Tuesday, July 13, 2010

On Getting Lost [in a book]

It's been ages since I last got lost in a book. There are only a handful of novels that have so thoroughly and completely transported me to another place, another time, another life: The World According to Garp, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Virgin Suicides, The Secret Garden, The Hours*.

And now one more: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I was up until long past my bedtime finishing it last night. I can't articulate just what it was about those almost 500 pages, but once I started reading, I was absolutely absorbed.

Is it a flawless piece of writing? No. If I was in graduate school, discussing it for a form and theory class, I'd say the author cheated by including an extended letter from a dead woman to reveal information that would otherwise have to be left out due to the limitations of the first person point of view. If I was reading the manuscript for a friend who wanted an honest critique, I'd say the pacing is off because the last 1/4 of the book is so compressed. If I was an agent looking over my client's newest work, I'd ask for some rewrites.

As someone who has both undergraduate and graduate degrees in creative writing, and as someone whose MFA thesis included a lengthy (65+ pages) critical introduction about the craft of writing, I am perplexed that a book with such major failings has so thoroughly grabbed me. I think I'm perplexed because it means that (for me, anyway) story trumps craft...a realization that calls into question much of my formal training as a writer.

This is a good wake-up call. It's a reminder that story--not perfect sentences and flawless structure and impeccable tone--story is at the heart of human experience, and thus story should also be at the heart of every piece of writing. Story is what captures the reader at the most basic level; craft simply serves to enhance it.*** As writers (and as editors), we'd do well to keep that in mind.

Push is sitting on my coffee table, a long-overdue read that can't be put off much longer because Sapphire is coming to town. I've been walking past the red cover all evening, delaying the moment when I turn to the first page and dive into another place, another voice, another story. I am not quite ready to leave Barcelona, Daniel Sempere, and the mystery of Julian Carax behind.

Isn't that what all writers dream of? To create something so real--so important--that readers want to linger in our words? I can only hope that I will one day be able to cast such a spell.

*In graduate school, one of my professors labeled this book TFPFW -- "Too f***** precious for words." (Actually, if memory serves, she had borrowed that label from someone else.) I can see it, I really can, but...what can I say? This was a book that made me feel in a way that few other books had. Sentimental or not, I was hooked.

***Not that craft doesn't matter at all, because it does. The greatest of stories can be ruined by poor execution and mediocre stories can be made great through excellent execution. I'm just saying that craft isn't everything and story is more important than us literature folk tend to give it credit for.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Letters to Strangers

Letter from a Stranger
for Thomas James

Who emptied your wine on cold winter day?
Jason in the garden one fog-smeared morn?
Perhaps the broken sirens of mongrels
Shaken into madness did seal your fate
While colors of innocence dripped decay.

The world masked you in anemic thistle’s
Trapped reflections—final turn of the screw.
Your body holding shape, genius intact,
Out of your mind, thoughts of darkness would pour.
In painted box a precious object shut.

An hour, a day, a January more
Inside you I have lived in keen darkness
Feeling the slow slug crawl through gray matter.
It is a stranger who has poured your flask,
But lonely stranger to You I am not.

As writers, it seems we tend to enjoy a certain amount of invisibility. Whether it is intentional or not, it is very much a part of most writers' lives. We write to strangers. Of course there are hurdles one must leap in order to get work to those strangers--sending submissions to publishers, figuring out how to create and develop a blog, or finding an open mike venue in which one can share his or her work with a group of strangers adds a dimension to the game that new authors do not usually think about. In the end, however, it's all about strangers, the unseen masses who look for a personal link to the author's psyche.

Strangers are the people who read our writing. Strangers are the people that give us a reason to write. However, strangers can also be the people who can make us no longer want to write. Strangers can make us want to take our own lives.

At the top, I dedicated a poem I wrote to Thomas James,who wrote a compilation of poems entitled Letters to a Stranger.

The stranger who was ultimately responsible for his early demise by cranial ventilation with a .45 cal. was a critic, one who referred to James as a "pale Plath."

We write, not knowing who will read it, how it will be received, and how we will indeed receive news of its reception. For me, that's part of the joy and mystery to writing. When people read my writing I want them to have feelings, either good or bad, about what they read. If they hate it, I want to see words of hate. If they love it, I want a sonnet written showing me their love. Show me your words, but please don't show me your faces. Let's keep these, letters between strangers.

