April in Paris Goes Fourth

As long as I’m still in the 2010 catch-up mood, I noticed this in the queue: Number four in a series of thoughts and meditations on the words of some of my favorite writers from their interviews in The Paris Review.

Bow your heads as we read from St. Raymond’s epistle…

The fiction I’m most interested in has lines of reference to the real world. None of my stories really happened, of course. But there’s always something, some element, something said to me or that I witnessed, that may be the starting place. Here’s an example: “That’s the last Christmas you’ll ever ruin for us!” I was drunk when I heard that, but I remembered it. And later, much later, when I was sober, using only that one line and other things I imagined, imagined so accurately that they could have happened, I made a story—“A Serious Talk.” But the fiction I’m most interested in, whether it’s Tolstoy’s fiction, Chekhov, Barry Hannah, Richard Ford, Hemingway, Isaac Babel, Ann Beattie, or Anne Tyler, strikes me as autobiographical to some extent.

The Paris Review – The Art of Fiction No. 76, Raymond Carver

I don’t know if I can come up with as concrete an example as Carver, but looking back, even my most fantastical stories have a speck of something like that in them.  It might not even be something central to the story, but it was something with enough resonance to me and enough relevance (I felt) to the story at hand.  Sometimes, there are bits of conversations I’ve overheard.  Sometimes, bits of conversations I want to have with someone.  Some of my grievances, real or perceived, have poked their heads into my stories.  People I know and their peccadilloes, too. 

I don’t have a formula.  I don’t just swap initials.  I don’t have a rule about making a male female just so I can use his life details.  What I do involves a lot of remixing and blending.  So much so that if you look at something I wrote and ask, “Is this based on your life?” or “Is that character based on me?”  I can honestly answer, “Well, sort of… not really.  Kinda.”

The best example I can give isn’t my own work, but someone else’s. 

Unbeknownst to the band The New Pornographers, the video for their song “The Laws Have Changed” pretty much encapsulates how I lost my religion (and this is probably the only time I’ll bring this up here).  Seriously, I see every last bit of it captured here.  Metaphorically, in some places; literally, in others.  And not necessarily in line with the metaphorical or literal bits of the video itself.  Only I know which bit pertains to what, and so it goes with what I write. 

How much of me is in my stories?  As much of me that’s in this video. 



April in Paris, Part the Third

Number three in a series of thoughts and meditations on the words of some of my favorite writers from their interviews in The Paris Review.  Actually, this week you’ll get two for the price of one.

That’s why I like short stories. You’re always trying to keep the person interested. In fiction, you don’t need to have the facts up front, but you have to have something that will grab the reader right away. It can be your voice. Some writers feel that when they write, there are people out there who just can’t wait to hear everything they have to say. But I go in with the opposite attitude, the expectation that they’re just dying to get away from me.

The Paris Review – The Art of Fiction No. 176, Amy Hempel

That last bit might be true of me if I was a short-story reader instead of a wannabe short-story writer.  I fight my way through to the end of a lot of stories that I probably wouldn’t if I wasn’t trying to figure out how to write them.  I actually forced my way through an entire anthology once.  Believe me, I really was dying to get away from some of those stories.

It’d probably help me to adopt Hempel’s attitude toward my stories.  I have it when it comes to editors and slush readers–I know they only need the slightest excuse to reject me.  It’s okay, though.  I don’t hate the players.  I don’t even hate the game.  Of course, there’s the matter of what “the game” is, exactly.  This is where folks in some circles talk about “the death of the short story,” or how it’s irrelevant, or how short stories are written “not to entertain people, but rather to help improve the resumés of the people writing them.”

Let me pause to beg you folks: No “literary vs. genre” or “character- vs. plot-driven” “Great taste/less filling” debate in the comments?  Please and thank you.

Anyway, the fact is, whoever you’re writing for, you don’t have a lot of room to maneuver in a short story.  Every word you write matters, and in the best shorts, sometimes the words you leave out have an impact. This is what’s always intrigued me the most about the form.  That, and the myriad of available techniques for keeping a reader interested because the one tool you just don’t have is the room you have in longer forms, like the novel.

There’s another side to the time factor when it comes to short story writing.  I was going to use a different bit of Raymond Carver’s Paris Review interview in a future post, but he did make a comment that’s relevant here.

