Howdy readers, head over to Broken Pencil magazine’s short story Deathmatch (deathmatch.ca) and vote for my story, “Cracked Red Landscape!”
You know the writer who writes here, the one who writes stories? Well, one of his funky little stories, “Cracked Red Landscape,” has been selected for this weekend’s Deathmatch Short Story contest, where the eight contestants WITH THE MOST VOTES will move on to the next round to compete for the top prize, which includes an “Indie writer makeover” complete with agent meetings and a consultation with a well-established writer.
VOTE FOR SEAN’S STORY (or any of his witty, critically-minded comments) on deathmatch.ca from 12:00am Saturday Feb 3 to 11:59pm Sunday Feb 4. #bpdeathmatch
And THANK YOU!
Discussions about craft are important in any medium, but in writing they can be particularly insightful because the they are delivered by the medium in which they seek to explore. My favorites include Stephen King’s On Writing and John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, and I recently added James Wood’s How Fiction Works to the list. (Henry James’s preface to his 1908 New York edition of Portrait of a Lady, which is at once exquisite (as is all James) and illuminating, also makes the list even though it is relatively short).
I was going to start this reflection by claiming that there is no better recipe for cognitive dissonance than reading the Wood book in the midst of revising a novel and then following it with David Shields’s Reality Hunger (a “manifesto” published seven years ago heralding the need for a new genre, a book that I finally decided to read in order to see the extent to which any of his predictions have come true–by and large, they haven’t), but I hesitated because I believe that exact phrasing was used by Michael Pollan in an excerpt about Peter Singer that I used to teach in my classes so often that I’ve memorized its phrasings (one of two reasons, the other being cost, that I no longer assign textbooks in my classes–if I’m going to be absorbing other writers’ words, I might as well exercise more choice; not that Pollan is bad, but that excerpt is nothing compared to the phrases I have memorized regarding rhetorical appeals and kinds of arguments, all of which were written by well-meaning educators who fall short in style).
So I’ll use it. Why not? If I hadn’t attributed it no one would have known the difference except perhaps for a slim number of Pollan fans who read him for his prose stylings rather than his ideas, and I have my doubts that there are any such fans in the first place. (I admit there may be one or two other teachers who have used that same textbook and have similarly memorized such passages, but I don’t expect they will mind a little playful near-plagiarism, especially since they do are not required to file an official report of any kind.)
Reading Shields’s book made me rethink the merits of fiction in today’s fractured landscape, and much of what he claims is true. Use it all, use everything, and let the line between what’s true and what’s made up, what’s yours and what’s someone else’s–let that blur completely. Erase it. Free yourself to include whatever you need for your story, and tell the truth but tell it slant and erect an edifice to your own point-of-view instead of creating made-up, stale characters who abide by restrictive dictates to seem true even though they’ve been confined to something unreal.
It’s a fine idea, but scratch it just slightly and it bleeds. We have a thirst for what’s real and what’s true, sure. We want to be close to the story, and there is less place for the novel, especially the Realist literary novel, the kinds that win the big Bookers, the Pulitzers, the National Book Awards, the Nobels. Americans rarely win the Nobel in fiction, which some see as a clear sign that our fiction no longer reflects the times or the culture.
Recently I had jury duty, and while many people were on their computers and phones as we all tried to stave off boredom, more than half of the people were reading, and of those more than half were reading novels. The novel had two centuries during which it moved from art to Modernist high art, from which it then became entirely deconstructed and left to piece itself back into its two dominant forms, at least in English–the realist novel and the post-modern hodge podge. It competes with increasingly ornate and complex televised worlds, and people can no longer find the time for everything we now have access to.
