Tag Archives: writing

The fallacy of authorial intent

I had three speaking engagements about my book in the past week!  The audiences were: (1) lovely elder book club afternoon tea ladies (2) rowdy night crowd in a dim bar, and (3) sleepy community college students at eight in the morning.  They were all completely huggable, in their extremely varied ways.  The community college students had some kind of test coming up about my book (still trying to wrap my brain around this concept!), and one of them quipped that I might be kind enough to give them the answers.  I laughed and asked the instructor, “Now, didn’t you tell them about the fallacy of authorial intent?”

The next day I had a chat with a fellow novelist about my time in academia.  He wanted to know how I could stomach it as an artist.  I said I loved the teaching.  “But the writing you have to do there!” he said, “what about the spiritually bankrupt rape of art that is literary theory?’

Oh yeah, that.  I said I viewed it as a game, a challenge to speak their language and pass as one of them.  I would try to be the author while also obliterating the author, there was a sort of fun in that.  Then I thought about it some more, and wrote him the following after I got home:

I was just thinking of our discussion re: academics on my ride home, whilst listening to angry Germans shout incomprehensibly over industrial guitars.  It was not only the game-like qualities of their tortured prose that allowed me to write it, but also the very pain it induced.  I did it with the same sort of wincing glee as a flagellant.  It’s always good to remind yourself that what you pour your soul into doesn’t actually mean anything.  Plus if you want to get the taste of God in your mouth, there’s no more efficient way than totally believing two contradictory things at the same time.  Ooooooh tasty paradox–fanning my toes out just thinking about it.

Back when I spent much time in journal archives (JSTOR, we were lovers once, you and I), sometimes I would come upon a very old article.  Some 1935 treatise about Baudelaire by some long-dead white dude whose pipe smoke I could smell right through the computer, written with such utter devotion to Literature that it was frankly a little embarrassing.  The doggish eagerness with which they used to lick us!  Now they cannot study us without also killing us.  Aren’t they so much sexier now that they hate us?  Don’t you just want to fuck them all?!  So adorable.

Eros and Thanatos, how inseparable are you?

a tiny nibble from the loving teeth of history

I went to San Francisco today, and wrote the following sitting at an outdoor table at a Market Street café.

It’s been a while, 20th century.  Have you forgotten me?  I guess the question should be–have I forgotten you?  It’s a plausible question, given how uncomfortable my hand feels holding a pen, how I stumble over myself without the aid of spell check or the glow of a screen which suggests a luminous sentience watching over me as I boil away in the crucible of my own head.  I know it’s been a while, 20th century, that I had to clumsily ask a lad at the coffee shop where one gets a pen and paper, these days.  How inexorably we move from the artifact to the aether.  The library at Alexandria has burned; now we have Akashic records, knowledge that only exists if we believe in it.  If we have the proper equipment to receive it.  Otherwise, there’s only air.

Barely a page and I am already getting painful twinges in my palm.  But you should not feel as obsolete as all that, 20th century.  Here you still are: a pen with a soft nib whose ink calls itself “amethyst” and a notebook with a red cover that asks, “Name?  Date?  Subject/title?”  I thought it would be clever to title you “Artifact.”  I’m sorry, darling.  I can’t help myself.  You know how I am.  It is a beautiful Fall day in San Francisco and I just had lunch with a lovely young Frenchman who, like me, learned to write with a fountain pen–and now he seldom writes by hand at all.  Talk about a direct leap from 19 to 21!  And yet you are far from a negligible century.  Your body count alone is impressive.

I had a vivid dream last night.  In the dream I purchased a small white stuffed dog, a poodle I think, about life-sized.  Of course life-sized, as it started to come to life.  In the eyes first: a glimmering awareness that flickered on and off.  Then in the whole head, movement in the face and neck, a hardness and definition within suggesting the formation of a skull.  Then slowly, from front to back: limbs, ribcage, ass, tail–all were fleshed and boned.  All the cotton batting inside the animal was turning into live, pulsing organic matter.  I knew the dog was finished, that he was finally a real dog, when he began to take real shits as opposed to stuffed shits–squelchy, warm, stinky feces instead of small, scentless, fuzzy logs.

“Here you are, you little fucker!” I said to my new dog with great joy.  He had teeth that he used to bite.  He barked viciously at other dogs.  He took an evil delight at tangling his leash on everything, binding my legs to trip me up whenever possible.  In short, he was a total asshole, but I loved him anyway because he was alive.