After years of working crap jobs and raising kids and trying to write, I realized I needed to write things I could finish and be done with in a hurry. There was no way I could undertake a novel, a two- or three-year stretch of work on a single project. I needed to write something I could get some kind of a payoff from immediately, not next year, or three years from now. Hence, poems and stories. I was beginning to see that my life was not—let’s say it was not what I wanted it to be.

I don’t have kids, but I can relate to that desperate sense of urgency.  I mean, I didn’t start this writing thing until I was thirty.  And it’s taken me seven years to reach the my current rank of “Small Potatoes” by trying to figure out this writing thing with short stories.  I’ve learned a lot about what works and doesn’t work, and it’s been important to my process to get feedback through submission and rejection–and even acceptance and subsequent editing. 

Lots of my writer-friends ask me, “When are you gonna get that novel out?”  I do have an outline or five, but the truth is, I’ll get that novel out when the idea of working 2-3 years on a single piece of work that could all end up in the toilet doesn’t scare the shit out of me.  I’ve only now gotten to the point where I can accept that notion for a 3,000-5,000 word piece that maybe took me a month or two.

I watch all of you novel-writers in my circle very carefully.  Each and every one of you, without exception, has guts that I just don’t have.  You continue to struggle with your first drafts, or your tenth drafts, or your query letters, or with getting or even keeping agents… I’m getting the shakes just thinking about it.

Still, I know it’s a YMMV kinda thing.  I’ve heard more than one novelist talk about how difficult short stories are to write.  I remember in my previous life in mental health work, I worked primarily with adolescents and knew a guy who primarily worked with homeless adults, literally, in the streets.  I’ll never forget what he said to me once.  “You’re a better man than me.  Adolescents?  No way.  I’ll take my psychotics and drug addicts any day of the week.”

We writers pick our poison, I guess, just like everyone else.  And short stories are mine.

Next time: The kinds of stories I like.

April in Paris, Part the Second

Here’s the second in a series of thoughts and meditations on the words of some of my favorite writers from their interviews in The Paris Review.

It turns out it’s not that I hate to write. I hate, simply, to work. I just hate to work, period. I am profoundly slothful. Practically inert. I have no energy. I never have. I just have no desire to be productive. Now that I realize I don’t hate to write, that I just hate to work, it makes writing easier.

The Paris Review – A Humorist at Work, Fran Lebowitz

Unlike Fran, I desire to be productive.  Thirty or forty years from now, I’d love to have a phone-book-sized tome of The Complete Short Fiction of Don P. published, like Bradbury, or Ballard, or Card, or Ellison.  But like her, though, I am got’damn lazy.  Now, I have my own methods for tricking myself out of my own laziness.  I couldn’t possibly list them all, and different methods will work at different times.  But this post isn’t about that.  It’s about giving a name to whatever it is that blocks your writing–not the 101 reasons you might have for not getting shit done, but that single cause that’s there once you boil away your rationale.

Every writer I know or know of has reasons for not getting writing done.  Jobs, problems, spouses, children, children with special needs, parents with special needs, &c.  And yet, they publish.  But, while I firmly believe that if people who work their dayjobs while undergoing chemotherapy can still get their writing done, you can, too, this isn’t a guilt-trip post either.  I’m not going to tell you to just STFU and get it done.  Not in this post (especially since I already have in others). 

What I will encourage a writer to do is to get to the core of whatever it is that stops you and, aside from doing whatever you have to do to overcome it, to first just get off your own back about it.

See, I know exactly when I’m not writing for no other reason than “I’m just not feeling it,” which is fucking unacceptable.  Or, “I’m too tired.”  Or, “I’ve had a hard day at work and I’m just emotionally drained right now.”  Or, “I’m blocked.”  Pfft.  Bullshit.  I may or may not be treating myself fairly, but to me all those reasons have my personal laziness as their root.  And knowing that makes the next step surprisingly simple.  Because what am I going to do?  Cry about it?  To what end? 

Better to just make a choice.  To either CHOOSE to be okay and sit with the regret and irritation that comes along with not writing, or CHOOSE to use one of my aforementioned tricks to get myself back on the ball.  Because bitching about how I’m not writing gets old really, really fast.  Just ask Mrs. P.

Next time: The reason I write short stories.