So Shields is right. The time of the novel is over, but so is the time of memoir. So, in some respects, is the time of writing. Where his book fails–and I’m probably not the first to write this since 2010 given how media has become even more convoluted–is in being a book and not a fleeting multimodal digital object that everyone can respond to and engage with. Why not publish it on a blog? Because sending it out as a book was safe and is still the way for a well-established writer to reach their audience. Because there’s still money there. Real bravery would have been taking it to the web, but where’s the infrastructure? Where are the readers? The real risk would have been posting it and the chance that no one would read its 200 plus pages. For all of its brevity, it is still indigestible for the internet.
And yet there will always be readers. There will always be a segment of us who enjoy lengthy texts because we’re willing to follow along with a writer’s thoughts. There will always be those of us who crave story and want to be transported by words to other places, to spend time with other people, and yes, to explore and appreciate life-altering theses that are wrapped up in ornate packages of narrative and consciousness because we want to better understand ourselves. The realms of fiction are “time” and the “mind,” and both are mysteries we have yet to fully understand.
About a year ago I read Diane Williams’s “Four In Prose” in Harper’s Magazine, and I could not get it out of my head. In her characteristically brief fashion, Williams uses all of fiction’s signposts but sends readers off into another dimension entirely where meaning hovers just beyond the brink of understanding. This is true to life of course, especially at the fringes of knowledge where we realize how little we really understand about why we’re here, and this is why we need belief.
This kind of writing is an acquired taste, I know. Most readers want story and character, something to hold onto and care about and enjoy. So do I most of the time, and what little other “experimental”writing I’ve read has left me cold, perhaps because it literally feels like an experiment. Once I grasp the set-up, the punch is all too obvious.
I immediately bought Williams’s collection Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty, which I treat like a treasured book of the strangest poetry. The pieces are all quite brief, few longer than a page or even a full paragraph, and they work best when you read them slowly and mull over the continuous stream of WTF’s that arise the more you try to make sense of them.
At the same time I was reading Williams, I was listening to Run the Jewels. A ton. Like almost exclusively, every day. I got into the group because I had been a long-time fan of Killer Mike (Dungeon Family Crew!) and obsessively listened to his album R.A.P. Music, but I find that El-P’s lyrics are the ones I would have to listen to again just to understand what had just been said. He is phenomenal. His crazily varied diction (“I was born conjoined to howlers of the siren age”) and cadence (“can’t be broke when you own gold rope/pawn shops offering cash for those/cash is fake though gold accrues/I make my own gold golden goose/run down yellow brick roads towards riches/just be sure to not trust no wizards/the golden age is gone now admit it/all that gold is not gold that glitters.”) are unmatched.
Boom and booya! In an interview, El-P credited hip-hop with shaping his attitude, and attitude is about how you move through the world–it’s about how you think of things and approach them, and if we’re talking artistic attitude we’re talking mainly about aesthetic.
I have no desire to write tiny, confusing stories or to become a rapper. I have too much to say to do the former and I can only laugh when I imagine trying to do the latter (not to mention that by this point I’m way too old to get in the rap game). But I can try to be, in the inimitable words of El-P, an “I’m a ‘holy fuck what did he just utter’ marksman.” I already do it my way, in my own fashion as I strive to write taut pieces about a strange existence where Brooklyn rappers are really not that distant from avant-garde storytellers. Out.
A few weeks ago I wrote about my most recent writing’s similarities to Cronenberg’s body-horror flicks from early in his career, and the thought, once I’d put it into words, wormed its way all the way down the street to the library, where it forced me to borrow The Brood, Videodrome, and Naked Lunch. I’d never seen the first film, but I’d seen the latter two, and I still found Videodrome the most satisfying of the three.
In quickly becoming a Cronenberg aficionado–in fully acknowledging my once-dormant fandom, that is–I read and watched everything about him that I could, mainly because that’s just what I do when something strikes my fancy. (Recently a local film retrospective and the return of Twin Peaks has flipped the Lynch switch as well.)
