Tag Archives: writing

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:

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.

Whoa, the colors…

Developments!

(1) This blog now has its own pimptastic domain name!  Welcome to elenamaulishapiro.com.  Aw yeah.  If you click on the link, it will take you…  where you are.  I know.  Life is like that.

(2) I just got my very first review ever for 13 rue Thérèse, on Library Journal.  It is here (you’ll have to scroll a bit to find me).  I had a tiny heart attack when I got to the word VERDICT in red all-caps like that, as if they were going to take me out back and execute me.  But, the verdict is positive, so, huzzah!  And with a comparison to the awesome Nick Bantock!  Huzzah x2!  And I can finally say I’ve had press.  Oooooooh I’m going to put it on my Press page right now.

Sweet.

(3) I printed out what I have of my next book so far, about 20,000 words.  (Somewhere around 80 pages)  It felt good to see it on paper, because when you’re just typing away on a Microsoft document, it doesn’t feel like you’re actually making any progress.  Also I got terribly stuck and needed to read it through, to see if I could see any semblance of structure emerging from my pile of fragments.  I realized today that a lot of the stuff I’ve been writing lately actually belongs way in the beginning, so that’s nice.  After I’ve finished marking it up, there will be much shuffling.

(4) You can make colorsAll over your text! Wheeeeeeeee! Doing this repeatedly would not at all get annoying!

(Sorry, I just discovered this making VERDICT all scary and red to mimic the typesetting on the Library Journal site…  I will attempt to contain myself in the future.  But I can make no promises.)

kill me as many times as you like

Ahoy!  I have been remiss in updating this blog for the last couple of weeks.  There hasn’t been much to report, 13-rue-Thérèse-wise, since the galleys have gone out.  I hover in an anxious Limbo waiting for reviews to start coming in, trying desperately to keep my brain from chewing on itself.  I’ve been reasonably successful at doing that by giving it In the Red to chew on instead.  I have been working on this unyielding book.  It is a very, very testy text but I think eventually some good will come of it.  It is, as I am, obsessed with palimpsest.  So, that is quite expected.  What is less expected is that it has some pungent opinions about American capitalism.  I couldn’t quite describe them as unqualifyingly negative; that would be too simplistic.  Let’s just say the text is working on this problem.

The text also has a lot to say about wedding rituals.  That imagery keeps cropping up all over the place.  Ditto imagery about executions.  The two sets of images are, of course, related.  The link is not a new one–nevertheless there is something weird and compelling at work here.  A preoccupation with ceremony.  Symbolic clothes.  Performed gestures.

Money.  Not just as a concept, but as a physical object.  The cloth-like weave of cash, the smell of it.  The transfer through many hands.  The stolid gazes of dead presidents.

There is less sex than I was expecting in this book.  But in another way there is more sex than I was expecting.  Again, difficult to explain.  I should say: so far there has been less graphic description than I was anticipating about bodies doing what they do, but there is a sort of arrested attention in the gaze of the narrator on the world itself that is very sexual.  Not emotional, but intense in a denuding way.

A trinity of men: Bad, Worse, and Worst.  And the narrator doubles herself infinitely inside all the other female characters, inside allegorical dream figures.  The narrator, the blasted creature named Irina with a name that doubles my own so obviously that it’s embarrassing.  Last week the text introduced yet another double for her, a Russian mail order bride named Elena.  The moment gave me pause.  I looked at the book and said, really, you’re not serious.  It smiled at me quietly.  Radiantly.  And I knew that this frail girl with my name will have to die, given all the execution images.  How that I will happen I don’t know, but the destruction of her body is an inevitability.

So you want to symbolically walk me down a dark hallway and shoot me in the back of the neck, Soviet-style, hm? I said to the book as it showed me the pink dress with tulle overlay Elena had on at her quickie Vegas wedding, the delicacy of her collar bones, her heart-rending youth.  You intend to kill me, do you?  Well, then, kill me as many times as you like.

As long as you make something of it.


worms everywhere

So, I went to NCIBA trade show on Friday evening and it was fun, if somewhat surreal.  NCIBA stands for Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, so I got to sit at my little author table and chat with lots and lots of book sellers.  Also sign galleys for them.  I’d never signed my name so many times before.  After a while, it started to dissolve.  Actually, seeing a tabletop covered with multiples copies of my book had the same effect–something about all that repetition induces the same sort of vertigo as standing between two mirrors that are facing each other.

A couple of the book sellers already knew who I was, and even what I looked like.  It occurred to me that this is what any amount of fame entails: people you don’t know know who you are.  Which is…  Spooky!  Let’s just say I’m not worried about finding paparazzi digging through my trash, but still, having a public face to any degree requires some adjustment.  At least I am not a memoirist, thank God.  Fiction affords me a covering, however flimsy.

Meanwhile I am about 15,000 words into In The Red.  While I know most of what happens in the story, it is dreadfully hard to make this narrative take any sort of shape since it insists on coming out in disorderly fragments.  It’s like I’m getting shipments of hashed meat and bone from which I’m somehow supposed to eventually reconstitute the entire cow.  Sometimes one of the bone pieces is sort of an interesting shape.  This is a conversation between Irina and Andrei, shortly after he tells her a hypothesis about something that is awful, and yet has a certain air of inevitability:

“One body for another,” he said placidly, “that is the way it works.”

