The Mark Blog

DISTANCES

As a runner, a writer, and mostly as a human being, I have been thinking about the tragedies in Boston. I have been thinking about the families who lost loved ones and the individuals who have been injured. I have been thinking about the people who have witnessed the bombings and their aftermath, who, perhaps, will be forever changed. I have been thinking about all of the good people who gathered last Monday in Boston to cheer for the runners. I've also been thinking about the joy of running and, more specifically, the sweetness of a marathon.

Running, like writing, is mostly a solitary sport. But on marathon day, it's as if the whole world is running with and cheering for you. Everything is vibrant and the world pulses– brightly, generously.

In a piece written in The New Yorker last Monday, shortly after the explosions, author Susan Orlean reflects on her New York City Marathon experience and the spirit of a marathon in a big city, characterizing it as "an exceptional, joyous moment, when [people] come together in the sweetest way, helping each other fly." (Source)

Also in The New Yorker, Dan Chiasson offers "A Poem for Boston," citing a 14th-century poem by Piers Plowman. He also reflects on the tradition of the marathon as a display of human endurance, alluding to the legendary origin of the 26.2-mile distance. Upon finishing, the first runner supposedly died of exhaustion. Chiasson writes, "Everyone is defying, in one way or another, mortality, the actual finish line whose figurative embodiment they plan to cross." (Source)

As I write this, the words “revision,” “reimagining,” and “faith” continue to surface in my mind. I wish we could revise what happened, and reimagine a new space in which the tragedy was averted. Then there's faith. Prior to the explosions, I'd been thinking about how making art demonstrates a belief that it is possible to uncover the shape of something meaningful, something that echoes the heart, even if the world seems incoherent. Now, in the aftermath of Boston, the necessity of unearthing and articulating emotional truths seems all the more poignant. Lastly, runners—last week's runners; next year's runners; runners every day, on every road, between now and then—are demonstrating faith that great distances can and will be covered, one stride at a time.

THE BIG PICTURE

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Since the moment I heard this Chinese proverb, I have loved it. Over the years I’ve recalled this saying when feeling overwhelmed by a large task.

One of the great things about writing short stories is that they’re so manageable. Each tale can be seen as a separate entity. In my mind, a daunting undertaking such as writing an entire book can be slimmed down to writing a story. It’s just 10 or 20 or 30 pages, I tell myself. No big deal. Make it the best I can: rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Start a new one. Periodically revisit previous pieces. Years pass and a collection emerges.

The only problem is that at some point a writer has to view the big picture. The structure of a single story is one thing; the structure of an entire collection is another. There are matters of theme, chronology, emotional weight, and characterization. A balance amongst the pieces needs to exist. The structure needs to be clear to a reader. There are a myriad of ways to craft a book. It comes down to this: it just needs to work.

To begin pondering structural considerations, I wrote down the title and year of each of my stories on an index card. Some people put these cards on a wall or floor. I carry them around in my purse. As I wait for an appointment or find I have a couple of minutes, I shift through the cards. I shuffle them up. I’m starting to see possibilities I never considered.

I also look at books I admire. Some of these books are story collections and others are novels. The important consideration for me is if the book tells its story from multiple points of view.

One of my favorites is Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. This book follows the stories of four Muslim people who are illegally crossing into Spain via the Strait of Gibraltar in an overcrowded inflatable boat. There are two sections: before the immigration attempt and after. Each character has a story in both parts. This chronology flows well and makes logical sense. Additionally, there’s a tension that carries through the entire read. In part one, the reader learns what brought each character to take on such a life-changing risk. There’s a lot of motivation to read the second part– some characters make it to Spain, others don’t. In each situation, lives are changed and affected.

Even though I’m still in the process of revising many of the stories, I’m thinking about the larger scope and organization of the project. It’s time to put energy towards the big picture.

THE MARK INTERVIEWS ROB ROBERGE

Rob Roberge's fourth book, the novel The Cost of Living, is forthcoming from Other Voices Books (Spring 2013). He’s a professor at UCR/Palm Desert’s MFA and has taught at the MFA program at Antioch, Los Angeles, and at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, where he received the Outstanding Instructor Award in Creative Writing in 2003. His stories and essays have appeared in numerous journals and have been anthologized several times. Previous books include the story collection Working Backwards From the Worst Moment of My Life and the novels More Than They Could Chew and Drive. He plays guitar and sings with the LA punk band The Urinals.
                                                                                                                                                                   

What advice would you give an unpublished fiction or non-fiction writer with a polished manuscript ready to submit their work?