Where have I wandered to, 20th century?  Am I still talking about you?  I have lunched with your remnants occasionally, 20th century.  Gray-haired men in suits who keep themselves fit and never take a young woman to a fine restaurant without knowing the exact location of the nearest hotel.  They call me “doll” and ask me what is in my “pretty little head.”  I smile pleasantly and seldom answer.  It is so charming.  Like dating antiques.  One day soon they’ll be gone, and I will be gone soon after.  One day soon I’ll be gone, and this paper will have rotted away in some landfill somewhere.  But if I transcribe this on my computer and post it on the internet, I can make these words not really exist forever.

After writing this, I walked to the Embarcadero to check out Tom Morello’s appearance at Occupy San Francisco.  Given that he is the lead singer of Rage Against the Machine, his presence was extremely apt.  He gave us a few rousing words and then handed out a hundred free concert tickets for his performance tonight.  I did not get a ticket because the ticket guy was immediately swallowed by the maw of the throng.  Whether I abstained from the tussle because of my belief in civic order, or simply because I felt protective of my broken rib (yes, folks, it’s broken), the world may never know.  I did a bit iphone photojournalism from the event, but wordpress is being an ass about letting me put together a slide show.  So, I created a public facebook album of my little adventure.  Check it out.

Doggies found a home!

Developments!

13 rue Thérèse was published as a paperback in the UK this week, complete with a sexy quote from Simon Schama right on the front cover (“a flirty, dirty tease of a novel” ROWR!).  Plus a nice review came out in various British papers from Pam Norfolk.

• Remember the gothic dog story I was talking about on this blog sometime ago?  It found a home!  It will be published in The Farallon Review in February of 2012.  Pretty sweet, no?

• This afternoon, I blew some bubbles at my cat and it TOTALLY EXPLODED HER LITTLE WALNUT BRAIN.  Her world was thoroughly rocked.  She kept sniffing the ground where they popped to try to figure out where they went.

• I have been doing all sorts of awesome research for my novel that I can’t post about on this blog because it’s pretty raunchy.  But I thought I’d tease and tantalize you by mentioning what I’m not going to talk about.  Yes, my dears, you’re just going to have to wait to read my findings in book form Lord-knows-when…

• I took an awesome vacation in Barcelona with some friends.  If you ever make it there, I recommend five things:

  1. Eat lots of ham.  The Spanish rock at ham.
  2. Check out all the Gaudi architecture.  That guy was the best kind of nut.
  3. Do NOT check out the sex show at the Bagdad Club if you ever want to sleep again.
  4. Bring bug repellent, unless you’re into sporting gigantic mosquito bites that turn into humongous bruises all over your body when they heal.  I mean, you might be into it.  Like, when people ask what happened to you, you can tell them you got into a bar brawl.  Or you could wipe a tear from the side of your eye and say, “I guess I just don’t listen.”  Your choice.
  5. Look up when you hear squawks!  Barcelona has a very sweet and entertaining population of small green wild parrots.

• My stomach is currently growling.  This is indeed a fascinating development.  One that will unfortunately require me to sign off and forage for food…

Is this about sex or is this about writing? Sometimes I can’t tell.

There are not many women out there in the wild country.  It is not particularly sane for me to go, but it seems I simply can’t help myself.  The ones I leave behind chide me for my restlessness but it only makes me laugh.  I can feel from the hum of the train that the furnace is full up on coal, the engine so hot that the metal swells against its fittings.  I sit looking out the window wondering where you are.  Are you having doubts?  Did you get held up on some last minute errand?  Did the horse pulling your carriage to the station have a heart attack in the middle of the street?

My heart thrums against the restriction of my corset, my legs sweltering in all their petticoats.  The bustle, the little black leather boots primly laced over the ankles, the white gloves buttoned over the wrists, the collar keeping my throat in its airless grip.  I am pretty good at wearing the garments of my civilization, but I am even better at being divested of them.  I will ride this train all the way to its terminus, all the way to where the Chinamen have not yet laid tracks.  Alone if I have to, but I’d much rather you came with me.  I very much hope the top hat I see moving swiftly through the crowd out on the platform is yours.  Catch this train; it’s going somewhere good.

A jolt shudders through the length of the entire machine–oh is there anything like the feel of imminent departure?  Is there any sound more stridently arousing than the steamy wail of that whistle?

All aboard.  Last call.

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.

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: