Category Archives: writing

whistling past the graveyard

Holy mackerel, how did it get to be June already?  I sort of hadn’t noticed because the weather has been unusually cool and rainy for California lately, but today all of a sudden it’s summer.  I realized this peeling off my sweat-drenched corduroys after walking home from downtown this afternoon.  Time for sundresses.  Also time for love for some type of finch.  The air is alive with tiny dancing birds.  One of their spiffiest moves is tucking their wings in and diving straight for the ground, then pulling up in a fast graceful U as low as possible. I am guessing this is the male display. They must get extra sexy points for doing it over concrete.

My cat just expertly skated the line between totally gross and kind of endearing when she stuck her whole head inside my sweaty sneaker after I took it off and huffed passionately. Yum! Fresh mommy juice.

So.  I finally wended my way past 20,000 words for In the Red, which is just about the place where this book collapsed spectacularly last time I was writing it.  So I printed the sucker out and scanned over it to see if it collapsed again.  It seems not, but I don’t quite trust myself.  I feel a bit like I’m whistling past the graveyard.

The 20K mark happened in the middle of a sex scene I was writing with a cat on my lap.  For a while I was even typing one-handed, not for the reason you might expect but because the cat had to hug my left wrist to rest her head on my arm and how could I take my left hand back when she was purring so blissfully?  Seriously, she totally took me hostage.  After I was done writing for the day, I really had to get up and start getting ready for my anniversary dinner (seven years married, a dozen together) but every time I tried to move the beast, she’d made the most piteous complaint imaginable. Then she’d purr when I petted her head, totally draining my heart of the will to get up.  I considered calling the jaws of life; she’d been on my lap so long I couldn’t feel my legs.

Eventually I managed to pick her up very gingerly with the flats of both hands, keeping her in the same curled up position she was in on my lap, then got up and gently placed her on the chair where I had just been sitting, in the warm spot from my butt. She gave me a bleary-eyed look and went back to sleep.  I put on a pretty dress and some nice underthings and went to the city with the husband for foie gras and boeuf bourguignon and chocolate mouse and macarons.  Aw yeah.

But now I am back at my desk once again wondering where the book is supposed to go next and looking at the maw of the abyss while reflecting that the year is half over but this book is nowhere near half over. Help!  Hold me.   Where is the cat?  I need a cuddly distraction.

Dudes. MFAs are not that bad.

Why are so many writers so angry at Creative Writing MFA programs?  Do artists of all stripes loathe academic departments where their craft is studied?  Are there a bunch of actors and musicians out there who are really pissed off at performing arts schools?  I am genuinely puzzled at all the vitriol that seems to surround the MFA question when you throw the topic at a bunch of writers.  I don’t understand why I so often run into columns discussing MFA programs as if (1) they are really important and/or (2) they shot the author’s dog.  Chill, dudes.  I went to one so I thought I’d attempt to reply to some of the most common criticisms of this much-reviled but ever-proliferating beast, the Creative Writing MFA Program:

Creativity can’t be taught:  Okay, sure, talent can’t be taught.  But craft can.  Just ask Bob Ross and his happy little trees.

Young writers shouldn’t coop themselves up in a graduate program; they should “go out and experience the world:”  This argument is always delivered with the assumption that graduate programs aren’t part of The World.  They cannot approach the realness of, say, working at an Alaskan fish processing plant.  Okay, lean in for a second while I tell you a secret: writing material comes from people, mostly the fucked up ones.  There are people everywhere, even in MFA programs, and a lot of them are fucked up.  Just watch them.  If you pay enough attention to people wherever you are, they can be used for any piece of writing you like. You could even write a novel set in an Alaskan fish processing plant based on the tortured rich kids in your writing workshop.  I promise.

MFA programs homogenize writers’ voices and worsen the general mediocrity of American letters: This argument always assumes that writing was just better in the good old days, neglecting the fact that the stuff we read now from one hundred years ago is the stuff from a hundred years ago that survived a hundred years.  So, presumably, the best stuff.  It’s been through the strainers of time.  The stuff that’s being published now looks generally crappy by comparison because it hasn’t been vetted by history yet.  (Can you imagine how much poetry must have fucking sucked in Restoration England if goddamn Alexander Pope is the best that came out of there?  Holy fuck.)  Also: if you have the kernel of a unique and compelling voice, an MFA program will not ruin you and make you sound like everybody else, I promise.  It will make you realize what you don’t want to sound like.

