Writing Process Blog Tour

William Boyle, author of the stunning, debut novel Gravesend, asked me to participate in this Writing Process Blog Tour.  Basically, a writer answers four questions then invites two other writers to answer those questions the following week.  He described it as kind of a chain letter for writers, which sounded pretty cool to me.  Check out his post for the Blog Tour here.  And see my interview with him from a couple of months ago here.  He has some really interesting things to say about writing.

Here’s my contribution.  And stay tuned for next week’s contributors, whom I’ll introduce at the end.

1) What are you working on?

Lots of things!  I’m drafting a novel I recently finished called In the Right Light, in Certain Mirrors.  The chapters alternate between six college kids, the focus being on how different, yet connected they all are.  I’m also working on a novel about Kyle Boot, the 15-year-old pale kid from George Saunders’ “Victory Lap.”  In my novel, we catch up with Kyle at age 39 and see what he’s been up to since the “geode incident”; I also recently started a collection of linked short stories about a teenage girl growing up in the Bronx.  My vision for the project is a cross between Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son and Saundra Cisnero’s House on Mango Street.  And as always, I have a couple of stand-alone short stories on the backburner, simmering in various stages of doneness.  The two I’m most excited about: a retelling of Lovecraft’s, “The Thing on the Doorstep” and a story about a woman trying to get into amature boxing and coming up against all kinds of obstacles.

2) How is your work different from others’ work in the same genre?

I loved how Robert Yune responded: “This is such a ‘dear in headlights’ question.”  Totally.  Don’t want to sound like a blowhard, popping off about the nuances of genre, but also don’t want to sound like you’ve never thought about what you’re actually doing and where you fit. I grew up in the Bronx, in a racially and ethnically diverse neighborhood, so code-switching, Santeria, and Jamaican beef patties make their way into my work fairly frequently.  In my day-to-day life, I felt this constant sense of danger, anxiety, and excitement.  I saw and did a lot.  Then at 18, I moved to upstate NY and got immersed in what I can only describe as a culture of suburban alienation.  I felt safer, but more disconnected from my environment and the people in it.  I had to prove myself all the time, but in a way that was totally different from how I had to prove myself in the Bronx.  I bring both of these perspectives to my writing, and sometimes they are both really present in a single project, which is interesting!

I think I’m always looking to straddle genres.  I’m a total fangirl for some of the innovative and fabulist writers out there like Amelia Gray and George Saunders, but I grew up on deeply personal, emotional writing, like the stuff you’d find in Oprah’s book club.  And I’ve also read a fair amount of horror and sci-fi.  So I’m always merging these approaches.  Think David Foster Wallace meets Judy Blume, occasionally with a witch or some aliens thrown into the mix.  In work of mine that I consider less successful, it’s usually because the writing is pulling too heavily in one of these directions: too cerebral or clever OR way too vulnerable, like cringe-worthy, like “Yikes! TMI.”

3) Why do you write what you do?

My primary motivation for writing is almost always my characters.  I find them so compelling and I want the world to know them, know their stories and struggles, find humor in the way they talk and think, feel empathy for some of their crappy life experiences, and maybe most importantly feel resonance and connection.  I am constantly inspired by the amazing authors and works I encounter, and when I read, I want to write.  Everything I read, even the stuff I’m not as crazy about, has an influence on what I write.

4) How does your writing process work?

It’s evolved a bit over time.  I started out as a major vomit writer–straight from my gut to the page.  I’d hear a first line, or a piece of a conversation in my head, and a few hours later, I’d have a story or a novel chapter in front of me.  But it would be rough.  Usually kind of out there, too. These days, I move a bit more slowly.  Maybe it’s just that I’m getting older, and that I don’t smoke cigarettes anymore.  My neurons don’t fire quite as quickly, but my work is more grounded, a fair trade-off.

My work ends up being more cohesive if I can manage to work on a project daily, even if it’s just for ten minutes.  My ideal scenario is to write every day for at least an hour.  That doesn’t always happen though, and in fact, it’s pretty rare. I have a pretty busy lifestyle–a demanding job in academia, almost two hours in the car each day commuting to work, and my Creative Writing MFA program.  Plus there’s my actual life–spending time with my wife and cats and friends and family.  And sometimes at night, I truly need to tune out–watch Master Chef or The Challenge.  So I end up doing these marathon writing sessions on the weekend.

That’s me and my work, in a blog tour nutshell.  Next week, check out Therese Walsh and John Langan, two amazing writers that I’m super excited to be passing the torch to.

Therese Walsh is the author of two incredible novels, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, and The Moon Sisters.  She is also the co-founder of Writer Unboxed, a site visited daily by thousands of writers interested in the craft and business of fiction.

John Langan is a fiction writer whose work tends to be located at the darker end of the literary spectrum.  He’s published two collections of stories, The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies and Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters, and one novel, House of Windows.  He’s also co-edited an anthology with Paul Tremblay, Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters.

