Since giving birth to my daughter two and a half years ago, I’ve been constantly fascinated with the experience of motherhood–from breastfeeding to navigating bedtime routines, it’s all been a lovely, messy, mind-blowing adventure. As such, I’ve found myself writing some short nonfiction pieces about my experiences. My very short essay, “The Breast Crawl” was recently published in issue 240 of Crack the Spine. It’s always gratifying to see a piece you’ve worked hard on find a home in a journal or magazine, but there’s something a little different about seeing your actual life in published form. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it yet, but stay tuned….
Junot Diaz recently wrote this powerful, moving essay about his childhood experience of sexual assault. Although many writers tend to shy away from this subject, some heroes like Roxane Gay delve into it. Male stories of sexual trauma, though, are pretty rare. That Junot Diaz, a writer I admire, and a man, was willing to come out in this essay seems pretty important to me.
If given the choice, would you rather a reader hate your story or feel indifferent about it? Most writers would choose the former, hands down. A hated story, at least, sticks with the reader (whether they want it to or not.) A mediocre story, on the other hand, barely registers as more than a mild annoyance.
In most cases, mediocre stories are those that have not been fully rendered. Perhaps the author did several rounds of iterative revision, but still couldn’t find the key to unlock the story’s full potential. Most mediocre stories can be fixed, but some can’t. So how do you determine whether to toss your mediocre story into the trunk or give it another go?
Asking yourself some tough questions can help you make the decision. First, do you care? Some stories lose resonance as we get older. If that’s the case, stick it in the archive, or maybe, send it to Moonglasses Magazine’s “What We Wrote When We Had Acne” category. Second, what are you going for with the story? Clearly articulating your vision for a story is a good way to troubleshoot mediocrity. Once you’ve done that, go through the story and see which parts conform to that vision, and which don’t. Do a couple of rounds of revision and see where you are. Finally, put the story down for a while–at least a month and more if you can stand it. When you pick it up again and read it with fresh eyes, what do you see? Anything worth salvaging? If not, this would be a good time to retire the piece. Or completely refurbish it. Sometimes a mediocre story can be gutted and reworked into something brilliant.
Writers cut their teeth on local open mics and slam competitions. Because writing is such a solitary activity, and because opportunities to share one’s work publicly are few and far between, these local platforms are invaluable to writers. The New Hampshire Writer’s Project sponsors an annual Three Minute Fiction Slam. The slam is “a fast paced literary competition that challenges writers to perform original pieces of fiction in three minutes or less in front of a panel of judges.” It’s open to writers of all ages and experience-levels, which generates a diverse array of pieces. Several semi-final Slams are held all across New Hampshire. The winner of each semi-final competes at the finals in March.
In 2015, I won the Slam with my short story “Street Names.” The experience was terrifying and exhilarating. I spent several weeks reading and revising my story obsessively. I pained over each word and sentence. Ultimately, I took a mediocre 1,500 word piece, and turned it into a sleek 532 word story that I was really proud of. The best part of the whole experience was being able to share my work with a live audience that reacted audibly to my piece (as you’ll hear in the video.) I published my story at Hobart, a pretty excellent online literary journal.
This year, I collaborated with the English department at my institution, and we held a Three Minute Fiction Slam semi-final. I am looking forward to watching the winner of the slam, one of our creative writing majors, compete at the finals next week.
I suppose every blogger has an obligatory, “It’s been so long since I’ve blogged” post. Here’s mine. Except instead of six months or even a year, it has been over three. Why? Lots of reasons, the most significant of which is the birth of my daughter. She is now a little over two, though, so it’s time to get back into writerly things in earnest.
So, what have I been up to besides working and being a mom? I did have a bit of an existential crisis. I did wonder if my writing was any good at all. I did contemplate putting down the (figurative) pen forever. But, alas, I pushed through. I came out of it a better writer, too.
I’ve been working on some new/old pieces, pieces that I wrote fifteen years ago and am currently refurbishing, hoping to get them ready for public consumption. I also have a couple of new projects in the works. In the meantime, I am writing every day, and checking my Submittable account obsessively to see if any “Received” statuses have changed to “In Progress.”
I am also reading like crazy. I’ve given up Facebook scrolling in pursuit of more useful and pleasant activities. I’ve discovered a couple of new (to me) lit mags, like Literary Juice, and Moonglasses Magazine.
I’m taking a different approach to this blog, too. Part of what kept me away was this feeling of pressure, this feeling that I had to write something really interesting or clever in order to post it to my blog. Maybe it’s the effect of two years of being a mom, or the fact that I’m turning 40 in less than a week, but these days I have a much more “come as you are” attitude. So you’ll be seeing more posts like this, just me doing my thing.
