Image: Kelley MacDonald
Yesterday I had my Mid-Project Review for The Mark Program. Usually, I get so nervous in interview-type situations that everything becomes a blur. I become both energized and exhausted. It’s exciting and, at the same time, I leave bone-tired and not remembering half the things I’ve said.
Fortunately for me, yesterday’s Mid-Project Review was not a blur. I don’t know what set it apart—a good meal beforehand? Familiarity with the committee? The fact that we hold workshop at the same table every other week? Whatever it was, the details of our conversation remain clear to me, and I’m particularly grateful, because I’m compelled to write and revisit pieces of my manuscript, based on our discussion.
I entered the one-hour meeting anxious to hear what the members of The Mark committee (Rob Roberge, Antoine Wilson and Libby Flores) thought of my revisions to my novel-in-progress. After years of workshops, I’m pretty good at accepting critical commentary on my writing but, of course, receiving positive feedback is always more fun (even if it isn’t as productive for the writing).
In truth, though, I know that for my readers, responding critically actually requires far more engagement than presenting praise. And it helps propel writing, whereas praise typically, stagnantly, and more simply, buoys it. I believe that positive reinforcement is crucial, and I also believe that constructive, nuanced criticism is a gift. I don’t always enjoy processing it, but I do enjoy the end product of having improved my writing because of it.
So, the fact that the tone of The Mark discussion was both evaluative and encouraging felt just right to me. The committee members posed questions that I hadn’t before thought to ask of my work: Why is the chronology structured like this, and not this? What is this character’s role, and do we know her well enough for her to fill it? Have I yet made choices about X?
And while it’s frustrating to me that I don’t have the answers to all of these questions yet, I’m also heartened by the fact of being asked them. Now it is my responsibility to take these challenging questions and feedback and respond to them, both consciously and intuitively, in my writing.
Driving to work each day, I pass by the Alcove in Los Feliz. The Alcove is a charming indoor/outdoor restaurant/café. A few months ago I learned they opened at 6:00 AM. Ever since, I’ve wanted to get up an hour early so I can go there before work. Every time I plan to do this, however, something gets in my way. Mainly I get in my own way. I am not a morning person.
The past couple of weeks I’ve been working on a new story, but I've felt stuck. I needed to do something different, something new. Wednesday morning I resolved to finally get up early, go write before work. There were many reasons I could put it off. For one, daylight savings started. If I were to leave the house before six it would be dark. Very dark. You can see where this is headed—there’s always an excuse.
Tuesday night I set the alarm and Wednesday morning I awoke determined. It felt more like midnight than morning when I got there a little after six, but I made it. I accomplished more than I thought I would. I had a productive hour of writing before work. A great way to start off my day. Best of all, there wasn’t anything to distract me. I had the whole place almost to myself. The delicious blueberry scone and latte were an added bonus.
Reflecting on my experience, I figured out what made this early morning writing session work for me. I’m thinking of making this a weekly routine. I made a list of guidelines:
Pick a time, stick to it and don’t get side-tracked. In other words, wake up, get ready, then get on the road. Do not eat or drink anything—I can do that at the café. Part of my problem in the past was getting caught up with little tasks. Even on the way to the café, I was considering filling up the gas tank, catching up on some paperwork, paying bills, and checking email. These are all things I can easily do after work. To waste precious morning time is pure procrastination.
Take only my notebook, pen, phone, and wallet. Everything else is only a distraction. I have been seduced by the work folders in my bag too often. “It’s only…” turns into a twenty minute task. If I only have an hour, doing such a task eats up one-third of the time.
Use the phone only as a time keeper. That morning I set the phone's stopwatch for my allocated time, then didn’t look at it again. Before I knew it, that bell-tower tone was going off. Time to stop and rejoin society.
When I exited the Alcove, the sun had risen, all traces of darkness lifted. With pages in my hand, I was in a much better place for the day.
I’m starting this blog post on a plane returning from a brief trip to Seattle, where I re-connected with old friends and saw a play called These Streets, about Seattle's underground music scene in the early '90s. I lived there for most of that period and for the majority of my 20s. Just being in the city again brought back many memories, and seeing the show on top of it only dipped me further into this endless pit of nostalgia.
