Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The End

Dear Friends:

After more than four years, we have decided to shut down Ward Six.

Writing this blog, and reading your responses to our posts, has been a great experience, and we're going to miss it.  But maintaining Ward Six has increasingly caused more anxiety than pleasure, and it's time for us to move on to other projects.

The primary reason for this decision, of course, is time.  Our professional lives have become more demanding over these years, and we want to devote as much time as possible to our fiction, not to mention our family and friends.  Something had to give.

There are other reasons, though--less important, perhaps, but more immediately compelling.  For one: the longer we remain in the business of writing and publishing, the more people we know.  The American literary world is like a big small town, spread across the country; stay in it long enough, and you end up connected to everyone.  As a result, it has become increasingly difficult to write anything that doesn't offend someone connected to us. Sometimes this manifests itself in the comments; sometimes via email.  Of course this should be perfectly fine--shouldn't a literary blog offer a forum for spirited disagreement?  Indeed, it should.  But when those disagreements keep you up at night, when they result in emotional exhaustion, you have to wonder if it's worth it in the end.

In an ideal world, we writers could write about one another without concern for hurting anyone's feelings.  Personally, we never read or respond to anything written about ourselves online--this seems like madness to us.  It wasn't until last year that we even realized there is a thing called Google Alerts and that writers use it to find discussions about them; the result is that we live in a world where you can always hear when people are talking about you.  There is one word for such a world: hell.  It's hard to remain neutral in it.

There are other reasons we're shutting down, less connected to our emotions.  John is writing more book reviews for print publications; this work is supposed to be free of any possible conflicts of interest.  Carrying on dialogues with other writers here makes such impartiality hard to achieve.  He will also, in the coming months, take over directorship of Cornell's creative writing program, and is increasingly conscious of the possibility that readers will interpret his remarks on Ward Six as representative, somehow, of the institution he works for.

But the main thing, aside from time, is that internet writing is stressful.  We don't blame writers, in the end, for their passionate advocacy of their own work online; the publishing industry is forcing them to do so.  Publicity and marketing budgets are down; writers are asked to promote themselves, ad nauseam, on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs.  This isn't a good thing, we don't think.  Writers should never ask other writers for blurbs: that's what publishers are for.  Writers shouldn't be responsible for what is said about them online.  They should put their heads down and work on their art, without regard for the vicissitudes of commerce.

But that's not the way the wind is blowing.  We receive many requests each month for quotes, and are sent a lot of galleys, and we find ourselves having to tell people over and over that Ward Six is not a promotional blog, but a labor of love.

Unfortunately, lately, it has become more labor than love.  We are proud of the fact that we have never run an ad on this site, have never made a cent from it.  But it's time for our labor to be directed elsewhere.

We've made a lot of friends here, and look forward to keeping in touch with them.  And we won't be disappearing from the internet.  So you'll be seeing us again before long.

Until then, you have our profound gratitude and affection.

John and Rhian

Sunday, April 17, 2011

"A life of their own"

I got a question from a grad student yesterday regarding a paper he's writing, and I thought my answer to him would make a good blog post.  So here you go.  The question (thanks, Alex): "Writers (and I've heard this from poets, too, who are inhabiting an historical voice) claim that characters 'take on a life on their own' and act autonously, despite their ontological tether to the author himself.  The character kind of becomes an 'other.'  What's your experience of creating characters like?  Do you feel this doubleness as actor/observer?"

My off-the-cuff reply was, "Yes, characters do seem to 'take on a life of their own,' but that phrase is sentimental and overplays the role of inspiration and loss of control in the writing of fiction.  Personally, I always feel that I'm in control of my characters.  But I also feel that they are manifestations of the self (that is, the author) that draw from parts of the personality (that is, our own) that we don't ordinarily have direct access to, which must be dug for with great effort, and generally are only uncovered in a state of deep concentration.  The process of creating a character is a process of assembling emotions, memories, hypotheses, and the like, until they form a pleasing shape.  And the more material one assembles, the more dots there are to connect, the more detailed a picture emerges.

"That isn't to say a character can be anything and all things--it's more like fractals, details concealed inside details.  You might think of this process as being like formal limitation in poetry--instead of being able to look anywhere, we limit ourselves to those personalities possible within a set of initial parameters.  And it is only inside these limitations that we're able to feel that we really know something.  If the plot demands that our protagonist is going to be a fifty-year-old woman with three grown children, a two-pack-a-day smoking habit, an abiding love for the string quartets of Shostakovich, and, back in her past, a youthful stint as a game show host, then we already have somebody in mind.  YOU have somebody in mind, right now.  This woman opens her mouth and speaks: I am certain that you know what her voice sounds like.  Because human beings are made to make broad judgements about people based upon small collections of data, and predict their future behavior according to those data.

"So this thing about characters taking over the story is, ultimately, silly nonsense.  (Nabokov, for one, hated the notion.)  But it is a pleasure for the writer, and one hopes the reader, to experience the illusion of same."

Monday, April 11, 2011

The quest vs. the meander

I listen to a lot of nerd podcasts, including this one, which today included an interesting tangent about Pixar.  You know, the animated film company everyone loves.  The co-host, John Siracusa, had the previous week been comparing Pixar to Hayao Miyazaki, and finding the former inferior, for various reasons: all of them, in my view, very valid.  This week, though, he pointed out that almost all Pixar movies feature male protagonists, and most of Miyazaki's feature female ones.

This in and of itself doesn't really concern me--I think children are perfectly able to identify with the other gender in a narrative, should their parents adequately encourage them to.  But this got me thinking about what I do hate about Pixar: their storylines.

