Deathmatch Short Story Contest

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!

Out-

Sean

Advertisements

Fiction Two Ways

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).

indexSo 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.

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.

Disorienting Clarity

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.

williamsThis 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.

RTJBoom 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.

Escaping Influence

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.

Rhythm, Sound and Sense

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.

 

Constant Revision

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.

A Faint Signal Is Heard

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.

Huh.

Celebrating the Halfway Point, but then…

The beginning of summer makes me nostalgic and reflective. Maybe it’s because my birthday falls near the beginning of the season, or maybe it’s because I am a teacher, meaning I’ve always–aside from a few quick years spent in the real world while I finished graduate school–associated summer with endings. The end of the school year meant long days spent reading or swimming, then years later working and driving around with friends looking for something, anything, to stave off the boredom of being a frustratingly wholesome teenager, a designation achieved not by choice but by design, the result of a loving family, good schools in the suburbs, well-rounded friends, and my own deferential disposition.

Now summers mostly mean writing. With most of my daytime hours free, I can produce upwards of 1,000 words a day if I’m really feelin’ it. At the very least I can produce 300, an amount that would lead to a novel by the end of the year if a novel was my aim. Which it is. And while this might sound idyllic, it can be amazingly frustrating, especially when time sucks the daring and the imagination right out of you, making you wonder if what you’re undertaking is really worthwhile because this process, this putting down of word after word, leads to new thoughts–“Writing is generative,” I say to my students–and before you know it, you want to include every passing idea into a piece that now resembles a quilt stitched together by Benjy Compson, or maybe a drunk Macbeth, whose sewing prowess was noted but never much appreciated. (Shakespeare, unforgivably, left out two kilt-stitching scenes, masterpieces of comic poesy, that, quite crucially, indicated that the murder of the king and everything that followed was actually a farcical play within a play put on by Merry McBeth and the Queen’s Women. The loss of this portion of the play is, suffice to say, a tragedy.).

The point is this: I sat down to write a Halfway-Through the Year-End list, remembering how much fun it was to write the 2014 Year-End list, but somewhere after the lead I stumbled off the path. I carried the weight of revision and summertime nostalgia on my back, but I finally made it. The list, however, did not. I expect it will arrive by post sometime later this week, which means you can expect to read it here soon thereafter.

Working…

Processed Product has taken an unintentional hiatus as I’ve been working on a final revision of what was posted on here as Rick and dove right back in on revising A Phenomenal Nothing, the novel I’ve been working on. Here’s a sample below of how things are changing and developing for the better. In the back of my mind during the entire time I write, I am now thinking about character and story. How can I accumulate as much detail about personality and situation as possible, as quickly as possible, so that the story can move into even more nuanced and compelling territory?

Revision 3

China hurried through the lobby, late again. Her two-inch heels clicked against the tiled floor, and she dashed down the hall, glancing at her phone as if knowing the time would make any difference: 9:34. She slid it back into the side pocket of her purse and rounded the corner near her office, almost running. Nobody would scold her for being late, but she still felt like people kept track, especially her staff. Rex and Trish needed constant managing, and while she fumbled for her keys she felt the two of them creeping up behind her.

Revision 4

China Bexlan hurried through the lobby, late again. Her two-inch heels clacked on the marble tiles as she raced past the reception desk and sprang over the hallway threshold to silence the ad that played in her earpiece, the woman’s smoky voice cut short, her own thoughts rushing in: the catalog, the Eight, and a nagging disquiet she credited to a bad night’s sleep. Her pace slowed even as she glanced at her watch and double-checked the time on her phone, the seconds ticking by with every other step. Breathe, she thought. Taking a few seconds to relax was perfectly acceptable. The Eight, in fact, recommended it.

Rick: A Postmortem

My last post was the finale of “Rick,” my latest short story attempt. Having not written a story since “Peel Away,” the new character surprised me in a number of ways. I empathized with him, I learned a lot about trucking, and the moments when he came across as unsavory were some of my favorites, as were the few moments where he appreciated beauty. Having it read and rereading it for myself helped to highlight, as always, the flaws of any first draft. While I appreciated Rick and delighted in some of the sentences I wrote (they’re longer and looser than what I ordinarily write, e.g. the one copied at the very bottom of this post), the story falls flat once he arrives at the golf course. There is less insight into his character after several intimate moments with him in the first half, yet the other characters don’t develop enough to balance this lack.

I admit that my original intention was to make a comic piece, a slapstick caricature. The main reason I began the story was to capture the personality of someone I met just briefly, but the process of imagining him made a simple caricature feel much too reductive. Like so many instances when I meet someone or overhear a snippet of conversation, I found myself wondering what it was that Rick thought. What was his life like to bring him to the moment in which we meet him and what, more importantly, will he do when he encounters challenges? Thinking in terms of challenges to my characters has become my focus in all creative writing I’m doing these days, which is what most people will tell you is the essence of story anyway.

The constraints of the short story also affected the first draft, and this is where I will need to concentrate most as I revise the piece. I thought I could hold onto Rick as I presented the other characters, but it clearly wanted to shift into Bill’s point of view and I think this would better serve the story: to see Rick in action, from the perspective of a person who dislikes him from the outset. First, I like the balance of a separate point of view, and second it gives me a better title: One Under, One Over.

As always, I appreciate you reading.

Over and out.

 

A favorite sentence from the revised copy:

Rick knew the score. That gooey little bastard probably trotted out an immaculate set of clubs once a month and reveled in the sporting chance of the handicap, getting by on luck like any other hobbyist whose commitment to the pastime outweighed his devotion to the spirit of the game, the purity and ferocity of a miserable week–a miserable life–righted by one good shot.