MFA programs allow shitty writers to delude themselves that they don’t suck and send them out all fluffed up into a world of disappointment: I think this is mostly false, because there is no way you can make it through an MFA program without thinking that you suck.  Your work will be spreadeagled and pecked over so thoroughly that you will be quite convinced that nobody sucks at writing more than you.  Yes, graduate study is a move towards validating yourself as an artist, but it is also intensely grueling, and may make you decide that you don’t want to do this after all, which is totally okay.  I would argue that the regular beatdowns you receive in MFA programs actually prepare you for the world of disappointment to follow, and that if you get your stuff published, you won’t even blink at being edited because you learned to take your punches like a man in graduate school.

All these domesticated writers in their dinky academic detention centers are ruining the romance of the Author, who should presumably be drinking and screwing a lot and shooting large animals somewhere: Plenty of drinking and screwing goes on in academic detention centers.  If you must shoot large animals, there are a couple of MFA programs up in Alaska.  You can get a huge husky and name him Frostbane, go out into the perpetual snowy night to blow away some bears, and even visit that fish processing plant if you like.

Please don't shoot me. Work on your paragraph transitions instead.

MFA programs are a pyramid scheme, fleecing stupid young people with dreams.  Yeah, kind of.  Honestly, I still feel like a bit of a dumbass having taken out a bunch of student loans to attend one.  So do careful research into MFA programs, and apply only to the ones that will fund you.  If you don’t, well, you will probably feel like a bit of a dumbass for having taken out a bunch of student loans for what is mostly a pretty useless credential.  But, you know, it’s just money.  There are worse decisions you could have made than plunking down a bunch of it to take a couple of years off to write.  If you have made that mistake, take comfort in this List of Life Decisions That Are Worse Than Taking Out Student Loans For An MFA:

  • dating a drug dealer
  • being a drug dealer
  • simmering your whole life in a shitty job you hate without ever trying to go after your dreams
  • tattooing the whites of your eyes
  • meth
  • wearing leggings as if they were pants
  • appearing on reality TV
  • loving someone who treats you badly
  • joining a cult
  • visiting England for the food
  • meth
  • taking out more student loans for two MFAs

You’re welcome.

Maybe some Xanax, but mostly just the Lego.

Here is the panel I was on a few weeks ago at the LA Times Book Festival.  Can you spot me?  It was a great session, moderated by Thomas Curwen of the LA Times, with authors Lisa See and Karl Marlantes, both of whom were lovely to talk to and sell a buttload more books than I do.  Can I be them when I grow up?

It’s been a while since I’ve written an entry that justifies the title of this blog.  Never fear, there is plenty of sophomore novel angst happening here!  Ever since I finished my Romanian collective unconscious document I have been genuinely scared to address the actual narrative of In the Red.  Is it because it collapsed so spectacularly last time?  Partly.  But I think it’s mostly because once I get started it’s going to tell me a bunch of shit I don’t want to hear.  The consciousness of this book is so heavy.  It has an existential obsession with human morality in the face of the void.  So I’ll just be going around my business when the book will spontaneously say something like: “We all collaborate with our miseries.  The only true gesture of negation is to cease existing.”  And then I respond, “What?  Are you telling me to eat a gun?  Can you shut up while I play Angry Birds here for a minute?  Jesus.”

I swear, it’s like I have Albert Camus living inside my braincase.

Also it really, really wants to talk to me about Capitalism and while it’s fun to channel that problem into goofy rants about toothpaste, this book does not want to be a goofy rant about toothpaste.  It intends to be Serious.  It also wants to talk about exile, history, repression, abuse of power, and all sorts of fluffy shit like that.  Please send help.  I want to write a book about puppies and rainbows.

(Don’t worry, potential readers, there will still be hot sex.  I mean, this is me we’re talking about here.)

Okay, let’s talk about Lego instead.