Each city block triggered the memory of some life-altering event, some drama played out in a house I lived in, a bar I drank at, or a park I frolicked in. Seattle is rich in so many ways, in trees and greenery, in rain and greyness, in drinks, drugs, depression, and damn fine coffee. When I lived there, I drank it all, devoured as much of life as I could, and often shat it out on stage in a punk rock theater group I co-created called Piece of Meat Theatre.
More than the city’s sights and sounds, it was the people who changed my life. I cherish the bonds I formed, both at Cornish College of the Arts, where I studied theater and befriended artists from all disciplines, and afterwards performing with Piece of Meat, where I met literally hundreds of crazy, talented, audacious, and adventurous souls, thriving in a small but vibrant little scene.
We were poor, we struggled, but we were creating. We would go to each other’s shows and party late into the night discussing them. We made flyers collage-style, copied them at Kinko’s, and staple-gunned them to telephone poles. We lived in hovels for next-to-nothing, so we could work less and create more. Nobody had cellphones. Nobody was online. Without these distractions, we were more prolific. We put up shows as often as we could, wherever we could, and as cheaply as we could. We were lucky to break even. We once used all the profits from a play to fund a weeklong camping trip.
Piece of Meat could adapt to many venues: black box theaters, art galleries, warehouse parties, and rock clubs. Some of my favorite gigs were with the post-industrial, anarchist, tribal-noise band Tchkung, who would use rifles, chainsaws, and fire in their shows, and clear rooms with smoke bombs, only to continue the gig out in the streets. One time they drove a truck into a club and passed out drumsticks, encouraging everyone to pound away. There was always a sense of danger at their shows, that things could spiral out of control at any moment, which made it all the more wild and fun, something I rarely find these days.
My favorite venue was the legendary OK Hotel, a classic old bar in Pioneer Square with a big stage in back, that housed anything from “grunge” bands to avant-jazz groups, poetry slams to experimental performance cabarets, which was where Piece of Meat got its start, and often returned, until the Nisqually earthquake in 2001 shut it down for good. The club, as well as many others, was name-checked in the play These Streets, which is mostly about the female-fronted rock bands eventually usurped by the rise of grunge and somehow written out of the history books. I admired the play’s attempt to correct this, to shine light on a time when people were creating for the pure love of it, with little concern for commercial gain.
I dedicate this blog to another forgotten Seattle scene, the unclassifiable performers who mixed theater, comedy, music, and mayhem in alternative venues all over the city. The spirit lives on still, and has been carried forth to other cities as well. Piece of Meat relocated to LA, but, for various reasons, called it quits after a couple years. Some friends of ours like Reggie Watts, Lady Rizo, Filastine, and Lauren Weedman, to name just a few talented ex-Seattlelites, have found great success elsewhere without losing their awesomeness. Not to mention the many others who continue the fine tradition of independent performance in Seattle to this day.
So why am I apologizing?
Because, despite all the vivid memories and rich details of the city readily available in my writer’s toolbox, I’ve chosen to set all my stories in California. Why ignore this seminal place in my life? Since my stories now chart one character’s journey from middle school to middle age, I simply have too much material. It’s already daunting enough to cover all these various ages, but to try and navigate the details of a whole other place… it’s overwhelming.
But don’t worry, Seattle. If nothing else, my recent trip, as well as writing this brief post, has inspired me to save you for another book, if not several. You’ll have your day. I just hope I do you justice.
Author and former literary agent John Hodgman gives tips on how to make it as a writer. Find out why writing what you know may not be enough.
Image: Judy Evenson
Running is something that, like writing, I simply can’t put my finger on. It’s probably because it’s so precious, so close, something I love so much, that I can’t see it objectively enough to name why. I’m not particularly fast, I’ll never place in any category for any race, and I sometimes wheeze—but it makes me so happy. As author Benjamin Cheever says, I run “for the joy in it.”
I’ve been thinking about running even more than I do normally because I’m in the heart of training for a 50k race. I’m mentally preparing myself for this distance, longer than any I’ve ever run before, by thinking through the logistics as well as daydreaming about the glee of it. To train physically, I’m putting in my time on the trails, and trying to be alert to signs that I need rest and recovery.