As hard as it is to hear—be ready for a lot of rejection. Just being good, or even great, doesn't guarantee publication or representation. At least not quickly. I've been doing this for over twenty-five years—more than half my life now. (I was actually a late starter compared to most of my writer friends…many of whom wrote as kids…I didn't really write anything until college.) I've been teaching creative writing since 1996. And one thing I've seen over and over is that if someone writes well and is relentless about sending their work out, they usually end up doing well, publication-wise.

If you took a brilliant writer who had trouble with rejection and a mediocre writer who took it in stride, as part of the business, and just kept sending their work out—the mediocre writer will have a much more impressive (on paper, publication-wise, at any rate) career.

So, my advice would be that if that unpublished writer took all the care and work and study that it takes to create a polished, publishable manuscript, then they should be willing to deal with the part of the business that is often dull and painful. Submitting work and waiting for word isn't anybody's favorite part of the writing life, I don't think. But, if you worked that hard to learn to write well, if you've honored your craft and art, if you've done all of that, then it's just good to remember that you owe it to yourself and to the work to deal with the submission process. And realize you're not alone. Everybody (this includes your favorite writer, whoever he or she is) has had to deal with enormous amounts of rejection. Most well-published writers STILL deal with more rejection than acceptance. Know you're not alone.

The other, perhaps more practical, thing I would mention is this: just because an agent says they want to represent you does not make them the best agent for your work. The old saying that it's better to have no agent than to have the wrong agent is true. Just because they want to represent you doesn't make them right for you. Ask them questions. Get a feel for how they view your writing. This is a more important relationship than most—you will probably have several more editors in your writing life than you will agents. Get a real sense of who they are and how they go about their business. If something feels wrong in your gut about them, something probably is wrong.

What is a critical step in the revision process?

One critical step is being open to the changes that make the manuscript better. And sometimes that means letting go of things you like but that aren't good for the manuscript. For instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald said that anyone can cut bad writing (not true, but everyone should be able to), but it takes a real writer to realize that sometimes cutting very good writing is what makes for great writing. Be able to defend why every single word is in the manuscript, and "I like it" is not a defense. A writer needs to be able to make a sound aesthetic argument for every choice he or she makes.

What is key to writing a great character?

There are probably a ton of them, but one area where I think people go wrong in a fundamental way is that they try to dictate and control who a character is, rather than listening to the character as he/she develops on the page. A writer needs to listen to his/her text at least as much as they try to control it. When characters start doing and saying things that you had no idea they were going to do or say, that's a good sign. It means you're more inside the character, seeing the world through their eyes and their history—which is not the same as yours.

The Mark Program is broken down into three parts: the Defense, the Mid- Project Review, and the Final Review. Can you tell us how this structure helps a manuscript?

I think it gives the project structure before its final stages, during its final stages and near their completion—which is something I think I could have benefitted from greatly with my first publishable book-length manuscript. I still finished the book, but I did much of it blind. I didn't have a plan. I didn't have a schedule. I didn't have anyone asking me key questions about the manuscript at every stage, or caring that I hit my deadlines and finished both to a high standard of quality and on time.

What is the key to getting to the heart of a story?

A big part of it goes along with what I was saying about character—getting to the heart of the story has as much to do with listening as it does to the writer's ideas about what they thought or think their book is about. Most good work comes from the writer asking questions. Milan Kundera said that an idea, even a solid one, may not be enough to give a writer one story. But that a question could offer them a whole career—he said that his entire writing career was born from the question of what happens to the individual under totalitarian regimes. And if you look at his work, this question is explored in work that is very different in character and event/plot and setting. The work is unified by a writer's governing obsessions. So, a lot of finding the heart of your story is in reading and listening. The story will tell you what the story wants to be if you pay attention and avoid your ego trying to determine these things.

Also, it may sound simple, but identifying the central desire(s) of your protagonist (and, by extension, all of the characters) will give you a clearer sign of what your story's about than anything you might think going in. A writer needs to always be in touch with the two questions a reader cares about:

1) Who do we care about?
2) What do they care about?

When you know what your people want, you can set them in motion in their world. And the nature of desire is that it's met with opposition….and desire met with opposition creates tension and conflict. And when you put your characters under pressure, what is revealed is what's truly inside them. So—what do your people want? What are they willing to do to get what they want? When you are asking question like this—questions from the inside out (rather than ideas dictated by the writer), you are getting much closer to finding the heart of both your characters and their story.

Tell us about your new novel, The Cost of Living. What was your biggest challenge in writing it?

It covers about 30 years in the life Bud Barrett, a professional musician who's spent much of his adult life fighting his drug addiction and trying to find answers about his mother's suicide and his father's violent past. It's a book about a character trying to come to terms with both what's happened to him and what he's done—and about the price he's willing to pay to be a different and better person than the one he's been.

The biggest challenge? Probably it applies to your previous question. I did several drafts of what I thought the book was before I really—with the enormous help of my editor at Other Voices, Gina Frangello (who also happens to be one of my favorite writers)—found the heart of the story. At first, for probably the first five drafts, the book was a linked collection of stories. That was my original intention. And, ultimately, the book wanted to be a novel. That was the form that was best for exploring the life of the protagonist. And it took quite a while and a lot of writing to realize that it should be a novel told in chapters—not stand alone short stories. So, the biggest challenge, as is often the case, was in finding the story inside the story I thought I was telling and allowing myself to listen to the work, listen to what it was trying to say.

Who would you recommend apply to the Mark program?

A writer who is not far away from reaching the final draft of their manuscript. Someone who has come as far as they can with an enormously promising manuscript, but who would benefit from the guidance of professionals for the polishing stages. It's a great program. One I wish I could have applied to when I was trying to get what later became my first novel ready for agents and editors.

The Sweet Stench of Failure

I’m fascinated by both success and failure. Success is nice; I’ve enjoyed the rare times I’ve achieved any level of it. But given the choice, failure is always more interesting to write about.

Who wants to read about someone who gets everything they want? Sure, maybe you go for happy endings, but a story generally only captures our attention if everything goes wrong along the way.

Every rewrite comes out of failure. The beginning’s not working: failure. Rewrite it. Now it works better. But the middle doesn’t match: failure. Rewrite it, etc. Writing is a series of failures until you finally get it right, or at least think you do. Then you send it out, and find out how many more times you can fail.

Clearly, every writer must face rejection hundreds, if not thousands, of times. To do this and not consider oneself a failure: that takes some major cajones or foolish confidence. In any case, if fragile egos can survive, failure is what can push good writers to become great ones and weaker ones to quit altogether. This isn’t a profession for wimps.

A lot of the stories I’m working on deal with some degree of failure. Generally, each character begins at a low point, things proceed to get lower, and eventually there’s some glimmer of hope. Some end on an up-beat note, others end ambiguously, and some have their hopes once again squashed by failure.

I think I’m partially fascinated by failure because I myself have had so much of it. All the clichés hold true though: you learn from your mistakes, no pain no gain, nothing ventured, a bird in the hole – actually I forgot what that last one even means, a golf reference?

The point is, failure proves you tried. And some of the times I’ve been most moved in my life have happened around my noble failures. Like this sweet old Jimmy Stewart-esque fellow who auditioned his comedy act for me, even though I was just working box office at the club. His act was so bad, so dated and unfunny, and yet he was so earnest and eager, it broke my heart. I literally had to go to the back room and cry after he left.

Many great comic actors have played some version of the loveable loser. Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Peter Sellers, Jerry Lewis, Steve Martin, Ben Stiller, Steve Carrell– the list goes on and on. Their characters do everything wrong, and audiences love them all the more for it.

These kinds of characters find their way into literature as well. Dostoevsky and Kafka’s anti-heroes often fall into this category, as do Bukowski’s, Updike’s, and even Salinger’s. I might add the protagonist of Panorama City, by The Mark’s own Antoine Wilson to this esteemed list.

Interesting, though, the difference in the examples I’ve cited. In movies, the losers usually aren’t so bright, probably because in film physicality trumps words, and broad/slapstick humor can play. Whereas in books, which have more to do with language and complexity, the characters often shine with a certain kind of intelligence, even as their lives fall apart around them. It reminds me a bit of Marshall McLuhan; the medium is the message, or, in this case, the form dictates the content.

