Alas, I'm in love with a book again. Granted, I'm only 22 pages in, but like so many young married kids say on their Facebook pages,"When you know, you know."
Frederick Busch's collection of letters from established fiction writers to their apprentices promises to change my life. Encouragement is vital to success. As of late, I've been feeling uninspired, untalented, and underwhelmed in my writing life, often writing more on Twitter and text message than on my typewriter. But I'm making an effort to stifle my own insecurities by just shutting the hell up and writing.
But what do you do when you've managed to surround yourself with people who care about and support you and insist on reading your senior BFA thesis despite how bad you now recognize it to be? Who do you avoid with no parents trying to convince you to go to law or med school, instead leaving you sweet notes saying how proud they are to be your father? Well, you just doubt yourself, of course. It's the loudest and quietest voice—no one but yourself charged with arguing and disproving it. It's never your own stupid voice that ignites your competitive spirit and hastens you to prove it wrong. Oh, what a difficult, tortured, blessed life.
But before this turns into some hack self-help session, enter Letters to a Fiction Writer, edited by Frederick Bush. Himself a fiction writer, he addresses his introduction to an agent who rejected his novel years before, sending him this note:
Dear Mr. Busch,
Ah, if only you wrote fiction as well as you write letters of inquiry.
According to my sense of humor, it's a funny note. But Busch uses the sarcastic and dismissive note to illustrate the purpose of this compilation: to encourage. He celebrates the community found among writers and highlights letters not solely from the recognized "greats" but from those who actively took (and are taking) part in mentoring and nurturing the younger of their breed.
He purposely leaves out letters from Joyce, Dickens, Hemingway, and Flaubert because of the characteristic self focus and promotion found in their letters. They do not advance his purpose: to create a "book... of counsel and sustenance." (10)
The letters are authored by "writers [who] offer their language to members of the eccentric extended family of fiction writers..." (10) Busch promises me that I am "about to receive the wisdom of those who know, from the inside of the process, what a writer might need, from time to time, to hear." (11)
The first letter, from Lee K. Abott to his son Kelly, recounts a defining moment between him and his own father: "In 1963, my father, drunk on Ron Rico and history, was taking seriously, in a way I hadn't or couldn't yet, what it means to be a writer—that ours is an obligation, maybe like that the saints have, to make sense of what, singly or as a tribe, has befallen us; that we, those with the language and the imagination and the memory, must bring shape and order to all that's locked away; that we, yeah, must write it all goddam down—all that bedevils and beleaguers, all that mystifies and frightens, all that's revealed, literally and figuratively, when the 'past' is sprung open before us." (16) I teared up.
He closes, instructing Kelly, and all of us (thanks to Freddy), one last time: Write it all goddam down.
It was in a pile outside Harvard Bookstore in the Remainders section. Several things go into the purchasing of an unknown title by an unknown author (to me, of course):
1. The cover. Listen, we all know the rule, but who are we kidding? 2. The types of praise and types of givers-of-praise on the book. For this one, the praise came from Esquire and New York Times Book Review. Additionally, the praise didn't sound farfetched or cliche; instead, Esquire described Means as, "One of the most original writers of short fiction working today," while NYT assured me,"There's not a cheap emotion or a predictable conclusion to be found.... Humane [and] unaccountably lovely." 3. Places the author's been published. (This isn't some snobby weeding out of unpublished authors like myself, but rather a way to gauge what sort of reading I'm getting myself into.) He's been published in the New Yorker, Harper's, Esquire, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and The Best American Short Stories. I read two of those on a regular basis, and one of them has been a source for many of my favorite short story discoveries. 4. A sample of the writing. I really only read the title for the first story, "Railroad Incident, 1995," before deciding to buy it. Usually it takes more convincing, but this one was only $2. I'm a sucker for a bargain and a good title.
That long-windedly said, this collection has not let me down. The first story left a little to be desired. There were moments throughout that kept me reading, but overall, it didn't knock me over. As I read on, though, into the second and third stories, I started to see the proof for the quotes listed on the back of the book.
The second story, "Coitus," (I know, right?) was an astute account of distraction, of the splitscreen capabilities of our minds and bodies. Usually we can recognize our distance from a certain experience in hindsight, a feat that is all well and good, but here it is, spelled out for us in play-by-play form by Means. On the surface: an intimate moment between two people, Bob and Ellen. Just a bit deeper than surface-level, the lack of intimacy is revealed, representing the common tendency to mistake moments as meaningful simply because we need them to mean something. Bob recognizes his taking advantage of Ellen's need for meaning, but does not revel. There is a stripe of self-criticism, of self-hatred, that is made even darker by the tone of the memories that distract him: his brother's death, hearing the gunshot that killed a utility worker who committed suicide.