It’s funny to me that two of the ventures I love most—writing and running—are so different. One entails trotting around outside, in the fresh air, feeling my entire body. The other is characterized by hunching over a laptop, indoors, tapping out words, often unconscious of my physical self. Of course, as others before me have pointed out, there are also many ways that these two activities are analogous. Each can be intensely solitary, though I also believe deep friendship and intimacy can grow from sharing miles and writing. And both require endurance—the long haul of writing and revision, and the long haul of time, miles, and hills.
I’ve discovered that there are many writers who run/runners who write. These include, to name a few, Haruki Murakami, Joyce Carol Oates, Don DeLillo, Benjamin Cheever, journalist Nicolas Kristof, Mona Simpson, and New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean. Many of these writers have written about their thoughts on the union between running and writing, with these general senses emerging, each of which I can relate to:
Running is a way to discipline the body and, therefore, the mind. Running is a way to free the mind entirely. Running is a way to create structure in the day. Running is a way to build endurance. Running is a way to move rhythmically. Running is a way to release frenetic energy. Running is a way to increase energy. Running is a way to find quiet.
In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami writes, “What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue… I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void.”
So, while I don’t know what Murakami’s void, or anyone else’s, feels like, I know that when I reach mine it entails a greater capacity for clarity. I am in my body and beyond it. I think and I don’t. I see, hear, feel, and yet there’s absolute silence, stillness—nothing and everything. When I return home, I know more and I know less, which I think is a good place from which to begin writing.
Writers on Running:
“I do about four hours [at the typewriter] then I go running. This helps me shake off one world and enter another.” —Don DeLillo
“I don't think I would ever actively think, Oh, I'm going to fix this sentence in this way or I'm going to start my lead in this way… It's like meditating. What you think about while you're meditating isn't itself creative. It's the fact that your brain can cool off for a little bit.” —Susan Orlean
“Talent's important in both endeavors, but in both writing and long-distance running, talent becomes less and less important over time. I'm a much more successful runner now at 60 than are many of my peers who were faster than me in high school. And I'm sure I've had more successes as a writer than many more talented people. I just spent more time writing. Stephen King once said that a writer is somebody who writes for two hours a day for ten years.” —Benjamin Cheever
“We share an interest in rudimentary forms of transportation.” —John Cheever on his love of walking and bicycle-riding, paired with his son Benjamin’s passion for running
“Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day. These are practical, physical lessons. How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate—and how much is too much?... How much should I be aware of the world outside, and how much should I focus on my inner world? To what extent should I be confident in my abilities, and when should I start doubting myself?” —Haruki Murakami
"The mind flies with the body; the mysterious efflorescence of language seems to pulse in the brain, in rhythm with our feet and the swinging of our arms.” —Joyce Carol Oates, in “To Invigorate Literary Mind, Start Literary Feet”
This is not a new notion. Writers have been offering advice to other writers forever. Books such as Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke document this phenomenon.
When I was young, I had this idea that some writers were so talented they didn’t need any assistance. They wrote well and were published widely. Then I found out that even Hemingway frequented, and was nurtured by, Gertrude Stein’s salon in Paris. I learned most writers have mentors or reliable readers who give editing and revision advice. Finding a community can be hard when a writer is just starting out, working by himself. Writing is such an isolated activity that finding support from others who are further along on the path is partly a matter of luck.
A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about the recent passing of Emerging Voices Fellow Robbie Frandsen. I decided to email Kevin Starr, Robbie's Emerging Voices mentor, and ask him for a quote about Robbie. Mr. Starr kindly replied, saying:
"Whether as a mother, a dedicated church woman, a committed writer, or as a loyal friend, Robbie Frandsen set high standards for herself and met them with quiet and persistent courage. She was an Anglo-American working woman who came up the hard way, worked in a factory, graduated from USC and Harvard, and in mid-life discovered yet another career, writer. I consider her an heroic figure. Her courage and generosity inspired us all. Now, she is with that Light Who guided her through the challenging last decades of her time on this earth."
I’ve never met Mr. Starr. He was Robbie’s mentor, and she held him in highest regard. Mr. Starr is a historian and professor of history at USC and wrote the multi-volume collection Americans and the California Dream. After the Emerging Voices program, Robbie kept in touch with him. He continued to read her new material and offer feedback.