Is that a startling revelation? Or is it just plain obvious? Did I just fail at being profound? Oh well, hopefully I’ve learned from my mistake, and I’ll come up with a better ending next time. Now go and do something smart, like read a book!

WRITERS' REEL: F. SCOTT AND ZELDA FITZGERALD

Today we take a glimpse inside the lives of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald in this rare compilation of photographs and footage taken of the eccentric couple. The material of this video focuses primarily on the pair during the early-to-mid Twenties, before the deterioration of their marriage, and ultimately Zelda's sanity.

A Better-Focused Lens

Last night I went to a reading at a theater in Santa Monica. My teacher, speaking to the entire audience, reminded me of the first task she assigned each quarter. To write a glimmer, one gets in and gets out. Most everything is concrete. There are few abstractions.

Recently, I rediscovered an excerpt from a NY Times editorial that I’d saved months ago. Roger Rosenblatt writes, “One morning at breakfast, when she was in the first or second grade, E.L. Doctorow’s daughter, Caroline, asked her father to write a note explaining her absence from school, due to a cold, the previous day. Doctorow began, ‘My daughter, Caroline…’ He stopped. ‘Of course she’s my daughter,’ he said to himself. ‘Who else would be writing a note for her?’ He began again. ‘Please excuse Caroline Doctorow…’ He stopped again. ‘Why do I have to beg and plead for her?’ he said. ‘She had a virus. She didn’t commit a crime!’ On he went, note after failed note, until a pile of crumpled pages lay at his feet. Doctorow concluded, ‘Writing is very difficult, especially in the short form.’

At 18, I lifeguarded at a ritzy country club in the Berkeley hills. I scanned three enormous pools, composing poems in my head. After each forty-minute shift, I’d dash to the pool house and scribble the phrases that I’d repeated in my mind so as to keep hold of them.

In the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time on airplanes, and I’ve realized that recycled oxygen and a lack of space keep me hunched over my tray table, working until the wheels re-find concrete.

A friend of mine, a fellow classmate at UC Davis, is working on a project that consists of 100 stories of precisely 100 words. Last I read, she is on #102.

In college, a teacher handed us a cocktail napkin and directed us to write a story on it. For fun, my sisters and I sometimes blindly point to a word in a newspaper and then, in fifteen minutes, compose a story that employs it.

My favorite New Yorker cartoon portrays a man on a busy city street corner, shouting into a cellphone, “Sorry, there are eight million people in my office!”

Perhaps boundaries are beneficial. The world is big. Our minds and memories are expansive. Each of our many experiences is intertwined to another, and another, and another. I’ve discovered that if I try to touch on everything, I say nothing. However if I set limits—of time, words, topic, even work space—I can often better focus my lens in order to find greater clarity. In subject and in process constraints can, paradoxically, liberate me.

Space And Time

We haven’t had workshop since mid-March. This time is to be spent finishing and rewriting our manuscripts. At our last meeting, I was given notes on how to make a story better. Over the past couple of weeks I had completed most of my rewrites. However, a couple of small but important matters were still bothering me about the story. They’re the type of rewrites that require deep thought: a character’s reaction to conflict, a story title.

These issues can be tricky. They involve authenticity with characterization and a precision with words. Getting in touch with characters is like getting a bucket of water from the same well where our dreams reside. Logic doesn’t always apply. It’s not the same type of thinking required when writing an outline or legal brief. If it were, the story would come across as contrived and manipulated by the writer. Sometimes this type of revision involves luck and time and the “answer” coming to you—not the writer coming up with the “answer.” Writing can be a balancing act between art and craft.

Frustrated with the lack of insight and progress I was making with one of my stories, I needed a little space and time. This weekend I decided to spend some unstructured time with the story–to just sit and think and read and look at the physical pages without a goal or end product in mind. Like most people these days, my hours are scheduled and accounted for. This move was an anomaly for me. I spent time rereading the stories in “After Rain,” a stellar collection by William Trevor. I analyzed and reflected on the titles of his stories. Trevor has a way with titles: “Timothy’s Birthday,” “Child’s Play,” “Lost Ground,” and “A Day” are some of my favorites. Sometimes Trevor simply lifts a small detail from the story, such as “After Rain.” And yet the phrase is much more than a little detail. It somehow makes the entire story even more resonant. It reminded me that a title doesn’t need to be smart or funny or witty. In fact, that can often hurt more than help, setting the reader up for a misread. The title also shouldn’t give away too much of the ending or the theme.