Don't get me wrong--I really quite enjoy these films, particularly The Incredibles and Ratatouille (which, if nothing else, provides the extraordinary spectacle of Patton Oswalt not swearing).  They are visually stunning and often quite funny.  But they depend, by and large, on the same dreary goal/motivation/conflict plotlines that Rhian criticized in this post.  There is always some quest, or some search for self-actualization or self-improvement.  There always has to be a moral, a life lesson.  There always has to be a danger that forces people to embrace their better selves.  The world must always prove, in the end, orderly and sensible.

I find myself thinking of this as a "masculine" storyline, though I'm not particularly eager to defend that characterization; I will say, though, that the primary way girls get to be the heroes of contemporary children's movies is by proving that they can do the same stupid shit boys can.  Miyazaki, on the other hand, makes movies about intense, often directionless exploration.  He is contemplative, and his films often remain movingly unresolved.  Pixar movies look great, but the visuals are illustrative.  In Miyazaki, the images are the movie.  They make the story.  I can't, for the life of me, remember the plot of Howl's Moving Castle--but I will never, never forget the sight of it.  Is this perhaps a feminine ideal--that it is sometimes enough simply to be?  In any event, it is a worthwhile ideal, gendered or not.

Is this "better"?  It is to me.  My middle career (and, I fear, accompanying slump in book sales) has been largely about an effort to abandon the kind of heavily directed plots I love to indulge in as a casual reader, and concentrate more on the enigmatic things that move me.  I certainly haven't abandoned plot, nor have I become remotely experimental.  But my forthcoming (late 2012 I suspect) novel is about a woman who gets horribly lost in an increasingly confusing spiral of impossible domestic events, against a backdrop of impossible sci-fi phenomena, and I had more fun writing it than anything I've done in ten years.  It's the result of an obsession not with story, but with motif, situation, and emotion.

I dunno--I think we're stuck in this country in a plotline that's so familiar we can't even see it.  We keep telling ourselves the same damned stories over and over, are comforted by them, and live our lives by them, when in fact they are bankrupt and getting us nowhere.  We are never going to win the big game, or make people love us at last, or find what we're looking for.  Friendship isn't going to conquer all, we are not going to find the treasure, and we aren't going to land the deal.  If the worst thing that's going to happen to us is that we're just going to keep living for a while, we are in luck.  There are a million ways to write about that experience, many of them profound and beautiful.  Maybe we can do that now.

Thursday, April 7, 2011


I think I've posted about this before, but it's on my mind this week, for several reasons.  Writers have a strange relationship to their, you know, physical existence.  Like anyone whose satisfaction comes mostly from time spent in their own head, writers often find the actual world rather vexing to navigate, and have mixed feelings about presenting themselves to others.  Even though, in theory, nothing could be more simple than giving a reading--you don't even have to memorize anything, you just stand there and read stuff off of a piece of paper--many of us find such events incredibly stressful.  We are not accustomed to being in front of our readers--it's not in the contract.  We're supposed to be able to be our worst selves on the page, without fear of embarrassment or misunderstanding.  All we are is a pile of paper, a book, a digital file.  We aren't supposed to have a five o'clock shadow, pit sweat, or PMS.  It just isn't natural for a writer to perform.

Some people, though are so good at it.  Margaret Atwood was here last week, and R. and I got to spend some quality time with her.  Her reading was great, but her performance lasted the duration of her stay in Ithaca.  She was on all day long, keeping up a hilarious and fascinating line of patter on her favorite subjects--genetics, the environment, the culture of writers and literature.  (Sadly, no hockey.)

I'm giving a reading tonight, and I gave a reading last week, and I must admit I love giving readings.  But my hands shake as I do it, sometimes visibly.  The version of myself I'm willing to be while writing is not the version of myself I would naturally present to others in person.  This creates a certain dissonance while teaching, too--as writers, we talk about sex, death, self-disgust, self-doubt.  As teachers, we are supposed to be experts, flawlessly confident and assured, and keep a personal distance between ourselves and our students, even as we encourage them to reveal themselves in ways we might be reluctant to suggest even to our own spouses.  The result is this bizarre stew of emotions, of concealment and revalation, of intimacy and detachment.  I think this is one of the reasons creative writing classes are so popular, even with students for whom writing itself is not a great passion: they are a forum for deep personal expression, but with built-in limits and controls.  They are an oblique form of self-analysis, for people who might otherwise be afraid to examine themselves too closely.

We went to see The Mountain Goats the other night, in Ithaca, and I was struck by the facility with which Darnielle and company presented the deeply intimate, even disturbing, material the band is known for.  Sometimes I wish I could read or teach with Jon Wurster drumming behind me, and a guitar and amp to give my words something to ride on.  Then again, the typical literary audience is a bit better groomed and doesn't shout requests.  I'll take it.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Me and Lou Beach: The Great Zombini

Lousy of me, I know, to come slouching in after a week of absence with a self-promotion post, but that's what I'm doing.  Soon I will post about my busy week with some thoughts about performance, literary and otherwise.  But for now, news.

I have collaborated on a new book with visual artist Lou Beach called The Great Zombini.  It's a collection of 21 short stories inspired by 21 of Lou's hilarious and bizarre photocollages.  The book contains the images and the stories, and it is an ebook only release.  The link above is for the Kindle page, but it will soon propogate to your favorite ebookstore, including the B&N and Apple sites.  For those of you who were at my reading with Amy Dickinson and Jaime Warburton yesterday, those stories were from this book.

What can I say about it?  Lou and I have decided to be annoyingly cagey in our description: "Cautionary tales for adults, illustrated. You've been warned."  Here's a sample.

And do us a favor, will you?  If you read the thing, review it on Amazon, even if you didn't like it.  Our publisher is an indie, Red Willow Digital Press, and they (and we) need all the publicity we can get.  Blogward ho!