Essay on things poets do when they decide to “sell-out,” e.g., how ridiculous their fall-back plans are. “Better just suck it up and write a bestselling novel.” “Translate poetry.” “Design board games.” “Invent a drink.” — #9 of 11 essays Zach Savich isn’t writing about contemporary poetry (over at the Philadelphia Review of Books)
Last week, I documented how I came up with the initial idea for my latest novel—“Lisa & Charlie & Mark & Suzi & Monica & Tyrell,” which I was then calling “The Porn Novel”—and how I simultaneously began exploring that idea and laying out some basic formal parameters. I also provided a general overview of my general writing process. Today I’ll cover how I finished this initial exploratory period and settled into a stronger sense of the project as whole. Again, my hope is that these posts will prove useful to other writers, and interesting to everyone on God’s green earth. Because I remember very clearly that, during the decade I spent writing my first novel, Giant Slugs, I often felt frustrated and confused. And while every writer must figure ultimately things out for her or himself, some of my strategies and methods might prove theft-worthy—or at least provide a good laugh.
So I’d gotten to the point where I’d translated the original idea (“a pornographic novel that doesn’t contain any sex”) into a more specific approach: six chapters featuring six friends meeting up for six meals. I knew that each chapter was going to be long, to make the absence of salacious material more palpable. And I’d whipped up some character names, and sketched out a list of potential meals.
I also tried estimating how long each chapter would have to be. I decided that, in order to convey the proper feel, the first five chapters should be at least 20 pages each, and that the final chapter (the group dinner) should be longer—at least 30 pages. That added up to 130 pages minimum, which felt like the shortest the project could be. I translated that into word counts, since I think better that way (for one thing, I always single-space my manuscripts, since years of teaching/grading, not to mention taking writing workshops, have led me to despise the look of double-spaced manuscripts). I had a sense that the project would be dialogue-heavy and not contain any long paragraphs, running maybe 250 words/page. Hence, the projected numbers worked out to 5000+ words apiece for chapters 1–5, and 7500+ words for chapter 6. These were just targets, of course, but having a rough idea of what I’m aiming at helps me pace myself, and estimate how long the writing will take.
I also started my writing journal. I use Excel for this and it’s nothing extravagant; I just note each time that I work, and jot down a few words as to what I did. I also track the word counts as they change (using blue for increases and red for decreases). And while this habit of mine is probably the sign of a diseased mind, it helps keep me motivated, encouraging me to “log in” every day, and stick to my routine. It’s not unlike tracking my workout routines, or the movies that I watch. Plus it yields data I can later analyze, which is the only thing that sustains me through the long cold Chicago winter. (Dear NSA, I hear you had an opening recently? Call me!)
Now before you think me entirely insane, consider this. I have a simple litmus test for what enters/exits my writing routine: is it fun? I write a lot, and want to enjoy it, and make it something I look forward to doing. As such, I’m always looking for little ways to reward myself, and to make the situation more pleasant / less stressful.
For example: when I was younger and writing only fitfully, I mostly wrote late at night, even though I never had much success doing that. Writing was something I did after stressing out about it all day, feeling guilty about not having gotten any work done. After a decade or more of that, I switched to writing in the morning—and, believe me, I did not think I was a morning person at that time. But I started living with a yoga instructor who taught early morning classes. So I started getting up at 5 AM and, amazingly, I discovered that I was much more productive and happier when I wrote then. (I also realized that predawn is my favorite time of day.) That experience taught me to examine the rest of my writing routine, and to try making it more enjoyable overall. So my Excel files are in some sense silly, yes—but they are my only friends, and I name them, and I love them.
Here’s a snapshot of the journal that I made:
I’ve wanted for a while now to try writing a story “live” here, posting my work as I went from initial idea to finished piece. I might still do that, but for now, here’s a related series of posts. I spent the past forty days writing a new novel (“Lisa & Charlie & Mark & Suzi & Monica & Tyrell,” though my working title was “The Porn Novel”), and want to share with you how I did that. My hope is this will prove less an exercise in vanity and more something instructive—like, you might want to do the exact opposite of me.