Anyway, Dave (one comment I read referred to him as Uncle Dave, which I appreciate for so many reasons) switched majors in college from Biochemistry to English and ventured into film after realizing that he could never shake his two biggest literary influences, Burroughs and Nabokov. I find it so difficult to imagine being so immersed in the style and subject matter of someone’s work that I could not distinguish my own aesthetic outside of it, and what does it say that most of the themes in Cronenberg’s films still completely mirror Burroughs? It’s natural to get caught up in the purity of originality–and in a certain respect it’s necessary to kill your artistic ancestors in order to carve out your own distinct niche–and one way to do this, I guess, would be to switch media.
All of which made me wonder what came first for me, the screen or the page? I have always loved reading, but I have also always loved movies and have probably spent about equal time appreciating both mediums.
In a class I was teaching yesterday, a student asked what it was I liked about writing, and I had to pause before I could offer an answer. She only asked because she explained how she was terrified of writing and the formalities of the writing process, especially since in our class the result of this process will be graded, but beyond allaying her fears I tried to answer the question honestly.
“Everything,” I said, and I left it at that because it was getting late, it was the first day of class, and I hesitated to proselytize.
Of course, I could have gone on. I could have passionately expounded for hours about the mystery of discovery and the chance connections that can be made when you begin to put words on the page and let your mind wander through its myriad associations, influences, feelings, beliefs, fears, doubts, and hopes–none of which, if you truly lock into that wide-open creative space that emerges, will be anything but your own.
Words are fun. In an interview with Kendrick Lamar, the rapper talked about the pleasure of molding words to his own purposes, twisting them so that they rhymed or almost rhymed. Internal rhyme, end rhyme and rhythm are the backbone of rap and have been the site of the genre’s most noticeable innovations beyond, of course, the sonics.
In my own work I find myself more attuned to the rhythm and sound of words, and finding new combinations that work in terms of rhythm, sound and sense has become one of my chief aesthetic pleasures. Words. What fun!
A writer–I believe it was Annie Dillard–wrote that in order to write you must love sentences, and I have read countless interviews with writers who express their love and devotion to the craft of the sentence. I’ve long been in that camp myself.
Below are a few recent sentences that I’m particularly proud of:
At first glance the knobs looked flawed, like a cluster of clumsily blown baubles, yet their labyrinthine striated creases pulsed with the regulated rhythm of even breathing. The creature sensed China’s nearness and contracted just before she tore off the topmost lump, which she held up by her nose so that she could peer into its puckered folds.
By concentrating on nothing but the correct door and the stairway down to the next floor, she forced them to ignore everything except her guiding actions even though her own thoughts unwittingly crept in and arranged themselves into something like a curated display that the others had somehow already seen. Her thoughts had become theirs. The entire edifice of her mind—its plans, its intricate construction, its countless renovations—were as familiar as their own, even as they still marveled at what Neun knew, the way she understood this place and seemed to foresee everything, including the fallen ceiling at the foot of the stairs and how fast their hair would grow back in the fresh air.
Masters possessed a magnetism that attracted lesser-thans reflexively, even those with substantial evasive practice, and once caught a master’s thoughts prompted an addled daze of admiration where even the most mundane stray notions spun themselves into strands of glittering genius for the prolonged moment before the lesser-thans were pitched into the subservient sphere.
John Steinbeck once wrote that you should not get caught up in the language or style of a piece but should instead just plow through and worry about fixing everything up later. As a practical strategy for just getting ideas on the page, this is excellent advice. In order for a story to work you must find out what happens, and it’s easy to lose your way when you’re spending all of your time mending the path.
My own process usually involves writing ideas down by hand, and these are by no means neat or even very voluminous. I sketch out plot points, ideas, quotes from pieces I think might serve as fodder for further thought about my project, and then I keep that in the back of my mind and get to work.
Still, there is nothing like mending to bring you back to your work when you’ve been away from it for a few days. The entire project feels foreign and you’ve forgotten how to wrap your head around it, but the seeming tedium of re-working a sentence or two situates you in the world of your work, allowing you to remember why this particular phrase within this particular scene matters. You remember what is at stake, and you remember all of the reasons you began the story in the first place.