April in Paris, Part the First

As promised, the first in a series of thoughts and meditations on the words of some of my favorite writers from their interviews in The Paris Review.

The short story, if you really are intense and you have an exciting idea, writes itself in a few hours.  I try to encourage my student friends and my writer friends to write a short story in one day so it has a skin around it, its own intensity, its own life, its own reason for being.  There’s a reason why the idea occurred to you at that hour anyway, so go with that and investigate it, get it down.  Two or three thousand words in a few hours is not that hard.  Don’t let people interfere with you.  Boot ’em out, turn off the phone, hide away, get it done.  If you carry a short story over to the next day you may overnight intellectualize something about it and try to make it too fancy, try to please someone.

 The Paris Review – The Art of Fiction No. 203, Ray Bradbury

It’s tempting for anyone who’s read Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, or even the rest of this Paris Review interview, to dismiss his “just do it” work ethic with, “That’s easy for him to say.”  I mean, I’ve certainly never cranked out “two or three thousand words in a few hours” without some difficulty.  And it’s been a pipe dream of mine for years to meet Bradbury’s suggested goal in Zen of one short story a week.   In fact, I’ve tried and failed at this for quite some years now.

But Bradbury’s approach doesn’t just represent a metric to me.  It’s a way of writing that has finally shown that, like everyone says, it’s about the journey.

Let me be clear: I’m not talking about “it’s the journey” in some head-in-the-clouds, stop-and-smell-the-roses, appreciate-the-here-and-now kind of way.  I’m talking about a journey that fucking makes me a better writer.  And I attribute every piece of (my pretty meager) success to that journey.

Why?  Because my personal writing journey–that attitude of “just fucking do it”–is fed by one aspect of my personality: my inherent stubbornness.  And it’s only been that stubbornness that’s been able to defeat another aspect of my personality.  the one that gets in the way of my writing: my inherent laziness.

(Edited to add) What fuels your artistic journey?

Next time: The other ways I beat my laziness.

“April in Paris”*

What you’re supposed to do is act like a fucking professional.

-Mr. White, Reservoir Dogs

You know how folks would get excited knowing that their favorite TV series were on, say, Hulu, in their entirety?  I felt exactly the same way when I read that The Paris Review has put all of their writer interviews online.  After years of passing up on purchasing the interview compilations, I gouged on them like a starving man.  I found–in a couple of cases, rediscovered–some real gems, which I’ve posted on my Tumblr.

You want to know how some real professionals get shit done?  Then you could do worse than to peer into the brains of the likes of Dorothy Parker, Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel, and–for us genre folks–Ray Bradbury!

So I think over the next few days I’m going to post bits of their interviews, along with some accompanying thoughts.  Meditations, I guess you could call them. 

*Sorry, I’m still on the Count Basie Orhcestra tip from a few weeks ago.

“‘Cause whatever you do, oh, you’ve got to do your thing”

Like a lot of things in my life lately, this post is 9 days late.  Still, it’s the thought that counts, right?

This was going to be my “Why I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this year” post.  But reading posts like that over the years, I’ve noticed that it seems difficult for me to write one without looking like a condescending jerk.

This isn’t where I’m going to turn up my nose at the NaNo, or go into my rationalization of why it just doesn’t fit in with my writing goals right now.  I only bring it up now because, despite my resolve to not even fool myself into thinking it was a possibility this year, I reupped my account anyway and found out that somehow, some of my peeps found and added me to their friends list. 

So, to them: You do your thing!!

Of course, the best part of reupping my account: the pep talks from famous writers in my email box.  I squeed when I saw Aimee Bender’s!

OPP: Other People’s Publications

This is on my goodreads “to-read” list and should be on yours, too.

Ben Tanzer, Most Likely You Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine

I met Ben at a reading he gave here in I-town a year or so ago for his first book, Lucky Man. Nice guy whose day job is in the field I worked in back in a past life. Anyway, this promises to be a good one, and based on my experience with Lucky Man, I’ve got no reason to doubt it.

Out of the Woodwork

Seems my friends list on goodreads blew up today. Three folks added me, and I went ahead and added one myself, someone whose writing I always enjoy whenever I come across it.

Why not come on over and check it out? I’ll add anyone, especially anyone who reads the sort of books I read. C’mon…you’ve tried Facebook and MySpace and last.fm. One more social network won’t kill you.