Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

what I wish was a drunken conversation in a McDonald’s at AWP

February 8, 2011

The g/f and I went to one off-site event while we were at AWP, at The Asylum, where we watched some poets read, munched some vegan appetizers (which were incredible, despite their non-animalness)(not awesome enough to make me give up my animal tasty treats for good, though) and where I got the beginnings of a headache and tired of some personal space intrusion. This was still at the time I was having to do a TON of grading for the courses I teach, so I wasn’t in the best mood to begin with.

So, we left after the readings and struck out for the convention again, hoping to catch the last bit of the Jhumpa Lahiri keynote address. Instead, we wandered into a basement McDonald’s and griped about the state of poetry and the faint of heart, spotlight shunning writers who just don’t stomp the terra firma, to borrow and, likely, butcher a quote from Hunter Thompson.

First, I should say, I’m not a huge poetry fan right now. There just isn’t a lot out there that interests me and a lot of it sounds pretty similar. This isn’t to say it’s not good, I just don’t find a lot of it catching or interesting. It seems a lot of what is said is said to work in a slam environment though not necessarily on the page or even in your own head. Again, this isn’t to say it’s not good, it just feels like everyone is doing the same thing right now. And none of them really say a whole helluva lot.

And part of the problem seems to be this odd anti-intellectualism that permeates poetry (and, truth be told, fiction). This isn’t to say they’re dumb, or ignorant, just that I have continually witnessed an aversion to research and reading something that isn’t fiction or poetry.  I’ve griped before about this idea that the work is sparked by some muse and comes from on-high, which is another way of saying what I often heard repeated, that “you don’t think about it, you just write it and it’s THERE.” Which I disagree with too a fair extent, despite how many well written poems I’ve read that chronicle the depths of your despair in the eyes of a puppy on a sunny day.

Which, in a roundabout but perfectly logical (at the time) way, took me to Allen Ginsberg and my declaration that he was the last poet that I could genuinely respect and admire as a Great (capital G) Poet (capital P) because he not only wrote great poetry but, by all appearances, had a meaning and purpose behind what and how he was writing. I’ve liked poets since him, sure, I really enjoy Bukowski, but respect him as a writer? As an artist? Maybe not so much.

And what sort of disgusted myself with this declaration is that it’s sort of like bringing Hitler or the Nazis into an internet argument – it’s just so over the top inarguable, that it’s pointless to bring it up. I mean, is there anyone who is going to argue that there was a bigger, more influential and flat out better poet after Ginsberg in the last half of the Twentieth century? I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, unless we begin pulling in guys like Bob Dylan into the argument, or try to argue that filmmakers are poets in a visual medium.

And what disgusts me a bit now is that I know, and have known, other poets who are very good, who are dedicated to their craft, and who I stupidly insulted. But, at the same time, I still have this nagging feeling of having still been right, to a certain degree. There have been poets since Ginsberg who entered our social consciousness, who found themselves or made themselves part of our national fabric, but none of them have carried the weight of Ginsberg, none of them have cast his shadow. None of them have stomped the land.

Anyway, that’s my off-handed gripe/post. Take it with the grain of salt it was written with.

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I’m at AWP

February 3, 2011

Well, I’m there. I made it to AWP this year. For those who don’t know, and I certainly wouldn’t have until my girlfriend asked me, “Hey, you want to go to AWP?” it’s where’s a bunch of writers and writers/professors and writers/whateverers gather to talk about writing. There are a bunch of different little sessions where four or five writers get together and do a presentation on a theme or idea that they’re interested in, usually followed by a little Q&A. This morning, I went to a session that was basically about monsters and their prevalence/use/possibly abuse in fiction. Hannah Tinti was awesome. She was quick, she was insightful, she was engaging. And she had trouble with this little projector thing, which introduced a welcomed bit of levity and everydayness that should have set the tone for the rest of the session.

I wasn’t a fan of Laura van den Berg’s short story collection, but I thought she did well here. As she guessed, she would have people disagreeing with her over Murakami’s work being his After the Quake collection (for my money, it’s still  The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or, maybe, Kafka on the Shore) and with her description of Murakami having a lot of “zaniness” in his work, but it was still entertaining.