Let me state up front that I don’t think there’s any one way to write novels, or fiction, and I don’t approach all of my projects in the same way. And what works for me may not work for you. But I have developed some basic procedures that I find useful and that you might enjoy trying. Also, this time around, I encountered some formal problems that should make for good discussion.
I write pretty quickly, but forty days is the fastest I’ve written a novel. (This is the third one I’ve really completed.) My first novel, Giant Slugs, took nearly a decade from start to finish, during which time I wrote three completely different versions of the book. That experience was, on the whole, difficult and often mystifying. Only in the final two years, when I wrote the final version of the novel, did I feel as though I understood what I was doing, and even then I felt crazily out of control most of the time. I had by then a Master’s in Creative Writing, but never received much instruction in novels, so I had to figure out a great deal on my own. (Perhaps that’s inevitable?)
I wrote my second novel, “The New Boyfriend” (still unpublished) as an anti-Giant Slugs: whereas GS is a mock-epic with dozens of characters and locations, covering several years, “TNBF” is a single scene featuring four characters, set in a single location on a Sunday afternoon/evening. That project took me seventy-five days total, which taught me that time is a resource, and some projects take less of it than others. I’m sure I’ll return to more time-intensive projects later, but for now, I’m having fun sprinting.
Recently I’ve wanted to try writing a novel in one month, and when I dreamed up this new project, it seemed a good candidate for that. (And, no, I’ve never done NaNoWriMo, though I have done the 3-Day Novel Contest about six times. I learned a lot from doing the 3-Day, but never produced what I’d consider a finished novel.)
Susan Steinberg’s new fiction collection, SPECTACLE (Graywolf), is a series of linked and formally-inventive short stories told by female narrators who are dealing with catastrophic as well as domestic tragedies.
The narrators of a seemingly singular history convey the stories, but are not (Steinberg says) the same narrator—or at least they weren’t written, if I understand Steinberg, as a continuous narrator. So, in this book the same events in two stories can be changed depending on which unnamed narrator—of roughly the same age, build, hair color, and city of origin as Steinberg—is narrating the SPECTACLE. This structure creates a narrative that overlaps, readdresses, carries over pain and learned approaches, and anxiety—the consummate whole getting higher in fever pitch until disaster and ultimately catharsis are reached.
SPECTACLE is an apt title—because the events of the world, the spectacles, and conflicts make narrators who are strong and clever and aware, unable to escape the pressures that build around them and at times the pressures that fall from above. Steinberg’s narrators are powerful, seductive, wounded, and aware of their roles, their performance of gender, identity, and “self.” They are tough.
SPECTACLE has been praised by the New Yorker, nominated for the year’s O’Connor Prize, and reviewed at Bookslut, Publishers Weekly (starred review), SF Chronicle, and at no shortage of other places where “experimental fiction” is most often passed over, proscribed, verboten!
Why is this book getting unvarying attention? Of course it is many things, none so much I might suggest as important as voice—replete with sex, confession, revelation, and genuine risk.
While Steinberg is not telling the factual truth in these stories, she is doing something crafted with such risqué confession that readers take her stories as factual (I admit I did. Even though I knew “better.” Even though she was my first writing teacher and taught me that fiction is fiction). Readers conflate Steinberg with her narrator(s)—and reading this book you see instantly that this is a position of danger for any writer. Because maybe you can’t make this crazy up. Because there’s risk in really talking about one’s gender. Because it isn’t crazy; it’s genius. It’s truth. These speakers are so solipsistic they lose identity, become universal in their extreme isolation and anxiety—they retain awareness and becoming weaponized in awareness of gender.
This collection can be read as an experimental novel composed of many fictions forming an aggregate and rupturing whole. Here is one you cannot look away from, which implicates the minds and bodies of the readers, which reveals what has remained taboo far too long. These stories are not political, not ideological—they are honest in such a way as to make them threatening and unnerving and difficult to talk about.
LBG: Do you mind if we start with something simple, from right off the cover of your book?
S.M.S: I don’t mind.
