Friday, October 31, 2008

The Short Story

Well, I did it. Fifteen years have passed, and I finally wrote a new short story.

I envy those writer friends of mine who have drawers full (or is it hardrives full?) of them. Some people I know can write them on demand like a deejay taking requests:

--Um, yes, I need one to submit to this contest. Theme is Waterparks. 2000 words or less.

--Sure, when would you like it by?

--Friday, and can you give it a little mystery? I hear judges like that."

For me, writing on demand is like painting by numbers. It can be done, but WHY?

Short stories have vexed me. Most places who publish them like them to be short. This allows for more stories within a given space, and (in our attention deficit world) maximizes the chances a given story might be read. My problems start with a novelist's sensibility that has trained me for the marathon, not the sprint.

I'm still telling you about my protagonist on page 12, and while this is to be expected in the world of novel-telling, it is a tragic flaw in the short story cosmos, a flaw which most short story writers would label weakness of discipline (or editing).

So to venture back into this world was perilous at best. Could I employ the subtleties of characterization, the nuances of dialogue to tell a complete story, beginning to end, in a few pages? More importantly, could I tell a story that ventured beyond episodic, a story with purpose and import for the characters?

The answer: I don't know. But I do know this: After a painstaking week, I have 11 pages, 2,820 words. I have two characters with two major problems that for me were fascinating when put together in the same room. I chose a restaurant (brief aside here: my friend Carol reads short stories for a major U.S. literary journal, and she says that if she read one more short story that takes place over coffee in a coffee shop, she will experience violent stomach regurgitation. There is a question as to whether Carol would feel nauseous after reading my story. For the record, my characters drink red wine and whiskey.). I attempted a Carveresque ending. I took a legitimate shot at emotional pathos in a harsh world. So, does it all work?

Again, don't know. I feel satisfied. The pay off with a novel comes at the end, which means, every few years, I can say I have finished something. This week, I can say I finished something (or abandoned it, as the Valery quote goes) for better or for worse. I think I like it. But most importantly, I did something I didn't think I could do.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

William Ackerman

When I was eight years old, I started playing drums (much to the disappointment of my quiet-loving parents). Because this affinity for banging on things turned into an obsession that eventually became a semi-professional career, I have never been able to read, study, write, or do just about anything studious when background music has any kind of percussion accompaniment. The fingers start tapping. The foot slides into the bass line. Next thing you know, the pen is a drumstick, and I'm working toward the next fill.

When writing became an obsession for me, I had to find music that would work as an integral part of the creative process, but also something that would not distract my mind or alter the mood. That's when I discovered William Ackerman. If you are unfamiliar with this guy, let me clarify: he started Windham Hill Records back in the early 80s, and his first album was a little CD by an unknown guy named George Winston. In addition to virtuoso guitar playing, his other talent came in producing--and really inventing the New Age Jazz genre (in my humble opinion).

Will Ackerman is a one-man band--a guy with an acoustic guitar. But this is guitar on a higher plane. Steel strings, warm tones, melodies that swell inside the heart and head....Music as art. To afficionades of the instrument (I consider myself a fan, not an afficionado, because I do not play guitar, and more to the point, I CAN'T play guitar, not a single chord), his open tuning style creates infinite possibilities of sound and textured notes that share the same space. The melodies are understated, but catchy. The music catalytic and subliminal in how it engages. I write better, think better, reflect better. Can't really say why.

Ask any writer, and he'll tell you a favorite: "I listened to XXX when I was writing this book." For the past ten years, I have catalogued a treasure trove of Windham Hill guitar, piano, ensemble recordings, but William Ackerman keeps emerging as the beacon for my best work.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Just a sample of a heart-stopping passage by David Foster Wallace. Jeez, is it me or does this passage feel surreally allegorical? (I still can't accept that he's gone).

An excerpt from the title essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (DFW after attempting skeet shooting for the very first time [and this during his very first cruise]).

OK, let's not spend a lot of time drawing this whole indcident out. Let me simply say that, yes, my own skeetshooting score was noticeably lower than the other entrants' scores, then simply make a few disinterested observations for the benefit of any novice contemplating shooting skeet from the rolling stern of a 7NC (7-Night-Caribbean) Megaship, and then we'll move on: (1) A certain level of displayed ineptitude with a firearm will cause everyone in the vicinity who knows anything about firearms to converge on you all at the same time with cautions and advice and handy tips pass down from Papa. (2) A lot of the advice in (1) boils down to exhortations to "lead" the launched skeet, but nobody explains whether this means that the gun's barrel should move across the sky with the skeet or should instead lie in a sort of static ambush along some point in the skeet's projected path. (3) TV skeetshooting is not totally unrealistic in that you really are supposed to say "Pull" and the weird little catapultish thing really does produce a kertwanging thud. (4) Whatever a "hair trigger" is, a shotgun does not have one. (5) If you've never fired a gun before, the urge to close your eyes at the precise moment of concussion is, for all practical purposes, irresistible. (6) The well-known "kick" of a fired shotgun is no misnomer: it does indeed feel like being kicked, and huts, and sends you back several steps with your arms pinwheeling wildly for balance, which, when you're holding a gun, results in mass screaming and ducking and then on the next shot a conspicuous thinning of the crowd in the 9-Aft gallery above.

Finally, (7), know that an unshot skeet's movement against the vast lapis lazuli dome of the open ocean's sky (this is a satirical jab at a similar cruise essay by Frank Conroy) is sun-like--i.e. orange and parabolic and right-to-left--and that is disappearance into the sea is edge-first and splashless and sad.


