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.
Great writers use the darkest parts of themselves to produce great work. Here's an excerpt from a Paris Review interview with Amy Hempel on how her darkest secret became her first short story. Below, watch Nora Ephron discuss how her biggest fear sparked the creation of When Harry Met Sally.
AMY HEMPEL: The assignment was to write our worst secret, the thing we would never live down, the thing that, as Gordon [Lish] put it, “dismantles your own sense of yourself.” And everybody knew instantly what that thing, for them, was. We found out immediately that the stakes were very high, that we were expected to say something no one else had said, and to divulge much harder truths than we had ever told or ever thought to tell. No half-measures. He thought any of us could do it if we wanted it badly enough. And that, when I was starting out, was a great thing to hear from someone who would know.
INTERVIEWER: What was, if you can say, your “worst secret”?
HEMPEL: I failed my best friend when she was dying. It became the subject of the first story I wrote, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.”
How has your biggest fear or deepest secret informed your writing? Share in the comments!
One of the many, many things I love about writing is revision. In real life, off the page, I often struggle to discern how I truly feel and what I’m actually trying to say. I’ve been known to mess up a punch line, fumble a story told aloud or, worst of all, say things I don’t actually mean—which we all know doesn’t work out well for anybody.
On the other hand, in the process of writing, I have the time and space to fine-tune my thoughts. Unlike real world interactions, I can seek the most honest, apt word. I can consider the connotations and nuances of a statement. I can think about tone and intention. And I can exchange and arrange words. With enough work, I get to discover and impart precisely that which I’m trying to say.
For me, there is something indefinably thrilling about refining a big, messy muddle of thoughts, which is what it usually feels like in my head, into something comprehensible. I think it will never cease to amaze me how changing even so little as a single word can drastically alter the meaning and feel of a piece. And I like—no, I love—when my intention and the outcome align. That, to me, is why revision is one of the best parts of writing.
I’ve been thinking about revision a lot, especially in the past couple of weeks, because our Mid-Project Review packets were due on Friday. The packet comprises our present manuscript in its entirety—all revisions, all new chapters/stories, and the other portions that still need to be reconsidered— as well as a working outline, a revised synopsis and logline, and a list of ten specific goals that we believe will allow us to complete our works-in-progress.
For me, this round of revision has entailed a lot of rewriting. Rather than tinkering with a sentence or trimming a word, I’ve often started with a fresh blank page. Many writers will tell you that a blank page can be both terrifying and exhilarating. In a targeted revision—when I have a sense of what was working, and not working, in the original draft—a blank page can also be really fun. I hold the lessons learned from the first go, I already mostly know what happens, and I get to try again at illustrating it in the best way possible.
There is still much work to be done. But I’m excited. Revision is work, but it’s also pleasure. It is a privilege to be able to crystallize, for myself and on the page, that which I yearn to express.
Here are a few authors on the art, toil, and joy of revision:
“Talent is long patience, and originality an effort of will and of intense observation.” —Gustave Flaubert
“Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.” —John Updike
Paris Review Interviewer: What was it that had stumped you? Ernest Hemingway: Getting the words right.
“The idea is to write it so that people hear it and it slides right through the brain and goes straight to the heart.” –Maya Angelou
“I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” —Vladimir Nabokov
“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” —Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
“…Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings…” —Stephen King
“The real work comes later, after I've done three or four drafts of the story. It's the same with the poems, only the poems may go through forty or fifty drafts.” —Raymond Carver
“There should be a point where you say, the way you would with a child, this isn’t mine anymore.” —Alice Munro
“Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.” —Roald Dahl
It has happened not one, not two, but four weekends in a row. It’s now fair to call it a pattern. What I’m referring to is writing in cafés. Even though there's a certain comfort in being at home with familiar things and people, sometimes I have to leave the house in order to write. At a café there isn’t laundry to fold or dishes to put away. No one is going to demand my attention and I won't get side-tracked. Okay, this demanding person is me. There’s so much to do I oftentimes rationalize little tasks (“it’s just a work email I’ll quickly respond to” or “after I tidy up the living room…”).
The café I’ve been escaping to is Charlie’s Coffee in South Pasadena. Over the past month I’ve developed a ritual of sorts and crafted rules to keep me focused:
Rule 1: Order the go-to drink; don’t waste time scanning the menu. At Charlie’s that would be a vanilla chai latte or a Café Ole (their take on it is my favorite). Order the beverage in a ceramic mug—this sends the brain the message that I’m not on the go. I’m going to stay there for a while.