Stay tuned for more metawriting! I promise.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’m a total Murakami fangirl, so I was thrilled to finally get the chance to read this. This book is more straightforward than his dreamy, magical novels (Wind-up Bird Chronicle; Wild Sheep Chase.) In Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, Murakami only alludes to the parallel words that he foregrounds in 1Q84, but these allusions add a lot of texture and depth to the main story. Tsukuru is a typical Murakami male protagonist–a bit of a passive wanderer who just happens to find himself in a life that is, on the one hand, extremely normal, but on the other hand, a bit of a mystery. Tsukuru, along with his five colorful friends, and his love interest, Sara, are all compelling, and I was happy, as usual, to go along for the ride and watch things unfold.
My only reservation about this novel is that some of the interactions between Tsukuru and the others feel a bit stilted at times. For example, the phrase “she narrowed her eyes at him” was used again and again, but it did not convey the proper emotion of the scene–it was less that she was upset or angry, and more that she was thinking hard or being playful. It seemed a lazy usage. I wondered if these were some choices made by the translator that just didn’t work for me.
That being said, this novel is well worth reading. Murakami lovers and those new to his works will find a lot to appreciate.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
According to Paul Harding, he wrote Enon by listening quietly and waiting for Charlie to tell his story, one sentence at a time. This is apparent from reading the novel. The story unfolds organically, and there is nothing plotted or contrived about it. Nothing reads like filler or transition. It’s all movement. This creates a strong sense of intimacy between the reader and the narrator–you never feel Charlie knows anything you don’t know, or that he’s holding back.
Harding’s exploration of addiction is resonant and multi-dimensional. On the one hand, he is very matter-of-fact about Charlie’s addictive, destructive behavior, almost in the style of Denis Johnson. Yet, Harding weaves in existential introspection, memories of his daughter and his own childhood, along with otherworldly meta-narratives. There are so many layers to Charlie’s experience and to my experience reading this novel.
This book did not make me cry; it was more of a punch in the gut. The pain is psychic and visceral. It brings to mind a lyric from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (although I hear Jeff Buckley singing it in my head):
“Love is not a victory march/It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”
Another epic Pynchon adventure, Bleeding Edge takes the reader into New York city in the early 2000s around the time the dot-com bubble pops. We have a female protagonist who, like Oedipa Maas from The Crying of Lot 49, is an interesting mix of street smart, gritty, insecure, and nurturing. We also have lots of little winks from page via Pynchon, including funny names, like hashslingerz.com, the company that is the focal point of this work, along with it’s CEO Gabriel Ice–great name for a bad guy. Rocky Slagiatt changed his name to remove the final “i” for anglification purposes. Eric Outfield is definitely a bit outfield with his foot fetish. Maxine Tarnow, “though some still have her in their system as Loeffler” the protagonist, is sometimes called “Maxi.” Normally, I wouldn’t think anything of this, but the fact that Pynchon has a character named “Koteks” in The Crying tells me that “Maxi” hints at more than just a nickname.
We have jokes galore in this work, as with any other Pynchon adventure. There are the customary plays on language: “When was the last time anybody suggested even this obliquely that she qualified as…maybe not arm candy, but arm popcorn?” (17). Also, plenty of jokey details related to the setting and characters. A bar that serves Zima on tap, for instance, and Conkling Speedwell, guy who happens to be a “professional Nose.” This detail by itself is pretty funny, but it becomes hilarious when Maxine sez* to him, “Can I pick your—never mind.” I also really love the tech jokes infused throughout this novel. For instance, during a party, two nerds fight over whether or not tables or CSS is a more effective tool for formatting digital content. It’s funny because I’m certain that argument happened in real life many times over, and it’s also funny because it really does situate this story almost fifteen years in the past—no one would ever use tables instead of CSS anymore!
There are also the typical Pynchon conspiracy theories in this novel, mainly focused around 9/11 foreknowledge, but also alluding to some contemporary issues like corporate control of the Internet and the way in which digital and analog reality can sometimes merge in an uncomfortable way. Related to these issues, there was also a fair dose of commentary, particularly about 9/11 and post 9/11 activity. For instance, “11 September infantilized this country. It had a chance to grow up, instead it chose to default back to childhood” (336). And more broadly, a critique of the sometimes hidden costs of globalization: “[What we’ve always been is] living on borrowed time. Getting away cheap. Never caring about who’s paying for it, who’s starving somewhere else all jammed together so we can have cheap food, a house, a yard in the burbs…planet wide, more every day, the payback keeps gathering” (339). These critiques come through loud and clear in Pynchon’s voice, and carry a weight with them that is perhaps due to the heaviness of 9/11. Pynchon is a New Yorker, so he was there, making these critiques and observations deeply personal.