Original: He flexed his neck and chest, grunting with red-faced strain, and his effort aroused whatever extra sense endowed him with mastery. Its force pulled Neun back, stretching her deformed shape into a wiry, taut length that slid across the empty lot despite her clawing at the concrete, and he had hold of her extended head when he suddenly let go. He reeled, his chest spasmed, and six arms burst forth from his sides, leaving ragged, fleshy rifts in his skin that sputtered blood while he screamed and frantically batted at the unwelcome limbs tearing his wounds open still wider. Stumbling, he fell to his knees, his stamina flagging, and the mess of flailing parts and fluids collapsed into a glutinous, inanimate mound.
Revised: He flexed his neck and chest, grunting, his red face straining, and his efforts aroused whatever extra sense endowed him with mastery. Its force pulled Neun back, stretching her deformed shape into a wiry, taut length that slid across the empty lot despite her clawing at the concrete, and he had hold of her extending head when he suddenly let go. He reeled, his chest spasmed, and six arms burst forth from his sides, leaving ragged, fleshy rifts in his skin that sputtered blood while he screamed and frantically batted at the superfluous limbs that ripped the wounds open still wider. Staggering, he fell to his knees, his stamina flagging, the flailing parts and pain being too much, and the whole fluidic mess collapsed into a glutinous, inanimate mound.
When I opened up Processed Product a moment ago I had to wipe off a layer of dust at least an inch thick, but now everything seems to be in working order. The novel has been taking up most of my writing time, but in those moments when I’m stuck or I just want to air ideas and thoughts, I plan to do so here. So I guess what I’m saying is, get ready.
I have never thought of myself as a “fan” of David Cronenberg even though each of his films has stayed with me, more so perhaps than most others. They are nightmarish, but more importantly they’re visceral and gooey in ways that so many other films shy away from. Seeing “The Fly” once is enough to sear Jeff Goldblum’s disgusting transformation into your mind forever. “Be afraid. Be very afraid,” the tagline went. And let’s not even talk about “Dead Ringers.”
So it’s with a strange sort of recognition that I find myself writing passages like the one below, which comes from the chapter I’ve been hammering out for the past three months. The end is in sight, but getting the rhythm and the diction just right is increasingly important to me, and for some reason the details my mind conjures are increasingly disturbing:
He flexed his neck and chest, grunting with red-faced strain, and his effort aroused whatever extra sense endowed him with mastery. Its force pulled Neun back, stretching her deformed shape into a wiry, taut length that slid across the empty lot despite her clawing at the concrete, and he had hold of her extended head when he suddenly let go. He reeled, his chest spasmed, and six arms burst forth from his sides, leaving ragged, fleshy rifts in his skin that sputtered blood while he screamed and frantically batted at the unwelcome limbs tearing his wounds open still wider. Stumbling, he fell to his knees, his stamina flagging, and the mess of flailing parts and fluids collapsed into a glutinous, inanimate mound.
It has been a WHILE folks. In the time since I last posted, I’ve been as busy as a new father with a full teaching load can be, which has left me precious little time to write outside of the novel revisions I’ve delved back into. But if you know me, you know I like lists, especially year-end best-of lists.
2015 was a year of renewal for me, and I see this reflected not only in the stylistic choices I’ve been making in my writing but also in what I’ve read, watched and listened to. So, without any further mutterings, here are Processed Product’s Top 4 Cultural Artifacts Consumed in 2015:
Ingmar Bergman’s Middle and Late Period Films
It may be cheating to include 10-15 (at least) films under one entry, but that best resembles how I watched them, a month-long self-imposed Bergman immersion program that had me practically speaking Swedish by early October. I watched or rewatched a span of his classics, ranging from 1957 to 1982, usually during the wee hours of the morning before anyone else was awake, and few films can match the intimacy and elegance–and occasional ferocity–of his best. His use of time and the human face reminded me that all else can be simple or sparse if image and character, the two essential filmic elements, are composed perfectly. My only regret now is that I will never be able to see any of them for the first time in a theater, where I imagine the experience of every one of of Liv Ullman or Max Von Sydow’s facial nooks and crannies would be even more pronounced.