The Emerging Voices program is an amazing opportunity because–among other things–it pairs writers with established mentors. I had a positive experience with my mentor, Deanne Stillman. As I mentioned in another post, I remember and use a lot of the writing tips I learned from her. I’ve heard many similar stories from other fellows. I’m grateful for the experience. It’s just one way that PEN Center USA helps writers.
And Emerging Voices led me to The Mark program, where I continue to learn from our instructor, Antoine Wilson. In addition the program also has a panel of people who follow the progress of the participants' manuscripts. One of these follow-ups (the Mid-Project Review) is coming up in about ten days—on St. Patrick’s Day, no less. Eric, Marissa, and I will be given feedback and asked questions about our revisions. Being a part of all this is makes me feel truly lucky.
Just in time for AWP! Shortlist.com has published a list of the 30 best literary pick-up lines. It's in the form of a slideshow so you'll have to visit the page to take a look. Here are some of our favorites:
"Never say love is 'like' anything... It isn't." - The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon
"The first breath of adultery is the freest." - Couples, John Updike
"I don't want no better book than what your face is." The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
On Friday I turned in my Mid-Project Review packet. There were a lot of late nights last week. The manuscript is by no means complete, in fact it’s a bit of a mess, but it’s coming together. I’m generating a lot of new material, which will have to be workshopped, re-re-written, all the usual stuff. But for now, I can breathe a sigh of relief that I turned in the project in its current, unfinished state.
Now we’re in a semi-break period as we await our hearing, er, I mean, our review, so I have a little time to get back to the other essential part of the writer’s life: reading. Last week, I spoke of the importance of having a reader, but being one is equally important. In the last couple months, I’ve bought some books that relate to my own writing in some way, so I thought I’d compile them for you here. Let’s call it My Spring Reading List:
1. Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
In an earlier blog post, I discussed David Shields' controversial assessment that the traditional novel is a dying art form. He has written that poet/author Ben Lerner is his “doppelgänger of the next generation.” This book, which details a year Lerner spent in Spain on a Fulbright scholarship for poetry, is a prime example of that blurry line between fiction and memoir that Shields so admires. Though the narrator does have a different name, they share most of the same backstory: childhood in Kansas, education at Brown, the Fulbright, etc., so there is reason to believe that there is a lot personal narrative within the book. Since I’m attempting a somewhat similar approach in my collection, I thought it was worth a look.
2. Dirty Havana Trilogy by Pedro Juan Gutierrez
Gutierrez is a Cuban writer who details his life of poverty on the streets of Havana. The main character in these linked stories is, like Guiterrez, a disillusioned journalist who pursues women, rum, and writing with equal passion. This book piqued my interest for several reasons: the alter-ego persona, the linked stories, as well as the sexual content. By page 3, we’ve already had a graphic anal sex scene. I’m hooked!
3. Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan & Cacilda Jetha
Rarely do I go nonfiction bestseller. But the premise for this book intrigued me: It challenges the traditional argument for marriage and monogamy, asserting that their roots may be much more cultural than evolutionary. I’ve read that the book oversimplifies some modern theories, that it reverts to pseudo-science to support some of its theories, etc., but these same critiques have been refuted as well. However, modern scientists and anthropologists seem to agree that there is clear evidence humans did not evolve to be monogamous, so I’m intrigued by the common concept, or misconception, that monogomy is biologically determined. I'd like to learn more about the troubles monogamy has caused through the ages as humans have unnaturally adapted to it.
4. The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro
An earlier work by the great Alice Munro. I’ve never read a full collection of her stories, but since this one is linked by two characters, I thought it was a good choice considering what I’m doing with mine. She is one of the most highly-praised short-story authors of our time, but the quote that really got me to buy this was from an Amazon reviewer: “She writes stories like Leonard Cohen writes songs.”
5. The Wanderers by Richard Price
Another linked story collection, this one about 60s street gangs in the Bronx, written when Price was just 24. (Bastard! Why does it always upset me when someone writes something good at such a young age? Jealousy, I guess.) I was a fan of his last novel Lush Life, the only Price novel I’ve read. True, he utilizes the unsubtle and immediate style of crime fiction, but he tends to delve deeper than your average pulp writer. Plus, what’s wrong with being readable? I feel the same way about some other favorites, like Chandler, Jim Thompson, John Fante, and yeah, even good ol’ Bukowski.