Rule 2: Don’t stand around waiting for the drink to arrive. Sit down immediately. By the time the drink is ready I’m situated, if not already writing.
Rule 3: This may be the most important rule for me: Whatever I do, I leave the laptop at home. That’s right—the laptop stays at home. I slow down when I put pen to paper. Obviously, it is a bit of a pain to transcribe new writing onto the computer or enter hand-written edits, but in the long run it saves me time. I have to admit, I’ve gotten a couple of glances. Other than book readers, I haven’t seen many people writing anything by hand. It’s a sea of computers whenever I go in there.
Rule 4: No headphones. There’s something about the lull of background noise that relaxes my brain. I know most would disagree with me on this point. However, I just get too wrapped up in the headphones and the music selection and switching the tune, etc. The quiet din allows me to stay present.
Up until recently, I hadn't been consistently writing in a café for years. I realize that I’ve become a bit old school. Oh well. There’s too much other stuff to think or worry about. For example, our mid-project packet is due today. Better get back to it.
Image credit: Brain Pickings
We're excited to share this rare and thoroughly engrossing interview with Don DeLillo, an author who has traditionally avoided interacting with the media. Here's a great excerpt:
“It took a long time. I was very slow to begin. I lacked the discipline for the enormous commitment one has to make. Even when I had all day to write, and sometimes all week, I took forever finally to enter my first novel. It was only after two years’ work that it occurred to me that I was a writer. I had no particular expectation that the novel would ever be published, because it was sort of a mess. It was only when I found myself writing things I didn’t realize I knew that I said, ‘I’m a writer now.’ The novel had become an incentive to deeper thinking. That’s really what writing is — an intense form of thought.”
At age twelve, I wrote my first collection of stories. I typed it all on a Macintosh––first generation––printed out ten copies, stuffed them in a fancy translucent cover with plastic binding, and gave them to my family and friends. I even sold a few at a garage sale for a dollar, still the most I’ve made from any story.
I only recall two of the stories now. One was a post-apocalyptic Don Quixote adaptation. I hadn’t actually read Quixote, just seen a cartoon version, but that was enough to go on. The second was called "Bookworm," about a man obsessed with books. He meets the girl of his dreams, a fellow bookworm, but he’s so painfully shy that he can’t get anywhere with her. One night, he magically transforms into a library book. She picks him out among all of the others and reads him-- his dream come true.
Not bad, twelve-year-old me. I was clearly inspired by lots of late night Twilight Zone viewings (see the video above). The “Bookworm” story came to mind this week as I was thinking about the importance of having readers. The intensive writing, reading, and critiquing schedule of The Mark program has revealed to me the absolute importance of the outside eye.
This is especially true when it comes to the behemoth that is the full-length manuscript. The more my collection approaches some kind of hybrid novel territory, the more important readers become. It’s too easy to lose perspective on my own work when I’m assuming the dual role of judge (writer) and jury (reader). Or, to use a different metaphor, only those on the outside of the hole you’re stuck in can help pull you out.
In our first meeting, Antoine Wilson had us read an essay about writing workshops by Frank Conroy, longtime director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop (which is the first of its kind, so he knows of which he speaks). He states, “…the reader is to some extent the co-creator of the narrative. The author, then, must write in such a way as to allow the reader’s energy into the work.”
He calls it the “dance of two minds” and says, rightly, “without the active participation of the reader’s mind and imagination, absolutely nothing will happen.” This says to me that not only is less more, but even in a story where a zillion things happen, the reader must be included in the process. If the reader can't engage with the work, it's just words on a page.
One way to address this issue is to assume the reader is as intelligent as I am, but not more so. Writers will often read books “over their heads,” as Conroy puts it, and tackle challenging books they may not fully comprehend, as anyone who’s tried to make it through Ulysses, or better yet, Finnegans Wake, can attest to. But writing over one’s head, that can be deadly. The foundation of good writing, he states, is “meaning, sense, and clarity.”
But how do we get there? I’m not always sure what my stories are about until I’ve workshopped them, sometimes several times over. But it’s not like everyone agrees on a meaning and that’s that. The process is more like osmosis. As the conversation in a workshop flows, my mind sifts through the dirt of the story, the characters, the plot, the structure, language, and details, and if I’m paying attention, underneath it all I can uncover that rare and precious jewel: the theme.
The irony? It can take years for a writer to finish a short story, whereas a reader can read and digest it in under an hour.