Jamie xx In Colour
There were some great albums that were released this year (Kendrick!) and others that I revisited religiously (Coltrane at the Village Vanguard and the Stones’ Sticky Fingers), but the album that got the most play was Jamie xx’s nostalgic electronica album, In Colour. It has none of the usual trappings of contemporary EDM and was made, admittedly, as a kind of homage to UK rave. The album feels completely absent of pretension, which appeals to me even if the other artifacts that made my list aren’t exactly middle-of-the-road. In Colour feels like what it was like to be dancing at 3 a.m., ecstatic, with the whole future ahead of you, and the happy, hazy drive home with friends at dawn before you even thought about having to go to work later that afternoon. Hsu Hsu wrote a great piece in the New Yorker about the album, and focused a lot of attention on the influence of Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, a short film about UK dance culture over the last 60 years. An electronic music site gave the album a bad review, saying it wasn’t “hard” enough, but I don’t think that was ever the point.
Roberto Bolano’s 2666
2666 was the best (and biggest) novel I read this year, and it is the only work that made my mid-year best-of list as well. The scope and violence overwhelmed me, but it was one of the best reading experiences I have had in quite some time in that I kept turning pages and did not want it to end. Bolano creates a bloated fictional universe full of dread, fake history, and metaphysical connections that extend across time and space. Good fun!
Ranier Maria Rilke Selected Poetry
I’ve had the book for quite a while now, and I’ve gone through periods of reading a poem here and there, but I recently starting reading the Duino Elegies in earnest and have fallen for their spiritual lyricism. In a time when so much of what claims to be mysticism seems canned because it lays out the ineffable too plainly, Rilke points towards it, using image and metaphor to expose and reveal but never assign. The result is a glimpse of “the real,” the kind of dasein or being that is at the heart of all philosophy and true art.
“A minute is actually an immense space of time.”
My favorite moment from Ingmar Bergman’s “Vargtimmen” (Hour of the Wolf) comes nearly halfway through the film. For the viewer, it is a test of faith offered by a artist assured of his craft who knows full well that time is the beating heart of film. Time is what makes the medium so magnificently absorbing, and a full minute passes in the film as we watch both characters’ faces. Alma (Liv Ullman) is uncomfortable because her husband is losing his mind, but that discomfort only translates to the viewer if you aren’t engaged by the story and the nuance of each actor’s movements, the subtle shifts in their faces, the light and shadows. The minute expands, a minute universe.
In Roger Ebert’s review of the film, he says the film “requires a creative act of imagination from his audience, the same sort of suspension of disbelief that Disney asks the kids to make for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” But the adults in the audience I observed didn’t seem up to the effort. They snickered and whispered and made boors of themselves.”
I watched it alone in the dark at 2:00 am, and was mesmerized and haunted. Like Bergman’s best works, there are scenes that leave indelible impressions–the corpse in the castle, the witch who first approaches Alma, the murder of the young boy, the dark forest stream where Johan (Max Von Sydow) finally disappears.
Since my daughter was born almost three months ago, I’ve made my way through a good portion of Bergman’s oeuvre. I still haven’t gotten to many of his earliest works aside from “Summer With Monika” and “Smiles of a Summer Night,” but my favorites films are (naturally) the weirdest or most brutal: “Virgin Spring,” “Through a Glass Darkly,” “The Silence,” “Persona,” “Cries and Whispers,” “Fanny and Alexander.”
Hour of the Wolf doesn’t have nearly the same emotional heft of his later films, but it tests the limits of his art in other ways. Johan, fully cracked, looks at his tormentors in the castle: The mirror has been shattered. But what do the fragments reflect?”
We can only try to make sense of them.