The only thing that snaps him from his flashbacks is noticing Ellen's attempt at intimacy and recoiling: "Ellen, six years younger, still taut around the jaw but not clear-skinned, her own eyes hickory brown and small and close to his, maybe too close because he began the waves again to get her away, to move her back to get her to shut those eyes white and pink, that white-pink behind-the-eyelid thing" (22).
It's actually a terrifying story if you've ever felt you were on a different page than someone else. It forces you to admit the undue forgiveness you might've provided. But really, Ellen is guilty of a similar deceit: she is not there to create an equal union or provide love for Bob. She is taking something from Bob that has nothing to do with Bob and never will. The climax of this story doesn't come with Bob or Ellen's climax; it comes right before, when Bob is holding back from climaxing without knowing why. It's when Ellen asks him if he's okay, if he's just resting, and we see the extent of their communication happens in one word responses that reveal nothing. Mean nothing.
What I Wish I'd Written:
"Am I wrong, Bob? As if he'd know; as if any of us know; and there is that working feeling now he should have been lost in it, to it, just taking her for all she was worth, but he's suddenly acutely aware of the wrinkles in the sheets--which he'll smooth out, tuck tight, sniff and test, maybe have the cleaning lady replace (this is Wednesday, isn't it?); there was a moment in Barcelona with Cindy when he'd felt this exact sensation--that the sheets had been slept on before--and when he went down to speak to the man at the desk he found it was true. They were in the wrong room."(27-28)
It seems there are more things than ever to criticize these days, which is why when an old professor said there are no writers left like Mark Twain, it seemed to be a bleak forecast of unchecked wrongdoing. I am not saying we should criticize the knee jerk compassion that has been shown since the earthquake, but there are definitely things to think about. Usually I turn to the Onion for ridiculous stories that make me laugh or wince with objection, but this time they've paid homage to Mark Twain. And did a damn good job at that.
Of those many things is David Foster Wallace's short story collection Oblivion. However, the description "short story collection" seems ill-fitting and dismissive, considering Wallace is a master of the English language. Though the opening story, which I admittedly did not make it through and skipped for the greater good of my sanity, is dense and painful to wade through, it's the kind of pain referenced in the phrase, "No pain, no gain." However, Wallace doesn't throw his mastery of the language in your face, rubbing it around, pointing and laughing at your inferiority. He simply demands, with each sentence (and they are epic), that you pay very close attention to what he is showing you.
Why'd I buy this book in the first place? Last Thanksgiving a good friend of mine introduced me to the story "Incarnations of Burned Children," one of the stories in this collection. Honestly, I bought this entire book so I could own that one story. (Yes, I have bought entire albums for one song.) And here's why: Wallace doesn't just tell you the story of a baby having hot water spilled on him and the reactions of his parents immediately after. Instead, he simultaneously puts you into the situation and above it without confusing you once. I can't even describe what he does so flawlessly without being confusing. His sentences have a breathless quality that forces you to continue reading without pause in a way that parallels the father's reaction in the story. The rhythm of the sentences, the details he gives along with the precise moments he decides to give them, all work together to form one of the best stories I've ever read.
Of the other two stories in the collection that I've read, one in particular stuck with me. "The Soul Is Not a Smithy" is a tapestry: at first my interest was piqued because of the subject matter (crazed substitute teacher begins writing "KILL THEM ALL" on the chalkboard in front of a frightened classroom), but my interest was held because of the narrator's sincerity in relating the events. Wallace doesn't choose to tell the story from the usual characters; he doesn't describe the process of derangement in the substitute teacher, or the slow recognition of impending danger from the other children in the classroom. Instead, the story is told from the perspective of a kid whose attention isn't easily paid to the front of the class. He describes in the type of detail reminiscent of hand stitching a hem (which, if you haven't done, requires great concentration with the goal of emulating the accuracy of a machine); not only do you believe that this kid stares out the window and comes up with stories in his head, you are told the thread of the story as it happens with peripheral flashes of the goings on in the classroom. The result is an eerie division of events that eventually collide, not suddenly but gradually, in a way that only when you look back can you see how the events of real life affect the events of the boy's "daydreams."
