To really do something…

See a ladder; climb it.

As an undergraduate, I had the pleasure of hearing Dorothy Allison read–or maybe I should say I had the pleasure of experiencing her reading, because Dorothy Allison is the most engaging reader I have ever, well, experienced.  I was sitting in the WSU music hall with maybe fifty other people, ready for another subdued literary reading, and after a nice introduction (necessary for me, because I had never read her work before), out she came to read an excerpt about a woman making scones.  Sounds dull, right?  Except Ms. Allison put her whole body into this reading, her voice reverberating against the acoustic tiles, not only reading her words but at times nearly acting them out.  Between her performance (is there really any other way to describe such a reading?) and her words, I was electrified.  But I didn’t leave that music hall ready to write–instead, I left ready to bake. Read more »

Cover Variations

Hey! FaceoutBooks has an interview with the designer of our ol’ pal Jess Walter’s latest book, The Financial Lives of Poets.

Two things: Mad Men infiltrates the subconscious. And alternative color variations.

Oh, yeah. Read Jess Walter.

Is Wikipedia Creative Nonfiction?

Historically, Creative Nonfiction has been ill-defined…blahblahblah party line. Well, if you’re looking at history as the past thirtyish years, when an MFA program and a godfather got into the picture. If you’re looking at history as a lit mag submission deadline; if you aren’t seeing at as New Journalism, i.e. a midnight deadline. If you’re looking at history as…what, the fuck is history again? It’s bunk; it’s contested and repeated and the contestation is repeated… blahblahblah party/non-party line.

Ok, auto-self-edit up and new thesis statement edit 2 revision 2: New Journalism’s roots lie in reportage, which has always been about keeping records, investigating, bearing witness, and defining history in the moment. History, like CNF, has been accredited with an abrupt genesis, as an offspring of Herodotus, the Father of Lies.

(Footnote: Many of the events from the Persian Wars that Herodotus chronicled happened before his birth, so, in the strictest sense he could not have been writing reportage—in some cases, he didn’t witness a damn thing. He re-created scenes and dialogue, like Gyges’ killing of Candaules, framing the episode in a narrative structure complete with tension, climax, and resolution. Some of the information detailed in his history of the Persian Wars clearly came from second- and third-sources, which could have supplied him faulty facts according to the sources’ motives or own imperfect memories. He did not see ants the size of foxes burrowing for gold, but he heard about it and reported it all the same. CNF’s grandfather, if you will.)

Of course, news didn’t travel so fast in the ancient days. History hit the wires—telegraph, telephone, dial-up, and now Xfinity-fast wiki-entries. History used to be a “pack of lies that the living play upon the dead” (Voltaire); now it’s a pack of lies the living play upon the living: check out this multivolume set of every edit to the Wikipedia article on the Iraq War over the course of five years (“12,000 changes and almost 7,000 pages”). Read more »

Hey kid, wanna go for a ride? *brief intermission*

I unstrapped my stupid, uncomfortable bike helmet today during my 15-miler because I kept gagging on the nylon that rubbed against my neck while I attempted to swallow my anti-helmet pride. Thing is, the helmet was rendered ineffectual once I snapped loose the plastic clip. Were a sprawl of marmots to knock me into the street, the helmet would fly off and roll down the grassy hill of the Centennial Trail and my head would turn to ground chuck beneath the tires of a Dodge Viper. But I’m a cautious rider, and to anyone else watching, I was wearing a helmet; I seemed safe to my audience. But I knew I wasn’t really wearing a helmet. It’s like when my mom used to tell me to fasten my seatbelt, and I would wrap it around and sit on the tongue, but not slide it into the buckle; or brush my teeth without squeezing any toothpaste onto the bristles. Why go through the motions? What am I trying to convey to my audience? Is there any truth in my illusion of the truth?