I don’t really want to get into a review of the whole thing, largely because I don’t also want to be critical of any of the presenters . What they are doing is difficult, and I know they are doing the best they can. By and large, the session was fun and informative and, in the end, I think that’s what counts. What I do want to say, though, is that I have a feeling what I feared about these sessions will come true – writers talking about writing isn’t always the most entertaining thing and they aren’t always the best at it. As one of the presenters said, writers like to write because they’re better at that than talking. And he might have been right. From the start I was thinking that this might have been a more engaging experience if it was a group of lit professors up there, plying their trade (which is really what the writers were doing =- trying to be lit professors). While I was engaged by the discussion, I can’t say I learned much. I wonder what some legitimate lit professors would have said up there, what they would have focused on, and what I might have learned. This isn’t to knock the group who were up there, or the event, it’s fun, it’s engaging, it’s entertaining. But, so far, it’s also been a bit hollow. I’m not looking at putting together a session heavy schedule (I really would like to see all of the touristy crap, I can’t help it, I AM a tourist here for god’s sake), so I don’t plan on having a lot of little posts about this, but I do plan on having a few. So…until the next literary thing pops up…

What’s the point? There isn’t one.

January 6, 2011

Over at Fictionbitch, there are the beginnings of a discussion about writing; the why, the how, the teaching of it, etc.  Instead of throwing my thoughts messily around their comment section, partially because I’m somewhat of a negative ninny about this but also because my thoughts are all over the place on this, I figured I’d just throw it up here.

I don’t think there is a point to writing, or a reason for it, or anything else. It seems that with anything artistic, there is a bizarre need to justify its being done. Why do you paint? Why do you sculpt? Why do you write Elizabethan sonnets on postcards of the Virgin Mary? Well, why do you go in and do your accounting work? Why do you play basketball? Why do you habitually watch every incarnation of Law and Order, even the odd foreign versions that have to be subtitled?

At some point, we just need to say we do it because we do it. Some of us get paid to do it, and I think it would be a damn dirty lie to not admit a paycheck is also a wonderful motivator for continuing something. Hell, Stephen King wouldn’t have become Stephen King if he hadn’t sold Carrie and his wife had to tell him to get back to work so they could pay the bills and keep the kids fed. A paycheck is a powerful motivator and enabler. As a quick aside, it also leads into one of my favorite Harlan Ellison rants, “Pay the writer!” (the youtube clip is here, or you can watch the entire documentary it’s from, Dreams with Sharp Teeth).  At some point, though, after talking about how it’s a part of your life, how you love sharing the experience with others, etc. etc. etc, it has to be said that there would be a lot fewer writers if they didn’t get paid to do it in some capacity.

Which comes to teaching. It has to. That’s how a lot of us writers find a way to get a paycheck – we teach, somewhere, at some level, some subject. Creative writing courses themselves, I’m not too thrilled about. I know other people have found them very helpful, very informative, very constructive. Frankly, I haven’t.  But that doesn’t mean they aren’t needed. There is at least one response over at Fictionbitch that I agree with, though: there’s no reason there shouldn’t be a closer tie between creative writing and composition. A lot of the same rules apply to each: you need good grammar/spelling, you need good structure, you need to have some idea what you’re writing about and why AND you need to communicate this to your readers. The skills you hone while learning one can go a long way toward honing your skills at the other. My g/f teaches her composition classes this way, mixing in heavy doses of creative writing, and she has large, enthusiastic responses to it. Since I don’t want to incur her wrath and interrupt what she’s working on right now, I’ll try to pluck the right name from memory and say that, I think, it’s a professor named Dinty More (yes, like the stew) who pushes this method but I might be wrong. Also, by making the creative writing process more closely tied with the composition courses, maybe it could increase their importance in university English departments, something that is never a bad thing as people look to federally fund universities less and less every year.

Now do I feel that good writing, at least good beyond basic grammar and spelling good, can be taught? Not really, no. But I do think the process of going through the workshops, getting peer reviewed, getting feed back, etc. can be a good thing. But I also thing there is a justified worry about a bit of group think setting in and pieces getting overworked.  In other words, it’s a mixed bag and depends just as much on the individual taking part as the courses and university.