Before I went away for the book festival, I admired this Lego set at Target:

I totally wanted it, but could not quite justify plunking down forty five bucks to buy this for myself since I am, allegedly, an adult.  I mean, that’s what my driver’s license says.  (It lies.)  Fortunately, I have the world’s awesomest husband ever, so this set was waiting for me on my desk when I got home from the festival.  I love him so much.  There was a feature to this set that he, like me, simply could not resist.  Take a closer look at the cargo the truck is hauling:

Yes, it is hauling tiny Lego sets for Lego people, among them sets of itself.  Could you die?  Okay, probably if you are not a huge dork, this does not make butterflies flutter in your stomach.  But, I am not not a huge dork, so this makes me unreasonably happy.

Anyway I just put the set together last night, after a particularly grinding bout of unproductive sophomore novel angst.  It was such a fucking fabulous experience.  Everything clicks into place so satisfyingly, and it all looks exactly how you expect it to, and it gives you a sense of achievement.  Why can’t life be more like that?  I need more Lego.  And maybe some Xanax, but mostly just the Lego.

the most fantabulous review in the history of ever

I haven’t been posting lately because I am eyeball-deep in my Romanian collective unconscious document (I should have a complete draft in a few days which will be something like 18,000 words, or about 65 pages).  It’s a whole lot of dreamlike WTF, and after I am done I will have an underlying structure on top of which I will start overlaying the main plot of In the Red.  But–I had to briefly emerge from my blogging moratorium to share with you guys the most fantabulous review in the history of ever, courtesy of Simon Schama at The Financial Times.  I so, so hope that this review is blurbed on the softcover edition of my book.  Actually, here–please vote on which blurb should be prominently featured on the next edition of 13 rue Thérèse:

 

Dear Mr. Schama, I shake your hand.

Allegory Explosion

You guys!  There is.  A lot of stuff.  Going on.

I was on live radio Monday of last week.  It was a bit intimidating but pretty fun.  The best part was when I flustered the hell out of my husband, who came with me because it was President’s Day so he had off work.  The host, Denny Smithson, asked me something about who I was writing the book to and I said my husband.  Denny observed that he was in the studio with me, and I pointed the mike at him and said, “wanna say hi?”  My poor baby just about died. Turned a high shade of crimson and shook his head no.  Who knew he was this shy?

Then I had a couple of readings, one on home turf at Davis and a luncheon thingy in Pleasanton.  Both were thoroughly awesome and made me miss teaching terribly.  (When I mentioned how much I missed teaching, a friend who is currently eyeball-deep in a pile of grading asked me what the hell is wrong with you? It’s true, I don’t miss the grading part.  I just miss goofing around with a bunch of curious young sparks chatting about books and how irredeemably fucked up human nature is.)  I have another reading tomorrow night!  It’s at 7 at Diesel Bookstore in Oakland.  Come say hi if you’re around.

I’ve also been busy collating the collective unconscious for In the Red.  It’s just been me blasting my neurons with Romanian history and folk tales.  So, in the past week, I have pumped a few rounds into Nicolae Ceaucescu’s chest as he sang L’Internationale and I whacked a wood nymph who dared give a prince “a flower from her girdle” (wink wink nudge nudge) and I galloped across a snowy wasteland with an exiled Phanariot voivode and I had Dracula drink blood from one of his impaled victims in what was basically the Holy Grail and it’s all been very busy in my braincase lately.  It’s just been Allegory Explosion around here.  Last night I had this incredibly vivid dream about a dark pond filled with alligators over which fluttered a big cluster of panicked parakeets.  I remember so well the flapping sounds of their tiny wings and all the pretty jewel tones of their varied plumage.  The ridges of hard, wet, gleaming scales on the long sinewy backs of the alligators.  How fast they were when they lunged out of the water for the parakeets and snap–one swift bite and a bird was gone.  The birds being swallowed one by one out of the air before even having a chance to squeak–I woke up totally traumatized.  Poor little birdies!

Then I got up and wrote about trees haunted by the restless spirits of murdered babies.  Really.

Also, somebody reached my blog today by googling “what does a cheez doodle look like.”  Here, let me help you out:

Publication Day: The Beast is OUT.