Writing nonfiction is like driving with a cop on your tail – even when you know you’re obeying the rules, you probably aren’t. I’m tempted to make things up every time I sit down to work on an essay/memoir. But I don’t. It’s the last beam of clear-eyed idealism I have to hold on to, like refusing to talk to strangers, turning down beer and cigarettes, and so on. Unstrapping that bike helmet felt pretty good, though. And I’m about to read David Shields’ Reality Hunger, which, I’m told, proposes to bend the rules of nonfiction and destroy appropriation in ways that have upset nonfiction purists, part of whom I’ve always considered myself. This all simultaneously worries and excites me. The genre of nonfiction has yet to atrophy, and its rules are constantly changing, as though it were (sort of ironically) Wikipedia. But it is not okay to consciously make something up. Except for when it is – when one cannot remember the dialogue from a 25 year-old conversation, but one can remember just about everything else (one thinks), for example. I’ve always championed nonfiction for its limitations – one is forced to explore beneath the surface of the mundane to find their material. But I’m sort of excited about any leeway I’ll allowed myself after reading Shields’ book. I feel like I’m being offered drugs, or something.

Whatever – this was supposed to be a short post; I’ll go into more detail next week when I’ve read the thing. In the meantime, here’s David Shields interviewed on the Colbert Report.

The Lost Monster (No, not that one.)

A few weeks ago I mentioned that Bowker & Bowker (the ISBN monster) had unleashed its latest money-sucking trap for People Who Would Be Writers (PWWBWs): Bowker Manuscript Submissions (.com). The idea is that authors submit their proposals to Bowker’s giant pile of hard drives, where publishers looking to score the next great bestseller would come dig around and unearth wonders.

Except for the fact that it’s a completely stupid idea that nobody in their right mind would use, it sounded pretty good. And even though the self-publishing and large-scale writing community blogs were up in arms warning people not to submit, I (and presumably Bowker) figured there’d be hundreds of wannabe authors duped into spending the $99 for six months of having their proposal out on the Internetwebs.

Since membership is free for publishers, I signed up. After the service had been active for a week, I went and checked the numbers, expecting to skim through the hundreds of poor souls who’d wasted their money contributing utter crap manuscripts. But I was pleasantly shocked to find that it wasn’t full of utter crap.

Because it wasn’t full of anything. Read more »

Nothing for Money—or Ethics Columns

I'd totally eat a wedding cake for free

People wrote interesting responses to my mom’s provocative quote: “Never do anything for money you wouldn’t do otherwise.” I like to roll the advice around in my head because it can resonate best in some less literal ways and less in some of the more literal ones.

Obviously we all do work at work that we would not do if we weren’t paid to do so. I think the point my mom wanted to make, though, is that you shouldn’t do something at work that you would find morally averse, shouldn’t do something you would absolutely refuse to do if you weren’t being paid for it. Many of us would morally feel fine about milking a cow; we just wouldn’t choose to do it every morning at four o’clock in the morning if we weren’t paid to. Read more »

Libraries and bookstores

To celebrate my recent state of employed-ness, I took a detour from shopping for work clothes today and found myself in the bookstore. Here in mid-Michigan we’ve got a great independent bookstore called Schuler Books and Music, and when I go to the mall, I always park my car by near this entrance so that I have an excuse to peruse—and maybe accidentally come home with a book or four. Today I bought The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, and never mind that I already have a nice stack of books that I absolutely have been dying to read. I just love buying new books.

And that’s a big part of it there. I love buying new books. Not borrowing. Be it from the library or from a friend, I feel the need to own my own books. A few weeks ago I did borrow the next book in a series from my sister (who, unlike me at the time, had a job and could afford it), but as soon as I could, despite having already read the book, I purchased my own copy.

For years I told people this was because I liked to write in my books, and you just can’t (or shouldn’t) write in borrowed copies. And while it is true that I write in some books, I by no means write in all the books I read, or even in the majority. So then I had to think, and I think it has come down to two things.