Friday, July 9, 2010

How to move a stone--or anything else heavily weighing

1. Find your stones: Seems pretty simple, you have something to move, a couch, an armoire, a futon, a cat, your in-laws, or maybe just some words--these are usually dug in pretty tight, but get them out; you'll feel better. What does one do with a field full of words?

2. Find a boat, they're everywhere--paper or plastic? would you like a drink carrier? Does this thing come with oars? Do I need some kind of license? Maybe you could throw some of those stones in the big round filing cabinet at the top of your shoulders. It is getting a bit dusty, isn't it? But you ask, "What am I going to do with all of these collected thoughts and words?" I'm glad you asked. Many people use them to build sentences. Benjamin Franklin had some great ones, so did Thoreau, Muir, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Lennon and McCartney--Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream,It is not dying, It is not dying. Lay down all thought Surrender to the void. It is shining. It is shining.

That you may see the meaning of within; It is being...It is being.

3. Load that boat! Nothing gets done when nothing's getting done. Don't worry about the how's, the why's or the Where's. At any given time, they probably don't matter. Remember, the boat needs to be filled first. Just be sure all of the holes are plugged; wouldn't want anything to get out.

4. Find a good spot and unload. This is the hard part. If you don't stack these puppies just right they'll go all wonky on you and end up catawampus all over the floor. Here's a simple tip: Don't unload into run-on sentences, sentence fragments, or comma splices, but do feel free to use the Oxford comma at your discretion. If you're not sure what any of this means, check out the little book that Strunk and White wrote. It may help with some elements of your own style.

5. Make sure you own or can buy borrow or steal some tools of the trade--it might be an iMac or a PC or a Blackberry or a Kindle or a nook or a 1943 Underwood Standard, or a couple of Black Magic pencils and a roll of newsprint you bought at a garage sale for 75 cents(Kerouac would be proud, the putz).

6. Listen to yourself! Academics have all of these theories and academical ideals that they try to strive for. That leaves them sounding like a lot of the hacks who have come before them. Load your stones the way you want to. Ask your friends what they think. Ask your parents what they think, although they'll probably just tell you that they're proud of you and you should get a haircut. When you write something that elicits an emotion from somebody, you're there, dude.

7. Show me your stones!! You made it this far, show people what you got. Start a blog, Twitter until you can tweet no more, make photocopies of your work and paste them in bathroom stalls.

A great man once told me, "Don't get it right, get it written." So I give to you, my micro-audience, my stones.

Now go and write something.

In the beginning was the word

I've wanted to start a literary journal for quite some time now, but it never seemed to be within the realm of possibility. A journal doesn't just rise up out of nowhere; it takes vision, it takes time, it takes connections, it takes money. I, unfortunately, am lacking in just about all of those areas. And so I relegated "start a journal" to the dusty "things to do when I retire or win the lottery" repository in the back of my brain, along with pipe dreams like "open a book store/coffee house in Door County." Never mind that I don't drink coffee--that's not the point...or maybe that's exactly the point: it's a list of the unlikely. Don't we all keep a mental tally of the things we say we'd like to do but don't ever expect to achieve?

Fast forward to a few months ago. Rob Pockat, a writing major at the college where I teach, approached me about helping out with an anthology he was thinking of compiling. From there, at lightning speed, the Stoneboat project took shape. Suddenly, all of the things I didn't have fell into place. Vision? Check. (Check plus! The Stoneboat crew is full of ideas.) Time? Check. (It's summer!) Connections? Check. (A shout-out to Karl Elder is in order.) Money? Well, OK. We don't have everything, but three out of four isn't bad. And if you happen to be a friend of the arts who is looking for a worthy place to unload some cash for a tax deduction, we'd be happy to figure something out....

Suddenly, working with a crew of incredible folks has made the "start a journal" pipe dream seem not only feasible but achievable. We're doing it. We've got an awesome title, we've selected the pieces that will be published in our first issue, we've got a rough draft of the layout, we've got a cover design, and we've even got an honest-to-god stoneboat in Rob's back yard. The best part, though, is that there's more to come: the print issue (and then another, and another), readings, a website. Stay tuned -- it'll be worth it.