After this mini-study of Trevor’s collection, I went back to my manuscript and lifted a detail to use as a title. It feels like the right title—I’ll have to wait and see if it sticks with me. This issue is only one example. A lot of breakthroughs happened this weekend with a couple of stories in the collection. A little space and time was all I needed.

The Worst Poetry I Have Ever Read

 

Walter Benton was an American poet and writer. His book of poems titled This is My Beloved was published in 1943 and sold roughly 350,000 copies by 1949. Despite the popularity of his poetry, a recent article on biblioklept.org written by Edwin Turner has called Benton's work "...simply quasy, bad writing.

Here is an excerpt from Edwin Turner's Biblioklept article:

I had never heard of Walter Benton or his (unintentionally) hilarious volume This Is My Beloved until that moment. So what is it? Combining the worst elements of Whitmanesque free verse with a downright silly conceit that these are diary entries, This Is My Beloved attempts to be the erotic record of a passionate love affair. Benton tries to keep his language sultry, sexy, and sensuous without veering into pornography, but the results are bizarre and grotesque.

Continue Reading

When Does It End?

“Writing is Rewriting” – Ernest Hemingway

Second Hemingway reference in a week, and I’m not even a huge fan. Actually, a lot of writers have revealed this secret, if it ever needed revealing.

I’ll add my own: A writer who’s satisfied after a first draft probably isn’t a writer.

Hemingway also said he once rewrote an ending 39 times. The fact that he actually counted, well, either that was just an outright lie, or, back in the age of typewriters (see last blog), one actually did keep track. Nowadays, who can? It’s too damn easy to write, delete, repeat. Seems like every time I go back to a story, I end up rewriting the first paragraph. In some ways it’s the most important paragraph, the one that will keep a reader reading. Yet it seems like an endless task toward a perfection that never arrives, to say nothing of all the paragraphs that follow.

I always think of a story like a sculpture. You start with the stone, a sense of what the story might be, and then chip away until you find out what it actually is. This frequently ends up being nothing like you had imagined.

Lately, my revision process is a lot of fine-toothing. I can literally spend hours on a page, wrenching the words until they sound right. Of course, what’s “right” is a purely subjective idea, a decision made by me and only me, in a room alone (or sometimes in public, but still, alone). This is both a freedom and a burden. On the one hand, no one else can tell me what to write. On the other hand, no one else can tell me what to write.

In my theatrical past, writing was collaboration. Firstly, many pieces were co-written, discussed, and rewritten before we even cast the play. Then if lines weren’t working in rehearsal, we could rewrite them on the spot.

Story writing is a different beast altogether. All the elements must already be in place on the page: the characters, the setting, the plot, the rising action that drives the characters to a point of crisis, at least if I’m following traditional narrative structure. And then there’s the theme, what the story is saying, why it matters, the axis upon which every other element must in some way revolve.

While we’re at it, why not add that I’d also like my work to be hilarious, heartbreaking, and, oh yes, original!

It’s tough to judge this on my own, but I know I’m getting close when I read something over and don’t wince. The rewrites gradually lessen, and I feel I could be closing in on the finish line. Until someone gives me notes about how it’s not working. Then it’s back to the rewrite again.

I’m still growing. I don’t plan on stopping any time soon, so the way I write will evolve as well. When I come back to a story, I’m going to see it differently every time. The hope is that after years of revision, I will feel confident enough to send it out, and someone will like it enough to print it into book form. And then, even though I’m sure I’ll never feel finished, I will finally be able to move on. To the next rewrite. Of the next book. And on and on, and so forth, etc., etc. Ad infinitum. Hallelujah. Amen.

Writers' Reel: Bronx 6th Grader Wows NYC Poetry Scene

In honor of National Poetry Month meet Kioni "Popcorn" Marshall, an extraordinary 12-year-old poet from the Bronx. Follow Kioni's emotional journey as she prepares for her first featured performance at New York's famed Nuyorican Poets Cafe.

Created and produced by @radical.media, THNKR gives you extraordinary access to the people, stories, places and thinking that will change your mind.