LBG: Okay. On the back of the book is this synopsis: “SPECTACLE bears witness to alarming and strange incidents: carnival rides and plane crashes, affairs…and amateur porn, vandalism and petty theft. In these stories, wounded women stand at the edge of disaster and risk it all to speak their sharpest secrets.”
LGB: Is this how you see the book? Is that what the book bears witness to—to strange incidents and wounded women at the edge of disaster? Speaking their sharpest secrets?
S.M.S: The book does contain these specific things: affairs, amateur porn, vandalism, planes crashes, and theft. The book also contains the abstractions you mention: secrets and disaster. But had I written the copy, it likely would have mentioned more technical aspects of the book: semi-colons, fragments, one-sentence paragraphs. I tend to think more about the “how” than the “what” when asked what my work is about. But it’s the back of a book. I think readers want the what.
But I don’t think the incidents I write are strange. Do you?
A couple of days ago Baby Adolf, the first Bambi Muse baby despot, and I met up at a McDonald’s near a Germanic bakery located somewhere on the Upper East Side.
My outfit featured, among other things, sunnies. As for Baby Adolf, his deck was brown.
Both Baby Adolf and I ordered vanilla ice cream cones. And after we ordered second vanilla ice cream cones, Baby Adolf screamed (unlike PhD’s, &c, no one at Bambi Muse is captivated by “conversation”) about how he wanted to be on HTML Giant quite badly. After all, Baby George III has been and so has Baby Marie-Antoinette. Why should the boy who will one day kill six million you-know-whos and five million other oh-who-cares be denied the chance to appear on the site run by the continually cute-looking Blake Butler?
“Maybe,” I said to Baby Adolf, at the McDonald’s near the Germanic bakery on the Upper East Side, “if you gave me three Baby Ruths, four Jujubes, and a Coca-Cola then I’ll publish your summary of the 5th-annual CUNY chapbook festival on 9 May 2013.”
Baby Adolf grumbled his assent. What follows is Baby Adolf’s summary:
On Saturday Baby Adolf, accompanied by his mommy, Klara Hitler, visited the 5th annual chapbook festival at CUNY. For some time, Baby Adolf believed CUNY was just another way to say NYU. After Saturday, though, Baby Adolf realized that they were two separate entities. NYU is a big ugly college that’s usurping the West Village, while CUNY is a big ugly building in Midtown.
The festival took place in a plain white hallway, and, according to Baby Adolf’s eyes, there wasn’t anything particular festive going on. There weren’t any military marches or bellicose speeches prophesying global war along with the resurrection of the fatherland. Unfortunately, there were too many boys who looked like they’d just blown in from Bedford as well as a fair amount of girls whose clothes suggested that they had just come here from their weekly Park Slope Lesbian Separatist meeting.
But some commendable creatures were present, like Baby Ji Yoon. She spent most of her time at the festival taking mysterious notes, as if she were spying for a certain country that starts with North and ends in Korea.
Yesterday I went to the Brooklyn Museum to see the exhibition ”Workt by Hand”: Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts.
Quilts are awesome.
ALL OVER THE NEW GESTURAL POETRY.
The Internet taught children to design themselves in a white space. Now, they are to create in that space. This burden. Laughter.
Appropriation was the first mimetic. The late remix, post-DJ culture of the 20whatevers sidevolved into a romance of the weird and origin-less. Repeat, offend, react. Horse eBooks, PT Cruiser, drugs, fetishes about whispering, shitting, looking into a new blank digital void. But it lasted only as long a generational breath. Weird Twitter rose and fell like a bird in a harsh wind.
This is what happened in my grad Form & Technique in Fiction class today:
Here is how it happened. Every Wednesday, students read articles and essays that are NOT fiction. Last class, they read & we discussed a unit I called “The Human Body,” which included the following texts: Dong et al, “Unilateral Deep Brain Stimulation of the Right Globus Pallidus Internus in Patients with Tourette’s Syndrome” (from The Journal of International Medicine); Grahek, Feeling Pain and Being in Pain, “Ch. 1: The Biological Function & Importance of Pain”; Ramachandran, Tell-Tale Brain, “Ch. 3: Loud Colors and Hot Babes: Synesthesia”; and Scarry, The Body in Pain, “Ch.3: Pain and Imagining.”