First, I like to support the author. This is why I also buy all my books new rather than used, the sale of which doesn’t benefit the author at all. And second, I’m forced to confront a small measure of my own vanity: I really like the way all those books look lined up on my shelves, like I’m this great reader or something.

Thinking Like a Writer

Mine's not quite this bad

This week, my composition II students are reading (or are supposed to be reading) a chapter in their text book called “Thinking Like a Writer.” The two chapters they read (or were supposed to read) before were “Thinking Like a Negotiator” and “Thinking Like a Critic.” I didn’t have too much trouble planning the earlier lessons, but find myself struggling with what writer thoughts I’m supposed to tell my students they are supposed to have. Supposedly.

Like the two chapters before, this week’s chapter is about learning a process. I understand that beginning writing students need to know there’s supposed to be a process and that every paper starts with one. But I want my students to be more than just the classical college essay writers and to understand that the process might be different depending on what you write. And when you’ve written for a long time, you may have a writing process that works fairly well for everything you write, with a few modifications.

Googling “Thinking Like a Writer” gives more than eight millions results and although the thirty or so I looked through are all different–and several of them are about a book for lawyers (?!)–most of them mention something about process. I guess I’m struggling with this because I’m not sure I can really define my own process, or if I even have one. Also, every writer I know or have talked to about process describes it as something very personal.

How do you teach your undergraduate writing students about writing process? How do you avoid confusing them while still letting them know that there is some freedom in creating your writing process?

Art and its ingredients

I listened to this David Mitchell interview (summary and full interview available via the link) on Fresh Air several weeks ago. It’s worth a listen, particularly if you’re interested in Mitchell’s shift from the experimental (like Cloud Atlas‘s nested doll structure) to the (more) traditional in his newest work, The Thousand Autumns of David de Zoet.

One highlight, in which Mitchell addresses that shift:

I think it’s natural for youth to be drawn to newness: The world is still new for them. There’s a feeling that you can take part in shaping it and turning it into something new in your image. But then you age, inevitably, and … these sort of messy, human, muddy scenes become much more interesting. And you also realize that structure and originality and innovation is not actually a story: they’re useful ingredients in art, but it’s not art itself.”

waiting for kafka

i googled kafkaesque and found this. also images of "the easter bunny from hell" and betty white.

the other day, kakfa made the headline at the times.  coincidentally, that was the exact same day i was assigned to read selections from his complete stories, one of which was “the judgment”—which happened to have been written in one night, precisely 98 years ago (sept 22-23, 1912).  not only were all signs pretty clearly pointing me to read that short story, that night, but i had been wanted to read kafka for years, and just never gotten around to it.  so, i immediately went to the bar, got half-crocked on barleywine, and read not a word of kafka that night.

but i did the next night—going in with incredibly high expectations, despite what i saw from myself and colleagues during a summer class in which we all wrote short stories in a single night, twice.  everyone drafted some pretty incredible stuff, across the board, but none of it was ready to published.  then again, none of us were in that exclusive club of writers-as-adjectives (e.g., kafkaesque, dickensian, orwellian, shakespearean, and possibly “whitmanic”)(i’m not really sure that last one is a thing, or just something crazy poets made up).  the point is, the bar was set high for my first kafka story.

imagine my disappointment then when the story’s non sequiturs involved not fantastical things like man-bugs or eerily-familiar-yet-utterly-incomprehensible torture machines, but rather a father who’s either stark raving mad, or the voice of reason on which the entire story turns, with no real clue for the reader on how to interpret him.  either way, i can’t then follow a son who’s happy & eager to marry a woman one moment, and almost literally the next offs himself. this sort of bipolar nonsense needs more than a few pages to unfold.  though kafka purportedly loved this story, and told all his friends about it, i kinda understand why he wanted all his work burned after he died.

i’m still excited to read the metamorphosis today, but with a tiny bit of trepidation mixed in.  i’m just hoping this isn’t going to be like the time everyone said no country for old men was amazing(!), and i was like, “really?”

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