And why do I write? Because I do. Now go back to Law and Order.

bad poetry

May 11, 2010

been writing a lot of poetry lately and a lot of it is just plain bad. Not sure why. What I’m writing about is good, but the words I’m using and how I’m using them, well, not so good.

It’s frustrating to have the words come but to have them be all of the wrong words. The wrong form. They may as well not show up at all at that point, just more editing later, but they ring the bell and I open the door and before I know it the damn things are littering the page and I don’t like them hanging around, sitting on my furniture, drinking my beer. It’s mine. I don’t want to share with them. Go. Just go.

On top of that, I haven’t been able to get moving on the novel re-write and the more I work on it the more dissatisfied I am with it anyway. I’m going to want to re-write it a third time.

On the plus side, the landlord finally turned the heat back on as Cleveland has been slammed by another cold snap. So the apartment is comfortable to sit in and not get any work actually accomplished in.

Kevin Smith, Critics and the unreliable narrator

March 29, 2010

I like (most of) Kevin Smith’s movies. I download his smodcasts. I follow him on Twitter. But his recent dust-up over critics not reviewing Cop-Out favorably is a highlight of a general misconception about criticism in general.

And it is something that I have also suffered from in the past. It is something that is hard to work out of the system once it has found a home. Above, where I mentioned “not reviewing Cop-Out favorably” I had begun to type “not liking Cop-Out” before realizing how charged that sentence is and how it reflects the same ignorance Smith appears to have, at least momentarily, suffered from. It doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, matter if critics like a work. There’s been more than a few books, movies, music, etc. that I’ve enjoyed on some level while also believing that they are likely quite crappy with little redeeming value or meaning. Sometimes I just like some mental junk food.  So, despite my enjoying something, I would still stand up and say, “Yeah, it’s crap. But I enjoyed it.”

The thing is, if you’re trying to honestly criticize something, that “Yeah, it’s crap” part has to be there. For instance, see my recent post about Laura van den Berg’s collection of short stories. I liked a LOT about the collection. I say I liked a lot about it. In the end, though, when everything gets tallied up and conclusions have to be drawn, though, I also had to say that I thought it had serious shortcomings that it did not overcome.

It’s this duality that I think is lost in the argument between critic and artist. The artist sees someone “not liking” their work when “like” really has very little to do with it. This understanding of the role of a critic is made worse by misunderstanding of terms a critic uses that an artist, frankly, may never need to know even if they employ a technique the critic perceives.

Which appears to be partly what happened on this blog recently over a review of Pekar’s The Quitter. In a comment to a follow up blog, attempting to illuminate the use of “unreliable narrator” there was a mention of The Screwtape Letters. Which struck me as odd.

It has been years since I last read The Screwtape Letters and, recently, I haven’t had time to go back and entirely re-read it. But I have scanned through it, I’ve scholar.googled it and did a quick glance through some lit journal searches. My immediate recollection was confirmed. The Screwtape Letters is not an example of an unreliable narrator. While why Screwtape isn’t an unreliable narrator is important, it’s not pertinent to this blog. What’s pertinent is that this mistake was made. This isn’t to single out that individual commenter but to use it to illustrate something that is likely fairly common – a genuine language/process gap between the critic, those whose work is the subject of criticism and the audience for whom that work was created and for whom the critic is writing.

The language and backgrounds for becoming a “critic” and becoming an “artist” are inherently different. Many artists have the words “self-taught” somewhere in their biographies. And it’s my opinion that this isn’t just a brave thing, to have struck out to master a craft with little or no fall back plan or option, but a necessary thing for many artists as I’m not sure that all that is necessary to be an artist can be taught or accrued in a classroom. Or maybe that’s just the romantic idealist in me wanting to see the artist, at least in some way, as the woman for whom inspiration must strike to allow them to forge their timeless works. A critic, however, almost certainly has to be in a classroom through necessity. There is simply very few other options for being exposed to the work of other critics, for gaining any sort of understanding of the field, than without the aid of classes and instructors who are already learned of the lay of critical land.