Reflection: Arnold Friend and the Horror of my Imagination

I saw Arnold Friend today. Not really, but I saw a guy who could have been An Old Friend. I was taking a walk with my wife in our neighborhood, which is surrounded by wide country roads. The houses are a quarter of a mile apart or more with dense, wooded areas in between. A rare car was coming up behind us, so we moved over to give the car room to pass. It didn’t. It stopped right along side us, and the driver jumped out. He was short and sturdy with curly blond hair. His back seat was full of stuff, glass bottles and tin cans, probably other things, but I didn’t want to look for too long.

“Morning,” he said.

“Morning,” I said back. And the usual kinds of thoughts flashed through my mind: he’s going to take a rifle out of the trunk and start shooting. He’s going to grab my hair and try and pull me into the backseat with all those bottles and cans. I gripped the set of keys in my pocket and took a quick, mental survey of all my best boxing moves; I decided, though, that a quick kick to the nuts was probably my best bet.

Turns out, though, he wasn’t in the market for gunshot victims or kidnappees that morning. He simply opened the rear driver’s side door and rummaged around in the back seat. My wife and I kept walking. Maybe there was something rolling around back there, annoying him. Part of me felt a little silly, but a larger part of me felt justified. He probably was planning something, but then changed his mind. Plus, he did look an awful lot like Arnold Friend.

I’ve always been a bit of a scaredy cat. Afraid of the dark, or afraid the devil was going to possess me. Afraid someone was going to break in and kill me, or at least torture me. I’ve had panic attacks while lying in my bed at night, to the point where I had to actually get up and turn on the light. I was convinced that someone or something was in the room with me. I often make my wife walk around our house at night, checking all the nooks and crannies and closets for unwanted guests and ghouls. And as with the Arnold Friend incident this morning, my imagination is easily triggered into scenes of violence and gore. It has always been this way, and I can’t help but invoke the old chicken or the egg question: am I like this because I’m a writer, or am I a writer because I am like this? Continue reading

Reflection: On Being Evelyn…For a Minute

I had a pseudonym once: Evelyn Jeandron. Evelyn is a name that I’ve always loved because, like my name, Irene, it evokes old women, horses, and reality television. I also liked the ambiguity around pronunciation that Jeandron created. Was it “jen-drun,” “genedron,” “gene-drun,”?

Oh, and I also liked that Evelyn Jeandron sounded like a fake name.

So I created a gmail account and a Google+ profile. This is when I found out more about Evelyn. Turns out she’s a pack-a-day smoker with something deep and dark brooding behind that cloud of smoke. She’s a bartender at a fake bar called The Pour House in Brooklyn, NY. She went to Bronx High School of Science, but didn’t go to college at all. Not even for a semester. I wondered why such a smartie pants ultimately decide not to go to college, and I hoped to find out by reading her fiction.

After a month or two of submitting stories as Evelyn Jeandron, I got one rejection, and one acceptance in her gmail account. The acceptance was very exciting, but it brought about a few little problems that I hadn’t anticipated.

Problem one: Now I have to answer Evelyn’s email. Barry Graham of DOGZPLOT Flash Fiction wrote to Evelyn to inform her that he was going to publish my story, “Horses.” He had a few minor changes to recommend. I responded that I’d be happy to make the changes. But then when I went to sign the email, I realized I had no idea how Evelyn referred to herself. Was she EJ or Ev or Eve? After several painful minutes, I simply picked one–I think it was Eve Jeandron–and then in all subsequent emails, I decided to save myself the trouble, and just stick with plain old Evelyn.

Problem two: She’s stealing my stories. Great, I just published a story! But wait, it’s published under someone else’s name. So can I even take credit for it? Since I had gone to all the trouble of creating this whole other identity, what would be the sense of putting this publication credit on my CV? And even if I did, people would be confused when they saw the Evelyn Jeandron byline.

Problem three: I keep forgetting the damn gmail password! I would reset the password and then forget what I had reset it to. This got really annoying after about seventeen times. Continue reading

Snippets: The Stages of Un-Creative Writing

I don’t believe in the creative process, at least when it comes to writing. In my experience, writing is an act of obsession, insanity, and escapism. That being said, a writer can have a fairly normal life, filled with the unexpected channeling of weird spirits, crying in public, pacing in front of a computer, laughing alone in a room, and seeing visions. And that’s just stage one. Stage two involves no creativity either. Stage two is when Mr. Man comes in, reads your work, and says, “What the shit is this? This is garbage. Throw it out and start over.” Of course writers never listen to Mr. Man. No. We wait for stage three, when Mr. Kotter comes in, pats us on the back and says, “Did I ever tell you about my uncle Max?” Stage four is workshopping. People who have read your writing sit around a table and take turns talking about it. They start with what they really, really, really liked. Then they say what they didn’t like at all.  Then the next person goes and says exactly the same thing.  In stage five, you have an almost finished piece, and man does that “almost” burn. It can take FOREVER to get those not-quite-right words or phrases worked out. And it’s not a creative process; it’s generally by sheer force of will that the writer is able to wait out the tremendous block that has fallen upon him or her.  Stage six is “sending it out” or queerying in the case of a novel. This stage is just about as fun and creative as hitting yourself in the head multiple times with a sledgehammer. In stage seven, your piece either gets accepted, or you give up, take a break, and work on something else for a while, in which case the whole shitty process starts all over again. Yeah, it’s a pretty normal life. But creativity has almost nothing to do with it.