Monday, October 13, 2008

What (Besides Books) is on Your Bookshelf?

A few years ago, I had floor-to-ceiling bookshelves built into my office, and then proceeded to stuff them full of books. Already, I feel like I need more space. That's because my library card is merely for show. I can't seem to read a book without facing down the urge to own it. I want to pluck it from the shelves from time to time and relive the reading of it. After all, the experience of reading is about as important as the story itself: e.g. There's Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Read that one in 1994, and I remember finishing it at the kitchen table one morning before school started (I was teaching then) and flinging it across the room when Henry shot himself. I still love reading that prologue. You find out who did it FIRST, then spend the rest of the book figuring out why. Too cool. I love thumbing the pages.

Then of course, as is a function of humanity, I can't not notice the clutter that has taken root on my shelves. For reasons predictable and not, books on a bookshelf aren't enough. There must be landmarks of personal endeavor, trinkets of memory, photos, and random paraphernalia that marks my life in addition to the books. It's a visual album, laid out, observable in a glance, not just the books of my life, but the other accouterments of time spent reading and writing and living. There's my wife at age 20. There's my favorite drummer in a concert photo I bought off e-Bay. Plates with my children's handprints on them. I have a signed manuscript page from a William Styron essay about Robert Penn Warren (whose high school I was living in when I was reading The Secret History--very Kevin Bacon-ish). I have a framed photo of Dealey Plaza at sunset, the place where John Kennedy died. I have handmade boxes from a monastery in Spain, a public market in Honduras, La Ramblas in Barcelona. I have a picture of me with my friend Pat Conroy and the envelope that he wrote his agent's name on--who ended up being my first agent. There's a caricature of me the art teacher at my first school drew when I left that job. I have my first novel manuscript suffering in obscurity just above a Black & Decker book on how to build a porch (which I did--starting the week after Maggie was born, a lapse in judgment I continue to hear about to this day).

A great bookshelf is a chronicle, a time line in rows and stacks and mementos, a shorthand to what's been crammed in your brain over time. It's a permissive self-indulgence, one that pleases me, especially on this morning where I'm writing about writing because I really should be writing on my novel.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Poetry: The Fiction Aphrodisiac

Unlike Marianne Moore, I don't despise it.

Once graduated from the hallowed halls of academia, I am now free to choose the poets with whom I am "intersected." Billy Collins explained this to me once. He said you as a person have intersections with poets, and every now and then, the person you are (at that moment in time) collides with a certain poet and his/her work (at that moment in time), and something resonates. What's the other saying? When the student is ready, the teacher appears.

I have my list: Whitman, Dickinson, Eliot, Williams, Stevens, Stafford, Wilbur, Kinnell, Meinke, Olds, Collins. And those are just the recent Americans.

Reading "distilled" words--verse--boils away the superficial layers of muck on the brain. It allows quicker access into that place where the ideas lie. I just read The Niagara River by Kay Ryan, our latest Poet Laureate, and her words spark like flint. She can turn an image on its head, a concept into paper:


What's the use
of something
as unstable
and diffuse as hope -
the almost-twin
of making-do,
the isotope
of going on:
what isn't in
the envelope
just before
it isn't:
the always tabled
righting of the present.

And suddenly, I'm off onto character landscapes, nuanced plot, detailed description. It's the fiction aphrodisiac.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Break Throughs

Even the word makes you feel good. Scientists find a "break-through" on cancer. A salesman "breaks through" to the next level in his production. A golfer has a "break through" on his swing; now he no longer slices (imagine my relief!).

They're like epiphanies, great moments where the cosmos aligns and slips you the nugget of enlightenment. Break-throughs are the conquering of barriers (picture doors splintering as hulkish bodies clamor through). They are the light through clouds. They startle, but comfort. They test us, but renew enthusiasm. For the writer, they're essential to finishing.

Every novelist knows there are sticking points in a project: the 150 page block, the multifarious drafts of endings, the first chapter that becomes the second that becomes the third, the fount of ideas that has run dry.

I've been at a sticking point since my agent told me I don't have a marketable book. Do you recast or abandon? Commit to action or languish in inaction? Give in to your adolescent complaining ("Nobody understands me!") Where are you, Hamlet, Prufrock, Gregor Samsa, Poor Sophie?

As they say, you fake it till you make it, which I have attempted in an effort to be a "real writer" i.e. a writer who does not falter in the face of rejection. "No, I'm not quitting on this novel. I will keep re-working it." (Then return to staring out the window.) I repeat Kipling's mantra "Drift, Wait, Obey." I relive my story, trying to understand its faults. I ask the characters, "What are you doing? Why?" Just what the hell is "non-marketability" anyway?

Then the other morning over coffee, still staring out the window, I experienced the moment: the "break through", the light bulb flipping on, the stuffy nose clearing in an instant. What-if's swarmed like locusts. Ideas crystallized in high-def images. Characters spoke clearly. I saw the story map itself, scenes clipping by each other like that cool little CD flippy thing in iTunes. I changed the point of view. I changed and added a narrator. We would still go to Dallas. Danny would indeed win Addison by the end. I would write 1963. Got it all down before the words evaporated.

I'm sure this wasn't THE break-through. Many gooey sticking points lie like flypaper in wait. However, for today, the advice of a friend finally broke through: Tell a good story. Your characters will rise up like angels. The rest be damned.