So maybe it shouldn’t come as any sort of surprise when the two sides lock horns over what one writes about the other. It has to be all but inevitable. The training for each can come from wholly different directions, employing language and terms in ways that are wholly different from what the other side employs. Sure, each side can (and do) try to bridge that gap but it’s a gap I’m not sure is always bridgeable. After all, a critic does come off very much as a judge and that’s the sort of eye that no one likes to fall under.

But what role does the audience play in this?

Part of me wants to tie this into our current political climate where intellectualism has become a dirty word.  Language has an inherent political context. Nearly everything said or written can find itself twisted and appropriated for all sorts of purposes. I think it becomes clear that the term “critic” is slipping from our lexicon, too easily associated with “criticize” and all of the negative connotations that word can find itself lugging around. Instead we see this term “reviewer” being bandied about.

And what’s the job of a “reviewer?” Well, it seems their job is to simply review. Now, there are certainly aspects of that word that lends itself to serious critical work. The daily/weekly articles written for movies, plays, books, etc. have long been called “reviews.” In the military the term “review” also has a serious charge to it, a formal retrospection into an event for the purpose to lay a judgment of. Looking into my Webster’s New World College Dictionary, however, and those sort of definitions appear no sooner than fourth under the heading “review.” The first three definitions are far less formal that use phrases such as “a looking back” or a “general survey, report or account.”

Going away from the dictionary, considering personal connotations to the word review, and what I come up with is an expectation for an informal recounting, which is even more relaxed than a “general survey.”

To think of a movie review now, you would almost come to expect a simple recounting of plot with some very basic or rudimentary thoughts about the movie but nothing that would be overly critical (or overly praising). A “review” of Transformers could simply be

It’s a movie about robots fighting other robots,  and some people get involved. It looks pretty on the screen and is, at times, really loud.

I get the impression that is the sort of thing expected of movie reviewers now. Something lacking in actual criticism since it is something that isn’t really implied as part of the process any more. And it’s here where maybe literary criticism is shielded in a way that movie criticism isn’t. While there is certainly a TON of movie criticism, a large number of people who write passionately and knowledgeably  about the movies are burdened with the title of “critic” or “reviewer,” titles that either immediately draw ire or inspire confusion as to role.

Alright, I’ve gone on long enough. Part of the whole Kevin Smith Thing is, I’m sure, just bruised ego. It’s natural. But I think another part of it is the shifting of expectations of society and how language has shifted with those expectations. Maybe we no longer expect a reviewer to be critical and get somewhat put off when they are. When this difference of expectations is met with even greater differences in language, the fire becomes an inferno as one perceives the other as chucking gasoline rather than turning on the hose.

I’m naive, I admit it

March 28, 2010

One of my goals has always been to be published. By a major publishing company. With an editor. And, most importantly, a nice advance that could (maybe) pay my bills for a bit. I also always sorta expect a publishing house to be helpful in pushing me (or any author) in the right direction regarding publicity of said work.

Then I read this blog by Mitzi Szereto.

Then I read this page by Jim Cox at the Midwest Book Review.

Then I talked to a couple of other friends of mine who are knee (well, shoulder) deep in MFA Master/PhD programs.

And I discovered how horribly naive I really am about the whole publishing mess. Any hope that a publisher would help a writer succeed appears blind and destined for failure. Want to do readings? Book’em yourself. Want to get reviewers to read the thing? Send them copies.

Unfortunately, if you’re like me (and you’re probably not, so you’re fine), you don’t really interact well with people. Or maybe you are like me which means that, like me, you have some work to do. for the first time, networking is taking on a clear importance and meaning.  Friends (or at least people who want to remain acquaintances and who may later ask you for a favor) are essential.

But how do you make friends, especially in a world where you are literally a tiny fish in a MASSIVE sea? I come from a small ass town in SE Michigan. I have lately moved to Cleveland.  Not exactly the center of the universe or, especially, the literary universe (Though Dan Chaon lives about 10 minutes away, and I guess Harvey Pekar lives somewhere in this town, so there’s some people whose names are at least noticeable on bookshelves). Given such a situation, it’s easy to look around and wonder how the hell you’re supposed to meet/greet/schmooze anyone.