How did he do this?  This relentless disdain for all people, this ability to carve them up until they were all selfish and rotten.  It was a talent—a talent for making the world ugly?  No, it was not that he made it ugly, how could he make it ugly sitting there all golden skin and lithe musculature and iron-gray eyes?  Filled with stark knowledge, yes, but so beautiful himself he could make nothing ugly.  It was worse.  He stripped and peeled and sliced everything until loneliness bled out of every cut.

“Andrei,” I said, “you’re disgusting.”

I expected him to laugh then; that was mostly the way he ended these kinds of conversations.  He never became offended.  He was impossible to offend.  At least he was true in that way.

He didn’t laugh.  He looked at me very seriously, at the outline of my body that I’d pulled the sheet over while he remained naked.  “How much more disgusting would I be,” he said, “if I came to you in the guise of a good man?”

I hadn’t thought of explicitly connecting these two things before: inability to be offended and being true.  But when I put the words down on the page, they made sense.  Say someone accuses you of something.  If you know yourself completely and the accusation is true, it will not faze you because you know it already.  If it is false, you will merely feel a sense of dim puzzlement as to where your accuser could have gotten such an idea.  If you react explosively with HOW DARE YOU? then somewhere along the line, you have told yourself a lie, and indignation is the handiest way to keep yourself from acknowledging it.  Being offended is the defense mechanism of the false.

And that is only one of the cans of worms this roughly sketched scene decided to open.  That is the problem with this book: I don’t know how to make order of it because it just keeps opening cans and there are worms everywhere.

Seriously, don't open it.

The Writing Workshop, or, Only Do This to Yourself if You Crave Intense Discomfort.

A while back, I wrote a post on stages of the writing career from the point of view of submitting.  I thought I’d track the writer’s progress from the point of view of the Creative Writing Workshop, given that a writing career, these days, almost inevitably involves undergoing a whole series of them.  Here, then, are my findings:

Phase 1: Crippling Terror and Impostor Syndrome

This is a normal response when confronted by the format for the first time.  Having your piece workshopped is an exercise in naked fear, and when it’s up you take frantic notes on everything everyone says since you can’t spend any energy processing the feedback: all your attention must be channeled towards not bursting into tears like a little girl.  Your face is a particular shade of crimson that immediately identifies you as a workshop newbie, which will cause a kind-hearted instructor to go easy on you and a hard-assed one to plow into your guts with renewed vigor.  When giving feedback on other people’s work, you are merely blindly stumbling, trying not to look like too much of a clueless dumbass.

• Phase personally undergone in: 1997, during my first two workshops in college.

Phase 2: Grinding Along

You are now comfortable with the workshop format.  You have mastered the compliment sandwich when delivering your feedback on peer manuscripts.  You write down most of what they say when your work is being critiqued, but know to put your pen down when you hear something obviously spurious.  The quality of your work may be stationary or improving slowly.  It draws a genuine compliment here and there–but you are by no means comfortable: every time you are up, you still receive a beatdown that feels worthy of a gang initiation.

• Phase personally undergone in: 1998-99, later college workshops, then 2004-05, first year in MFA program.

Phase 3: OMGWTFBBQ

Something is happening to your writing.  You are not sure what, and neither are your peers.  Discussion of your work will generally begin with a class-wide flummoxed silence.  The feedback you receive might be very tentative, because nobody is sure whether you mean to be doing what precisely you are doing–whereas before they knew you didn’t.  You are a puzzlement to them and to yourself.  Your instructor might not quite know what to do with you, and might say cryptic things like, “I’m not sure I’m qualified to give feedback on this particular genre,” or might compliment your work using more specific words than the standard “good,” like “seductive.”  Your feedback to your peers is exceedingly thought-out and careful; you treat them as if they are in the same delicate transitory state as yourself.  You do not know if any of this tremendous upheaval is a good sign.  You suspect you might be going insane.  You write down very little of the peer feedback your receive; at least you have become an adept sifter.

• Phase personally undergone in: 2005-06, second year in MFA program.  By the time I finished the program I felt as if I’d been shot into space.  Complete disorientation.

Phase 4: Workshop Transcendence

Seriously, this happens.  This does not mean your work is universally liked, but it does mean that it has acquired authority–so that your peers are aware that you mean your text.  Your work is crafted; it knows what it intends; they will not quibble with that.  You will receive little to no prescriptive advice.  Instead your peers will sit around analyzing your work like literature students, drawing various interpretations (this is actually quite useful, as it highlights which themes are visible to the audience and may help you decide what needs to recede and what needs to be further brought out).  Your instructor may say some crazy stuff like, “this is a perfect story,” which will effectively bring the proceedings to a complete standstill while you shit a brick.  Your feedback to your peers may have reached instructor-grade.

• Phase personally undergone in: 2009-10, taking two workshops while in my PhD program for fun and/or needful units.

Advisory to aspirants: All of the workshop phases are characterized by mild to intense discomfort (even Transcendence involves shitting a brick).  Completion of all phases qualifies you to be at the head of the workshop table as a beginner instructor, which will in turn bring on Cycle 2 of Crippling Terror and Impostor Syndrome.  Good luck with that.