Here I am between David Sedaris and Anita Shreve in the wilds of my local Barnes and Noble:

While I was dorking out taking this picture, a nice couple stopped by and asked me if I was the author and I said yes and they read the back of the book and then they bought it and then I signed it.  WHOA.  (Signing felt like a minor act of vandalism but I guess I’ll get used to it…)

Much stuff has been happening.  I got to write guest posts for BookPage and 1st Books: Stories of How Writers Get Started.  I’ve been getting lots of blog reviews–I think more than I can keep track of.  My favorite cranky review said that I am a bad, smutty writer like that awful DH Lawrence.  That is the most wonderful way I’ve been insulted, ever!  The crudity of my language is apparently reminiscent of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was published in 1928–and 13 rue Thérèse is set in 1928, so I feel like I win at life.  I managed to capture that 1928 flavor.  Sweet.

Of course, the reviews that moved me the most were the good ones where it looked like I connected with the readers.  How awesome!  It is why I got into this whole publishing racket in the first place.  So, to all the people out there who enjoyed my book and got something true out of it, I give you a great big virtual hug.

Meanwhile, to keep myself from exploding with the anxiety of all these developments (it’s all very elating but my body is in an undeniable state of alarm, my brain constantly morse coding out this is…  not…  normal… commence…  freaking out…), I have been writing this random Gothic diptych about dead dogs.  I know.  Brains are weird.  I just finished a draft of Part One today.  Tomorrow I will begin Part Two.  Oh–and speaking of short stories, I will have one coming out with Five Chapters next week, which will rock my socks.  It’s a great website: they publish a new story every week, serially from Monday through Friday, so you can go back every day for new content.

Okay.  I am going to go try to not explode.  It’s going to be increasingly hard because I got word that my book is going to be in the New York Times Book Review on February 13 and I am absolutely shitting bricks.  Please please please be gentle with me, unknown NYTBR reviewer…

(I must develop some kind of emotional coping mechanism for this attention I’m getting.  That, or a drug habit.  Whoa, you guys, I just explained all of Hollywood to myself.)

BOOKSPLODE!

No matter how long you work at a craft, you can always learn something new.  Today’s lesson is: Even if the protagonist has a compelling voice and a strong personality, she should not necessarily be the narrator.

I got stuck about 85 pages into In the Red.  I decided to print out the whole manuscript and read it over, having found that oftentimes when you get stuck, your text itself will cue you as to what is supposed to come next.  I read along marking it up, realizing for instance that some of the material around page 60 or so should be right in the front of the story.  I felt a sense of cautious hope.  And then I got to the last dozen pages or so and the whole thing just completely destroyed itself.  I’d never seen it happen so fast; it just telescoped like a collapsing building.

It’s wasn’t so much that the plot broke apart (the thing with plot is that you can pretty much pull anything off as long as you do it with enough panache), it was just that the voice totally died.  It was unreadable.  I was breathless with pain.  It sucked more than I thought suck could suck.  I had started the book with a voice hoping that eventually a structure would accrete, but instead the lack of structure just completely imploded the voice.  What went down?

A partial answer came to me when I read a quote from Joyce’s “The Dead” that a friend had posted on her facebook:

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

I was quite moved by the beauty of that sentence.  Then for some reason, I changed the sentence to first person.  Go ahead and try it.  Doesn’t it completely suck that way?  (The reason being that this sort of intense shameless lyricism just can’t work in first person.)

It dropped like an anvil: I should have never tried to write this book in the first person.  It is a third person book.  I am a dumbass.

The reason why, I think, is because the novel is so much about erasure, about how much of the protagonist is erased.  If the protagonist is the narrator, then you simply know too much, you know where the holes are.  Part of the interest of the story is that you’re not supposed to know where the holes are; Irina should be mysterious.  That was why she was such a recalcitrant narrator–because she’s not supposed to even be the narrator.  She is the object, not the subject.  God, I am such a dumbass.

Eventually I will go back to see what can be salvaged from all the rubble.  But not yet.  I need to take some time away and maybe work on some short stories, smaller structures with lower stakes.  When those fall down, the devastation is not quite so complete.