Well, first, send stuff out. Obvious answer. People like you enough to publish you, on their dime, that’s a great first step in fostering allegiances to call on when needed. Second, use the web. Search for blogs and websites related to your interests/writings/etc. And comment. Say stuff. It’s easy, even if you do look like a naive nit (such as I on Mitzi’s blog). And just know that it’s going to happen. Don’t be an ass. Just be you (unless you are an ass then try to be something less you).

As I crawl, drag, stagger towards finishing the (first) re-write of my first novel I have considered hurling into the world, I’ve started taking these steps. And credit goes to people like Mitzi Szerato and Jim Cox for erecting islands of illumination in the publishing darkness. Eventually, I hope to provide something similar. Until then, I’ll keep plugging away and trying to be a bit less naive.

And I’ll try to shake more hands.

What it means to be a critic

March 24, 2010

Got this wonderful link from Ebert’s twitter. It’s about a man named Steve Almond lamenting how useless critics are…and critics response to it. In short, it highlights what I have been trying to move toward here, a critical response to whatever I’m reading at the time. The subject might be different (literature vs music) but the basic tenets are the same. The idea of criticism is to try to find a different way of looking at a work and finding greater themes/ideas within it beyond the basic story/lyrics/beat/image/whatever. It’s something I’m still a massive work in progress on but I hope to get better and the responses to Almond’s article, laid out by other critics, are where I hope to one day end up.

Atwood,Rushdie, IPad Stuff, Australia and some other bits

March 23, 2010

Margaret Atwood was the recipient of $1 million from The Dan David Prize. Beyond the ten percent she is required to share through Doctoral and Post-Doctoral Scholarships, she is sharing the prize money with another writer, Amitav Ghosh.

Salman Rushdie has archives on display at Emory University. The Rushdie-specific content is interesting (you can pull up a draft of one of his novels and edit/re-write bits of it, a weird bibliophile’s Eden somewhat analogous to an Air Force fanatic climbing into a military flight simulator) but the issue of preservation. John Updike donating fifty 5 1/4 inch disks shortly before his death is a good example of an author passing on a technology that simply no longer exists (admit it, how many of you have ever seen, let alone used, those big 5 1/4 inch disks?).  At some point, and quite likely in our life times if not within the next twenty years, we will see computing move entirely beyond decides like harddrives with moving parts and possibly even beyond solid state memory (like flashdrives) to lord knows what. are we at risk of losing great swathes of information simply because we’ll no longer be able to access it?

Blogging on demand? Well, maybe. IBM is working on a widget to connect bloggers and readers in a unique way. It’s essentially backwards from how the writer/reader dynamic has been accepted. The writer plugs away at something, throws it out there, and hopes to God someone reads it. Well, IBM is looking to find a way for readers to suggest topics for blogging and for those suggestions to be forwarded to the appropriate blogger to then do with it what he is told to do. On the one hand, as a rarely visited blog writer (unless I criticize illustrators, heh), I can certainly see the appeal. On the other hand, I write about what I write about because it interests me – not necessarily because I want to get a thousand hits a day. My reviews/critiques are dry and not for everyone. And that’s okay.

Make poetry your career and be the best at it. Over night. While it reads as a somewhat tongue-in-cheek way of pushing for commercial success and societal significance as a poet, there is also an undeniable scent of truth to the vast majority of it.  I read lit journals, I glance through the annual year end Best Of collections, and am largely unimpressed with the vast vast vast majority of the poetry.  It lacks something. What it lacks is hard to put into words but there is just a gut reaction that is missing when reading it. At risk of sounding melodramatic (or maybe just wistful), it seems as if poetry is too much a way to make ends meet and not a way of life. The idea of Poet as Occupation should be a liberating one. Instead, it seems we may have become Henry Ford’s dream given artistic form. Maybe i’m not taking from it what was meant to be taken from it, but this is what it made me think about. There is a typed version of the same article at Huffington Post.