[Update: I posted a follow-up to this post, here.]
Obviously, whatever interpretation is, Sontag seems against it.
What, then, does Sontag mean by “interpretation”? Does she mean any and all interpretation, as my fellow contributor Chris Higgs recently argued? Or something else, something more specific?
The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization.
The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate.
It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.
Unified gaze theory? Would that be called Tunnel Vision Theory? Or just tunnel vision? Hegemony about Hegemony? As a man, I’m allowed to talk about everything, while understanding very little.
Theory: what we have developed is a kind of tunnel vision for the sake of re-producing culture and economy. You know of this post-Marxist system; I will not write of the components in a more clear way than has already been written by others.
We remember: The Gaze was a perfect piece of gender-biopower technology, a software that everyone wanted to run, a software that reproduced itself onscreen, without showing how it was made. Tickets sold themselves. Sex-less sex. War-less war. READ MORE >
There shouldn’t be an AWP. There should only be one if it would result in me meeting Gina Abelkop. She is the publisher of Birds of Lace, a press that publishes books about girl groups, adventurous twins, and girls who justify murder in high school essays. Most Birds of Lace books fulfill one of the primary attributes of literature: They transmute the reader to magical, mysterious worlds of death, babysitters, and big hair. Gina and I could meet for tea (or vanilla cupcakes). We could discuss trenchant topics, like the veils in Meadham Kirchoff’s Fall 13 collection or Disney princesses. Why, we could even mosey to a Disney store (if there are Disney stores in Boston) and she could purchase an Ariel doll (because she’s a girl) and I could purchase a Buzz Lightyear doll (because I’m a boy). It’d all be rather idyllic. But according to the grapevine Gina won’t be attending this year. So I won’t either, which is fine, since the AWP is as disgusting as gay people, straight people, bisexual people, and Brooklyn.
On their site, the AWP claims to be “the largest literary conference in North America.” But the AWP has little relation to literature. Only around one percent of the attendees make literature. There’s just a tiny fraction who formulate texts that are monstrous and divine – that, like those German boys, possess the grit and glamour to wage war on basically everyone on the globe. As for the rest – the 99 percent of AWP people – they are not poets and they are not composing literature. They are not concerned with epic Emily Bronte or moody Frank O’Hara. They are a product of typical middle class capitalism, or, as Karl Marx says, “the bourgeois.” According to Karl, the bourgeois live off others’ labor. They acquire value through accumulation. As the bourgeois stockpile products their worth increases. This renders them reliable upon the proletariat who must toil night and day with very little rest to keep up with the insatiable, indiscriminate bourgeois.
Advice for Future MFA applicants:On a more serious note, now that I’ve almost read through this year’s batch, here’s the advice I’d give off the top of my head to future MFA fiction applicants. Most of the applicants were interesting people and trying hard and it’s deeply appreciated, particularly when I’m reading so many applications. I don’t think any of the applications I read this year had a single malicious bone in their body. But here are a few things that I would want to be told if I was thinking about applying. Please feel free to steal, revise, mutilate, or dispute:1. Turn in your very best piece of fiction. This really, really matters to me, more than anything else. If I love a piece of writing, I will fight for it, and am willing to overlook a multitude of other sins.
2. Better to turn in one shorter excellent piece than a good piece and one bad one. Don’t turn in work just to max out the page limit. And if you’re finding yourself trying to cram all sorts of things into the page limit by changing the font and single-spacing, then step back and take a deep breath and think again.
3. Don’t try to pretend you’re something you’re not. Most of you don’t, and those of you who do don’t do it maliciously, but just kind of slowly convince yourself into it as you write and rewrite your application. Look, it’s easy to tell if you’re faking. So don’t fake.
4. Be honest, but “we’re dating and getting serious” honest rather than either “First date honest” or “Now that you’ve proposed, here’s all the stuff you need to know about me (like the fact that I killed my first wife)” honest. You can and should talk about your struggles and successes and trials and etc., but in moderation.
