really like and wish they could publish. But a word of advice: treat the talent with care. We are easily wounded.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Around teh webs

A couple of links today, one sent by a W6 reader, the other by a student. The first (Thanks, Benjy), language policing in Chicago. The CEO of the Tribune Co. has issued a proclamation:

The man at the top of the troubled media empire took time out of his real job this week to issue a list of words and phrases — 119 of them, to be exact — that must never, ever be uttered by anchors or reporters on WGN-AM (720), the news/talk radio station located five floors below his office in Tribune Tower.

The aim seems to be to discourage "newsspeak." I have two comments on this. One, I personally would like my news anchors to sound like they're reading the news, not as though they are sipping coffee in my living room. The increasing friendlification of the news really bothers me--if I hear an NPR reporter use the word "folks" one more time, I'm gonna...well, to be honest, I'm going to just shake my head ruefully and get on with my day.

My second comment on this story is...since when is "bare naked" newsspeak? In any event, I'm not sure why people are getting bent out of shape over what is mostly a generalized anti-cliche memo. Perhaps, because it involves language, we think of it as a free speech issue. But it seems to me more like a verbal corporate dress code.

Link #2, your daily litty funny, comes from my student Adi: If All Stories Were Written Like Science Fiction Stories. A sample:

He logged onto the central network using his personal computer, and waited while the system verified his identity. With a few keystrokes he entered an electronic ticketing system, and entered the codes for his point of departure and his destination. In moments the computer displayed a list of possible flights, and he picked the earliest one. Dollars were automatically deducted from his personal account to pay for the transaction.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Billy Collins interview podcast

I haven't been updating this blog lately with information about the interviews I've been doing for Writers at Cornell. But I wanted to mention it today for two reasons--first, I just posted a new interview with former Poet Laureate Billy Collins, wherein we discuss the trouble with rules of thumb, not liking to compare poetry to jazz, and the secret government plot against poetry. It's a good one, so please give it a listen.

The other reason I bring up the podcast is to tell you that it is now available on iTunes. Just click this link to bring it up, or type "Writers At Cornell" into the iTunes search bar. All new interviews, and about half the archives (so far anyway) are available for download there. Don't know why I didn't do this sooner.

Collins is reading tonight at Cornell, and we're expecting a big crowd--I don't think America's got a better known poet. (We do talk in the interview a little bit about the mixed blessing of there being such a thing.)

Monday, March 8, 2010

From a dream

Yesterday we were on our way back from a weekend out of town, and I got an idea for a short story. This was a six-hour drive, at the end of which there would be no time for writing, not until this afternoon, when my class was over and I'd made it home. I genuinely feared the urge to write would leave me by then--if I'd been alone in the car, I would have pulled over and written for half an hour at a rest stop (probably fueled by one of those Dunkin' Donuts egg sandwiches on a waffle, I'm afraid).

The reason I was so nervous is that the story comes entirely from a dream, or rather a series of dreams, that I've had over the past couple of years. I'd had one the other night. In each, there's an abandoned cottage on a hilltop behind our house. It's the same cottage each time, but it always looks quite different. The story I was working up involved this series of cottages, and the idea that something can be the same and not-the-same at once. As I conceived of it, it wouldn't be a realistic story--or rather, just realistic enough to feel wrong somehow.

The weight of dreams leaves you pretty quickly. I've tried writing from them before, and rarely finish. A few times I've managed to semi-evoke that feeling in fiction, though not usually when I'm employing actual dreams as the material in question. Our dreams, unfortunately, are not inherently interesting to other people. In fiction, they need context, even if that context has to be built into the representation itself. And it's hard to know what specifically they need to carry their own sense with them.

I did manage to hold out until noon today, then write a mess of pages. I don't know if they're any good. Tomorrow I'm going to try a bunch more. Whatever the result, it feels good, a return to the dream state. I suppose it's better to write inspired garbage than nothing.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Barry Hannah

Oh, hell...I really loved Barry Hannah, who died this week at 67. He came up last week in conversation with some other writers, and I found myself semi-drunkenly holding forth about the awesomeness of Airships, and very slightly less so that of Bats Out Of Hell, two excellent and highly idiosyncratic story collections. (I've got first editions of both, suckas!)

Hannah was a writers' writer, a guy who often came up in informal chats with fellow scribblers, sometimes as a guilty or obscure pleasure. He wasn't always good, but he was always interesting, and when he was good, he was superb, in a manner unlike anyone else. He was at times very direct, at others hopelessly baroque; his work vacillated between brilliant comic energy and terrifying violence--or perhaps it was both, all the time.

At Montana, when we were there in the nineties, his brief and chaotic professorial stint was still fresh in some memories (a Bowie knife stabbed into a chalkboard? Brandishing a pistol in a rain-drenched car?!?), but he was gone long before we got there, and neither of us ever met him. (I did meet his daughter in a bar in Tuscaloosa once.) But he has loomed large in my imagination, ever since my college pal Brian O'Keefe lent me a copy of Ray in 1990 or so. It's time I caught up on the stuff I haven't read.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Sometimes you gotta write a manifesto

Well, I wasted half the day yesterday, putting together a six-page manifesto about common beginners' errors in fiction writing, when I was supposed to be writing fiction of my own. For some reason I'm getting a lot of repetitive mistakes from my students this semester (and a repetitive stress injury from scribbling them out), so I figured the only reasonable solution was a gargantuan handout. Here it is.

Rhian and I had a big argument about Lists of Things You Shouldn't Do. She thinks they send the wrong message. I think they're kind of fun, and made to be contradicted. Anyway, this isn't quite that--more like a collection of current pet peeves of mine, with suggested (and hopefully amusing) remedies. The nine, exhaustively elaborated on the handout, are:

1. Misuse of hyphens and em-dashes
2. Nested dependent clauses
3. Misadventures in dialogue tagging
4. Gerund phrases that incorrectly imply simultaneity
5. Modifiers and pronouns with ambiguous antecedents
6. Missing commas before names, in spoken address
7. Spaces between paragraphs
8. Re-describing a person or object using a new noun
9. Overwriting

Some of them are grammatical, some creative, some technical (like #7, which only Microsoft can be blamed for). Don't know if they'll be of much use to all you smartypantses, but have at it!

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