Finally, Australia is falling behind the EBook revolution. And they’re not happy about it. And they’re trying to figure out how to catch up. And Amazon is selling Kindles there without any real product support. And Apple hasn’t even hired anyone to run their Australian version of the ipad virtual store thing yet. Australia is really just being patently ignored.  And from it all, what really stood out to me, was the attention the IPad is still generating despite it looking like a fairly mediocre blow-up of the IPhone. I haven’t been thrilled with the IPad but if it somehow leads to EBook industry being opened up some more, then it’s done a good thing. Another piece of interesting info was the fact that publishers aren’t just creating digital copies of their novels, but things that are closer to app files than documents. I’m not a huge computer guy, despite the (numerous) IPad postings. But I keep seeing talk of HTML5 coming out in the near future and how it will do away with Flash and whatever else. I think this could also be the avenue for e-literature to eventually head down. Instead of apps, just use a powerful, multip-purpose programming language (as the next HTML appears to be) that allows different e-texts to be opened with a single browser.  Which makes me wish even more that I had any idea whatsoever how to create a webpage strictly through code (and not through those fuzzy point and click editors like Dreamweaver).

Dean Haspiel is Talking About Me

March 17, 2010

And it really isn’t very nice.

Upon first reading this, I went back and wanted to edit in some sort of clarification to my Quitter review.  Then part of me wanted to defend myself on his journal but I can’t because I don’t have a live.journal ID and, frankly, I don’t want another ID to keep track of. I even thought of emailing him but, honestly, he probably doesn’t care by now and, if I slept on it, I’d probably just blow it off by morning, too.

But after re-re-reading my review, I think I am clear enough in my calling not Haspiel personally out for his credibility, but the possible credibility of one of the narrators, either the illustrator or the writer. Put another way, it is a question of reliability. Much like how you gradually come to know that Humbert Humbert isn’t to be trusted as a narrator in Lolita, I wondered if the reader wasn’t given reason to not trust one of the interpretations of “Quitter,” either that of the illustrations or that of the words. Here’s the block of text from the review that I think caused the problem:

Considering the visual nature of comics, I wonder if this doesn’t take away from the credibility of one of the narrators, either the writer or the illustrator. The text matches up well with the illustration, but considering the effect small things from facial expressions to stances to shading can affect how a panel is viewed and interpreted, there is a clear possibility for one to provide an interpretation of the story that might be different from the intended interpretation the other half of the story telling might desire to communicate.

Now, I admit, it’s not exactly William Faulkner. But it’s not horrible. And I think the credibility (or reliability) of one of the narrators is fair game. Maybe I was entirely wrong but I thought there was a certain disagreement, at times, between what the illustrations depicted and what Pekar’s words depicted. And that this disagreement could mean that one was slightly more or less reliable than the other. And that such a thing might be entirely purposeful by the writer/illustrator. The idea of two narrators telling the same story but in different ways, at the same time, seems like an intriguing idea to me. Something that makes me think of Last Year at Marienbad, for instance.

I also do not believe his examples of a director/screenplay and singer/lyrics are really fair comparisons. First, they can’t be referred to as “narrators” in the same way the writer/illustrator can (and must necessarily be) referred to as “narrators” in their respective forms. It isn’t a question about the credibility of the artist as a person. It’s simply not, and I think that’s clear. The credibility that is being questioned is the narrative truthfulness of the illustrator versus the writer. they’re telling the same story in different mediums. Each is, essentially, a narrator. If the interpretation of the text ever differs significantly from the interpretation of the images, I think the credibility of one of the narrators has to be called into question.

Just as you question the narrative credibility of Humbert Humbert in Lolita. It’s not a question of Nabokov’s credibility as a writer but of his creation.

And it is gone

March 12, 2010

Short note, today has been a bit of a devastating nut crusher. Went to open up my file for the re-writes of my novel, called often here as The Novel, and found that upon closing my last session down my word processor decided to save it as a blank file. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Zero. Gone.

I’m fortunate in that I still have a roughly weekold copy of my re-writes. Loading the car and trekking home every other weekend, I’ve gotten into the habit of taking an updated copy of my re-writes with me so that I can keep working on them. So at least I didn’t lose the entire thing. But this past week has been an agonizingly slow week of tedious revision of a chapter I like but have found to be horribly sloppy with numerous and apparent shortcomings. But I’ve been trudging through it and could begin to see the light at the end of the chapter, as it were, and was looking forward to taking another big chunk out of it today with hopes of closing it up over the weekend but now, well, fuck.

that about sums it up. Well, fuck. Time to start over again. I’ll try to wear a cup this time.