When I was twelve, most of my readers were just impressed I wrote anything at all. Unsatisfied with the story collection, I attempted to turn the Quixote story into a novel. About a hundred or so pages in, I abandoned it. Had I a reader who offered critical advice, helped me see what I was trying to say, and inspired me to continue, perhaps I would’ve started this writing career a helluva lot earlier.
Where was The Mark when I needed it?
Did you know there are young writers just like you living above the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris? And you don't have to time-travel to the 1920s to find them. Check it out:
This week, as I write about writing, it is important to me to write about Shannon. She was my seventh grade Core teacher, which means she taught English in addition to history and social studies. She taught me about the power of words. She also taught me to believe that I could be skilled at expressing myself through them. For the past three and a half years, Shannon, who is 43, has battled cancer, and I recently learned that she is now in hospice care.
Some of the lessons I’ve learned from Shannon are literal. She taught me the importance of using homonyms properly (there, their and they’re; to, two and too; your and you’re; who’s and whose). She taught me to always seek the most meaningful word. (Good, she said, is a bland adjective. Can you think of a word that’s actually more descriptive?) She challenged us, her students, to find our true voices. (If you use swear words, she’d say, it suggests to the world that you don’t have the vocabulary to be more articulate.)
Of course, through her encouragement and positive example, she also illuminated deeper messages, many of which I continue to reflect on and strive toward today. Shannon opened the world of writing for me, teaching me about clarity, lyricism, and the power of self-expression. She also taught me to believe in myself as a writer.
In seventh grade, under Shannon’s tutelage, I wrote an essay titled “The Best Time of Day is Night” for a city-wide standardized writing test. You can imagine the approach many teachers would take to instructing middle schoolers about “standardized” writing, but imagine the opposite and then you’ve got Shannon’s approach. She encouraged us to be creative and develop our own style, to cultivate atmosphere and write poetically while still conveying information clearly. Also, we’d better use grammar and punctuation correctly!
When my essay came back with a strong score, Shannon made me feel special. Other teachers had given me positive feedback about my work before, but this was a pivotal moment because of the way Shannon taught and the way she connected with students. She gave me the confidence to believe that writing was something I could do well and that I should continue to work diligently to cultivate this ability.
Last year, Shannon visited the undergraduate creative writing course I was teaching at UC Davis. Though I was the instructor and she the visitor, she illuminated the classroom, and the way she engaged with the students exemplified the kind of teacher I would want to be.
I’m certain there are thousands of students whose lives Shannon has influenced in immensely positive and powerful ways. They can identify with me, then, when I celebrate the graceful powerhouse of a teacher and a person Shannon is. They can relate when I say, with sadness and gratitude, thank you to the woman with the big heart and the huge vocabulary who has made the world a brighter and more articulate place.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in life. But then death happens within your circle of family and friends and the every-day-living routine is broken. Death calls for a pause.
On a macro level, sports fans in Los Angeles are acknowledging loss with the passing of Laker’s owner Jerry Buss. On a micro level, this past week has been heavy with people passing: a friend’s mother, a cousin, and a writing friend and past Emerging Voices fellow, Robbie Frandsen.
Prior to The Mark program, I was in (and plan to return to) a writing group led by Bernadette Murphy. Robbie is the second member of our group to pass away within a six-month period. In the midst of the hustle-and-bustle of life, I was not expecting all of this death. Even though I realize we’re all mortal, and that it’s a part of nature, I’m stupidly surprised each time it happens. Especially with Robbie. One of the last times I saw her we had lemon cake, celebrating her return from surgery.
I met Robbie in the winter of 2004 when we both took Bernadette’s nonfiction writing class through UCLA Extension Writers' Program. I was an Emerging Voices Fellow at the time. A year later, she was in the EV program, working on a nonfiction book that was quite moving. A couple of years later, we both found ourselves in Bernadette’s Thursday evening writers’ group. I always appreciated Robbie’s insightful comments on both writing and life. The book she was working on brought me to tears many times. She had an easy way about her prose. Incorporating factual information seamlessly into a story came as second nature to her––at least she made it seem that way.
Robbie’s recent passing reminds me of the delicate matter of life. It also reminds me to put daily matters into perspective, to be kind to myself and others. And I am reminded, once again, to be grateful for all of the wonderful people in my life. Within the context of my writing life, the Emerging Voices program enabled me to meet people who became friends, and still are friends almost a decade later.
I am thankful I knew Robbie, an amazing person and writer.