5. In the personal statement, write about yourself in a way that allows us to get a real sense of you and the way you are now, right now, and where you’re going. If you feel you have to go back to childhood to do that, that’s okay, but if I go away with a better sense of how you were when you were in 2nd grade (or whatever) than how you are now, that’s not good.
6. Read interesting things and learn how to talk about them in interesting ways. Read, read, read. And read eccentrically. Take chances. There’s no reason, no matter what your job or your circumstances, that you shouldn’t be reading an interesting book every week or two, and that’ll do a great deal for your development as a writer and as a person. It’s okay to let us know what books led you to writing, but better if we find out what books you continue to go back to and who you’re interested in now.
7. Don’t pretend to have read something that you haven’t read. Don’t google the faculty at a program and then try to include a line in your personal statement that suggests what their book is about. This rarely works, and as a result usually does more harm than good.
8. We’re interested in knowing what makes you unique, but within reason. And even if you have a great set of experiences and are incredibly interesting and we’d love to have an 8-hour long coffee with you to learn about your experiences running Substance D. from the American camp to the Norwegian camp in Antarctica, if your writing sample isn’t good enough you won’t get in. There comes a time when you need to choose to work on the writing instead of getting life experience as a carny.
9. If you already have an advanced degree, you have to explain convincingly why you want to get another, and why we should give this opportunity to you rather than to someone else. If you already have a PhD, we need to be convinced that this is the right thing for you and for us, and that you’re not just collecting degrees. But, honestly, the default acceptances for MFAs is usually (but not always) someone who doesn’t yet have an advanced degree. We’ve taken people with advanced degrees in our program, but it’s very much the exception rather than the rule.
10. If you already have a book out, same thing. Are you serious about improving your writing or do you want to treat this as a sort of an artist colony? If the latter, well, I’d suggest an artist colony: they’ll feed you, and we usually won’t. If I get the impression that you want to get the MFA mainly to have a teaching credential, that can be one or more strikes against you.
11. MFA programs make mistakes. We don’t always see the potential of people, which may be partly our fault and partly your own. Do everything you can when you put together your application to make sure that the fault is on our side rather than yours. But also remember: any really good program ends up with many more people they’d like to admit than they actually can admit. When it comes down to that final cut, it’s very very hard, and we’ll have to let people go who, ideally, we’d love to have come. So, if you don’t get in, don’t take it as a judgement. To our shame, we’ve turned down many great writers before, and probably will again. But fingers crossed that it won’t be you…
I sometimes joke that I became a writer so I could justify spending all my time in coffee shops (despite what Tom Waits said about them). When traveling, I always seek out new ones where I can do some writing. I’ve been in Denver since Xmas Day, during which time I’ve managed to sample about half a dozen places.
The nicest one I’ve found, by far, has been the Denver Bicycle Cafe (which is where I wrote this, on my second visit there). If I lived in town, this would definitely be one of my writing hangouts.
Dear HTMLGIANT, today sees me researching Professor X’s wheelchairs for a disability studies paper that I’m writing. In particular, I’m looking for information on the magical flying yellow one that he was given by the Shi’ar Empire (I think?) in the early 1990s—the one designed by Jim Lee. If anyone can direct me to any documents describing this fabulous device, I would be most grateful. (Yes, I am trying to figure out its capabilities, including whether it housed missiles, etc.)
So far, this site is the best I’ve been able to find. It says there:
This high-tech chair was a gift from the alien Shi’ar. Over the years, its appearance has varied a bit. Both gold and silver versions have appeared and some models have been slightly sleeker than others. [X-Men (1st series) #125]
In other words, not much. (Incidentally, that citation should be X-Men Vol. 2 #125, aka New X-Men #125. Part of what’s so maddening about researching the X-Men is how many different series there have been, and how many times those series have been retitled.)
Again, any help, much appreciated. Otherwise, feel free to chime in with your favorite memories/anecdotes/conspiracy theories regarding Marvel’s Merry Mutants.