Word of advice: Don't read this on the train. Unlike the boy in the story, you need to pay close attention.
What I Wish I'd Written: "...and the Daddy kept saying he was here he was here, adrenaline ebbing and an anger at the Mommy for allowing this thing to happen just starting to gather in wisps at his mind's extreme rear and still hours from expression."
"...though hours later what the Daddy most won't forgive is how badly he wanted a cigarette right then as they diapered the child as best they could in gauze and two crossed handtowels and the Daddy lifted him like a newborn with his skull in one palm and ran him out to the hot truck and burned custom rubber all the way to town..."
We've all seen them: the sketchy ads lining the margins of websites or the grainy back pages of the free dailies that serve as street decor rather than news sources. They tell us: "Get published!" "Become a model!" "Lose 100 Pounds Fast!" If the hyperbolic promises punctuated by exclamation points don't tip you off that they're gimmicks (polite word for "rip offs"), their faux-humble request for money should. If not that, then the bogus testimonials that seem to be describing the Second Coming rather than a realistic product should. If not that, well, then, you're out of luck, my friend.
However, now one of these once-outrageous promises is being backed up and carried out by Smashwords, an e-book publishing company. It was launched in 2007 by Mark and Lesleyann Coker, spouses and co-authors of a novel set in the behind-the-scenes world of daytime soaps, when they couldn't get their novel published. (It is said that the manuscript wasn't picked up because "[it was] questioned whether soap opera fans read books." Wow.) Frustrated by such arbitrary obstacles in a world that seems to have eliminated most hurtles via the digital age, Coker decided to take the decision of what's readable out of publishers' hands and place it back into the hands of the readers. Enter Smashwords.com.
Boasting "175,430,897 words published," Smashwords' website is well-organized and simple, allowing readers to search by author, genre, or publisher. With so many authors that the general population is probably unfamiliar with, there's also a section for the most downloaded, best sellers, most viewed authors and publishers. It's also simple to publish with them, which can be a blessing or a curse. Now that practically anyone can publish their original material, it'll be harder to filter the bad from the good. But the philosophy behind Smashwords is that the filter be handed over to the reader rather than the publisher. The harm of bad writing getting published online is much smaller than if everyone were allowed to publish physical books. Especially in a setting such as a website, it's easier to scan and skip. Rather than clogging up the bookshelves of a bookstore, you don't have to see or move around books that don't interest you. Also, the prices for the books are cheaper because of the format, some of them even offered for free.
The question at hand, as has been brought up with the release of the Kindle, SonyReader, and the more recent Nook, is the quality of the reading experience when it's done online or in any medium other than the traditional physical book. Of course, the answer to this question is a personal one; my own answer is that nothing, not even the satisfaction of lowering our carbon footprint, will replace the pleasure of holding a book in my hands and flipping through its pages, setting it down (if I can), and picking it back up again. But from the perspective of a writer rather than a reader, assuming you can separate the two, this opens up so many possibilities for creativity and experimentation that the traditional world of publishing doesn't always embrace. Not only can I find books and authors that might have been overlooked because of circumstances completely unrelated to the quality of writing, I am also allowed to reach an audience without having to navigate the exclusive world of book publishing.
However, this also raises the question of self-editing. Do I, or the general public author using this publishing platform, have the ability to put my best writing out there without the help of all the backstage hands in the publishing world? Nothing of what we read has been published without going through many hands and minds to make it what it is. Without all of those influences and filters, can Smashwords really be a force to be reckoned with? Can I?
I've been MIA. Like the band but without the accent. It isn't that I haven't been reading, it's that I haven't been writing. There, I said it. It's out, and like I imagine it is in AA, the first step's been made and I'm on my way to recovery. I feel all out of sorts, like I've been drinking a lot of water but not letting myself pee--like so many words are building up inside of me. I've started letting it out in leaks, random bursts of stolen minutes that I dust my typewriter off. It's like picking up a habit I accidentally let fall by the wayside. We're getting reacquainted. It's terribly romantic and wonderful.
In short, updates to come. Read One Hundred Years of Solitude while in Costa Rica and have begun my obsession with Garcia Marquez and things that don't make sense and do make sense at the same time.
Nabila and I are starting a break-up letter project that consists of us writing break up letters to one another. I'll post a few on here when they're finished.
What I Wish I'd Written: ANYTHING. Anything at all.