One thing that I love about Pynchon is his vision, which is haunting, resonant, and metaphysical, combining science, math, history, and philosophy in a heady, hippie-ish exploration. The vision comes through clearly in Bleeding Edge. In one instance, Maxi and some of the other characters, are on a boat and they pass a garbage island out on the water. The description of this smelly heap evokes not only grossness, but the human tendency to get rid of unwanted stuff without considering where it’s going, or who is going to have to deal with it. The garbage island also echoes the inevitable human decay that we are all moving towards.
Every Fairway bag full of potato peels, coffee grounds, uneaten Chinese food, used tissues and tampons and paper napkins and disposable diapers, fruit gone bad, yogurt past its sell-by date that Maxine has ever thrown away is up in there someplace, multiplied by everybody in the city she knows, multiplied by everybody she doesn’t know, since 1948, before she was even born, and what she thought was lost and out of her life has only entered a collective history, which is like being Jewish and finding out that death is not the end of everything—suddenly denied the comfort of absolute zero. (168)
Another spot where Pynchon’s vision really grabs me is after 9/11, and when the simulated reality game DeepArcher has gone open source, thus become accessible by many more people. As Maxine explores the simulated, digital world, she encounters the likenesses of casualties alongside their bereaved survivors.
[Their] likenesses have been brought here by loved ones so they’ll have an afterlife, their faces scanned in from family photos…some no more expressive than emoticons, others exhibiting an inventory of feeling ranging from party-euphoric through camera-shy to abjectly gloomy, some static, some animated in GIF loops, cyclical as karma, pirouetting, waving, eating or drinking whatever it was they were holding at the wedding or bar mitzvah or night out when the shutter blinked. (357)
For me, the image of people bringing their dead into a sim world was absolutely haunting, and resonant. It was the most striking image in this book. Continue reading
One of my all-time favorite Hemingway short stories is one most people haven’t heard of. In “A Pursuit Race”* William Campbell is in a pursuit race with a burlesque show. This means he’s trying to stay slightly ahead of them as they travel from town to town. He’s the advance man, and as long as he’s slightly ahead of them, he gets paid and doesn’t have to actually do any work. He uses the money for drugs and booze. This story was probably my first introduction to tragic satire, which over time has become my main squeeze–both in terms of what I like to read and what I like to write. William Campbell is a tragic, loser-ish type of guy. He gets caught in a cheap motel room by the manager of the burlesque show, Mr. Turner, “a middle-aged man with a large stomach and a bald head” who has many things to do. Campbell and Turner proceed to have a very funny, very sad dialog. Campbell remains in bed, hiding under a sheet, as he speaks to Mr. Turner. Hemingway uses the sheet as a comic prop: Here’s an example:
‘I got into this town last night,’ William Campbell said,
speaking against the sheet. He found he liked to talk through
a sheet. ‘Did you ever talk through a sheet?’
‘Don’t try to be funny. You aren’t funny.’
I’m not being funny. I’m just talking through a sheet.’
‘You’re talking through a sheet all right.’
Turner thinks that Campbell is a drunk, but he’s actually a heroin addict. This is revealed gradually through the dialog. It’s what makes the story sad. But even as things turn more serious and Turner tells Campbell to “take a cure,” William Campbell’s love affair with the sheet remains a central part of the dialog. When Turner sits down on Campbell’s bed, Campbell tells him “Be careful of my sheet.”
‘You can’t just quit at your age and take to pumping your-
self full of that stuff just because you got in a jam.
‘There’s a law against it. If that’s what you mean.’
‘No, I mean you got to fight it out.’
Billy Campbell caressed the sheet with his lips and his
tongue. ‘Dear sheet,’ he said. ‘I can kiss this sheet and see
right through it at the same time.
‘Cut it out about the sheet. You can’t just take to that
The story made such an impression on me that it found it’s way into my own writing pretty directly. In my short story “In a World Full of Crazy Talk” Bill comforts himself with a pillow after having an awkward one-night stand with Laura.
They were both quiet. He was resting his head on her shoulder and she was running her hand up and down his back.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know what it is. I don’t know anything.”
“It’s okay. You don’t have to know anything right now.” Laura wanted to give him some of her thoughts to make him feel better, but she knew it wouldn’t work.
He sighed, and she saw that he was still feeling bad.
He rolled over and buried his face in the pillow. “This is the best pillow,” he said. “This is the best pillow in the world.”
Laura smiled and kept her hand on his back. She was adding things to her list.
Bill said, “In a world full of crazy talk, there is sanity in this pillow.” His voice was muffled in the pillow and his hair was sticking up in the back. She smiled and kept adding things.
He said, “This pillow. This pillow.”
There’s just something about tragedy and bedding that really, really go together. Sad
absurdity, sheets, and pillows. It resonates. I love Hemingway’s “A Pursuit Race.” If you haven’t read it and you’re in the mood for something a little sad and funny (and a sheet) check it out!
*This links to Hemingway’s The First Forty Nine Stories in its entirety, so you have to do a control or command “f” and “a pursuit race” to get to the actual story.